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.
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Burr’s plans were always somewhat vague and fluid, which helped him tell possible recruits, such as Andrew Jackson, exactly what they wanted to hear. (He reassured Jackson that Jefferson approved of his covert plan to attack Spanish territories from New Orleans). As he does often throughout, Stewart sums it up nicely: “The confusion [over Burr’s plans] has persisted because he had several alternative goals, and because he said so many different things to so many different people. Then he stood before his adventurers at the mouth of the Cumberland and chose not to say what his goal was.” To be fair, Burr was not the only American lusting after Spanish possessions, large chunks of which would fall into the hands of the young nation before mid-century.Skip to next paragraph
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The author, who has written two other compelling works of American history, is that rare commodity: a lawyer who writes well. Consider this: “Money was always a problem for Burr. It bored him, except for the spending of it.” He deploys words like "scapegrace" and "bantling," which should be in more common usage. The complexity of his topic does not inhibit his narrative in the least. He depicts his subject in all his eccentric vainglory. For example, the grand conspirator was a ladies’ man extraordinaire whose frequent dalliances more often involved ladies of the evening, trysts that Burr duly documented in his diary.
As a lawyer, Stewart also brings authoritative analysis to the myriad legal issues that Burr was entangled in throughout, highlighted by the treason trial that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall presided over. If you feel that we live in litigious times, ponder this: Burr had six defense attorneys, one of whose closing statements rambled on for three days (eat your heart out, O.J.). The reader learns how the wheels of justice rolled 200 years ago. For example, Burr and General Wilkinson had in their possession correspondence between themselves that clearly would have been useful to the prosecution, but they simply declined to produce it. That wouldn’t pass muster today.
While most readers know the broad outlines of the Aaron Burr story, including how he nearly snatched the 1800 presidential election away from Jefferson even though they were running mates, the tale still retains ample suspense. I won’t spoil the ending.
If Burr did his country any service, albeit inadvertent, during his disturbing second act, it was, as Stewart points out, to make Americans ponder more carefully the value of their union, particularly in light of alternatives proffered by the likes of Burr.
David Holahan is a freelance book reviewer in East Haddam, Conn.