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.
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.
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.
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.
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" that 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 his 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 when asked. 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.