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tv   History Bookshelf H.W. Brands The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr  CSPAN  August 3, 2021 11:02am-12:19pm EDT

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committee. watch live at 10:15 eastern, online or listen on the app. next, historian hw brands talks about his biography of aaron burr, most remembered for killing alexander hamilton in a duel in 1804. this is a collection of letters that recount his political rise and downfall.
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>> having just finished teaching, i am always delighted to speak to an audience of people who don't have to be here.
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this goes back to my experience of writing. ap question my mother has been putting to me . it goes to the heart of why they are students.
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they are apprentice writers and they are working on developing their craft, their skill, their art in various genres. but it goes to the heart of why people write and why people read. i teach history at university of texas. i could put the question to you. you're all readers, i assume. you probably wouldn't come to an event like this if you weren't readers. and i could ask you, why do you read? in fact, take that question and hold on to it, because there will be a question and answer time at the end. typically, the questions come
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from the audience and the answers are supposed to come from the speaker, but we could turn that around. so, if you care to volunteer why you read later, i would be happy to hear what it is. but i will tell you what kind of reactions i've gotten over the years, and i pose this question to various audiences, including my students and including my mother, whom i will get to. i will just add i had some time waiting for the lecture. i just talked to my mom, who i'm pleased to say is doing very well. she's 86 years old. thank you, yes. i will tell her that you applauded, at least a couple of you did. is that applause for the fact that she reached 86, in good health, still interested in my writing? all of the above. okay. anyway, about 15 years ago, i was teaching an undergraduate history seminar. it was for seniors, history majors. it turned out that the 15 students in the class were all history majors, but half of them were english majors as well. they were double majors. and it just so happened that
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that's the way it fell out. the students were reading various sort of great works of history, but the particular genre i chose for that semester was great biographies, including autobiographies. and so they read selections from boswell's life of johnson and the autobiography of benjamin franklin, augustine and julius caesar's commentaries on the war. one work that particularly caught their attention was the autobiography of ben vanuto fenccini. it is a work of supreme egotism. chellini is convinced that he was the greatest artist that god ever put on the earth, and it comes through on every page, but he tells the story in a charming enough fashion that you're not really put off by this. you're willing to go along with it. so i have the students read a selection where he becomes very frustrated with the technicians. he has cast the original mold and now it's left to the technicians to melt the bronze and pour it in. it's a very complicated mold and
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it's his statue of hercules with the head of medusa in his hand. and it's real complicated because they have to go from the heel to the tip of the arm, through the snakes coils and everything. he is on his death bed. he's sick. but the technicians aren't getting it right. he has to come up off of his death bed. they can't get the fire hot enough to melt the metal enough. they start tearing the paneling off the walls and throw that in. he's developing this fever is raging and he wakes up four days later, not knowing if he's dead or alive. he realizes he's alive and it occurs to him eventually. how did it turn out? and they knock the mold off and it turns out there's this brilliant masterpiece and the end of the story is, no one could have done it but me. the students don't quite know what to make of this. so i ask the students any time there's a work presented to you as being true, you have to ask yourself whether it's in something you read, something you encounter in daily life or
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some political speech that a candidate gives. do you believe them? you don't have to take things at face value. do you believe this story? and i ask them, how would you corroborate a story like this or any story. any time you encounter anything, you have to ask, is it true? this is especially true these days when my students get so much of their information off the internet. it has always been an issue when you pick up a book out of the library. just because it's in the book, do you believe it? i will tell you one of the lessons my students learn -- this is a very good lesson for them, is that after a while, most of them come into my class. i'm their teacher. and for the purpose of the semester. eventually, some of them catch on that i have written some books. and it's an interesting lesson for them to realize that the person who is standing in front of them -- most of them haven't confronted an author before. and that i say stuff, and then i'm the guy who wrote this stuff
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in the book, and they recognize that when i'm talking -- i mean, i try to get it all as accurate as i can, but ordinary people, you know, you get -- try to get things right, but some of the stuff you get wrong. they realize it's just an ordinary person who wrote this book. now i will tell you that some of them are mildly impressed when they discover that i've written a book, one book or another, but what really gets street credibility with my students is when they see me on tv. all of a sudden, oh, okay, he's somebody. so the students all agreed that this was a fascinating story, great story, good drama, great characterization and all of this. it occurred to me at that point to ask a question that had never occurred to me to ask before, because i thought i knew the answer. i said, suppose you had read this story. suppose i had erased the name of the author. suppose i hadn't told you whether this was a true story or a fictional account, whether this was something that actually happened or something that somebody just made up. you didn't know this. you just read the story and you all agree, great story, great story. now, suppose after having read the story, i presented you with one additional piece of information, and the additional piece of information was, you know what? that great story you read, it actually happened.
