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The life of the Founding Fathers' black sheep

A portrait of Aaron Burr in 1802 by John Vanderlyn. A portrait of Aaron Burr in 1802 by John Vanderlyn. (New York Historical Society)

Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, By Nancy Isenberg, Viking, 540 pp., illustrated $29.95

In historian Gordon Wood's 2006 collection of essays on the Founding Fathers, "Revolutionary Characters," a surprise entry -- after Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and the other usual members of that pantheon -- is Aaron Burr.

Acknowledging that Burr is "not normally considered one of the founders," Wood writes that he includes him by way of "contrast," since his difference from them is what "makes him interesting."

Alone among them, it was Burr who was tried for treason, killed one of the others in a duel, and left no body of writing on constitutional issues such as, say, "The Federalist Papers."

Now, in a sterling biography, "Fallen Founder," Nancy Isenberg presents a Burr who was "a man of possibilities, a mirror of the energetic young nation" -- as well as a man of great personal charm, attractive to women, and attracted to them.

For Isenberg, a historian at the University of Tulsa, it was his political promise and his personal energy that made Burr not just a contrast to the others, but a threat that led to his fall from the founding fatherhood.

Judging by Isenberg's lively account of Burr's skill as a political organizer for Jefferson in New York in the 1800 presidential campaign -- voter "IDs," a get-out-the-vote operation -- that threat was a real one. It motivated Hamilton's attacks on Burr, which ultimately led to the fateful duel in July 1804.

Isenberg provides a firm-handed discussion of "the notion of a 'Burr Conspiracy,' " the most critical event -- perhaps even more than the Hamilton duel -- in understanding Burr.

Between late 1805 and early 1806, after Burr's term as Jefferson's vice president ended (after the duel there would be no second term), "rumors [began] to swirl" about his activities in the western territories. Burr was indeed considering something -- Isenberg uses the word "filibuster," in the original meaning of a private military action in a foreign country -- perhaps taking advantage of tensions along the western frontier to raise an army and seize Mexican territory or, as his political enemies would have it, to set up an independent nation west of the Mississippi, even, at the most extreme, to seize power in Washington.

Jefferson, reacting to rumors that Burr was gathering an army, ordered him arrested. Charged with treason, Burr was brought to trial in Richmond before Supreme Court Justice John Marshall.

After an initial inquiry, Marshall ruled that while there was probable cause that Burr had organized a filibuster against Mexico, "treason may be machinated in secret, but it can be perpetuated only in the open day and in the eye of the world." There was no evidence that Burr had actually gathered an army, and "an invisible army is not an instrument of war."

Jefferson "fumed" when he learned of Marshall's ruling but took advantage of an opportunity to bring an indictment if the prosecution could collect better evidence. Isenberg describes the ensuing trial that summer as "the greatest spectacle in the short history of the republic." It ended in acquittal, as did a subsequent trial on charges of attempting a filibuster.

Isenberg divides the blame for these events between Jefferson and Burr. Why, she asks, didn't Jefferson "confront Burr in person" when he first heard rumors of Burr's activities? And why didn't Burr tell Jefferson of his plans, or realize "that an unauthorized filibuster" that could make him a national hero "would [not] be welcomed" by the politically "thin-skinned" Jefferson?

So what is the revisionist judgment? Try as hard as one might, it is difficult to consider Burr, except as a courtesy, as a Founding Father of the bewigged variety. The better image is suggested by Isenberg's use of the word "filibuster" to describe his western activities. Consider him, then, an adventurer in a time when great adventures beckoned.

Michael Kenney is a freelance writer living in Cambridge.