An engrossing account of the new American republic’s first great treason trial.
Aaron Burr is remembered today chiefly as the man who killed Alexander Hamilton in an 1804 duel—and that’s hardly the only blot on his escutcheon. Although the reputations of our nation's early leaders have generally fluctuated (John Adams’s is currently rising, Jefferson's declining), Burr's has held steady: It was dismal during most of his life and hasn't budged. Washington detested him. Adams thought him corrupt. Jefferson chose him as running mate, then turned violently against him. Yet he was among the most brilliant men of his time, though he never wrote or spoke on the great issues of the day and seems to have been the only leading figure of the Revolutionary War generation with no political philosophy. Burr had plenty of ambition, however. Hamilton’s death ensured he would have no political future once his term as vice-president was up (in 1805), so he abruptly turned to treason, writing to offer his services to the British government. With money and a few warships, he explained, he could lead a revolt to detach the frontier areas west of the Appalachians from the union. The plot was well advanced and an open secret when Jefferson finally stirred himself to order Burr’s arrest in 1807. The subsequent trial galvanized the nation and showed many of the founding fathers in a surprisingly unpleasant light. Obsessed with convicting Burr, Jefferson peppered the prosecution with advice. The presiding judge was Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. A bitter enemy of Jefferson, he made many partisan comments, and his rulings favored Burr, who was acquitted. Melton (The First Impeachment, not reviewed; Law/Univ. of North Carolina) is well-qualified to illuminate the thorny legal issues that surrounded Burr's actions, indictment, and trial. He also expresses strong opinions on the behavior of the lawyers involved.
Stories of important men behaving badly usually make entertaining reading, and this is no exception.