Jefferson's Vendetta: The Pursuit of Aaron Burr and the Judiciary
McDonald, Robert M. S., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Jefferson's Vendetta: The Pursuit of Aaron Burr and the Judiciary * Joseph Wheelan *New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005 * viii, 344 pp. $26.00
Joseph Wheelan's vivid and engaging Jefferson's Vendetta retells the familiar story of the trial and acquittal of Aaron Burr, accused of treason in 1807 for allegedly conspiring to conquer and establish an empire in the western United States and Spanish Mexico. Although Wheelan admits that Burr at least intrigued to lead an army against Spain, he champions Chief Justice John Marshall's narrow definition of treason, which resulted in Burr's acquittal. At the same time, he takes issue with President Thomas Jefferson's efforts to convict Burr "at whatever cost" (p. 183).
Given Jefferson's willingness to take shortcuts in the case against Burr, this is reasonable enough. After all, the third president crafted a reputation as a man who cared at least as much about pursuing proper means as achieving noble ends. Rather than attempting an even-handed approach, however, Wheelan's book takes the form of an anti-Jefferson indictment. The result is that the actions of Jefferson emerge as "sinister" (p. 79), "relentless," "motivated by corrosive hatred" (p. 184), and full of "malice" (p. 243) toward Burr. Jefferson, according to Wheelan, "was able to contrive treason . . . without a shred of solid evidence" (p. 285).
Wheelan overstates his case by glazing over the fact that Jefferson had good reasons to think darkly of Burr. The New Yorker's ambition nearly prompted him to usurp the presidency in 1801; in addition, in 1778 he undermined George Washington as commander of the Continental Army, and in 1804 he shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. And then there is the fact that, although Jeffersonians failed to prove it in court, we now know that Burr probably was guilty of treason. Wheelan concedes this (p. 120), but he is unwilling to acknowledge Jefferson's good intuition or to contextualize Jefferson's zealous prosecution of Burr, who stood ready to exploit the shakiness of the union that tied together the United States. …