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The Traumatic Colonel

The Traumatic Colonel: The Founding Fathers, Slavery, and the Phantasmatic Aaron Burr

Michael J. Drexler
Ed White
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    The Traumatic Colonel
    Book Description:

    In American political fantasy, the Founding Fathers loom large, at once historical and mythical figures. InThe Traumatic Colonel, Michael J. Drexler and Ed White examine the Founders as imaginative fictions, characters in the specifically literary sense, whose significance emerged from narrative elements clustered around them. From the revolutionary era through the 1790s, the Founders took shape as a significant cultural system for thinking about politics, race, and sexuality. Yet after 1800, amid the pressures of the Louisiana Purchase and the Haitian Revolution, this system could no longer accommodate the deep anxieties about the United States as a slave nation.Drexler and White assert that the most emblematic of the political tensions of the time is the figure of Aaron Burr, whose rise and fall were detailed in the literature of his time: his electoral tie with Thomas Jefferson in 1800, the accusations of seduction, the notorious duel with Alexander Hamilton, his machinations as the schemer of a breakaway empire, and his spectacular treason trial. The authors venture a psychoanalytically-informed exploration of post-revolutionary America to suggest that the figure of Burr was fundamentally a displaced fantasy for addressing the Haitian Revolution. Drexler and White expose how the historical and literary fictions of the nation's founding served to repress the larger issue of the slave system and uncover the Burr myth as the crux of that repression. Exploring early American novels, such as the works of Charles Brockden Brown and Tabitha Gilman Tenney, as well as the pamphlets, polemics, tracts, and biographies of the early republican period, the authors speculate that this flourishing of political writing illuminates the notorious gap in U.S. literary history between 1800 and 1820.

    eISBN: 978-1-4798-8816-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VIII)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. IX-X)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. XI-XII)
  4. Burrology—Extracts
    (pp. XIII-XXVIII)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    In November 1807, six years into retirement from the presidency, John Adams spelled out for his regular correspondent Benjamin Rush his thoughts about the tremendous and mysterious popularity of George Washington. He ventured to outline ten qualities that explained Washington’s “immense elevation above his fellows”: his “handsome face”; his height; his “elegant form”; his grace of movement; his “large, imposing fortune”; his Virginian roots (“equivalent to five talents,” he added parenthetically); “favorable anecdotes” about his earlier years as a colonel; “the gift of silence”; his “great self-command”; and finally the silence of his admirers about his flaws, particularly his bad...

  6. 1 The Semiotics of the Founders
    (pp. 15-41)

    Where did (or do) the Founding Fathers come from?

    There are two default answers that seem to prevail. The first understands the elevation of the Founders as a natural phenomenon, the result of some determinable combination of moral or social complexity, political superiority, and/or practical efficacy. Thus, we remember Thomas Jefferson because of his leadership of the Democratic Party, his authorship of the Declaration of Independence, the hallmarks of his presidency, his exceptional intellect, his tortured grappling with slavery, and so on. Or we commemorate George Washington because of his military leadership, his combination of virtues, his special status as...

  7. 2 Hors Monde, or the Fantasy Structure of Republicanism
    (pp. 42-73)

    As we showed in the previous chapter, the symbolic positions of the Founders were generated relationally. Though the structure has a certain (uncanny) coherence, each generative pair responds to a preceding pair only to reveal yet another iteration of conflict, a difference for which no synthesizing solution is readily available. The machinery of fantasy thus continues to rumble. For Jacques Lacan, this is the function of desire: it is the incessant movement around that minimal difference between a set of available options. Lacan named this minimal difference “objecta,” or the kernel of the Real. To this concept, we owe...

  8. 3 Female Quixotism and the Fantasy of Region
    (pp. 74-101)

    InOrmond, Brockden Brown explored the fantasy structure generated under republicanism with the explication of the figure of the secret witness, which there designated an external—or more precisely extimate—position from which subjects could unconsciously imagine themselves being seen behaving just as their idealization of self ought to behave.Ormond’s fascinating achievement is to imagine the structural necessity of the secret witness stepping out of fantasy to become a social figure. While still a figure whose ideational content is obscured by an overabundance of associations—Ormond signifies wealth, radical sexuality, conspiratorial manipulation, and doubling—he occupies the position of...

  9. 4 Burr’s Formation, 1800–1804
    (pp. 102-134)

    We turn now to the moment when that thing called Aaron Burr emerged on the scene of US politics, its coordinates so well mapped and anticipated by the likes of Charles Brockden Brown and Tabitha Tenney. We must resist several historicist impulses here—for instance, giving the story of how Burr’s life and career unfolded, bringing him to the vice presidency, or the political, “behind-the-scenes” narrative that reveals the true machinations the public could not perceive. This is particularly true with our somewhat arbitrary starting point, the election of 1800. It is all too tempting to immerse oneself immediately in...

  10. 5 Burr’s Deployment, 1804–1807
    (pp. 135-167)

    Between 1800 and mid-1804, the symbolic system of the Founders worked to process Aaron Burr, and in its failure to do so, suddenly, overtly racialized Burr, who thereafter became a displacement of the phantasmatic challenges posed by Toussaint L’Ouverture. The ultimate expression of this was the so-called Burr Conspiracy, which occupied the US press from 1805 through its anticlimactic conclusion in 1807. The chaotic components of this conspiracy have been assessed and evaluated by a host of Burrologists determined to find out whether a conspiracy existed and what Burr was actually doing. But, as with the Founders more generally, it...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 168-180)

    Apart from our reading of Burr’s symptomatic significance at this time as one of the most important displacements of the Haitian Revolution already coded through Toussaint L’Ouverture, we have been concerned to explore and foreground alternative phantasmatic experiences of history. In other words, rather than examine the relationship between some kind of historical reality and a secondary literary reflection, we have wanted to trouble that relationship, to look at the distortions of history as imaginative and the tensions of literary expression as diagnostically illuminating. If scholarship has traditionally assumed a real-life Burr distorted by secondary imaginative adornments, it has missed...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 181-200)
  13. Index
    (pp. 201-206)
  14. About the Authors
    (pp. 207-207)