Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Treason Trial of Aaron Burr: Law, Politics, and the Character Wars of the New Nation

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Treason Trial of Aaron Burr: Law, Politics, and the Character Wars of the New Nation

Article excerpt

The Treason Trial of Aaron Burr: Law, Politics, and the Character Wars of the New Nation. By R. Kent Newmyer. Cambridge Studies on the American Constitution. (New York and other cities: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. xiv, 226. Paper, $28.99, ISBN 978-1-107-60661-6; cloth, $90.00, ISBN 978-1-107-02218-8.)

Did he or didn't he? That was the question at Aaron Burr's treason trials. Actually charged three times with treason, the former vice president was not indicted the first or second time, and though indicted the third time and tried in Richmond in 1807, he was never convicted. With his reputation after the trials as ruined as his finances were before the indictments, he lived at the fringes of American politics and law for another three decades, best known for his 1804 duel with Alexander Hamilton and his escape from the clutches of his creditors.

Throughout Burr's travails, the question of his guilt remained in many of his countrymen's minds. That question still engenders controversy among historians of the events. Some say that Burr's plans to raise funds for land speculation and arm a small body of men did not include waging war against his native land. It was a grand, even grandiose, speculative scheme to repay his debts. Others believe Burr plotted to become a king of a small country on the far side of the Mississippi River.

The latest entry on the Burr trial is R. Kent Newmyer's lively and deeply researched account. The work of an expert in the law and a student of the people at the center of the trial, Newmyer's assessments must be given great weight. Newmyer's judgment of the character of the players is sometimes harsh. Burr was the victim of his own unbridled ambition. This, and his refusal to explain himself in an era when other political leaders could hardly still their pens, left him vulnerable to rumor and ruin. His alleged co-conspirator, General James Wilkinson, was little more than a scoundrel and perhaps a foreign agent as well. Thomas Jefferson, Burr's chief accuser, seemed petty and vengeful; Jefferson never trusted Burr after the election of 1800 and then turned from Burr to spill venom on trial judge John Marshall. …

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