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American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America

The story of Aaron Burr is a rattling tale that makes today's political partisanship pale in comparison.

By David Holahan / October 26, 2011

American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America By David O. Stewart Simon & Schuster 432 pp.

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If you feel that our contemporary politics are off the rails, you should read David O. Stewart’s vivid account of 19th-century American machinations: in 1805, the sitting vice president of the United States was under indictment for murder while simultaneously presiding over a politically motivated Senate impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, of whom President Thomas Jefferson had grown weary. The cantankerous and overtly partisan judge (sound familiar?) was acquitted in a cakewalk.

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Although Aaron Burr had killed one Founding Father – the Federalist Alexander Hamilton – in a duel in New Jersey, he was warmly welcomed back to Washington by his fellow Republican partisans, including another FF, the President.

Soon, and before leaving high office, Burr was offering his covert services to America’s former colonial masters and eventually would hatch a polymorphous scheme to dismember the nation which he previously had served honorably in war and peace. His prime co-conspirator was the highest ranking military officer in the land, General James Wilkinson, who was a secret agent for Spain, had been for years. (He tipped the Spaniards off to Lewis and Clark’s mission).

Feeling better about 2011?

Stewart’s American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America is a rattling tale that takes place in an America which was not fully formed or steady on its feet. Long before the South waxed secessional, both New England and the West (just over the Alleghenies) toyed with notions of separation from the union. Meanwhile, Burr’s career was in tatters. Abandoned by Jefferson after the Chase trial, he was unable to return to his home in New York (where he was wanted for Hamilton’s murder). He had no job, home, or prospects.

But the restless, ambitious, and egotistical Burr was not one to sulk. Rather, he decided to take advantage of America’s multiple geographic personalities and regional resentments. His life would have a second act, come hell or high water. Burr’s “Western Strategy” went like this: he would conspire with fellow disgruntled citizens and foreign nations to conquer and become Emperor of an ill-defined combination of American and Spanish territories, encompassing Florida, perhaps New Orleans and environs, and all of Mexico – or whatever he could cobble together.

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