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

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In this vivid and brilliant biography, David Stewart describes Aaron Burr, the third vice president, as a daring and perhaps deluded figure who shook the nation’s foundations in its earliest, most vulnerable decades.

In 1805, the United States was not twenty years old, an unformed infant. The government consisted of a few hundred people. The immense frontier swallowed up a tiny army of 3,300 soldiers. Following the Louisiana Purchase, no one even knew where the nation’s western ...

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

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In this vivid and brilliant biography, David Stewart describes Aaron Burr, the third vice president, as a daring and perhaps deluded figure who shook the nation’s foundations in its earliest, most vulnerable decades.

In 1805, the United States was not twenty years old, an unformed infant. The government consisted of a few hundred people. The immense frontier swallowed up a tiny army of 3,300 soldiers. Following the Louisiana Purchase, no one even knew where the nation’s western border lay. Secessionist sentiment flared in New England and beyond the Appalachians.

Burr had challenged Jefferson, his own running mate, in the presidential election of 1800. Indicted for murder in the dueling death of Alexander Hamilton in 1804, he dreamt huge dreams. He imagined an insurrection in New Orleans, a private invasion of Spanish Mexico and Florida, and a great empire rising on the Gulf of Mexico, which would swell when America’s western lands seceded from the Union. For two years, Burr pursued this audacious dream, enlisting support from the General-in-Chief of the Army, a paid agent of the Spanish king, and from other western leaders, including Andrew Jackson. When the army chief double-crossed Burr, Jefferson finally roused himself and ordered Burr prosecuted for treason.

The trial featured the nation’s finest lawyers before the greatest judge in our history, Chief Justice John Marshall, Jefferson’s distant cousin and determined adversary. It became a contest over the nation’s identity: Should individual rights be sacrificed to punish a political apostate who challenged the nation’s very existence? In a revealing reversal of political philosophies, Jefferson championed government power over individual rights, while Marshall shielded the nation’s most notorious defendant. By concealing evidence, appealing to the rule of law, and exploiting the weaknesses of the government’s case, Burr won his freedom.

Afterwards Burr left for Europe to pursue an equally outrageous scheme to liberate Spain’s American colonies, but finding no European sponsor, he returned to America and lived to an unrepentant old age.

Stewart’s vivid account of Burr’s tumultuous life offers a rare and eye-opening description of the brand-new nation struggling to define itself.

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Editorial Reviews

Joyce Appleby
American Emperor delivers a colorful narrative of the schemes that carried Burr from one reckless venture to the next. Of inestimable value in following his frenzied recruitment of allies are Stewart's thumbnail sketches of "Leading Characters" at the front of the book.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Eschewing recent attempts to rehabilitate Aaron Burr (1756–1836), a brilliant member of the revolutionary generation but remembered mostly as Jefferson's vice-president who killed Alexander Hamilton in an 1804 duel, D.C. lawyer and historian Stewart (Impeached: The Trial of Andrew Johnson) concentrates on the dramatic years of Burr's life that followed. His career in ruins, in 1806 Burr led an armed band down the Mississippi intending to detach western states from the Union and conquer Spanish-ruled Texas and Florida. Among his raffish coconspirators was Gen. James Wilkinson, commander of the U.S. Army, governor of Louisiana, and a paid Spanish agent. With matters well advanced, Wilkinson thought better of it and betrayed the plot. There followed an extensive pursuit and spectacular treason trial during which a vindictive President Jefferson schemed and failed to convict Burr. Great men behaving badly make for entertaining reading, so readers may roll their eyes, but will keep turning the pages of this meticulous, almost day-by-day account of a plot so bizarre that it's hard to believe it actually happened. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
"American Emperor" is a rousing book (who can turn down a quixotic rebellion?) with a cast of characters that could slip comfortably into a three-volume melodrama of the 19th century.“ —Richmond Times-Dispatch

“Thoughtful, stylishly written and splendidly researched…. Adds valuable dimensions to our appreciation of the world we inherited from the Founders.… A page-turner as well!”—Washington Independent Review of Books

