Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Town That Made Aaron Burr Cry

FROM 2007

“She refers to a phenomenon of moviegoing which I have called certification. Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.”
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

My mother’s hometown – Chester, South Carolina – was certified in a big way in 1983 when the TV miniseries Chiefs, starring Wayne Rogers, Billy Dee Williams, and Charlton Heston was filmed there. How Chiefs came to be shot in Chester is a little sad, I suppose. Its downtown was so frozen in time and so dead (monument to the Confederate fallen, many vacant storefronts) that one of the few things it was good for was a movie set, easily transformed into a small town in 1930s Georgia. But the unhappy circumstances that made Chester a film location couldn’t dampen the civic pride that comes with certification. Throughout the filming my grandmother got the thrill of rubbing shoulders with movie stars (Percy would have had some fun with that), and when the broadcast actually happened my mother and the diaspora of Chester enjoyed pointing out houses they had been in and locals they used to know. I remember taking pleasure in the locals’ real Southern accents (in contrast to Charlton Heston’s phony one). For a couple of years I drove around with a bumpersticker my grandmother had sent:   “Chester, South Carolina: Hollywood of the South.” I displayed it ironically, of course, but I suspected that it had been sent to me at least partially out of a proud sense of certification.

But Chester had been certified long before 1983, and by a much more exalted bestower of Somewhereness than Charlton Heston could ever be.

In 1806, Aaron Burr – former Vice President, scheming politico, killer of Alexander Hamilton – was being brought east under guard to Virginia to be tried for treason. It was said that he had been at the head of a conspiracy to start his own kingdom in the West. In Chester, Burr took the desperate step of jumping from his horse near a rowdy tavern, announcing his identity and pleading with the locals to liberate him from his guards (perhaps he was counting on the fact that his son-in-law was a member of a powerful South Carolina family to win him some favor). The locals did nothing. A burly guard pulled his guns on Burr and ordered him to get back on his horse. Burr refused, whereupon the guard grabbed Burr (who was a little guy) and threw him back in the saddle. They rode on to Virginia. The entire incident was over in a couple of minutes.

A throwaway moment from U.S. history, to be sure, but an enduring big deal to some Chestrians. On Chester’s main street (“up on the hill,” as Mom says) you can find the “Aaron Burr Rock.” It is shaped like a potato, about three feet long and two feet high. It is supposedly the rock that Burr leapt upon to make his fruitless appeal. As a small boy I saw it for the first time and read the inscription, a brief recounting of the incident. A small monument to a sorry episode in the life of the founding rogue. Before I ever knew of Walker Percy’s concept of certification, Chester had been certified in my eyes by the existence of that rock and the historical scene it commemorated.

Rock-inspired Burr fascination led me to read a good deal about Burr over the years, including the eponymous novel Burr, Gore Vidal’s attempt at historical redemption through historical fiction. In that book Burr comes off more as a Voltaireian charmer than a James Bond villain in knee pants. The historical Burr was indeed an interesting fellow. Did you know that he may have been our first great male feminist?  He regarded women as the intellectual equals of men, and made sure his daughter had as rich an education as any well-to-do young man of the day.  The whole arc of his life is worthy of study, but the rock incident is still the root of my fascination. When I come across a Burr biography I haven’t seen before I go right to the letter “C” in the index. Like a gossip freak who must buy every tabloid to get six different takes on Paris Hilton in jail, I’ve got to know how the Chester incident is portrayed. When I find Burr’s bold appeal - “I am Aaron Burr, under military arrest, and claim the protection of the civil authorities!” – the little town of Chester is certified all over again for me. It becomes a Somewhere.

All the biographies have the story essentially the same, but with a few added details, including this poignant fact: Evidently, getting snubbed by the rabble of Chester brought the famously self-possessed Aaron Burr to tears.

This is James Parton’s 1864 account of the aftermath of the Chester incident:

Burr was wild with excitement. The indifference of the people, the personal indignity he had suffered, the thought of his innocence of any violation of the law, the triumph his enemies were about to have over him, all rushed upon his mind, and, for a minute, unmanned him. Perkins used to say that, when the party halted, he found his prisoner in a flood of tears, and that the man who led his horse, touched by the spectacle of fallen greatness, was also crying.

Surely Parton is taking some liberties there in what he claims to know about the inner life of his subject. Milton Lomask’s 1982 version of the story (from his monumental two volume biography) is stripped of melodrama, as befits the restrained approach of a twentieth century historian: “Puzzled spectators watched as the convoy cantered on. Burr was weeping. Malone, sensing his frustration, wept too.”

Buckner F. Melton (2001) plays up the physically humiliating nature of the incident:

Perkins instantly drew his pistols, and a second later he was next to Burr, ordering him back in the saddle. "I will not!" shouted Burr. The brawny backwoodsman dropped his pistols, picked up the little New Yorker, and threw him onto the horse like a sack of potatoes. Then came one of the very few times, maybe the only time, when Aaron Burr lost control. Tears sprang to his eyes for moment - but only for a moment - and then the trek resumed.

And this summer we have a brand new Burr biography, Fallen Founder, by Nancy Isenberg. Her announced purpose is to rehabilitate Burr, to reveal him as a potentially brilliant statesman who was undone by ruthless enemies in his own time and biased historians in our time. Here is her account of what happened on that fateful day in 1806:

As the party reached Chester, South Carolina, Burr jumped from his horse. He called out to a group of men, urging them to fetch the local magistrate. He begged them for protection, claiming he was being held without proper authority. Perkins, a large man, dismounted and forcefully threw Burr back in the saddle. Then the party quickly rode out of town.

No tears! What a shame. I don’t know what her motivation might have been for leaving them out. Gore Vidal, the most famous Burr apologist, left the entire Chester incident out of his novel. Instead, his fictional Burr reports that he was the subject of several “rustic ovations” as he was led a prisoner through South Carolina. Maybe tears don’t sort well with the jaunty Burr that his defenders admire. I like the crying. I prefer my Burr “unmanned.” The ardent seeker of fame has landed in ignominy from which he’ll never escape. He has bottomed out. If he didn’t know it before Chester, he knows it now.

You’ll notice that the rock itself doesn’t make any of the accounts. That’s not surprising. But for me it will always be central to the story. And history works in strange ways. In the very moment that Burr was crying over lost glory, some enterprising Chestrians were probably sizing up the rock and thinking, “We really ought to save this thing.” They did, and knowing the uses the rock would ultimately be put to might have comforted Burr in his moment of anguish. Mom tells me that when she was in high school, the Aaron Burr Rock was where bad boys went to smoke.

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