Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Founding Father Visits Goethe in Weimar

I had lunch yesterday in the Village with Clark Muenzer. Goethe was one of the subjects of conversation, not surprising since Clark is a Goethe scholar and the incoming president of the Goethe Society of North America. He asked me if I knew that Aaron Burr had visited Goethe in Weimar. As a matter of fact, I did know, having come across that information in Ernst Beutler's article on Goethe, "Von der Ilm zum Susquehanna." Burr, according to Beutler, was the first America that Goethe met face to face, in 1810.

Burr had served with great distinction in several major Revolutionary War battles, yet fell into bitter political rivalry with both Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Burr, while serving as vice president of the U.S. under  Jefferson, shot Hamilton in a duel, after which his star began to fade. His involvement with a land purchase scheme in the Louisiana Purchase territory led to a charge of treason; Jefferson did his best to see that Burr was convicted, but failed. At the time Burr met Goethe, he had been living for two years in Europe, having fled the U.S. to escape his creditors. It was a sad trajectory for this Founding Father, who is mainly known today for the duel with Hamilton. Historians believe that Hamilton, who had brought the pistols, intended to have an unfair advantage over Burr, a plan that backfired, so to speak.

In his own diary Burr wrote on January 4 and 7: "chez Goethe." Goethe also mentioned meeting "Obrist Burr aus Nordamerika" on January 4, and again on the evening of February 10. Beutler writes: "What the two spoke about, or the impression they had of each other, remains unknown."

Burr was an Enlightenment man. As a New York assembly member, he sought to end slavery in the state in 1784. He believed that women were the intellectual equal of men; a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft graced his office. He submitted a bill in the New York State legislature that would have allowed women to vote. Moreover, he was the grandson of the great American theologian Jonathan Edwards. (See this site for more information on Burr.) Yes, one would like to know what he and Goethe talked about. One suspects they spoke in French.

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