“A rattling tale… While most readers know the broad outlines of the Aaron Burr story…, the tale still retains ample suspense. I won’t spoil the ending.” Christian Science Monitor

Library Journal
While most assessments of the life of Aaron Burr (1765–1836) center on the disputed presidential election of 1800 and his deadly duel with Alexander Hamilton in 1804, Stewart (The Summer of 1787) provides an outstanding account concerned primarily with Burr's suspicious western exploits thereafter and his subsequent trial for treason. Burr's trial played out on a national stage, included an impressive cast of characters from Chief Justice John Marshall to the traitorous Gen. James Wilkinson, and ultimately provided federal courts with a procedural definition of treason. Drawing on his experience in constitutional law, attorney Stewart explains how such an iconic character, standing outside the reign of power, could provoke "generations of speculation and wonder." His gripping narrative reveals a founder driven by ambition, with a passion for expansion into Central and South American. VERDICT Stewart's sympathetic but unapologetic study of the enigmatic Burr, most recently given a full biography in Nancy Isenberg's Fallen Founder, transcends its subject in exposing the frailty of early America's westward ambitions. Highly recommended for readers of Revolutionary-era biographies and early U.S. history. [See Prepub Alert, 4/25/11.]—Brian Odom Pelham P.L., AL
Kirkus Reviews

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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781439157206
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 10/16/2012
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 410
  • Sales rank: 381,513
  • Product dimensions: 5.66 (w) x 8.28 (h) x 1.04 (d)

Meet the Author

David O. Stewart turned to writing after more than a quarter century of law practice in Washington, D.C., defending accused criminals and challenging government actions as unconstitutional. His first book about the writing of the Constitution, The Summer of 1787, grew out of Supreme Court case he was working on. It was aWashington Post bestseller and won the Washington Writing Prize for Best Book of 2007. Impeached had its roots in a judicial impeachment trial Stewart defended before the United States Senate, in 1989, and then argued to the Supreme Court. His most recent book, American Emperor, tells this astonishing tale, which traces Aaron Burr’s descent from made man to political pariah to imperialist adventurer. For more information about the author, go to

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Table of Contents

Leading Characters xiii

Part I 1

1 The Dark Star of the Founding 3

2 Do Not Play the Fool with His Name 13

3 The Duel 26

4 On the Frontier 44

5 The Restless West 55

6 Vice President Burr 72

7 "I… Shall Seek Another Country" 88

8 The Adventure Begins 97

9 Early Doubts 106

10 On the World Stage 116

11 Burr's Threats 124

12 The Baron of the Ouachita Valley 134

13 The Western World Ignites 143

14 High Water Mark 151

15 Dancing on the Sabine 159

16 The Daveiss Factor 168

17 Escape from Blennerhassett Island 177

18 Wilkinson Unchained 186

19 Burr in Chains 193

Part II 205

20 When Cousins Collide 209

21 What Is Treason? 220

22 Sympathy for Villainy 226

23 A Mammoth of Iniquity 239

24 Searching for an Overt Act 247

25 A Drawn Battle 259

26 To Britain 271

27 On the Continent 284

28 The History of Thy Crimes 294

Acknowledgments 307

Appendix 1 The Cipher Letter 309

Appendix 2 Indictment, United States v. Aaron Burr 313

Appendix 3 United States Constitution, Article III, Section 3 (Treason Clause) 317

Notes 319

Illustration Credits 389

Index 391

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 4, 2012

    Highly recommended, especially if you think you know about Aaron Burr.

    If you know who Aaron Burr was, but aren't entirely sure exactly what it was he did, David Stewart can clear that up for you. In fact, as
    Stewart makes clear, Burr was trying to do many different things, and some of them were treasonous. Fascinating reading, and if the prosecution had been able to use Stewart as an investigator, Burr's story would likely have turned out very differently.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2012

    Worth reading

    This is a look at one of the most mysterious events in U. S. History-was Aaron Burr a traitor. It's fascinating read and well-worth reading.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 5, 2012

    A must read book for anyone interested in the early history of our country

    A must read Just imagine if Burr would have did what he set off to do

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 18, 2011

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    Posted April 7, 2013

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