Although a Federalist, and, as he described himself, “an admirer of General Hamilton, and a partisan with him in politics,” he accepted a retainer from Burr’s friends in 1807, and attended his trial in Richmond, but more in the capacity of an observer of the scene than a lawyer. He did not share the prevalent opinion of Burr’s treason, and regarded him as a man so fallen as to be shorn of the power to injure the country, one for whom he could feel nothing but compassion. That compassion, however, he received only from the ladies of the city, and the traits of female goodness manifested then sunk deep into Irving’s heart. Without pretending, he says, to decide on Burr’s innocence or guilt, “his situation is such as should appeal eloquently to the feelings of every generous bosom. Sorry am I to say the reverse has been the fact: fallen, proscribed, pre-judged, the cup of bitterness has been administered to him with an unsparing hand. It has almost been considered as culpable to evince toward him the least sympathy or support; and many a hollow-hearted caitiff have I seen, who basked in the sunshine of his bounty while in power, who now skulked from his side, and even mingled among the most clamorous of his enemies.... I bid him farewell with a heavy heart, and he expressed with peculiar warmth and feeling his sense of the interest I had taken in his fate. I never felt in a more melancholy mood than when I rode from his solitary prison.” This is a good illustration of Irving’s tender-heartedness; but considering Burr’s whole character, it is altogether a womanish case of misplaced sympathy with the cool slayer of Alexander Hamilton.
The knickerbocker period.
Not long after the discontinuance of “Salmagundi,” Irving in connection with his brother Peter projected the work that was to make him famous. At first nothing more was intended than a satire upon the “Picture of New York,” by Dr. Samuel Mitchell, just then published. It was begun as a mere burlesque upon pedantry and erudition, and was well advanced, when Peter was called by his business to Europe, and its completion was fortunately left to Washington. In his mind the idea expanded into a different conception. He condensed the mass of affected learning, which was their joint work, into five introductory chapters,—subsequently he said it would have been improved if it had been reduced to one, and it seems to me it would have been better if that one had been thrown away,—and finished “A History of New York,” by Diedrich Knickerbocker, substantially as we now have it. This was in 1809, when Irving was twenty-six years old.