tv History Bookshelf H.W. Brands The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr CSPAN August 3, 2021 4:24pm-5:41pm EDT
watch wednesday beginning at 8:00 a.m. eastern here on c-span3. next on american history tv, historian h.w. brands talks about his biography of aaron burr, the new york politician and vice president who is most remembered for killing former treasury secretary alexander hamilton in a duel in 1804. mr. brands presented a collection of letters between burr and his daughter theodosia that recount his political rise and downfall. this was recorded at the fryar gallery of art in washington, d.c. in 2012. >> thank you for having me back. i'm delighted to speak here. i always like to speak in washington where the audience is well informed and engaged and having just finished teaching a semester and for the year at the university of texas, i'm always delight tolled speak to an audience of people who don't
have to be here there. will be no test. i said this sincerely. i'm very flattered that you took the time and took your evening to come listen to me and i try to -- i mean, i think that my students by and large are interested in the subject but i know perfectly well that if they didn't have tests, if they didn't have papers, if they weren't held accountable, then most of the seats would be empty so none of you have to be here but you did come so i find that to be very flattering. i could suppose give you a test at the end [ laughter ] . the title of my talk which i had forgotten july jamie just mentioned it is the unknown aaron burr, and i'm going to tell you about aaron burr and why i wrote a book about aaron burr. my book is "the heartbreak of aaron burr." i will tell you a little bit about the heartbreak of aaron burr but i can't tell the whole story without giving await ending and i don't want to give await ending and i'll tell you. why not just because i want you to buy the book and read the book and enjoy it and hang around to the end and it those do with the reason i wrote the
book in the first place and this goes back to my experience of writing. my experience of reading and in particular my experience of listening to a question that my mother has been putting to me for the last 23 or 4 years, and the question i will get to in a moment, but it goes to the heart of why people write and why people read. i teach history at the university of texas. i also teach writing, and i teach writing to graduate students. the graduate students in my writing seminars were also just completed a couple days ago come from history. they come from communications, journalism. they come from the english department. they come from fine arts. they are students. they have apprentice writers,
and they are working on developing their craft, their skill, their art in various again res. some of them, the historians, are going to write nonfiction. the journalists are going to write nonfiction of a somewhat different view, but i also have novelists. i have poets. i have playwrights and screenwriters, and they are trying to accomplish something else. well, except that they are trying to accomplish -- up. things we talk about is what it is that we're all trying to accomplish, and this gets to the question of why people write and why people read. 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? and may in fact take that question and hold on to it because there will be a question and answer time at the end, and typically the questions come from the audience and the
answers are suppose theed to come from the speaker, but we could turn that around and so if you -- 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 when i've posed this question to various audiences including my students and including my mother, again, whom i will get to, and i would just add that i had some time waiting for the lecture and i was just talking to my mom who lives in oregon and i'm pleased to say she's doing very well. she's 86 years old. anyway. [ applause ] thank you, yes. i will tell you that you applauded. at least a couple of you did, and i don't know if -- is that applause for the fact that she reached 8 of, that she's in good health and still interested in my writing? okay. all of the above. anyway. about 15 years ago i was teaching an undergraduate history seminar. it was more 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 that's the way it fell out. the students were reading various sort of great works of history, but the particular again rethat i chose for that semester was great biographies including autobiographies so they read selections from bozwell's live of johnson and the autobiography of benjamin franklin and the confessions of st. augustine and julius caesar's commentaries on the golic war. one work that particularly caught their attention was the autobiography of ben vento chiellini. how much you have read it you should all read it. it's fantastic! and the thing that makes it so interesting that it is a work of
supreme egotism. chiellini 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 chiyomi is creating one of his master works, and he becomes very frustrated with the technicians. he has cast the original mold, and now it's just left to the technicians to melt the bronze and pour it in, but it's a very complicated mold, and it's his statue of hercules with the head of medusa in his hands, and it's real complicated because it has to go from the heel all the way
to the tip of the arm and then through the snake's coil and the head and everything, but he tells this wonderful story about how he's on his death -- he's sick. he's on his death bed, but the technicians aren't getting it right so he has to come up off of his death beddin and they can't get the fire hot enough to melt the metal hot enough so they throw in all the firewood that they have got and then they throw in the furniture and start tearing the panelling off the walls and then they throw that in and he's developing this fever that's raging while fire is burning and he pours it in and they get the mold and they pour it in and he collapses on the floor and he wakes up only four days later not knowing if he's dead or alive, and so -- oh, he realizes he's alive and it occurs to him eventually so how did it turn out and they knock the mold out and it turns out there's a brilliant masterpiece and the end. story is no one could have done it but me, so the students, they don't know quite what to make of this, and i -- so i asked the students, you know, any time there is a work that is
presented to you as being true, you have to ask yourself whether it's in something you read or something you encounter in daily life or 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 well, how would you corroborate a story like this or any story? and i would -- i mentioned to the students that any time you encounter anything you need to ask is it true, and this is especially true these days when my students get so much of their information off the internet. you know, 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 that one of the lessons my students learn, and this is a very good let'sson for them is after a while most of them come into my class and they think i'm just their teacher.
