Book Review: American Emperor


American Emperor: Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America [Deckle Edge][Hardcover]

David O. Stewart (Author)


I found this to be a very enjoyable book, even though much of it deals with the incomplete historical record surrounding Aaron Burr's attempt to start a revolution and/or break the Western United States away from the fledgling republican (or become the Emperor of Mexico).

This is an invaluable book for anyone who wants to understand the trial of Aaron Burr and how it came to define the rules governing treason in the United States. The legal precedents established by the courts during this period have resonated throughout American history are are no less relevant today. In fact, I would say that the legal proceedings described in this book are the best part of the entire story, and are not well understood by Americans as a whole. Aaron Burr may have been somewhat traitorous (or vainglorious), but he was, of all the founders, one of the best lawyers, if not the best (and I would put John Adams up there as the best legal mind of his age).

Fans of Thomas Jefferson will come away disappointed. His legacy has never really felt the tarnish that it should have felt, given what happened during this period. The book tells us, that, in effect, Thomas Jefferson tried and convicted Burr before there was even a trial; this would have great ramifications for Presidential power and the rule of law in subsequent tests of our legal system.

I think that I enjoyed this book because of having already read  An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson by Andro Linklater, and these two books make excellent reading.

As Stewart writes, no less than Theodore Roosevelt called Wilkinson one of (I'm paraphrasing) the worst characters in our history. Reading these two books firmly cements Wilkinson's legacy and do little to improve on Burr's. Jefferson's legacy, however, survives intact.