- The Burr Conspiracy: Uncovering the Story of an Early American Crisis by James E. Lewis
In his 1947 article, "Aaron Burr and the Historians," Julius W. Pratt wrote, "The time has come when it should be possible to form something like a definite estimate of Aaron Burr."1 Three-quarters of a century later, we are no closer to "a definite estimate" of the New York politician, third vice president, killer of a current pop-culture phenomenon, and possible traitor. Like those of their earlier counterparts, the most recent biographies of Burr—by Nancy Isenberg and David O. Stewart—offer no consensus, particularly regarding his conspiracy to either invade Mexico, lead the West to secede, or both. Nevertheless, they are both in agreement about its significance, with Isenberg referring to the conspiracy as a "pivotal episode in the life of the nation" and Stewart dubbing it "a profound test of the emerging republic."2 James E. Lewis, Jr., however, approaches the conspiracy from a unique angle. Rather than trying to uncover the reality of what actually happened, The Burr Conspiracy seeks to highlight the indefinite by exploring how people at the time, with limited and often conflicting information, tried to make their own "definite estimate" of Burr and the alleged conspiracy.
By exploring how Americans in this tumultuous period tried to understand an event shrouded in rumor and—as one contemporary put it—"a cloud of mystery," Lewis's book is of a piece with other works uncovering the reception or meaning of an event from early American history whose reality at the time was either contested or inaccessible, including Patricia U. Bonomi's The Lord Cornbury Scandal and Richard Wightman Fox's Trials of Intimacy: Love and Loss in the Beecher–Tilton Scandal (8).3 To do this, Lewis combines new, close readings of the [End Page 572] official record, seemingly exhaustive examinations of newspapers and pamphlets, and a wide array of private correspondence, each extending the breadth of the country. On purely research grounds, The Burr Conspiracy is a major achievement.
Lewis confronts the question of why Burr was acquitted at trial but very much convicted in the minds of a broad swath of the public. He argues that what allowed for such public opinion was the fact that very few facts about Burr's actions were known. Burr and his actions became a screen on which Americans from the Mississippi River to the halls of Congress projected their own political prejudices and fears. Federalists' anger over the killing of Hamilton, the eastern establishment's fear over the possibility of disunion (coming either from the West or the North), distrustful political partisanship, Republicans' concerns over the splintering of the Jeffersonian coalition and the rise of a western party at its expense, and, of course, Burr's longstanding reputation as a decidedly self-interested politician all contributed to the eagerness of certain individuals to convince people the Burr conspiracy existed and the willingness of many people to believe it.
The Burr Conspiracy moves chronologically, but Lewis successfully mixes both narrative and thematic chapters, with the latter including such themes as the transmission of information, the idea of disunion, the role of classical allegory, and the local political dynamics of New Orleans and Richmond, both key sites in the story. These chapters are also effectively supplemented with a number of shorter "interludes" focused on the construction of various narratives at the time. Along the way, Lewis diligently draws attention to the many important gaps in the historical record and the shortcomings and inconsistencies between the extant sources he employs. This implicitly gives the reader a sense of the research narrative, particularly the challenges Lewis encountered along the way in trying to reconstruct what information was circulating at a given time in a given place about Burr, his intentions, and his actions.
Ultimately, Lewis argues for the importance of "local conditions, the disproportionate power of specific narratives, and the frequent reliance upon pre-existing stories for sensemaking" in shaping...