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i'm their teacher. and for the purpose of the semester. eventually, some of them catch on that i have written some books. and it's an interesting lesson for them to realize that the person who is standing in front of them -- most of them haven't confronted an author before. and that i say stuff, and then i'm the guy who wrote this stuff in the book, and they recognize that when i'm talking -- i mean, i try to get it all as accurate as i can, but ordinary people, you know, you get -- try to get things right, but some of the stuff you get wrong. they realize it's just an ordinary person who wrote this book. now i will tell you that some of them are mildly impressed when they discover that i've written a book, one book or another, but what really gets street
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credibility with my students is when they see me on tv. all of a sudden, oh, okay, he's somebody. so the students all agreed that this was a fascinating story, great story, good drama, great characterization and all of this. it occurred to me at that point to ask a question that had never occurred to me to ask before, because i thought i knew the answer. i said, suppose you had read this story. suppose i had erased the name of the author. suppose i hadn't told you whether this was a true story or a fictional account, whether this was something that actually happened or something that somebody just made up. you didn't know this. you just read the story and you all agree, great story, great story. now, suppose after having read the story, i presented you with one additional piece of information, and the additional piece of information was, you know what? that great story you read, it actually happened. it's a true story. what would that do to your evaluation of the story? would it make it a better story or no different? well, i was flabbergasted by the response. and i was flabbergasted by the response because i didn't give
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the third alternative, which hadn't even occurred to me to ask them, and the third alternative is, it makes it a worse story to know that it was true. now i guess i hadn't really confronted the degree to which i'm sort of a nonfiction kind of person, but it simply seemed to me, you know, if you go to a movie and it was a great story and you say based on a true story that, seems to be a marketing pitch. the marketing department thinks that makes it better, because they certainly advertise it. of this group, when i asked the question, how many of you think it would make it a better story, about half of the students
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raised their hand. and i was surprised at only half. and then -- so i think that was 7 out of the 15. then of the other eight, i think five of them said that, no difference. good story is a good story. but then three of them were the ones who really amazed me by saying it made it worse. and i was trying to figure out why in the world, how in the world it could be worse. and i thought about this for a long time. and i will tell you the answer i came up with. the answer i came up with is related to the question that my mother has been posing to me all these years. i mentioned that i teach writing, and i -- one of the things that i convey to my students, my apprentice writers, is that above all, writing is an act of communication. and if you are going to
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communicate effectively with your readers, you have to have some idea of who your readers are, what expectations they have, what knowledge they bring to the subject. unless you have a reader in mind, you cannot hope to convey whatever you're trying to convey effectively. so, every reader -- excuse me, every writer has to have a model reader. you know, the reader in the back of your mind, the reader that sits on your shoulder, the reader that you are imagining is going to read your stuff, so you'll know, is this too much information? is this too little information? is the reading level about right? you know, it's quite a difference if you're writing for young adults than if you're writing for mature adults. so anyway for years and years i had the very good fortune to have the best possible model reader, namely my father. when i say the best possible model reader, the first couple of books i wrote were written
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for the purposes of getting a job at the university and then getting tenure. so the audience there was the academic community, the specialists who wanted to know that this was cutting edge in the particular subdiscipline i was writing it. after i accomplished that i realized i wanted to reach out to a larger audience, an audience, i suppose, very much like you, people who are not probably specialists in history, people who have a general interest in the world, who come with some experience, who come with some background in reading, but just want to know more about their world. my father fit this category very well. he was a self-employed businessman. he had run a business for his entire working life, but then he retired and in his retirement, he started reading more than he had. while he was working, he rarely read books. he read "the wall street journal." he read fortune magazine.