okay. i'm their teacher for the purpose of the semester but eventually some of them cast 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 because most of them haven't confronted an author before and that i say stuff and then i'm the guy who wrote the 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, you know, ordinary people, you know, get -- try to get things right but some of the stuff you get wrong and they realize oh, 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 or, you know, up book or another, but what really gets street creditability with my students is when they see me on tv because then all of a sudden he's somebody. anyway, so the students all agreed that this was a
fascinating story and they -- you know, great story, good drama, great characterization and all of this, and 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 trow 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 agreed 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, and you know what, that great story you read, it actually happened. it's a true story.
the 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 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 -- 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, if you go to a movie and it's a great story, 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. well, of this group when i asked the question how many of you think that it would make it a better story? about half of the students
raised their hand, and i was surprised that only half, and then -- so i think that was 7 out of the 15 and then of the other 8 i think 5 of them said no difference, good story is a good story and three of them really amazed me by saying that 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 that i came up with because the answer that i came up with is related to the question that my mother has been posing to me all these years. i mentioned that i'm -- i teach writing and -- 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 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, and unless you have a reader in mind you can not hope to convoy 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 and the read their sits on your shoulder and the reader that you are imagining is going to read your stuff so you'll know is this too many information, is this too little information, is the reading level about right? it's quite a difference if you're writing for young adults than if you're writing for mature adults. anyway, for years and years i had the very good fortune to have the best possible model reader, namely my father. my father -- and when i say the best possible model reader. the first couple of books i
wrote were written for the purposes of getting a job at a 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 subsidies plin i was writing in, but after i accomplished that i decided i wanted to reach out to a larger audience, an audience well very much i suppose 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 red books. he read "the wall street journal." he read "fortune" magazine and
read business stuff. he was "cutlery business" and he read "iron age." an interesting mag scene. i don't know if it still exists but in his retirement he wanted to read. he liked to read history, wanted to read biographies and wanted 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 liked something he would say, billy, i think you did a good job on that up. 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 refuse to cook lunch for my
father. he was expected to be out, working and find his own lunches. i married your father for better or for worse but not for lufrmt anyway, and i -- i will just add that upon my father's death my mother announce happened she was retiring from cooking. and she has not cooked ever since. she sheets out. anyway, my father would read my books and he showed me how to deal with the meals that he wasn't particularly fond of. he was very dap diplomatic. if my mother made something that he liked. he would say hone, that's great. that's wonderful. if she's 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 -- and it worked out very well. anyway, my father was somewhat more forthcoming with me. he would tell myrick the first three chapters were okay but it
bogged down after that. okay great. my father read every book that i 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 says she finished was on the california gold rush. now i'm not really sure she finished those but a as a doubtful son far be it for me to cast aspersions on my mother. she says she did, okay, she did, but it was very clear that getting through a work of nonfiction was a task for my mother. she read out of some sense of duty to me and every time, after i wrote a bok 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. well, anyway, but 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 -- i like good stories. i write history because i think history stories are, well, they are stuff that happens in history that you just couldn't make up and then her reaction to that made me realize well that was the point. the point of novels is quite different in one basic way. i'm going to contend that in an even more basic way it's the same, but it's quite different from the writing of history and the this gets -- because i -- 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 this is generally true because if you add here 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. 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 you know, 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, but i said, mom, i've been working my way around that problem by writing biographies
because with biographies they are all about character and i do get inside the heads of my subjects because they do tell me what they are thinking. they write letters. they write diaries and so on. she said okay, yeah, but -- 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 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, in the last biography that i wrote which was about frank lip 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. one that was fascinating but one, again, i don't think you could -- 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 arc, that has a form. novels aren't just any old thing written down on the page. novels have characters. they typically have a protagonist. novels is there conflict. there's usually an ascending arc of the conflict in the drama, and here's the critical thing. novels, like most movies, have a
