- The Burr Conspiracy: Uncovering the Story of an Early American Crisis by James E. Lewis
In bringing this very long book to a close, James E. Lewis Jr. underscores how certain "cultural forms allowed people to make sense of the political world"; prominent among those cultural forms was a "broadly shared sense of the importance of honor, reputation, and character" (p. 460). These particular values were supposed to guide not only the private motives and actions of gentlemen and political leaders but also their public discourses and actions. In other words, in order to be worthy of public esteem, what a member of the ruling class thought, said, or did should faithfully reflect known and widely shared values.
Many new opportunities for individual advancement emerged during the Revolutionary era, but the destruction of the old established social and political order simultaneously generated ripples of uncertainty about the political stability of the United States. The sources of information available to the American [End Page 427] public did little to allay the resulting anxieties. A rabidly partisan press, letters, and hearsay offered incomplete, contradictory, and, in the end, thoroughly bewildering versions of current affairs. Consequently, political negotiations and decisions affecting the public interests of the new nation were often founded on biased communication and evaluation of events. In such a political climate, the character and reputation of any man who aspired to a leadership role were subject to constant scrutiny, and any attack on personal honor must be crushed. Aaron Burr's ambitions made him a major player in the political life of the new republic. The story of the rise and fall of Burr's political fortunes provides Lewis with an intriguing case study. However, despite the title of the book, the author's aim is not to solve the many enigmas surrounding the Burr conspiracy but to analyze how the story unfolded for Americans at that time.
The so-called Burr conspiracy merits at least a mention in most history textbooks, but it is usually passed over in fairly vague terms redolent of romantic drama. Having served as an officer during the war for U.S. independence, Burr reached the high point of a distinguished political career when he became Thomas Jefferson's vice president in 1801, and his career effectively ended after he killed his political rival Alexander Hamilton in a duel at Weehawken, New Jersey, in 1804. As soon as his term as vice president was over, Burr undertook a long journey westward. He spent 1805 and 1806 talking to people, apparently seeking support for a venture, the exact nature of which was not clear. Rumors, suspicions, and accusations sprouted everywhere.
Among the allegations cast, the least disturbing was that Burr was involved in a land speculation scheme in the Orleans Territory or some other western territory, while the most alarming was that he might have been planning to create a separate sovereign state somewhere west of the Appalachian Mountains. This second possibility led to widely varying versions and much confusion. Burr, according to some sources, was contemplating an attack on New Spain with a view to appropriating all or part of that Spanish territory, which Burr himself would then govern. It was not clear whether the plan was contingent on a prior official declaration of war against Spain, or whether Burr hoped to lead a private incursion that would enmesh Americans in an international war, which in turn might lead to unexpected and unwanted consequences for the United States. Other sources suspected that Burr had his sights set nearer to home. If he succeeded in rekindling separatist interests in the trans-Appalachian or trans-Mississippian territories belonging to the United States, the Union might yet face dismemberment by means of an armed secessionist insurrection.
Eventually, with rumors rife and becoming more politically unsettling daily, President Jefferson decided to take measures to control the situation. He acted on doctored evidence provided by the territorial governor of...