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cutlery business. he read "iron age" i grew up reading "iron age," interesting magazine. i don't know if it still exists. he liked to read history. he liked to read biography. he liked to read the kinds of books that i was writing. and he read every book that i wrote. and i know this, because he would offer his critique of my books. and he was pretty candid when he looked something. he would say, billy, i think you did a good job on that one. when he didn't like it, he would say, billy, not your best. not your best. i learned my father's standard from watching him eat the meals that my mother would cook for him. a traditional relationship. my mother cooked -- my father died four years ago. and for the entire 60 years of their marriage, my mother would cook breakfast for my father and dinner for my father. she refused to cook lunch for my father. he was expected to be out working and find his own lunch.
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as she put it, i married your father for better or for worse, but not for lunch. anyway, i will just add upon my father's death, my mother announced that she was retiring from cooking, and she has not cooked ever since. she's out. anyway, but my father would read my books -- excuse me, and with -- and he showed me how to deal with the meals that he wasn't particularly fond of. he was very diplomatic about this. if my mother made something that he liked, he would say, honey, that was great, wonderful. if she cooked something, she tried something new that didn't work out so well, he just wouldn't say anything. and my mom understood from that that, okay, no comment means don't do it again. and it worked out very well. anyway, my father was somewhat more forthcoming with me. he would tell me, well, the first three chapters were okay, but it bogged down after that. okay, great. my father read every book that i
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wrote. my mother tried to read each book that i wrote. she says that she finished two of them. one was on benjamin franklin. the other one she said she finished was on the california gold rush. now, i'm not really sure she finished those, but as a dutiful son, far be it from me to cast aspersions on the integrity of my mother. she says she did, she did. but it was very clear getting through a work of nonfiction was a task for my mother. she readout of some sense of duty to me, and every time after i wrote a book and she either -- well, she usually -- she used to say she had it by her bedside and she would pick it up and read a few pages and put her right to sleep. anyway, after each such experience and after she gave up trying to finish it, she would say, bill, when are you going to write a novel? and i tried to explain, mom, you know, i like good stories. i write history because i think
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history's stories are -- well, there's stuff that happens in history that you just couldn't make up. and then her reaction to that made me realize, that was the point. the point of novels is quite different in one basic way. i'm going to contend in an even more basic way it's the same, but it's quite different from the writing of history. and this gets at -- because i would ask my mom, so what is it about novels that you like, that makes them preferable to history? and she said, well, one of the things i like is that i get inside the heads of the characters in a way that i don't when i read works of history. and i had to grant that that is generally true, because if you adhere to the typical standards of history where we don't get to make this stuff up, we cannot impute thoughts, motives, ideas to our characters unless somehow we can get them to say it, unless they write it down.
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so we can't just, out of the blue, say that on the morning of july 4th, 1863, abraham lincoln woke up in a fine mood unless he told somebody, who wrote it down, unless he wrote a letter or something like that to that effect. when you write novels, of course, that's exactly what you do. blue, say that on the morning of july 4th, 1863, abraham lincoln woke up in a fine mood unless he told somebody, who wrote it down, unless he wrote a letter or something like that to that effect. when you write novels, of
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course, that's exactly what you do. but i said, mom, i have been working my way around that problem by writing biographies, because with biographies, they're all about character. and i do get inside the heads of my subjects because they do tell me what they're thinking. they write letters. they write diaries and so on. she said, okay, yeah. but there's something else that i like about novels, and that is there's a romantic interest in novels. we can find out about the love lives of our characters. and i said, yeah, that's true, too. but, you know, with certain works of nonfiction, with certain biographies, you do get right to the heart of the matter. ah, well, not entirely. because, once again, we are constrained by what our characters say, what they write down. and here is where the paths start to part, because -- and i
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would ask you, do you write down your deepest thoughts? do you write down your candid emotions? some of you do. but i would bet that most of you don't, and even those of you who do probably don't do it in a form that's going to survive 100 years, so historians coming along in the next century can have access to it. so it is, indeed, true that it's hard to write about the love lives of our characters in a nonfiction form, without injecting ourselves into their imagination in a way that history writers don't get to. and i will say that i tried to do this in a -- well, the last biography that i wrote, which was about franklin and eleanor roosevelt. in fact, a very large part of the story is about the relationship between the two. a complicated relationship, a relationship that involved all sorts of things besides and in addition to love.