resolution of the conflict. at the end of the book, at 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 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 disyou a grow with it vehemently please say so during 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, that people who prefer novels to history are people who hike their stories tidied up. they will like their stories to come to some kind of conclusion, don't have to be a happy ending, but it has to be an ending whereas most history doesn't
really have an end. i mean, real life, it doesn't have conclusions. we strive for closure, but most time we don't get it. it just -- 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 say. i said, mom, how about historical novels. how about, you know, the novels that are connected. oh, she liked those okay but she said, yeah, the best novels that i like are ups that just don't have any connection to reality at all, and i scratched my head over that number she said, hey, 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 to go into some mace that's not at all connections to the real world, and it was this that mailed me timely realize what those students in my seminar were talking about when they said it
made it worse to know that it was true because they really wanted this separation between their stories, their entertainment and the world. now that's not really fair to the students to say their entertainment as merely ent that because, of course, people have been justifying novels for years, for centuries, though i teach the graduate writhing sum far, the students read great works of history and one of the things that they discover is that novels weren't invented until 400 years ago and before then there wasn't this distinction between what really happened and what was clearly made up. anyway, so i had been thinking about this distinction between nomps and history. which are i've been listening to my mother
all these years saying, bill, what are you going to write the novel? i was going to please my mom. at least one, you know. she's not going to live forever and i've actually tried to write. i've finished a couple of novels. they are sitting in my drawer at home and i haven't done anything with them yet, but meanwhile i thought, you know, there's got to be a way what makes novels attractive to readers and apply it to real historical tales. so the book i'm here promoting, the heartbreak of aaron burr is the second installment of a series i'm writing called american portraits. the first book came out over a year ago. called the murder of jim fisk for the love of josie mansfield, a story about i a gilded age
love triangle gone badly wrong. the second installment is the heartbreak of aaron burr. now if you choose to buy the book, i will sign it for you, by the way, you'll see it has the appearance of a novel. for example, there's no table of contents. there's no authors preface. there's no index. the chapters don't have chapter names. it's just one, two, three, four. so on. however, you might think, in fact, if -- if you hadn't come together and you picked this book up unsuspect, i would be delighted if you read at least the first part of it thinking it was indeed a novel. because if that was the case then presumably you would have been drawn into this world that you thought i had created. but in fact it's the world that really exists. and so, i wanted to use some of
the techniques of novel-writing, but 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 reason i chose the topic, by the existence of correspondence letters between aaron burr and his very remarkable daughter. 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 dad. anyway, i had a chance to use this correspondence it's some of the most candid correspondence
i've encounter in history. it allows me to accomplish one aspect of getting into the head and hearts of the characters. another reason i chose to write on this subject and the murder of jim fisk for the love of josie mansfield and that is this, 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 women did not play a large role.
i've been writing a series of full-blown biographies started with benjamin franklin and next will be ulis grant that will come out in the fall and carry from the 18th century to 21st century and last installment will be biography of ronald reagan and every one of the subjects male. and the reason for this is the books are conceived as a history of the united states told through biographies, i found a woman but my publisher wouldn't let me do it. can you get what women i found? eleanor roosevelt. it's a short list of the women in american history women have had their roles of
course in private life but it's in the nature of private life but usually doesn't survive in historical record. why did people start saving the letters of eleanor roosevelt? because she was important. do your korea correspondents save the letters you write and put them in the historical society, if they do, you will become immortal in letters. in the future they'll say that's what life was like in the beginning of the 21st century. so i wanted to write about women, after all, women have been half of the population and very large part of what happened, even if it was hard to find them in the public record. i decided 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. so this is when i ran across the subject of my murder of jim fisk for the love the josie mansfield, josie mansfield was a woman who had no particular talents other than her, well, one could say her beauty, although i'm going to tell you a problem i had with this. josie mansfield clearly was very attractive to the man who knew her. and men lost their senses. when they got around josie mansfield. and they did crazy things, like engage in one murdering another for the love of josie mansfield. and so i wrote this book about josie mansfield and the book is about josie, less about jim fisk. and but because it's nominally a history book my publisher wanted to include a photograph of josie
mansfield. after all it's a history book and there's a photograph of this femme fatale let's see it. but i didn't want to use the photograph. and 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 -- the camera does not capture that essence that drove men crazy. you look at it 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. so if i wrote a description of josie and then had a photograph of josie, either the writing would be either wrong or redundant and either way would lose its force. but my editor insisted. so there's a picture of josie.
