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BOOK REVIEW: ‘American Emperor’
AMERICAN EMPEROR: AARON BURR'S CHALLENGE TO JEFFERSON'S AMERICA
By David O. Stewart
Simon & Schuster, $30, 410 pages
Aaron Burr ranks among the most reviled characters in American history - an astounding fate for a Founding Father who came within a hair's breadth of the presidency in 1800. Although he was never convicted in court, the term "traitor" is indelibly linked to his name.
What Burr plotted, in essence, was to seize control of the vast lands west of the original 13 colonies and perhaps Florida, Mexico and a chunk of South America, and create what was tantamount to an empire. He would rule as Emperor Aaron I, "the Napoleon of the New World."
One of America's more prominent citizens in the early years of the union, Burr began a precipitous fall into infamy in 1800. Then a New York senator, he ran for vice president on a ticket headed by Thomas Jefferson. Although he was clearly the No. 2 candidate, shady political machinations gave him and Jefferson an equal number of electoral votes. Rather than withdraw, Burr forced the contest into the House of Representatives, which after 36 ballots voted for Jefferson. An unhappy Burr was consigned to the vice presidency, and Jefferson ignored him thereafter.
Then, in 1804, Burr challenged longtime critic and rival Alexander Hamilton to a duel and shot him dead. He was indicted for murder both in New Jersey (where the duel took place) and New York (where Hamilton died of his wounds). Before the duel, Hamilton had scrawled a note saying he accepted Burr's challenge as a matter of honor but did not intend to fire. In any event, to avoid extradition and trial, the vice president of the United States fled into hiding.
And this is when he began to dream of creating his own American empire. His ambition centered on the vast lands of the Louisiana Purchase, some 828,000 square miles that France sold to the United States in 1803 for $15 million ($600 million in current value). Burr's wedge was hostility by westerners toward the so-called "Virginia aristocracy" that controlled the economy of the Atlantic seaboard states, and were cool toward economic development elsewhere.
Central to Burr's plan was raising a mercenary army to seize control of the Mississippi River and the port of New Orleans, thereby permitting westerners to bypass eastern markets and trade directly with Europe. One key ally was James Wilkinson, general in chief of the American army, who Mr. Stewart calls "a thoroughgoing scoundrel and paid agent of the Spanish king." Known to the Spanish as agent "No. 13," Wilkinson received at least $26,000 from Madrid ($1 million in current value).
In 1804, Wilkinson was "governor" of the Louisiana Territory and commanded a small contingent of America troops based in New Orleans. He offered to put these troops to service with mercenaries Burr sought to recruit elsewhere in the West. Financial backers paid for arms and the flat boats that would transport his makeshift army to New Orleans.
Through an intermediary, Burr entreated the British minister in Washington to have the Royal Navy send a flotilla of warships to the Gulf of Mexico to prevent the United States from defending New Orleans when he moved. (The Brits gave the offer serious consideration but ultimately declined.) There was even talk at one point of "deposing" President Jefferson. Concurrently, Wilkinson would have his Spanish friends stir a war with the United States as a diversion.
In the end, all this plotting came to federal attention, and the plot fizzled. Brought to Virginia in chains, Burr was put on trial in federal court in Richmond, first for treason, then for violation of the Neutrality Act. With Chief Justice John Marshall presiding, he was twice acquitted.
Why? Lawyer-historian David Stewart contends that presenting a coherent and credible case against Burr was hampered by the "chronic confusion over what he was really doing out West. The confusion has persisted because he had several alternative goals, and because he said so many different things to so many different people."
And Wilkinson turned on Burr, saying that his involvement was intended to keep track of what Spain might do, rather than help Burr.
Further, Marshall made several rulings on evidentiary matters that hurt the prosecution. Mr. Stewart suggests that one reason was the long-standing antipathy between the justice and Jefferson.
Incredibly, acquittal did not deter Burr from further plots. He spent more than a year in London, trying to enlist support for an invasion of South America. A womanizer since his wife died when he was 37, Burr recorded "dozens" of trysts with prostitutes in his coded journal, including "multiple episodes in a day, or encounters with two women at once." His commentary ranged from "fat, not bad," to "Bah!" and "pretty good, voluptuous."
Rejected by the British, Burr moved on to France, where he tried to get an audience with the Emperor Napoleon. He returned to America and drifted into obscurity.
At age 77, Burr married a 58-year-old woman who "well may have entered prostitution" before becoming the mistress of a wealthy wine merchant. The couple split after six months, the wife accusing Burr of adultery and squandering her money; in reply, he made adultery charges against her. Burr died in 1834 at age 80, alone and bedridden in a boarding house.
As a historian, Mr. Stewart struggled to untangle a mare's nest of intrigue and conflicting accounts, and his account is succinct. And as a former clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court and managing partner of a major Washington law firm, he makes sense of the complex legal issues involved. Regardless of the court verdict, Burr will ever be condemned by public opinion.
Joseph C. Goulden's expanded edition of "Spy-Speak: The Dictionary of Intelligence" will be published by Dover Books in January.
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