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one that was fascinating, but one -- again, i don't think you could make this up. and this gets to the heart of the difference between novels and nonfiction. and here i will throw in the category of movies. feature movies. movies that aren't documentaries. and that is precisely this. that the whole idea of a novel is to pull the world together in a way that makes sense, in a way that has a particular story art, that has a form. novels aren't just any old thing written down on the page. novels have characters. they typically have a protaganist. novels have conflict. there's usually an ascending arc in the conflict or the drama. novels, like most movies, have a resolution of the conflict. at the end of the book, the end of the two hours of the movie, you know how it turned out. now, nearly everybody who reads novels recognizes that that's
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not exactly the way the world is. the world isn't quite so tidy. the world is much messier than that. and i'm going to throw out something to you, and you can agree with it or disagree with it. and if you disagree with it vehementally, please say so at the time of questions and we'll talk about it some more. but i would suggest that people who -- i'm going to get pretty inflammatory here in a moment. people here who prefer novels to history are people who like their stories tidied up. they like their stories to come to some kind of conclusion. doesn't have to be a happy ending, but it has to be an ending. whereas, most history doesn't really have an end.
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i mean, real life, it doesn't have conclusions. we strive for closure, but most of the time, we don't get it. life kind of goes on, and you go to the next thing. well, that's part of what my mom admitted to. but what she really said -- i said, mom, how about historical novels? how about, you know, the novels that are connected to history? oh, she liked those okay, but she said no, the best novels i like are the ones that just don't have any connection to reality at all. and i scratched my head over that until she said i get enough reality in my daily life. the whole reason i read books, the whole reason i go to movies is to turn off the real world for a while and go to some place that's not at all connected to the real world. and it was this that finally
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made me realize what those students in my seminar were talking about it when they said it made it worse to know it was true, because they really wanted the separation between their stories, their entertainment and the world. that's not really fair to students to say entertainment as merely entertainment. people have been justifying novels for years, for centuries. although i teach -- the graduate writing seminar i was talking about, students read great works of history. and one of the things they discover is -- and some of you already know this -- that novels weren't invented until about 400 years ago. and before then there wasn't this distinction between what really happened and what was clearly made up. so i've been thinking about this distinction between novels and history. i've been listening to my mother all the years saying, bill, when
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are you going to write a novel? i wanted to please my mom, at least one. she's not going to live forever. and i have actually tried to write -- i finished a couple of novels. they're sitting in my drawer at home. i haven't done anything with them yet. but meanwhile, i thought, there's got to be a way to take what attracts readers to novels and apply it to real historical tales. so the book that i'm supposed to be here promoting "the heartbreak of aaron burr" is the second installment in what's projected to be a series that i'm writing, published by random house called "american portraits." the first book came out a little over a year ago and it was called "the murder of jim fisk: for the love of josie mansfield." it was a story about a gilded-age love triangle gone wrong. the second is "the heartbreak of aaron burr." if you should choose to buy the
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book, you will see -- i'll sign it for you, by the way. you'll see that it has the appearance of a novel. there's no index, there's no chapter names, it's one, two, three, four and so on. however, you might think -- in fact, if you hadn't come tonight and you picked this book up unsuspecting, i would be delighted if you read, at least the first part of it, thinking it was, indeed, a novel. if that was the case, then presumably you would have been drawn into this world that you thought i created but, indeed, it actually exist. i don't use the techniques of making up dialogue. every bit of dialogue in there was really spoken or written by the characters. now, you can't do this about every character. what you need is the raw materials of history. and in this case, i was fortunate -- well, it's one of the reasons i chose this
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topic -- but the existence of correspondence letters between aaron burr and his very remarkable daughter, theodosia, whom he called theo. and these letters began when theo was a young girl, and they continued until -- well, this is why i don't know if i should tell you about the heartbreaking end. i won't tell you exactly what happened but eventually the correspondence was broken off by her death. anyway, so i had a chance to use this correspondence. it is some of the most candid
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correspondence i've encountered in all the years i've been working on and writing history. and so it does allow me to accomplish that one aspect of what my mom was looking for in novels. namely, get inside the heads and the hearts of the characters. there's another reason that i chose to write on this subject, and same reason that i chose to write on "the murder of jim fisk: for the love of josie mansfield." those of us who write american history face a daunting challenge in one regard particularly, and that is it's really hard to write about women in american history, in the following sense. it's hard to write about women who play a large role in public life, because the nature of american public life has been, until fairly recently, that