anyhow. josie was one story. theo burr was another. and i knew the end of the theo burr story, some many of you already know. theo disappeared at sea when 1812 turned into 1813. she got on a coastal ship from south carolina heading for new york where her father was waiting for her. her father had not seen her in years. he 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 is assumed the ship went down in a storm but nobody knows. in fact, fairly recently, in the last couple years somebody wrote a normal everyone based on the idea that theo had survives and wound up on an island somehow.
anyhow. 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, my thinking the whole time was the disappearance of theo burr. i thought that's kind of intriguing, people don't just disappear. but my publisher thought that aaron burr had more cache. the name was one that people knew so it became the heartbreak of aaron burr. and it's the story of aaron burr who is considered generally to be one of the great scoundrel villains of american history and i've aulgz always thought the villains and scoundrels were far more interesting than the heroes and anybody despised by administrator hamilton,, john
adams, thomas jefferson, jim's madison, had to be someone with something going for him. so i thought i'd try to tell the story but i would tell the story through the relationship between aaron burr and his daughter. what was burr up to was he trying to destroy the united states? well. i'm going to tell you that you will not find a definitive answer to that question in my book because like so many important questions in history, it has no definitive answer. i'm pretty sure that aaron burr himself didn't know exactly what was intended.
now here i'm going to cite a distinction. you remember several years ago when donald rumsfeld was often lampooned criticized for drawing the distinction between the known knowns, and the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns, all of this. and john stuart and late night jay leno got pay lot of mileage, they thought it was great fun. on fist indication in the extreme. i thought it was an instant where rumsfeld had it it exactly right. because those in the authority business, william casey used to distinguish between secrets and mystery. in the intelligence business both of these are of interest if they involve something your enemy or someone else is going to do.
there's fundamental difference between secrets and mysteries. a secret has a concrete existence. how many missile launchers did the soviet union have in 1985. cia spent a lot of time and money trying to figure out what the answer of that question was this an answer. but a mystery is well ry real box iron next week. well, that doesn't are an answer at this point in time because it hasn't happened. likewise what was aaron burr going to do in the west, that's the category of mystery. i'm quite sure he himself didn't know. what took him to the west, briefly i will tell you, aaron burr was a soldier in the continental army and a capable
officer and a very gifted lawyer. he was a man who against the expectations of his friends fell in love with a woman named theodosia who was a widow of a british officer. the officer died and he fell in love with theo and married her. there was an odd aspect, that came from the fact, that theo, was ten years older than aaron burr. i should mention aaron burr was dashing, charming young man. theo was ten years older, neither beautiful nor rich but he fell in love with her and they married.
