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The Traumatic Colonel

The Founding Fathers, Slavery, and the Phantasmatic Aaron Burr

Michael J. Drexler

Publication Year: 2014

In American political fantasy, the Founding Fathers loom large, at once historical and mythical figures. In The 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.

Published by: NYU Press

Title page, Editor page, Copyright, Dedication, Quotes

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

Portions of this project were presented at the Bucknell University English Department and Faculty Colloquium, the University of Florida English Department’s Americanists’ Colloquium, the Aaron Burr Association, Indiana University’s Center for Eighteenth-Century Studies...

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pp. xiii-xxviii

In the case of Mr. Jefferson, there is nothing wonderful; but Mr. Burr’s good fortune surpasses all ordinary rules, and exceeds that of Bonaparte. All the old patriots, all the splendid talents, the long experience, both of federalists and antifederalists, must be subjected...

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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...

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1. The Semiotics of the Founders

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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...

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2. Hors Monde, or the Fantasy Structure of Republicanism

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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...

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3. Female Quixotism and the Fantasy of Region

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pp. 74-101

In Ormond, 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...

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4. Burr’s Formation, 1800–1804

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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...

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5 Burr’s Deployment, 1804–1807

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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...

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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...


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pp. 181-200


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pp. 201-206

About the Authors

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pp. 207

E-ISBN-13: 9781479888160
E-ISBN-10: 1479888168
Print-ISBN-13: 9781479871674
Print-ISBN-10: 1479871672

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2014