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women did not play a large role. i have been writing a series of biographies, full-blown biographies that started with benjamin franklin. the next installment that's coming out is ulysses s. grant, coming out in the fall, from the 18th century to the 21st century. the last installment will be the biography of ronald reagan. and every one of the subjects is male. and the reason for this is the books are conceived as a history of the united states, sort of as told through biographies. and i was looking for a woman subject for one of these. and, in fact, i found one, but my publisher wouldn't let me do it. can you guess what woman i was looking for and found? eleanor roosevelt. i mean, just the fact that it's a very short list of women who played a large role in american
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public life on whom i can hang a tale of four or five decades of american history. women have had, of course, their roles in private life, but it's in the nature of private life that it usually doesn't survive in historical record. why did people start saving the letters of eleanor roosevelt? because she was important. do your correspondents save your letters that you write to them? then do they deposit them in the local historical society? well, maybe. and if they do, you will become, and i use my words advisedly here. you will become literally immortal. you'll become immortal in letters, because future historians will find those letters and they'll say, ahh, so that's what life was like at the beginning of the 21st century. but anyway, so i wanted to write about women. after all, women have been half
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the population and women have been a very large part of what happened even if it was hard to find them in the public record. so i decided that i could get at the story of women by not looking at the big issues of public life, but looking at some of the smaller issues. and so this is when i ran across the subject of my "murder of jim fisk:for the love of josie mansfield." a woman who had no particular talents other than her -- one could say her beauty but i'm going to tell you a problem i had with this. josie mansfield clearly was very attractive to the men who knew her, and men lost their senses when they got around josie mansfield. and they did crazy things, like one murdering another for the love of josie mansfield. and so i wrote this book about josie mansfield. the book is really about josie. it's less about jim fisk.
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but because it's nominally a history book my publisher wanted to include a photograph of josie mansfield. after all, if there's a photograph of this femme fatale, let's see it. i didn't want to use the photograph. i didn't want to use the photograph because -- two reasons. one is, if you look at the photograph of josie, it's pretty -- the camera does not capture that essence that drove men crazy. you look at her and say, really? the other thing is that novels don't have photographs. novels don't have illustrations of the main characters. the whole point of writing is to create a word picture. and so if i wrote a description of josie and then had a photograph of josie, either the writing would be -- it would either be wrong or it would be redundant. either way, it would lose its force but my editor insisted and
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so there's a picture of josie. any how, josie was one story. theo burr was another. and i knew the end of the theo burr story. i'll go ahead and tell you. many of you already know. theodosia burr disappeared at sea when 1812 turned into 1813. she got on a packet boat, coastal ship from south carolina, heading for new york, where her father was waiting for her. her father had not seen her in years. her father was living under an assumed name in new york, aaron burr, and theo was coming to see him. and the ship disappeared. nothing was ever heard of or found of the ship or of theo. and, to this day, no one knows what happened. it's assumed the ship went down in a storm, but nobody knows. in fact, fairly recently, within the last couple of years, somebody wrote a novel based on
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the idea that theo had survive ed and wound up on an island somewhere. any how, this was my entry into writing about aaron burr. but the heart of the story, in fact, once again, the title of the book was going to be -- my proposed title and my thinking the whole time was "the disappearance of theodosia burr." i thought that's intriguing. people just don't disappear. but my publisher thought that aaron burr had more cache. the name aaron burr was a name people knew. it became "the heartbreak of aaron burr." it's the story of aaron burr, who is considered generally to be one of the great scoundrels, villains of american history. and i've always thought that the villains, the scoundrels, are far more interesting than the heroes. and i also thought that anybody who was despised by alexander
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trials such an attractive form for the reader? i'll tell you why they're an attractive form to the author. because, in the first place, trials have dialogue. and this is something you don't find a lot of in nonfiction. people talk to each other back and forth. er for it's rare you find a work of nonfiction where you get much in the way of dialogue, unless you're writing about a trial. and further more, unlike the ordinary conversation of you and me, where you wander around the
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topic and start over and all this. in trials, the dialogue always has a point. and there's a built in conflict. a protagonist and an antagonist and a resolution. there's a conviction or an acquittal . so, large part of my story is this treason trial. and i get to weave in, not only aaron burr, but thomas jefferson, who had taken up the role of prosecutor and chief. and he put the full weight of the federal government the to the prosecution of aaron burr. but he was frustrated by burr, who defended himself. he was also assisted by the judge in the trial. and the judge happened to be that other of thomas jefferson, john marshal.