now one asks across the centuries, what did he see in her? because plenty of people married rich widows. this is the way one's fortune was often made. he didn't. he married her quite clearly out of love. but love for what? well, love for her mind. love for her character. and they had a child. a daughter. whom they named he insisted it be named after his wife, theodosia. aaron burr was centuries ahead of his time believing women were fully intellectually equal to men and only their lack of education prevented them from attaining the accomplishments of men so he decided his daughter theo was going to have the best education that his money could buy. the education was conducted by tutors that were brought in, was
conducted by him in letters. when he was home he would quiz theo. they would talk about subjects of public affairs, history, literature. of the classics of the whole thing. and theo became his close friend became something of his educational project. became his protoge. and to read the letters is to see a father spending a great deal of time and effort on the education of his child. and watching her mature, watching her grow, watching her achieve the intellectual accomplishments he was sure she could achieve. theodosia. the mother, contracted cancer and died after a painful illness when theodosia
was 11 yoemds years old and she became the woman of the house. even when burr wasn't around she would host parties for diplomats for the community in new york, distinguished visitors, indians chiefs in town, and everyone was quite amazed and wonderfulerfully impressed by the he self possession by the maturity of this 14-year-old girl. anyway burr meanwhile begins his career in politics and delivers new york state for the jeffersonian republican party in the election of 1800 and he's on the ticket and jefferson is on the ticket. you know the story of the, well, contested, yes, election. it was contested by accident because burr and jefferson tie. this was under the original constitution where each elector got two votes and it was at this
point that some of the inu endos began to swirl around burr, almost certainly due to the mischief of the med federalists who realized they lost the presidency and thought they could somehow weaken their political foes. i will remind you all that this was in a age when political parties per se were still considered illegitimate. the founders wanted no part of political parties. the founders thought in a republic, opposed to a monarch, in a republic, loyal, patriotic citizens would always put the interest of the country ahead of the interest of party and they thought parties would be the down fall of the republic. but parties emerged despite the best efforts, despite the dissatisfaction of george washington who never admitted he had a party affiliation but
administrative hamilton and jefferson formed parties quickly. and jefferson did win the election 1800 with burr as his vice president. but jefferson, a wonderful individual who could do fill sosivical high minded things and do low minded things. jefferson was dismissive of legitimate parties of anyone and the first and most effective political bosses in american history and he decided burr had to be pushed aside. that the presidency the next time around would go to another virginiaian. meanwhile alexander hamilton was pushed to the side. both these men were put in a position where their prospects were not quite living up to their ambitions. so they got a
foul of each other because hamilton said very nasty thing s about burr in one of the political campaigns and burr asked him to retract, at least to acknowledge and to corroborate or to retract and hamilton got stiff-necked about it, said, no, no you have no business asking me this sort of thing, one thing led to another and then to the fatal dual in new jersey in 1804. hamilton was killed. burr was not disgraced by the dual, per se, it was really the mack nations of thomas jefferson that made very clear burr had no political future so burr decided what's he goes to do, he's an ambitious and he did what generations and generations of ambitious young men had been doing, that was, he went to the west. what was he going to do in the
west? ah, just ask the question. well, it almost certainly included either inciting or exploiting a war between the united states and spain. spain was then in control of florida and then in control of mexico. and spain was bottling up the united states from territorial expansion, which burr, like most everybody else in the united states, including thomas jefferson, believed was inevitable and a good thing. i live in texas. i wasn't born in texas, grew up on the west coast but lived in texas since the 1980s and i can tell you that what burr was accused of doing was what one of the founding fathers of texas sam houston actually did 30 years later. namely go off into mexican territory, by then it was mexican rather than spanish
territory, and foment a war and seize part of this foreign territory for the united states. this is what made andrew jackson famous in the wake of the war of 1812. he without authorization rode into spanish florida and drove the spanish away. burr lived long enough to appreciate the irony of this. burr didn't get accolades for what jackson and houston did. burr instead got an indictment for treason and the treason trial forms a large portion of my book. i spend time on the treason trial because it allows me to boot leg history into this little story. also because in writing this book, after writing the book about the murder of jim fisk, for the love of josie mansfield at the heart of which were three
murder trials i realized what dig wox realized years ago, the creator of the original perry mason shows, trials are natural for telling stories, whether in novel form, ask john grisham am or in movie form or in non-fiction. why are trials such an attractive form for the reader? i will tell you why they're attractive form for the author. because in the first place trials have dialogue. and this is something that you don't find a lot of in non-fiction. this is one of the appeals of novels. people talk to each other back and forth. it's rare that you find a work of non-fiction where you get much in the way of dialogue unless it's writing about a trial because in a trial you get dialogue. further more, unlike the ordinary conversation of you and me, you wonder around topics,
and all this, in trials, the dialogue always has a point and there's a built-in conflict. there's a protagonist andan taggist and a resolution. there's either a conviction or a acquittal. so large part of the story is this treason trial and i weave in aaron burr and thomas jefferson who has taken up the role of prosecutor in chief and he put the full weight of the federal government into the prosecution of aaron burr. but he was frustrated by burr who defended himself he had very zinced well. he distinguished help. he was also assisted by the judge in the trial and the judge happened to be the other of thomas jefferson john m. the last of the federalists.
