Burr (novel)

Burr (1973), by Gore Vidal, is a historical novel that challenges the traditional founding-fathers iconography of United States history, by means of a narrative that includes a fictional memoir, by Aaron Burr, in representing the people, politics, and events of the U.S. in the early nineteenth century.[1] It was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1974.

Cover of the first edition
AuthorGore Vidal
CountryUnited States
SeriesNarratives of Empire
GenreHistorical novel
PublisherRandom House
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages430 pp
LC ClassPZ3.V6668 Bu
Followed byLincoln (novel) 

Burr is the first book of the seven-novel series, Narratives of Empire, with which Gore Vidal examined, explored, and explained the imperial history of the United States; chronologically, the six other historical novels of the series are Lincoln (1984), 1876 (1976), Empire (1987), Hollywood (1990), Washington, D.C. (1967), and The Golden Age (2000).[2]


Burr (1973) portrays the eponymous anti-hero as a fascinating and honorable gentleman, and portrays his contemporary opponents as mortal men; thus, George Washington is an incompetent military officer, a general who lost most of his battles; Thomas Jefferson is a fey, especially dark and pedantic hypocrite who schemed and bribed witnesses in support of a false charge of treason against Burr, to whom he almost lost the presidency in the election of 1800; and Alexander Hamilton is a bastard-born, over-ambitious opportunist whose rise in high politics was by General Washington's hand, until being fatally wounded in the Burr–Hamilton duel (July 11, 1804).

The enmities were established, when, despite Burr's initial victory in the voting, the presidential election of 1800 was a tied vote in the Electoral College, between him and Thomas Jefferson. To break the tied electoral vote, the House of Representatives—dominated by Alexander Hamilton—voted thirty-six times, until they elected Jefferson as the U.S. President, and, by procedural default, named Burr as the U.S. Vice President.[3]

The contemporary story of political intrigue occurs from 1833 to 1840, in the time of Jacksonian democracy, years after the treason trial. The narrator is Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler, an ambitious young man working as a law clerk in Aaron Burr's law firm, in New York City. Charlie Schuyler is not from a politically-connected family, and is ambivalent about politics and about how law is practiced. Hesitant about taking the examination for admission to the bar, Schuyler works as a newspaper reporter, all the while dreaming of becoming a successful writer, so that he can emigrate from the U.S. to Europe.

Important to the intrigues of the plotters are the allegation that Vice President Martin Van Buren is the bastard son of Aaron Burr; the veracity or falsity of that allegation; and its usefulness in high-government politics. Because Van Buren is a strong candidate for the 1836 Presidential Election, his political enemies, especially a newspaper publisher, enlist Schuyler to glean personally embarrassing facts about Van Buren from the aged Burr, a septuagenarian man in 1834.

Tempted with the promise of a fortune in money, Schuyler thinks about writing a pamphlet proving that Vice President Van Buren is an illegitimate son of Burr, and so end Van Buren's political career. Schuyler is torn between honoring Burr, whom he admires, and betraying him to gain much money, and so take the woman he loves to a new future in Europe. At story's end, Charlie Schuyler has learned more than he had expected about Aaron Burr, about Martin Van Buren, and about his own character, as a man in the world, as Charles Schuyler.[4]

As in the historical novels Messiah (1954), Julian (1964), and Creation (1981), the colonial people, their times, and the places of Burr (1973) are presented through the memoirs of a character in the tale. Throughout the story, the narrative presents thematic parallels to The Memoirs of Aaron Burr (1837), co-written with Matthew Livingston Davis.[5] Many of the incidents of story and plot in Burr are historical: Thomas Jefferson was a slaver who fathered children with some of his slave women; the Continental Army General James Wilkinson was a double agent for the Kingdom of Spain; Alexander Hamilton regularly was challenged to a duel, by most every political opponent who felt slandered by him; and Aaron Burr was tried and acquitted of treason against the U.S., consequent to the Burr Plot (1807) for an empire in the south-western territories of the country.[6]

In the "Afterword" to Burr, the novelist Vidal said that, in most instances, the actions and words of the historical characters represented are based upon their personal documents and historical records.[7] Moreover, besides challenging the traditionalist, mythical iconography of the Founding Fathers of the United States, the most controversial aspect of the novel Burr is that Alexander Hamilton gossiped that Burr and his daughter, Theodosia, practiced incest—which character assassination led to their mortal duel; killing Hamilton ended the public life of Aaron Burr.[8]

Narrative frame

The novel comprises two story-lines. One gives us Charles Schuyler's personal and professional perspectives on early mid-nineteenth-century New York, and his coming to know the titular character in his later, quieter years. The other gives us, by means of Burr's recollections as read and recorded by Schuyler, his experience of late eighteenth century British colonial life and the independence struggle or "Revolution" (in the section called 1833); and most substantially, his experience of life in post-Independence New York and his participation in the political development of the American Republic (through the main section of the novel, 1834), thus:


  • Chapter Ten: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — One
  • Chapter Eleven: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Two
  • Chapter Twelve: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Three, and Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Four
  • Chapter Thirteen: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Five
  • Chapter Fourteen: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Six
  • Chapter Fifteen: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Seven
  • Chapter Eighteen: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Eight, and Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Nine
  • Chapter Nineteen: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Ten
  • Chapter Twenty: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Eleven
  • Chapter Twenty-one: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Twelve
  • Chapter Twenty-five: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Thirteen
  • Chapter Twenty-seven: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Fourteen
  • Chapter Twenty-eight: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Fifteen
  • Chapter Thirty-two: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Sixteen
  • Chapter Thirty-four: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Seventeen
  • Chapter Thirty-six: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Eighteen
  • Chapter Two: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Nineteen
  • Chapter Five: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Twenty
  • Chapter Seven: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Twenty-one


  1. Burr (Magill’s Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
  2. Vidal, Gore. (2006) Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir, 1964 to 2000, p. 123.
  3. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Fifth Edition (1993) p. 401.
  4. Burr (Magill’s Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
  5. Aaron Burr, Matthew Livingston Davis, Memoirs of Aaron Burr, Volume 1, 1837.
  6. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Fifth Edition (1993) p. 401.
  7. Vidal, Gore. Burr (1973), p. 429–30
  8. Burr (Magill’s Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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