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in the days when supreme court justices were also circuit court judges. and marshall sat for the circuit court in richmond. and the treason burr was alleged to have committed occurred in kentucky when kentucky was -- excuse me. on west virginia when it was still part of west virginia. so t was john marshal who presided over the trial and who was not going to let thomas jefferson get away with any sloppy prosecutor for treason. in fact, the burr trial became very important in american jurisprudence. because under the constitution, treason is very narrowly defined. consists of waging war against the united states or abetting those countries at war with the united states. and it has to be witnessed by two eye witnesses.
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well, the prosecution couldn't get the eye witnesses because the stuff that burr was toads have done actually happened when burr was far away. and secondly, there was no war. and marshall ruled on this and instructed the jury you have to acquit. the rest of the story is -- i can't tell you the rest of the story because i want you to read the book. in fact, i'm going to stop there and ask questions, if you have questions. and if you have any questions, raise your hand. yes, sir. okay. the question is, since i said i had a hard time with women, how about the suffrage ttes?
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i write book for the purpose of expanding knowledge in history. i hope people will buy. and you could name susan b. anthony, elizabeth kady standen and i can tell you i have run names like that by my publisher and i get a yawn because compare that to, i don't know, abraham lincoln, there's a huge market for all things lincoln 367. i'll toll you a story about a historical colleague of mine, trying to come up with a subject for his third book. faculty member in the philadelphia area. he has military history. he's trying to come up with a general he can write about. his area was world war ii.
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and the editor he's talking with said not to -- i don't think there's much of a market. and he mentioned a comp other second ranked. he threw up his hands and said, in a tone, a throw-away line, he said well, i mean, i guess i could write another biography of douglas mcarthur but there's been a dozen of douglas mcarthur and the editor said yeah, that's because people are interested in douglas mccarther. so, i suppose if i were spigsantly imaginative, maybe i could elevate a relatively obscure woman or man to a level that would grab people's attention and make that person famous, maybe.
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i'll say it's a tough sell, especially in this market. yes, miami, in the middle. a very good question. how is it that the letters were saved? i'm going to give you a broader reflection. how about the suffragettes or people not so famous? it'sall ploes a truism of history that it is possible to write about extraordinary people or extraordinary times, more precisely, you can write about extraordinary people in ordinary times. so, we can write a biography of george washington, because george washington was an extraordinary individual,to the
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extent people saved his letters. and people remembered what they felt, heard when they encountered washington. if somebody's famous, finding the record is not a problem. i wrote about benjamin franklin. i have to say the first 30 years of benjamin franklin's life go by like this in my book. why? because there are no sources. you can measure this in a wonderful published collection of the franklin letters that is about 38 volumes. they can them 50 years to publish it. it was about that thick. volume 38, if that's the last one, is equally thick and covered three months. not decades but months of franklin's life. why? because then he was world famous
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and people saved everything. you can write about extreatinary people in ordinary times. ordinary people in extraordinary times. for example, you can write the ordinary person's history of the civil war. why? because it was extraordinary sufficiently to where people wrote down wha they were thinking and feeling. they'd never shared that before so they wanted to share it or else kept a journal. there is no lack of information on ordinary people who went to california. in those days, before cameras, cell phones with cameras. how did people encounter the things they saw in their old
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place. that's a different matter. and we can talk about emails and what that means for future historians. but anyway. for some reason a great many of the letters between aaron burr and his daughter, theo, were saved. clearly not all of them. because there are gaps in the correspondence. it's hard to construct why some were saved and some were not. i saw a letter that aaron burr might be his last letter to theo. it was written on the night before his dual with alexander hamilton. he wrote a let toor theo explaining what she should do with his letters and papers. this is one of the reasons for the negative developments of
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aaron burr over time because he says burn these letters, especially the ones in the red ribbon. he survived and the letters didn't. whether theo did away with them, whether they were lost at sea with the oaf? i don't know. there is one interesting aspect is that relationships with hurs like theo are a rich source but only when the individuals in the relationship are far apart. i'll bet many of you in this room read the biography of john adams. yowl rr know mccullau's secret weapon in that book was abigail adams. i was in a conference or meeting where someone said now you've written about john adams. are you going to write about abigail adams? and he said i did.
