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

By David O. Stewart; Simon & Schuster

In the pantheon of founding fathers, Aaron Burr seems to have always stood off in a corner. Over two centuries, generations of Americans have clung to the belief that he should stay there—as punishment. Along with his fellow Revolutionary War officer Benedict Arnold, Burr lives in ancestral memory as the original scoundrel—the sore loser who wouldn’t yield easily to Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 presidential election, the heartless cad who shot Alexander Hamilton dead in an 1804 duel, the reckless buccaneer who by 1807 sought to conquer almost everything south and west of the Carolinas.

Yet over time Burr, because of his notoriety as much as despite it, has found many articulate, even persuasive advocates who believe him to be, at the very least, more complex than his critics acknowledge. Gore Vidal’s sleek, cagey historical fiction, Burr (1973), was the most popular of these briefs for the defense—and, up till now, the most entertaining.

David O. Stewart’s new nonfiction account, American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America, is almost as rousing and engrossing as Vidal’s novel. Stewart focuses on how Burr, after being dropped as Jefferson’s vice president before the latter’s 1804 reelection, schemed to make himself a Bonaparte-esque emperor of a North American land mass that took in Mexico, Louisiana, Florida and whatever states west of the Appalachians wished to come along for the ride.

With wit and flourishes worthy of his protagonist, Stewart’s sweeping yet judiciously detailed narrative takes in Burr’s rise to the vice presidency and his fall from grace, hastened in large part by the Hamilton duel. Burr’s many and varied intrigues to achieve his wild dreams are deftly enumerated; notable among them were his efforts to provoke a war between the United States and Spain, which could have loosened the declining Spanish empire’s hold on its North American territorial claims and made them easier pickings for Burr and his fellow adventurers.

That motley crew’s second-most important member, the pompous, odious General James Wilkinson—the governor of Upper Louisiana—turned out to be the most duplicitous of all, double-crossing Burr and the United States as a paid agent of Spain. Wilkinson’s betrayals led to the collapse of the movement and Burr’s arrest on charges of treason in 1807. Jefferson sought swift and terrible judgment against his former vice president, but the jury’s not guilty verdict was largely influenced by the one man who may have disliked the president as much as Burr: Supreme Court Chief Justice John C. Marshall.

Emperor offers no clear motive for Burr’s actions beyond wounded vanity and vengeance against those, especially Jefferson, who had shattered his once- bright political promise. Was that enough to move Burr to jettison the fledgling republic’s ideals for an imperialist plot? Perhaps. But since this would-be Napoleon rarely divulged his innermost thoughts, we’ll probably never know.


Originally published in the February 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.