(by Gore Vidal)
A knowing, rollicking account of the early Republic. Vidal smashes the Jeffersonian myth but creates a more interesting figure of history in lieu. Burr’s uneasy, half-respectful relationship with Alexander Hamilton, whom he ultimately killed in a duel, is particularly interesting, although contentiously handled.
Vidal paints a vivid, unflattering portrait of Thomas Jefferson, the ultimate effect of which is to confirm his stature. But it’s a close-run thing: here is Burr reflecting on the 3rd President:
“He was the most charming man I have ever known, as well as the most deceitful. Were the philosopher’s charm less, the politician’s deceit might not have been so shocking…Had Jefferson not been a hypocrite I might have admired him. After all, he was the most successful empire-builder of our century, succeeding where Bonaparte failed. But then Bonaparte was always candid when it came to motive and Jefferson was always dishonest. In the end, candour failed; dishonesty prevailed. I dare not preach a sermon on that text…Later Madison tried to explain Jefferson to me. ‘Politically, he thinks you too independent. Personally, he fears a rival.’ ‘He does not fear you.’ ‘Because I am part of him, and no rival.’ ‘I am?’ ‘He thinks you are, and so he is afraid of you.’ ‘What should I do?’ Madison simply grimaced. Obviously there was nothing to be done with such a man. I shall never know – who will ever know? – what Madison really thought of his remarkable friend.”