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the book is called " -- it's only franklin roosevelt in the title but it's really a dual biography of the two. the curious things about the particular book is the best parts of the book, that reveal a wonderful relationship between john and abigailed a ms occur when they're far apart. it only works because they were apart for a large part of the marriage. when they were together, they simply spoke. and what they said to each other over the dinner table at night, no one knows. so, that's a case where -- and it's true with my book. i just have to pass over those sections where they're not writing to each other. but i can't offer a good explanation as to why some letters survived and others didn't.
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yes? >> thank you. your description of the story as a way to present the facts in a trial is a theme of the american presidency. franklin roosevelt, for example, used the fireside chat as an effective tool to describe what was happening in the united states. and the current president obama has accused of being too legalistic or not telling a story. so, where does this fit into your theme? >> the question is how does the nature of story and how stories are told and how it's related at times to american politics, in particular, how american presidents have cast their times as the ongoing story.
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it's a wonderful question and you gave me money to tip what you're working for years. it's going to be a book one day, i can't tell you which day but it's going to be. the title is going to be "the best story wins." and the whole point of the book is that we, as humans are -- well, i guess i'll say we're suckers for stories. at least there's something in the wiring of my brain, maybe hard wired or soft wired in but we respond to stories. storeies are stoimp luifications of reality that give us some kind of focus, grip on the world. and these stories can be creation myths, for example. that say how the world came into being.
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and may be explained. at the heart of every religion is a very powerful story that says why we're here and hur happens where we're going. >> franklin rooz volt, you mentioned his fireside chat. and make them believe their government is take askz and although roosevelt hardly lifted the great depression, he lifted a great deal of the despair that settled in on the country and that seemed to be undispellable as long as herbert hoover was in the wlies. every successful candidate tells a story. and barack obama was one of the
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greatest -- i'm not weighing in whether they're true or not. when i say barack obama spun a great story in the campaign of 2008, i don't mean to say he was making this stuff up. but what he did was to convince voters, or at least 53% of them, that a vote for barack obama was a vote for a better vision of america. i've never seen, in observation, of my study of political candidates that goes back to washington, i've never seen a better political candidate than barack obama. he was a little like aaron burr in this respect. that he was able tew low voters, ordinary americans, to project on him their hopes for what the country could become. if the message is hope, if the
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slogan is "yes, we can" that's very attractive, especially given the context of 2008. it's a reminder that being candidate is different from being president. it's one of the reason many of his liberal supporters have been quite disappointed because he didn't live up to, well, the projections that they put on him. and it -- a lot of it has to do with the fundamental distinction of being a candidate and an office holder. when we're a candidate, yes, we can. that's a powerful and appropriate phrase. but when you're president, no, you can't. candidates don't have to decide. frors they have to promise the world. >> i want to answer the question
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about why i read. history. i get in the story like it's a novel. and i'm in there haulering at cavalry guy that sent the person during the third day of getties burg geties burg getiesbering. >> he said -- >> the essence 06 the statement was that she reads history because she likes to get involved, in the mid24068 story. i can tell you i try to avoid
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that butted don't always succeed. when i wrote about benjamin franklin, i tried to plak a distance. i try to do this and succeed, not to pass judgment on my viewers. i will tell you that he was a great president, but great in the specific sense of having a great effect on the world around him. i won't tell you whether i think the new deal with a good or bad deal. frors i lay out what the was but it. i would say the most successful don't commercially do it this way. asked if he would writes about somebody he didn't admire or like and he said why would i do that? a lot of people go to biographies to cheer for somebody. it's like the rule of thumb is
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that broadway musical "work." if people come out of the theater whistling, it worked. but i want wreed -- readers to form their own opinions. and i pulled various audiences. do you think it's a thumbs. or dourn? boss trader is a traitor to his class, not country. thib last years of benjamin franklin andm hood rr been estranged by the son, william. and his grandson, william's son, wanted to get the two men back together.
