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Our use of the term “integrity” reminds us that for [the founders] a person of character manifested a harmonious wholeness out of which correct behavior ensued. Character did not necessarily require goodness of heart, nor was a person of character expected to be generous. Generosity expressed something beyond character, a quality the eighteenth century admired and called “liberality.” After 1800 or so, as too much amiability or generosity came to provoke apprehension, “liberality” fell from fashion. Saving (a bourgeois virtue) replaced benign expenditure (a characteristic of feudal chieftains), and reinvestment replaced potlatch.

As Burr learned to his sorrow, too much liberality became a sign of bad character. This transition can be observed in what was said of Burr by Hamilton, by Hamiltonians, by Jefferson, and by a host of others. Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all died bankrupt after lavish expenditure upon their own comfort and upon expensive country houses, in the English fashion. While Jefferson was generous to his friends, Burr was munificent. This was one of the ways in which he was becoming an anachronism.

Bankruptcy had been commonplace among gentlemen and merchants in the founding generation. Financial mismanagement carried nothing of the onus it carries today, nor did improvidence in providing for oneself. Gentlemen were not thought lacking in character merely because they left to their heirs only debts. The emergent century, however, brought with it, after the economic confusions of the 1790s, a saving-and-investing society, looking forward to Ebenezer Scrooge rather than backward to Charles James Fox.

Aaron Burr had no place in a society in which character was defined among the middle class as abstinence from expenditure they could afford, and among the workers as a willingness not to ask for more than they might then spend. The sphincter replaced the open palm as the preferred portion of a good citizen’s anatomy.

“Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character” by Roger G. Kennedy

“The sphincter replaced the open palm as the preferred portion of a good citizen’s anatomy.” 

Damn, that’s an incredible sentence. And it shines an uncomfortable light on the values that we continue to espouse today

This dichotomy between spenders and savers casts an interesting light onto “Pride and Prejudice.” The royals that are alluded to in that story are described in terms of their corruption and profligacy. While Darcy’s sober morality certainly carries elements of “sphincter-ness.” 

It’s odd to think of Aaron Burr as contemporaneous with Jane Austen. But while in exile Burr spent a year in England, only a couple of years before Austen began publishing her novels. 

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