AMERICAN EMPEROR by David O. Stewart
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Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America
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A fresh, vivid exploration of the exploits and trial of Aaron Burr (1756–1836), the most notorious figure of the early American republic.

In 1800, Burr came within one electoral vote of becoming president of the United States. Instead, as originally intended, he became Thomas Jefferson’s vice president, serenely presiding over the Senate while under indictment for the murder of Alexander Hamilton in a duel, an unpleasantness with which Stewart (Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy, 2009, etc.) rapidly dispenses in satisfying detail. Dumped by Jefferson in 1804 and frozen out of national political influence, Burr turned to a fantastic scheme. In league with the odious Gen. James Wilkinson, commander of America’s tiny army and a lavishly paid secret agent for the Spanish crown, Burr undertook to assemble a private army and redraw the map of North America by uniting the Spanish Floridas, Mexico and whatever American states and territories west of the Appalachians wished to join him, into a new nation under his own leadership. Burr’s men were headed downriver for New Orleans when he was betrayed by Wilkinson, arrested and packed off to Richmond to stand trial for treason. Jefferson desperately wanted this conviction and actively meddled in the prosecution’s trial strategy, but the presiding judge was Chief Justice John Marshall, a political foe determined to insist on due process for the widely despised defendant. A practicing attorney, Stewart works the miracle of making even early-19th-century legal opinions and argument accessible and vital to modern readers. Two parts adventure story and one part courtroom thriller, Burr’s saga unfolds in “a North America of possibilities, not certainties,” where borders shifted frequently. The author makes it all sound plausible and lays out this complicated story with admirable clarity, while also explaining the long-term significance of its outcome for individual rights, the judiciary and the stability of the young nation.

A persuasive, engaging examination of the post-political career of a shadowy and much-maligned figure from the era of the Founders.


Pub Date: Oct. 25th, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4391-5718-3
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2011


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