Vice-president of the United States, brilliant attorney, duelist, and renegade leader of Western adventurers— Aaron Burr cut a path through American history that is bold, at times erratic, and highly controversial. In his fast-paced book, American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America (Simon & Schuster, $30) historian and constitutional lawyer David O. Stewart— who is also the publisher of the Washington Independent Review of Books— follows close on the trail of Burr during the most exciting period of his career.
Q: Aaron Burr tends to be known to many Americans as a black sheep among the founding brothers— what drew you to him?
That’s what drew me to him! He was the iconoclast in the founding generation, and iconoclasts are always interesting. He married the widow of a British officer in 1782, a time when that was a controversial decision, and he strongly supported the rights and talents of women. When he looked at Hamilton and Washington and Jefferson, he saw their limitations as well as their abilities – we tend to avert our eyes from those limitations. And he dreamed outrageous dreams, which is always compelling even when it ends badly, as it did for Burr.
Q: What was a particularly rich resource for information about his life?
Burr’s own correspondence is scanty. He wrote relatively little and tended to be cautious about what he set down on paper. And some of his written records were destroyed or lost. But when he was in exile in Europe, he kept a journal which provided a real window into Burr as a person, and allowed me for the first time to hear his voice on a consistent basis. In the journal, this dark, mysterious conspirator of the standard histories emerges as a charming, curious, and witty man. It’s invaluable for appreciating why people actually liked him and why he achieved so much. I also valued writings about Burr by the architect Benjamin Latrobe, who designed the U.S. Capitol and many other projects. When Burr’s career imploded, bringing down lots of his friends too, many of those friends puzzled incessantly over his personality and influence over them. Latrobe chronicled those reflections.
Q: This is outside the scope of your book, but how did he rate as a vice president?
Because the vice president had so few responsibilities in 1804, that’s a bit like asking how a golfer does with 3-inch putts. There were relatively few opportunities for a vice president to win distinction. Burr presided over debates in the Senate in a fair and even-handed fashion, winning respect from both Federalists and his fellow Republicans. Indeed, when George Clinton of New York succeeded him as vice president, several senators bemoaned the loss of firm direction in the chamber’s deliberations. Burr’s pronounced lack of partisanship did not, however, endear him to Republican President Thomas Jefferson. The vice president votes only to break tie votes in the Senate; the one time that Burr’s vote broke a tie, he actually sided with the Federalists on a judiciary bill. And when his fellow Republicans tried to remove Justice Samuel Chase from the Supreme Court through impeachment, Burr presided over the 1804 Senate trial in an entirely non-partisan manner, which contributed to Chase’s acquittal.
Q: He wasn’t convicted of treason for planning to invade the Western territories, because he hadn’t attacked the United States. Yet he was likened in the popular imagination to Benedict Arnold. And like Arnold, Burr cared nothing about harming the United States. Was he a traitor in all but deed?
Context is all. The nation was just an infant at the beginning of the nineteenth century, unsure of its boundaries or its future. In 1804, President Jefferson wrote on two separate occasions that the secession of the Western territories and states (Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and so on) would be fine by him. He really did! So why should we think it was treason for Burr to say the same thing? Or even to take steps to make it happen? Many Americans of Burr’s era seriously entertained ideas of secession. New Englanders flirted with the idea for a decade and more from 1804 to 1815. Burr’s execrable reputation in the public mind flowed not from his audacious Western expedition but from its failure, which allowed Jefferson to place him on trial for treason and poison the historical memory of him. It didn’t help, either, that he killed Alexander Hamilton in the duel.
Q: You write that some of Burr’s actions are inexplicable, such as when he fails to inform his band of Western renegade adventurers, at a critical moment, what exactly his plan is. Sometimes, there’s a hint of megalomania about his schemes, which include, for instance, becoming Emperor of Mexico when he spoke no Spanish. What motivated him?
