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American Emperor: Aaron Burr's…

American Emperor: Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America (2011)

by David O. Stewart

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This book takes a close look at Aaron Burr's scheming to create a new career for himself in the American West of the early 1800s. The core canvas of the book runs from Burr's notorious duel with Alexander Hamilton in the summer of 1804 to the end of Burr's trial for treason in November 1807. Burr had a much longer life, on both ends; this is not the biography to read for that. Instead, it offers a close study of the people Burr met, the multiple and mutually exclusive plots he hatched, and the Jefferson Administration's efforts to punish him after the conspiracy unraveled.

Burr emerges as a fascinating figure - cultured, smart, bold, perpetually attracted to women, persuasive in speech, but sorely lacking in judgment. From the vantage point of later American history, it's a fortunate thing that his plans fell apart. But in this telling, Burr seems more born in the wrong time than attracted to treachery for its own sake. Burr's scheme to break western territories free from a distant and disinterested East Coast government depended on intrigue with foreign governments - a clearly disloyal act - but the generation of Revolutionary leaders had done worse (with respect to British authority) in their time. Alexander Hamilton was in Burr's generation, but by dint of incredibly hard work and brilliance vaulted into the front rank of political figures in the 1790s; Burr didn't blossom until later, by which time his temperament was poorly suited to the moment. It's curious to wonder, if Burr had been born ten or twenty years previously, what other roles he might have played in the Revolution and early Republic.

In other respects, Burr's scheme to provoke a war with Spain foreshadowed more successful invasions by Andrew Jackson (before he ran for US president) and even later, the filibusters, who tried to launch private military expeditions into California, Central America, and the Caribbean. Many of the filibusters - like Burr - came from privileged backgrounds, and like Burr, they failed too, though they generally got farther than he did. ( )
  bezoar44 | Jul 23, 2016 |
A difficult read. Normally I enjoy historical non-fiction quite a bit and do a lot of reading of this genre - but this book was just difficult to get through. Not sure if it was the author's style, or just the fact that there is a limited amount of journal or other time period material about Burr that writing a book about him is tough. And apparently that is the way that Burr wanted it, purposely having destroyed most of his own writings so history could not judge him. How ironic, that history has had such a hard time judging him that no firm conclusion can be made - it would be great if he could be judged either one way or the other (traitor/non-traitor) - but he wanted to be sure he was not judged negatively... ( )
  highlander6022 | Mar 16, 2016 |
Very well written narrative history, focusing on Burr's attempt to invade Mexico, or seize New Orleans, or raise the West in rebellion, depending on which story the prosecutors were trying to pin on him ;-). The book is mainly concerned with Burr's enterprise after the Hamilton duel, but also covers the various legal battles afterwords, and does spend a couple of chapters covering Burr's later life. By limiting the scope of the work, the book goes in great detail concerning the conspiracy and preparations for the aborted adventure. Well worth the read. ( )
  jztemple | Sep 26, 2013 |
If remembered at all today, the nation's third vice-president, Aaron Burr, is known for his infamous and deadly duel with Alexander Hamilton. It may be during the years immediately following the duel, though, when Burr made his audacious attempt at immortality, attempting to create a second independent nation on the American continent. David O. Stewart attempts to unravel the intrigue and murky alliances behind this in "American Emperor: Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America."

After fatally shooting Hamilton, Burr, who had been added to the 1800 Jefferson ticket in return for providing the support of key New York delegates, was unceremoniously replaced as the Vice-Presidential candidate in the 1804 election. Sensing that his future political career would be greatly hampered, both by Thomas Jefferson's thinly veiled obstruction and the rather unexpected public disgust over the duel and its deadly outcome, Burr looked for new leadership opportunities elsewhere.

Recognizing the frustrations that many in the western territories, including the newly acquired city of New Orleans, had toward the federal government, Burr attempted to inflame attitudes toward separation from the United States. He also considered the possibility of conquering or leading a rebellion in the Spanish territories of Florida and Mexico. In all of these scenarios, Burr imagined that he would lead any newly created nation.

