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Burr, Hamilton, and JeffersonA Study in Character$

Roger G. Kennedy

Print publication date: 2000

Print ISBN-13: 9780195140552

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195140552.001.0001

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(p.389) Appendix: Biases and Apologies

(p.389) Appendix: Biases and Apologies

Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson
Oxford University Press

Herewith the promised statement of the biases brought to this conversation, biases arising, as most people's do, from my experience. Foremost among them is a sympathy for losers and for the underappreciated. One friendly reader has suggested that my treatment of winners and the excessively celebrated is symmetrically unsympathetic. It is true that my ancestors transmitted to me both curiosity about what lies hidden under the hedge and deep skepticism about what is proclaimed to be truth by the landlord. To their prejudices I have added the rueful consequences of living as I have, enjoying some victories in the course of half a century in or near public life, and smarting from losses described in the press releases of the winners. As journalism has become hastier and lazier, those releases have been so often swallowed whole that I no longer take any comfort whatever in received wisdom, whether as to the past or as to the present, until I have checked it myself.

The library of the big house is seldom constructed around the records left by losers. Losers seldom walk from the battlefield laden with any documents at all, nor do they grow often prosperous enough to select what they wish posterity to believe. The importance of losers' history is not however limited to the recovery of the significant and neglected. The flaming-up of a fresh appreciation of an overshadowed character can illuminate the stage well beyond the shadows that surrounded him or her. “New light” can give dimension, depth, and (p.390) breadth to the winners. In the case of Aaron Burr, most of what he hoped to provide his biographers was lost at sea, with his daughter. He had no close family to guard his papers or his reputation, and his tragic final years reached their nadir as his few archives were entrusted to a hypocritical Tammany sachem, Matthew Davis, who had neither taste nor wit. But there are two volumes, and some microfiches of his Papers, which, like other great archives, provide us documents in their original form—and illumination in the medieval sense, as they are given color and ornament in the form of notes. Likewise, the Papers of Alexander Hamilton, those of the presidential Founders and of that sharp critic of presidents, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, also give great joy.

Many of us who live outside great university towns and travel without steamer trunks full of books make it our practice to cite for each other the most accessible and portable versions of the standard works we use. We do so to direct colleagues—all readers are colleagues—to clean texts, some of which are readily to be found in an airport bookstore. That is why in this work I have often cited someone else's use of a frequently quoted passage of a classic; that way the likelihood increases that a reader who becomes interested in an idea may have another conversation about it. Surely it is foolish to cite an inaccessible original merely to seek to create the appearance of never having read what somebody else has written about an interesting subject. This urge toward accessibity also explains why I have adjusted for clarity to a contemporary reader both spelling and punctuation, except when the original meaning would thereby be obscured.

Once upon a time, we could follow up leads found in a book within the Library of America by repairing to the stacks of the Library of Congress to see what other books generations of readers had thought it wise to place on shelves next to the Big Texts. That epoch is over—I do not dispute the no-browsing rule, but I do lament its causes. Nonetheless, the other mode of checking, going where the action occurred, is still available, though not sufficiently honored in the academy. Academicians are by nature sedentary, seldom honoring field notes so much as footnotes. Literary history needs field notes. That is something one learns as director of the Park Service or of a national history museum. History, to be true, must be grounded in real places and real objects. Curators and rangers have a predilection toward the tangible. They are skeptical of literary sources taken alone, knowing that literature is by definition hearsay. As any police-court reporter knows, (p.391) things in place are the best evidence. In the course of editing the twelve volumes of the Smithsonian's Guide to Historic America and introducing a reissue of volumes of the great old WPA Guides, my desire to touch and to see things in the round became reinforced into a passion for place. I like to know where things happened and what those places are like now.

As to the political biases brought to this work: My mother announced in her ninety-fifth year that she was born a Republican and a Presbyterian and intended to die one. As she passed one hundred, she seemed to be less certain about the Republican part. My father was Roman Catholic, Irish—his father had a fine brogue—and I am sure would today be a Democrat. He was in the sporting goods business, which was a good thing because people hunted and fished all during the depression years of the thirties. The depression was not yet over when I entered military service in the Second World War. I emerged unheroically but with some understanding of those who had been heroes and who, like my best friend, died in their country's service. It is possible that my veneration for those who have put their lives in peril for patriotic reasons biases me unduly toward Aaron Burr and against certain others.

In 1948, I attended my first national political convention, accompanying my college roommate, who was the son of a losing contender for the Republican presidential nomination. After college and during law school, I was elected successively precinct chairman, ward chairman, and district chairman in the Minnesota Republican party, and in 1952 I won my first and last election toward a national office—a primary for the U.S. Congress. In the process I had the experience of campaigning along the Minnesota-Iowa border with two representatives of an earlier age: Dwight D. Eisenhower and a man named Julian Kirby, who had spoken on the same platform with William Jennings Bryan, fifty years earlier, before the age of microphones and deodorants. I confess that more than a decade passed before I came to understand what great men were the Prairie Populists like Bryan; Ignatius Donnelly could give us all instruction in deflationary economics. I admire those who dirty their hands with politics and those who dare to think for themselves.

