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

By David O. Stewart | Simon & Schuster | $30 | 432 pages | 2011

Napoleon once said: “I have plenty of clever generals, but just give me a lucky one.” Besides being one of the greatest legal minds of his age, one-time Vice President and Colonel Aaron Burr clearly possessed an enormous reserve of luck. The indirect comparison with Napoleon is apt: described in his time variously as an “American Napoleon” or this nation’s equal to the Roman conspirator Catiline, Burr is now known only as the man who mortally wounded Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Burr may not have succeeded in his ultimate goal of seizing control of the Louisiana Purchase territory and from there, continuing on to seize Mexico, but as David O. Stewart makes abundantly clear in American Emperor, it was not for want of trying or for lack of drive, talent and energy.

Burr’s course of action in contesting the Jefferson administration at every turn — which he had hitherto served as the nation’s third vice president from 1801 to 1805 — might be seen as being the quintessence of Justice Frankfurter’s aphorism, “It is a fair summary of history to say that the safeguards of liberty have been forged in controversies involving not very nice people.” It also helps remind us that the early years of this nation were marked by dissension and factionalism not that very long after the Constitution’s ratification, leaving aside the pre-ratification grappling between Federalists and Anti-Federalists, the Whiskey Rebellion, and other post-ratification disturbances.

Burr never reduced his goals and motivations to writing, not even to his adored daughter and muse Theodosia, so Stewart — as other historians and Burr biographers — is forced to conjecture as to what they might have been, as well as which passing will-o‘-the-wisp might have taken Burr’s calculating fancy at any given time. What emerges is a remarkable portrait of a driven and intelligent man whose own ego and bitterness with the administration that he formerly served drove him to connive outrageously: with — and against — the Spanish; with the French; with the hated enemy whom he had fought some 20 years earlier, the British; even with the turncoat commanding general of the U.S. Army, James Wilkinson, himself a longtime Spanish spy. In the rogues’ gallery of the “Old Southwest” of 1805-7, nothing was as it seemed, and few could be trusted. In fact, the double-dealing Wilkinson himself was one of many who warned President Jefferson of Burr’s plans, in the hopes of deflecting attention from his own treachery.

All seemed lost when Burr faced trial for treason and violation of the Neutrality Act before none other than Chief Justice John Marshall (a distant cousin of President Jefferson). Yet, Burr — with minimal assistance from other attorneys — represented himself in his own defense. While one may be tempted to ponder the old adage here as to whom one has for a client when one seeks to represent himself or herself in court, that was manifestly not the case with Burr. Despite what would appear to be overwhelming proof of his conspiracy, Burr was able to rebut the accusations with skill and dexterity. Marshall’s decisions in the case helped set the initial precedent for what it means to commit treason, as well as the laws that govern neutrality.

While Burr’s reputation never fully recovered, he lived to the ripe old age of 80. He apparently enjoyed insulting to his dying day the memory of founding fathers Washington (who Burr thought was boring, not very intelligent and entirely under Hamilton’s sway); Madison; his late antagonist Hamilton; and his nemesis Jefferson (a vacillating and lazy “weakling,” in Burr’s book). About the only one of the Framers’ “marble men” for whom Burr held any respect was Benjamin Franklin, for whom the iconoclastic Burr reserved high praise and affection.

Stewart paints a fascinating portrait of this complex and contradictory chameleon of a man, lawyer, soldier and politician. Physically brave — he was, after all, a bona fide Revolutionary War hero — Burr was also akin to Napoleon in the shortness of his stature, as well as having a wide-ranging mind (after his trial, Burr traveled through Europe extensively). Burr possessed incredible charisma, both men and women being captivated by his charm and glowing amber eyes. While having quite an eye for women, Burr nevertheless was a keen proponent of women’s rights. As a token of his respect for her advocacy, Burr prominently displayed a portrait of the English writer and suffragist Mary Wollstonecraft.

Tennesseans will find aspects of Burr’s adventures to be fascinating. Before his arrest on the Natchez Trace in 1807, Burr made various trips to Nashville and down the Cumberland. No less a figure than Andrew Jackson was pulled into Burr’s orbit for a time: Jackson agreed to build flatboats to transport Burr’s forces down the Mississippi, and Burr believed (with good reason) that Jackson would raise three regiments of Tennessee militia to support him in his quixotic quest to seize New Orleans from the Spanish. That one as savvy, tough and seasoned as Jackson would place his trust in Burr has to be one small proof of the mesmerizing effect that Burr worked on numerous citizens of his young nation as well as foreign dignitaries.

Stewart’s book is fascinating history and provides a useful counterpoise to those who think of the early history of the American republic as being more cohesive, tidy or foreordained somehow, or that modern U.S. politics only now plumbs the depths of this nation’s political bitterness and rancor. It must have been great fun to research and write, and Stewart displays a sort of love-hate relationship with his subject’s brilliant, ambitious, fearless and well-educated mind that possessed — in equal measure — the sarcastic, vainglorious and conspiratorial tendencies that ultimately self-sabotaged the protean Burr.


JACK H. (NICK) MCCALL is an attorney with the Tennessee Valley Authority Office of General Counsel in Knoxville. Any views and opinions expressed herein are solely attributable to McCall.