Trading on his stature as a previous vice-president and especially on his personal charm and charisma, Burr tried to develop key relationships with people who could fund or support such efforts, both in the western American territories and in foreign governments. From these associations, Burr attempted to procure weapons, gunboats, and a small army, ostensibly to take control of New Orleans and then proceed from there. While the expedition that ultimately formed from this effort was paltry compared to the bloated promises made by Burr to prospective compatriots, it attracted the attention of Jefferson's government and eventually led to Burr's arrest and trial for treason.

Stewart, a lawyer turned author who has previously offered excellent accounts of the Constitutional Convention and the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson, is at his best when describing the various legal proceedings against Burr, especially the treason trial overseen by Chief Justice John Marshall in Virginia. From the often contradictory evidence -- some introduced at the trial, some discovered elsewhere, he pieces together Burr's overlapping, and increasingly far-fetched, efforts to build another American nation that he could personally govern.

Unfortunately, this book is not as strong as Stewart's other efforts because he overlooks a key part of the story. As told, Burr seems to be a rather bloviating fool, and it is difficult to imagine that he could pose any threat with his fanciful dreams. However, the western territories of the United States were a unique place in the first half of the 19th Century, where big talk often directly led to big accomplishments and where fame and fortunes were usually made as a result of many types of speculation. In this environment, Burr's ideas were not so fanciful, but potentially realizable. However, Stewart can't quite explain why and how certain men were attracted by Burr's dreams. Only in a brief concluding thread, where Stewart suggests that Burr identified certain impulses a generation or two early, does he hint at this favorable context for Burr's insurrectionist talk.

Still, Stewart has done a good job unraveling the chronology and personal motivation of Burr's western adventure, which he describes with clarity and with an eye toward some of the drama in the story -- including the ways in which the impish Burr seems to get away with all sorts of questionable things. While not the full story, it is good telling of key parts of the story. ( )
  ALincolnNut | Jun 12, 2013 |
An entertaining popular history of one of the more bizarre episodes in the history of the United States, Stewart examines in extended detail the efforts of Aaron Burr to recoup his fortunes in the wake of the personal disaster that was his duel with Alexander Hamilton and which covered a spectrum of schemes between spearheading a filibustering expedition against Spanish possessions in North America to shaking down Pres. Jefferson for a new role in the administration. The fact of the matter is that American tensions with the Spanish government of Carlos V provided an environment in which Burr could spin his intrigues with men also interested in exploiting the situation.

How much of this was merely a confidence scheme that went awry is almost besides the point, in that Burr ultimately wound up before Chief Justice John Marshall, a piece in the institutional and political conflict between Marshall and Jefferson, further burnishing Marshall's reputation and adding to the law governing the rights of U.S. citizens when issues of national security are in play. Stewart's background as a lawyer is invaluable here, as he dissects the realities of 19th century U.S. legal practice, and the defects in the case the U.S. government brought against Burr and his co-conspirators.

The weakness of this book is that Stewart admits that some of his documentation in regards to the intentions of Pres. Jefferson is not as inclusive as it could be, as to a large degree he's depending on the published papers of the president, and that series has not reached the period in question. One does wonder why Jefferson waited so long to act against Burr, and why he was willing to tolerate leaving the dubious personality that was Gen. James Wilkinson in a sensitive position, key elements in the whole story. Though by the end of it Jefferson was no longer so positive about the virtues of secession!

The final irony of the story is that Burr survived long enough to witness the establishment of the Texas Republic, and to feel as though he was a prophet before his time. ( )
  Shrike58 | Sep 28, 2012 |
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Traces the career of the third U.S. vice president and would-be secession leader, discussing his acrimonious relationship with Thomas Jefferson; his ambitious vision of expansion; and his historical, self-defended trial for treason.

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