- The Traumatic Colonel: The Founding Fathers, Slavery, and the Phantasmatic Aaron Burr by Michael J. Drexler, Ed White
MICHAEL J. DREXLER and ED WHITE
New York: New York University Press, 2014
Serving as a referent instead of as an “actual” historical person, Aaron Burr, for Michael Drexler and Ed White, becomes a sign, sometimes indiscernible, of the fears circulating during the early years of the Republic over the issues of slavery and slave insurrection. In The Traumatic Colonel: The Founding Fathers, Slavery, and the Phantasmatic Aaron Burr, Drexler and White present the “thing called Burr” as a slippery signifier that never truly achieves full formulation, always changing and reemerging to varying degrees. However, the “thing called Burr” consistently arises as a representation of America’s racial unconscious. The Founding Fathers, in the authors’ argument, become a constellation that Burr never truly inhabits, [End Page 830] even with repeated attempts by some to place him among Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin. The “thing called Burr” eventually becomes “the cipher it was repeatedly described as being,” not easily fitting into the Founders’ semiotic sphere between 1799 and 1804 and then becoming the “white” embodiment of possible racial upheaval between 1805 and 1807 (9).
Before delving into the way that Burr comes to represent “a coded response to the consolidation of slavery” and becomes “Toussaint [L’Ouverture] in whiteface,” Drexler and White take the time to methodically plot out the mythical construction of the Founders and draw upon novels by Charles Brockden Brown and Tabitha Tenney to lay the groundwork for their position in the final two chapters of The Traumatic Colonel (10). Setting up the Founders in a semiotic framework that compares them with English counterparts, the authors posit that while initially Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton emerge in a manner that shows them as representations of certain traits, they eventually become persons entangled with “sexual and racial components” (40). When the sexual aspects of the Founders begin to emerge (Washington’s childlessness, Franklin’s sexuality, Jefferson’s scandals, and Hamilton’s bastardy) they become intrinsically intertwined with the issue of slavery. Drexler and White then expand the constellation and highlight how the Founders each occupy specific places in regard to the issue of slavery.
After establishing the Founders’ constellation, the authors explore Brown’s Ormond; or, The Secret Witness (1799) and Tenney’s Female Quixotism: Exhibited in the Romantic Opinions and Extravagant Adventures of Dorcasina Sheldon (1801), paving the way for their in-depth discussion in the latter part of the book on Burr as “the kernel of the Real” that pushes upon the unconscious of society. Drexler and White read Brown’s novel as a predictor of Burr’s emergence and the multitudinous formulations of the “thing called Burr” that arose at the turn of the nineteenth century. Zeroing in on specific relationships in Brown’s text, most notably the interactions between Constantia and Ormond, the authors “propose an Africanist presence as the object cause of desire” in the novel (43). Focusing on the presence of “secret witness” in Ormond, they then construct the novel into a symbolic system, as they do with the Founding Fathers, to highlight the underlying role that race plays in the “fantasy structure of republicanism” in the novel as the “secret witness” steps “out of fantasy to become a [End Page 831] social figure,” prophetically anticipating the part it will play during the new Republic’s formative years (74).
By concentrating on the multiple marriage dramas in Tenney’s novel, the authors focus on the black slave Scipio as a tool that sutures the various dramas together, noting that the garden scene between Dorcasina and Scipio serves as the novel’s key moment because of Scipio’s construction as a “paternal surrogate” for Dorcasina and his “credible affection,” not as mere comic relief. For Drexel and White, Dorcasina’s relationship with the slave-owning Lysander serves as a symbolic representation of regional tensions during the period; specifically, they view Lysander in relation to Washington and note that Dorcasina and Betty’s debates on slavery...