in the day supreme court justices were circuit court judges. and marshall sat for the circuit court in richmond and the treason that burr was alleged to have committed occurred in kentucky which -- excuse me -- when kentucky -- no sorry when west virginia was still part of virginia. and so, it was john marshall who presided over the trial. and who was not going to let thomas jefferson get away with any sloppy prosecution. for treason s. under the constitution treason is very narrowly defined. it 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. well, the prosecution couldn't
get the eye-witnesses because the stuff that burr was said to have done actually happened when burr was far away. and secondly, there was no war. and marshall ruled on this that he instructed the jury, you have to acquit. well, anyway, 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. i see you have questions. and by the way if you have answers to questions i've thrown out i'm happy to listen to those. if you have questions raise your hand and since cspan is in the back i will repeat the question. yes, sir. okay. the question is how about the suffer jets. here's a basic problem. i write books for the purposes of expanding knowledge of history and i will say quite
candidly, i write books i hope people will buy. and, you could name susan b. anthony, liz bij katey standen i can tell you i've run name likes that by my publisher and i get a yawn. because compare that to, i don't know, let's say, abraham lincoln, there's a huge market for all things lincoln. there's quite a small market for studies of the suffrages. i will tell a story of a colleague trying to come up subject for third book. he got tenure and was faculty member at tenure in philadelphia. he wanted to come up with some general that he could write about. and his area was world war ii so he presented bied joseph stillwater and the editor said
it i don't think there's much market for that. he mentioned a couple second-ranked generals and then sort of at a loss, his field was in particular the pacific theater award and couldn't think of anything else. he through up his hands, and said in a tone, a throw away line, he said well, i guess i could write another biography of douglas mccarthy. but there had been a dozen of biographies of douglas mccarthy and the publisher said yeah that's because people are interested in douglas mccarthy. so if mcarthur. so if i was imaginative, i could elevate a relatively obscure woman to a level that would grab people's attention and make that person famous. maybe. but it's a tough sell. especially in this market.
other questions. yes, ma'am, in the middle? very good question. how were letters saved. before i answer i will give a broader reflection, to the question about suffrages, or how about the people not so famous. it's almost 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, one of these extraordinary individuals, by extraordinary i mean famous, to the extent people saved his letters and people remembered
what they felt and heard what they encounter washington. if somebody's famous, the finding the record of famous people is not a problem. i wrote about benjamin franklin and the first 30 years of his life go by like this. in by book. why. because there's no sorszs on it. the one source is franklin's own auto biography and you can real about it in published letters 37 or 38 volumes, took them 50 years to publish it. volume 1 goes from franklin's birth to the age of 30. it's about that thick. volume 38, that's the last one, is equally thick and it covers three months. not three decades. but three months. why? because then he was world-famous and people saved everything. you can write about extraordinary people in ordinary
times or write about ordinary people in extraordinary times. for example, you can write the ordinary person's history of the civil war, why? because it was sufficiently extraordinary, people wrote down what they were thinking and feeling. soldiers went off to war for many of them in both union and confederate armies they had never been away from home before and wanted to share that experience with folks at home or else they kept a journal. i wrote a book about the california gold rush. there's no lack of you information about ordinary people that went off to california. why. because they knew it was once in a lifetime thing. in those days before cameras and before cellphones with cameras how did people record adventures they encounter, they wrote them down now i don't know what's going to happen. because people aren't saving their photos, i guess, from their cellphones and everything else, that's a different matter. we can talk about e-mails wand
it means for future historians. anyway. so but for some reason a great money of the letter between aaron burr and his daughter theo were saved. i don't -- clearly not all of them because there are gaps in the cooperate correspondencents and it's the correspondencents. correspondents.ts. correspondents.the corresponden. correspondents. he wrote a letter to theo explaining what she should do with his letters and papers. this is one of the reasons for the negative opinion that's developed over time regarding aaron burr, he said burn all these letters, especially the ones bound up in this red
