American Emperor: Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America. By David O. Stewart. (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2011. Pp. xx, 410. $17.99.)
Article first published online: 4 MAR 2014
© 2014 Phi Alpha Theta
Volume 76, Issue 1, pages 142–144, Spring 2014
How to Cite
Ragosta, J. (2014), American Emperor: Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America. By David O. Stewart. (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2011. Pp. xx, 410. $17.99.). Historian, 76: 142–144. doi: 10.1111/hisn.12030_35
- Issue published online: 4 MAR 2014
- Article first published online: 4 MAR 2014
Falling from the “short list of men who could become president,” a bitter Aaron Burr “plunged into talk of insurrection and secession,” contemplating a range of adventures, from filibustering in Mexico, to leading western secession from the United States, to attacking Washington and killing Thomas Jefferson (2, 89). David O. Stewart demonstrates that though Burr failed in those objectives he is still able to capture the imagination. Sifting through contradictory and confusing sources, Stewart shows that the idea of a “single plan is … a mirage”; the chimerical Burr “expect[ed] that men would follow in any direction he might lead them” (10, 138). Still, once it was clear that there would be no war with Spain, at a minimum, Burr's plans involved the traitorous taking of New Orleans and violating both the Logan and Neutrality Acts (303).
Turning to the treason trials, Stewart's literary and legal talents are on display. Noting that evidence available to historians (particularly foreign archives) was not available to prosecutors, Stewart credits Justice Marshall with making constitutional protections available even to one “as reviled as Aaron Burr.” Yet, though Marshall won the legal battle, Jefferson was confident that the evidence “will satisfy the world, if not the judges” (224). Burr fled to Europe, seeking to resurrect a western adventure (285).
The duplicitous, treasonous General Wilkinson receives a less detailed treatment, but it may be that he is, in fact, a stock figure.
The author handles a mire of evidence well. Still, a breathless conspiracy demanded that the union be on the cusp of dissolution, but Burr's expected army of thousands floating down the Mississippi barely mustered one hundred young, ill-informed men. Once it was clear that Burr would seize New Orleans, support did not melt away, but ran; a “[s]hocked” Andrew Jackson (counted on for several thousand militia) warned Governor Claiborne in New Orleans (175). Perhaps the union was not as fragile as a good yarn would like, or at least Stewart might have engaged that issue. Though Burr's European efforts to revive his plans in 1810 were “delusional,” were they even “barely plausible” in Kentucky in 1806 (288)? As Jefferson wrote, Burr's ambitions were the “most extravagant since the days of Don Quixote” (201).
Similarly, Stewart's initial treatment of Jefferson may be simplistic. Jefferson “froze out his vice president,” ignoring warnings of a western conspiracy, then overreacted to railroad the prosecution (8, 107, 205). Yet, Jefferson's “extraordinarily slow response” was, in part, due to his perception that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton had overreached in the Whiskey Rebellion and may have strengthened the public rejection of disunion (304–305). Although this was not Jefferson's finest performance, and he was “lucky,” perhaps he understood what the Kentucky Gazette predicted: “if [Burr] calculated on withdrawing the affections of the people of the Western States from their government, he will find himself deceived” (305, 109). The irony, Stewart concludes, is that Burr's endeavors “roused unionist sentiments,” including Jefferson's (309).
This is a well-written and insightful popular history.