cover image The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr

The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr

H.W. Brands. Anchor, $15 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-0-307-74326-8

The relationship of Aaron Burr and his daughter Theodosia Burr Alston is one of the most affecting bonds in the history of major American political figures. Each cherished and doted on the other after the death of Burr’s wife when their daughter was 11. And more tragedy was to come: after the death of Theodosia’s son, she herself drowned at sea in 1813, aged 29, thus leaving two crushed men, her husband and her father. University of Texas–Austin historian Brands (The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin) brings alive this story largely through the affectionate letters between father and child. But it’s a slight, curious work. Written in the present tense, which gives it a formal, Gallic tone, it’s all narrative and takes us nowhere into character. The history it rehearses has long been known, and it introduces not a single idea. Burr’s enigmatic politics and schemes are warp and woof of all written history of the era. But Theodosia? Here, Brands lets us down. For example, it’s clear from her letters that she abetted her father by egging him on in many of his schemes instead of cautioning him against acting unwisely. What could have been an insightful dual portrait is instead an insubstantial, if pleasing, work. Illus. (May)