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so, sur. tishesly, they arranged a meeting in south hampton england. it was going to be the last chance for them to see him in exile. so, temple brought the two of them together and at the critical moment, william, the son -- at the time he's 57 years old. hawaii has decided that his father will not live forever. not much longer. and so william holds out his hand to make amends with his father, benjamin. and i'm writing this part of the story and trying to keep my distance but trying to imagine what's going through benjamin franklin's head. i have three children. and i cannot imagine anything
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that any of those children would do that would cause me tee permanently luke meet out of my life. so, i wanted -- had found myself, without wanting to, and rooting for ben franklin, get him to do the right thing. and most the time he did the right thing. but when william was holding out his hand, i wanted to reach across the centuries and dak his hand, dam it, take it but he didn't. but he didn't. and he went back to america and he never forgave his son. for, well, doing what his conscience told him to do, to side with his king. and i had a particular reason, part of it was the father in me saying come on.
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your son is holding out his hand to me. and there was another part of it and that is that it was one of the very few acts of franklin's life that i couldn't explain boss because he was, on the whole a very reasonable person. he fell out with many in england during the revolutionary war. andwin by one he made up with them. i couldn't make sense of what was going on in his head and heart at the time. now, we historians don't claim to have all the answers. and i realized i don't know why he did this important thing. and it's towards the end of the book. and i thought i don't know.
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maybe he snowed me all along. maybe there's this dark franklin character that i'm not getting. so, i had to quickly write the end of that scene and get to the end of the book. i still don't know the answer to it. other questions? yes, sir. yes. >> as former student of history -- >> former student? are there such things? >> your students, i think, must be very lucky. you've told us a lot of what burr did. without giving away all of your book, what do you think was in his heart? >> i think that burr was ambitious. i know burr was ambitious. i think he saw the path to
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political achieve mgt is over and so he wanted to go west. the he recognized something we have forgotten and that is before the age of steam boats and the age of railroads, once you got west of the appalachian mountains, gravity pulled you the west. there was very little that said a continental republic could survive. and it's worth knowing they're remembering there was no particular reason to think it should survive. just five years before, taums jefferson had been an honor. froorts, in esopinions laid the ground fork wrourk and especially when the public was no more than a gen fragz old.
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ter was entirely consistent with that view, that if the peep 068 pla louisiana and tennessee decide their political interests were better served by independence from america, from the united states than sticking with the united states, that was exactly the logic of, well, the declaration of independence. so too, think in terms of separating the west, it would be voluntary. one of the reasons burr went to the west was to sound people out. andrew jackson, first of all, celebrated the fact he killed alexander hamilton. everybody in the west thought burr was a great man. when he talked about a potentially independent future.
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frorls but even more important, it was the almost inevitable outcome of geography. the rivers ran downstream and they twhur epsance of commerce,er the avr avenues -- and so, burr was simply -- i don't know if he was articulating or simply letting people articulate what they thought their future might be. if you lived in new orleans in 1805 t took forever to get to washington. or new york and you could well ask yourself how can those people in the east govern us. that was part of what he was up to. would he wage war against the united states? i doubt it. he only has 50 guys. he didn't have an army he could
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wage war with. he did hope fighting would break out between spain and the united states. so did andrew jackson and so did wilkinson, who was the traitor. he was on the pay roll of the spanish government unbeknownest ooze to people in the army. so, burr's logic strikes us, perhaps, assuming he did what he was alleged to have done. to have plotted the scheme to speculation from rest of the united states. but it hardly seemed a heinous crime to most of the people living in the west at the time. and i will simply add there with are plenty of people in the states of the former confederacy who think they laugs the argument on the battle field,
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the argument that states have a right to chart their own futures. that's what i can make of it. i can't let you get out of here without at least the possibility of buying a new book. thank you very much. you've been a wonderful audience.


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