The Traumatic Colonel

The Founding Fathers, Slavery, and the Phantasmatic Aaron Burr

288 pages

6 figures, 3 tables

July, 2014

ISBN: 9781479871674



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Michael J. Drexler is Associate Professor of English at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.  He is editor of Leonora Sansay’s Secret History; or The Horrors of St. Domingo and Laura and co-editor of Haiti and the Early US: Histories, Textualities, Geographies.

All books by Michael J. Drexler

Ed White is Pierce Butler Associate Professor of American literature at Tulane University in New Orleans. He is the author of The Backcountry and the City: Colonization and Conflict in Early America, co-editor, with Michael J. Drexler, of Beyond Douglass: Essays in Early African-American Literature, and editor of Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s Modern Chivalry.

All books by Ed White

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.


  • “Not everyone will agree with Drexler and White’s take on the fantasy structure that underlies the history of the early Republic.  But readers will want to reckon with the force of their analysis that unpacks the rich tangle of national semiotics. In their reevaluation of the mythologies of the Revolution, the authors prove as every bit as vexatious as the core figure of their study, the notorious Aaron Burr.”

    —Russ Castronovo, author of Propaganda 1776: Secrets, Leaks, and Revolutionary Communications in Early America

  • "By considering how both neglected and familiar literary materials 'propose an Africanist presence as the object cause of desire,' White and Drexler expand existing notions of the contours of early American studies. In so doing, they provocatively decode the ways in which the 'Founders' functioned as a system of structuring fictions for the nascent Republic. The Traumatic Colonel is one of the most innovative interventions into our sense of early US cultural development in quite some time. It will have a major impact on the field, and profoundly shape work written in its wake."

    —Duncan Faherty, author of Remodeling the Nation

  • "The Traumatic Colonel is a significant and unique contribution to early US studies, deftly synthesizing the recent historiography on the political economy of slavery in the construction of the US hemispheric empire. Innovative and original, White and Drexler locate Aaron Burr as the symbolic pivot for the representations that emerge politically around the repression of slavery."

    —Dana Nelson, author of Bad for Democracy

  • "Studies of early America should be emboldened by Drexler and White’s attempt to approach questions of racial violence from such a refreshingly idiosyncratic angle.” 

    American Historical Review

  • “In The Traumatic Colonel, Michael J. Drexler and Ed White present a series of related essays on the subject of the ‘Phantasmatic Aaron Burr’ as a prophylactic for our ill-advised attraction to what the authors call ‘Founders Chic.’”

    The Journal of Southern History