Burr was consumed with ambition to achieve fame, which he and his contemporaries understood to be the highest achievement of any man. Fame, for Burr and Washington and Jefferson, was a recognition of a man’s quality and integrity. Burr plainly expected to become president of the United States, but by 1804 – after the Hamilton duel and after serious political reverses – he realized that was not going to happen. So he decided to take another route to fame: He would lead an expedition to liberate the Spanish colonies of Florida, Texas, and Mexico, and (with any luck) the secession of the western parts of the United States. There is certainly a solid dose of megalomania to that plan, but Burr would have settled for any course that involved achieving high public honors. Just before he set off on the expedition, he tried to win appointment to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which would have been completely inconsistent with this outrageous expedition he had planned for the preceding 18 months. He was, to the say the least, a complicated fellow.
Q: In addition to being an historian, you’re an attorney, too. As you reviewed the records of Burr’s trials, what was your opinion of American jurisprudence in the early 1800s?
First, trial lawyers were allowed to speak at almost interminable length. One of Burr’s defense lawyer gave a speech that lasted for three days, or 21 hours. Astonishing. Second, the law was much more favorable to criminal defendants then. The prosecution in 1807 was unable to acquire written and oral evidence that would routinely be available today. Most important, though, the Burr trials demonstrate the remarkable talents and importance of Chief Justice John Marshall, who presided over all of them. The Constitution provides a very narrow definition of treason, yet before 1807 the American courts had declined to enforce it, relying instead on expansive treason doctrines from English law. Marshall insisted on enforcing the constitutional limits to treason prosecutions and ignored the powerful pressure from Jefferson and public opinion to ensure that Burr be convicted. The Burr trials were a very important step in Marshall’s lifelong achievement of establishing the independence of the judiciary.
Q: Why, incidentally, was the indictment quashed in New Jersey, after three years, to try him for Hamilton’s murder?
It was a stupid prosecution. In those times, winning duelists were sometimes indicted for murder, but they were almost never convicted. The prevailing duelist always had an excellent claim of self-defense. The other fellow, after all, was aiming a loaded pistol at him. What else was he supposed to do?
Q: The number of incompetent people in positions of leadership, and the amount of veniality from Jefferson on down is quite striking. Was it discouraging to write about?
The most appalling character in the story is Army General-in-Chief James Wilkinson, who was simultaneously (1) in command of the U.S. Army, (2) a secret agent for the King of Spain, and (3) Burr’s key confederate in the Western expedition. As Theodore Roosevelt wrote, Wilkinson is the most despicable figure in American history. And Jefferson does not come off terribly well, either. But I never found the story discouraging because it was so astonishing, and because Chief Justice Marshall’s resolution of the case vindicated some terribly important principles.
It’s interesting how much emphasis eyewitnesses put on a person’s demeanor, implying that composure, dignity, and charm give weight to whether someone is in the right or wrong. Why was that? Class consciousness in the 19th century?
And in the 20th century. And in the 21st. The attractive and well-dressed fare better in most of life’s activities, and court cases are no different. Juries are less likely to convict good-looking defendants than ugly ones.
Q: In the end, what redeems Burr as a figure for historical study? What are we to learn?
In writing history, I look less for redemption than for extraordinary stories about remarkable people and situations. Such stories give us insight into ourselves and our institutions. The story of Burr’s Western expedition scores high on that scale, revealing what the nation was like in its early stages— the growing pains of building a nation. Burr invited Americans to dissolve the Union and they declined. He dreamed of being another Bonaparte at a time when Bonaparte was on many minds, yet Americans weren’t interested in a Bonaparte. And Burr’s treason trials were a vital test of our commitment to the rule of law, ensuring the rights of even those most despised in the community. That commitment is still tested every day.
Interviewer Charles J. Shields is associate director of the Chappell Great Lives Lecture Series. David O. Stewart will present the life of Aaron Burr, Tuesday, February 7, at 7:30 pm in Dodd Auditorium at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.