ribbon. and well he survived but the letters didn't. and whether theo did away with them, whether they were lost at sea with theo, i don't know. but there is one interesting aspect about all of this, that is, that relationships like burr's with theo are a rich source for historians, but only when the individuals in the relationship are far apart. i'll bet that many of you in this room read david mccullough's biography of john adams and will you know that mccullough's secret weapon in that book was abigail adams. i was in a conference where someone asked dave mccullough, now are you going to right about abigail adams. he said, i already did. that's sort of what i did with eleanor roosevelt and franklin
roosevelt, it's really a dual biography of the two. the curious thing about that particular book is that the best parts of the book, the parts in particular that reveal a wonderful relationship, provocative relationship between john and abigail adams occur when they're far apart. it's a wonderful love story, i wonderful story of a marriage, but it only works because they were apart for a very large part of the marriage. when they were together they simply spoke. what they said to each other over the dinner table at night no one knows. so that's a case where -- it's true with my book, i don't make a big deal of it in the 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 why some letters survived and others didn't. yes? >> thank you. your description of the story as a part of 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 a very effective tool to tell the story of what was happening in the united states. and the current president obama has been 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, how stories are told, and how has it related at times to american politics, in particular, how american presidents have cast their times as part of the ongoing american story, how's that fit in with my story. it's a wonderful question. and you gave me an opportunity to tip my hand about a project
that i had been working on for years. and it's based on the title of this book. it's going to be a book one day. i can't tell you which day. it's going to be. i don't know. the title going to be the best story wins. and, the whole point of the book is that we as humans are, well, i guess i will say, we're suckers for stories. or at least there's something in the wiring of our brain, maybe it's hard-wired, maybe it's soft-wired in, but we respond to stories. what are stories? i will put it this way, stories are simplifications of complicated reality. that give us some kind of purchase. some kind of grip on the world. and these stories can be creation myths for example. to say how the world came into being. that also may be explained at the heart of every religion is a
story. a very powerful story that tells us why we're here and perhaps where we are going. politics is all about stories. franklin roosevelt you mentioned his fireside chats, he would tell a story to grip the american people and make them believe that their government was taking action, was taking their side in the midst of this great crisis of american history. although roosevelt hardly ended the great depression he lifted a great deal of the despair that had settled in on the country. and that seemed to be undispell able as long as hoover was in the white house. barack obama was one of the greatest story -- by the way, when i say stories, i'm not weighing in at all whether the stories are true or not, because there's certainly true stories.
when i say barack obama spun a great story in the campaign of 2008, i don't mean to say that he was making this stuff up. but what he did was to convince voters, 53% of them, that a vote for barack obama was a vote for a better vision of america. and it was -- i've never seen in my observation of political candidates that goes back to john kennedy and study of candidates goes back to george washington i've never seen a better political candidate than barack obama in large part because he was a little bit like aaron burr, in this respect, that he was able to allow voters ordinary americans to project on him their hopes for what the country could become. and so, you know, if the message is hope, if the slogan is, yes we can, that's very attractive.
especially given the context of 2008. and it's also, well, it's a reminder that being a candidate is different from being president. and it's one of the reasons that many of obama's liberal supporters have been quite disappointed. because he didn't live up to, well, the projections that they put on him. and a lot of it has to do with the fundamental ale distinction between being a candidate and being an office-holder. when you're a candidate, yes we can. boy, that's a powerful and appropriate phrase. but when you're president, the operative phrase is much more often, no you can't. because presidents have to decide. candidates don't have to decide. they can promise the world. but once you get into office you have to say one thing or another. anyway. yes, ma'am?
i have a question. the calgary guy who says you need a sister. i'll be your sister. i'll just jump into this book and punch that guy in the nose. >> interesting. i'm not sure i can do justice to that by repeating the question. but the essence of the statement was that she reads history because she likes to get involved, to get in the middle of the story. as a professional historian i try to avoid that but don't always succeed.