I was taken to Washington as a lawyer and assistant by Warren E. Burger, then Assistant Attorney General and later Chief Justice. My “political education”—in my friend Harry MacPherson's phrase— (p.392) entered a harsher phase as I was given for review a set of files demonstrating how two administrations disregarded the civil liberties of a number of citizens, including Owen Lattimore. After leaving the Justice Department, I took up journalism for the National Broadcasting Company and various magazines, reporting from the White House and elsewhere, working on television documentaries such as Victory at Sea and a series of my own on network radio. While engaged in all this glamour, I was brooding about justice denied, justice deferred, and the Lattimore case. I went to work on the matter, on my own, and learned the cheerful lesson that truthful writing can improve the likelihood that justice ultimately will be done.

Appalled by the assaults of the 1950s upon constitutional liberty, I joined a group of young lawyers and a great judge, Luther Youngdahl, who stood against the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, survived the defection of a group of craven bleacher-sitters, and won. An eminent and prosperous Washington lawyer—and mariner—who was then Youngdahl's clerk has recently suggested that I should warn my readers of my lack of enthusiasm for cloistered critics who rat on those who put themselves at risk. Done!

During the same period, the mid-1950s, I took a second assignment in the Eisenhower administration, working under Oveta Culp Hobby toward the delivery of the Salk polio vaccine. Thereafter, I returned to NBC for brief celebrity followed by abrupt dismissal: Management changed; I was an insignificant and unintended victim. After a stint in regional television, I got outrageously lucky and met a rancher's grandchild from the bleakest corner of Texas, who is working on her own book across this room at this instant.

Shortly thereafter, a call came from the Labor Department to become a special assistant to Secretary James P. Mitchell, with an assignment to work on housing for migrant farm workers. They were then kenneled in places mo xre appropriate for farm animals than for people. Harvest of Shame ensued. So did an infuriated response from the Nixon White House, and I was out again. Perhaps I overuse the word “betrayal” as a consequence.

Requiring an occupation, and it being late, I thought, for law or television, I became a banker in St. Paul, Minnesota. I have been recently assured by former customers that I was not a bad one, and it seems so: After a decade, the bank was considerably bigger, and I was chairman of the executive committee and a director. But I was also a (p.393) problem for the management of the holding company. As a redeveloper of portions of the city without “urban renewal,” as a founder of the Guthrie Theater, of which I was the first board chairman, and as a writer of two books about regional history (one of them, Men on a Moving Frontier, was published by Wallace Stegner and Tom Watkins and won a prize), I did not fit. It was also thought strange that I took time off to return on a special assignment to the Nixon administration to work on the creation of the student loan program.

The ceiling to eccentricity seemed impermeable, but, it turned out, there was kindness in the neighborhood. I was asked, one day, by the president of the regional Federal Reserve Bank if it were not true that I would be happier doing something else. So I went to the University of Minnesota to run its foundation, manage its finances, teach, and write—and got lucky again. The ensuing altercations with brokers and bankers whose relationships with the university had been excessively cozy and profitable led to sufficient national notoriety to draw the attention of the greatest leader I have ever known, McGeorge Bundy, then president of the Ford Foundation. Bundy was not perfect. He was wrong on some things. But he took the responsibility for acting on his convictions. Many who criticize him never left the bleachers to get on the field. There's another bias.

Bundy suggested that I come to the foundation as its chief financial officer, sell off the Ford stock, and diversify the consequences. That went well, so I was made vice president for the arts as well—and, implicitly, for the humanities. With the latter franchise we launched the redevelopment process for 42nd Street now unfolding (after a needless delay of twenty years occasioned by the pusillanimity of Mayor Ed Koch). We launched as well the American Literary Classics, as a testimonial to Bundy. When he retired, so did I, or thought so. Earlier, President Carter had asked me to chair a committee about what the National Endowment for the Humanities might do and about the sort of man who should head it. That work reexposed me to public education in the humanities and led me toward the Smithsonian Institution. For fourteen years thereafter, I directed a museum but was free to do other things. The museum had been called the National Museum of History and Technology but operated as the Museum of All Other. We made it a Museum of American History and, I think, something of greater interest. More books came along in the ensuing fourteen years—American Churches; Architecture, Men, Women, and Money; Orders (p.394) from France; Greek Revival America; Rediscovering America; Mission; and Hidden Cities. There were several television series, and a decent financial practice on the side.

I retired from the Smithsonian in 1992. Then, to my surprise—an Indian summer. In 1993, I became director of the National Park Service, transported back to the whole-souled patriotic world of my father's youth before the First World War, amid a corps of men and women who still believe in simple verities like the trusteeship of Mr. Lincoln's “Great Estate”—the land we inherited. The people of the Park Service are remarkably loyal to each other, and they know a great deal about teaching about place in place. Together we first survived a “downsizing” foolishly required by an administration and Congress unwilling to ask the American people to pay for what that nation says it cares about, and then, after 1994, we had to survive attacks by a new Congress possessed by militant ignorance. At the same time, we had to endure the obstructionism of environmental groups lacking any affirmative ideas, and we learned once again the lesson that those who merit the respect of history get off the grandstand and onto the field. When that set of battles was done, however, an educational agenda was being carried forward within an intact system and service. Of that I am proud. And for me, in 1996, there was, for the third—or was it fourth—time, retirement. Which hasn't lasted. I hope it won't.