when writing about benjamin franklin i do succeed in not passing judgment in my characters. i will tell you, the book on franklin roosevelt, he was a great president in the specific sense of having a great effect on the world around him. i won't tell you whether i think it was good or bad president or whether the new deal was good or bad deal. i leave it to the readers to decide. i lay out what it was and the reaction and justification for and leave it to the readers to draw their own conclusion. i think not all historians don't do it this way, in fact most successful commercially don't do it this way. i asked dave cohen once he goes why would i do that. a lot of people go to biographies to be able to cheer for somebody. so it's a lot easier, like the rule of thumb, the broadway
musical warp, well, musical, did it work? well, if people come out whistling then it works. but i don't do that. i want readers to form their own opinion. i wrote a book on franklin roosevelt trader to his class, and that title do you think it is a thumb's up or down, because traitor is a bad word, it's not traitor to his country, it's traitor to his class. anyway, i try to keep my distance as often as i can. in the last years of benjamin franklin's life he was coming home from paris, he was sick and wanted to die in america. he had been he stranged by his son williams in the revolutionary war and his grandson temple wanted to get his father william and grandfather benjamin back together so he arranged a
meeting in england to ship from la habra and stop in for a last chance to meet. so temple brought the two of them together. and at the critical moment william, the son, by this time is 57 years old, full grown man, he 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 sitting here, 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 that any of those children would do that
would cause me to permanently write them out of my life. especially, even if they had done something and then afterwards said let's let bygones be bygones. so i wanted -- i had found myself, without wanting to, sort of rooting for benjamin franklin, get him to do the right thing. most of the time he did the right thing. when william was holing his hand i wanted to to reach across the centuries and tell benjamin franklin take his hand, take it! but he didn't. and he went back to america. and never forgave his son for 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 your son is holding out his hand to you. but i will confess 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. because he was, on the whole, a very reasonable person. and he had fallen out with many in england during the revolutionary war but one by one he had made up with them and i could not figure out what was going through franklin's head and through his heart at the time. and, now, we historians, at least the more modest of us, we don't claim to have all of the answers. but this was a big part of franklin's emotional life. and i realized that i don't know why he did this very important thing. and it's toward the end of the book. and i thought, i don't know, maybe he snowed me all along.
maybe there's this dark franklin character that i'm just 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, but, yeah. other questions. yes, sir. yes. >> former student of history -- >> former student? are there such things. [ inaudible ] >> you've told us a lot about what burr did and most of us are used to thinking of the villain, without giving away all of your book what do you think was in his heart? >> i think that burr was ambitious, i know that burr was am bisciotti. ambitious. i think he saw the path to political achievement was closed in the east. because both of the major parties were dead-set against him. so he wanted to go west. before
the day of steam boats and rail roads once you get west of the appalachia mountains gravity pulled you to the west. there was very little that said a continental republic could survive. and it's worth knowing, or remembering, that there was no particular reason to think the continental republic should survive. just a few years before, thomas jefferson himself had been an author of the kentucky resolutions that in essence lay the ground work for nullive -- null fiction and succession. if you believe in self government especially when the american republic was no more than a generation old, it was consistent with the view that if the people of kentucky and
louisiana and tennessee decided that their political interests were better served by independence from america, from the united states, then by sticking with the united states, that that was the logic of the declaration of independence. one of the reasons burr went to the west was to sound people out. andrew jackson. first of all celebrated the fact he had killed alexander hamilton. every in the west thought burr was a great man and what burr talked about a possible independent future for the west it was entirely consistent with american philosophy of politics, including that of thomas jefferson, but even more importantly, it was the almost inevitable outcome of geography.
because once you cross the mountains the rivers you will ran downstream and the rivers were the essence of commerce. they were the avenues of transport svmtd -- and jefferson himself sometimes wondered whether louisiana's fate was with the united states. 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. because if you lived in new orleans 1805 it took forever to get to washington or new york. and you could well-ask yourselves, how could those people in the east govern us. that was part of what he was up to. would he have waged war against the united states? i doubt it. he only had 50 guys. so didn't have an army could wage war with. he did hope that a war would break out between spain and the
united states. so did andrew jackson. so did james wilkerson who really was the traitor in the story. wilkerson for decades was on the pay rom of the span payroll of the spanish government unbeknownst to his superiors in the u.s. government. burr's logic strikes us, perhaps, assuming he did what he alleged to have done, to have plotted scheme to separate what is the mississippi valley or texas and beyond from the rest of the united states. but it hardly seemed -- it hardly seemed a heinous crime to most of those people living in the west at the time. i will simply add that there are plenty of people living in the states of the former confederacy today who think, you know, the confederacy lost the argument on the battle field, the argument that states have the right to charge their own futures.
anyway. so that's what i can make of it. how we doing? i can't let you get out of here without the possibility of buying a book. thank you very much. you've been a wonderful audience. [ applause ] >> we're bringing you american history tv all this week on cspan3. wednesday morning starting at 8:00 a.m. eastern a look into the history of aviation. historians discuss world war i and world war ii fighter pilots, the wright brothers and first military airplane. watch wednesday beginning at 8:00 a.m. eastern here on cspan3. >> next on american history tv, political economy professor and author robert wright talks about alexander hamilton's view on naal