- The Burr Conspiracy: Uncovering the Story of an Early American Crisis by James E. Lewis
One of the great mysteries of early American history is the nature of Aaron Burr's machinations in the trans-Appalachian west between 1805 and 1807. Did he plan a filibustering attempt to wrest Florida [End Page 383] and Texas from Spain? Did he conspire to affect the secession of the trans-Appalachian west from the United States? Burr's "ultimate aim," Gordon Wood wrote in Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815, "has never been entirely clear."
The Burr Conspiracy does not answer these questions, nor does it intend to. As James E. Lewis explains, "rather than retelling the story of the Burr Conspiracy this book focuses upon the stories about the Burr Conspiracy that were told at the time and over the next few decades" (p. 6). Early Americans, much like later historians, were unable decipher the former vice-president's motives and intentions. Awash in a sea of rumor and innuendo, they struggled to make sense of contradictory reports, and in the process fashioned stories that inevitably bore the fingerprints of their day. These stories shed light on early nineteenth-century America—the means by which information (and misinformation) circulated through the postal system as well as by means of informal networks of kinship, class, and politics; the manner in which contemporaries borrowed categories, concepts, and examples from history and literature to shape their understanding of Burr's contretemps; how President Thomas Jefferson's widely circulated message to Congress in January 1807 selectively chose facts as a means of bolstering the sort of minimalist republican government he advocated; how Americans came to believe the homespun clothes Burr was wearing when he was captured proved his guilt, for no true gentleman would deign to disguise himself.
More broadly, Lewis contends that Burr's actions so alarmed Americans because of chronic, simmering apprehensions of western disloyalty. In the stories, contemporaries told about Burr's actions, Lewis contends, "we see the continuing fears about the fragility of the federal union, the instability of republican governments, and the uncertainty of American nationalism" (p. 12). Readers of the Register will find especially interesting Lewis's lucid account of John Wood and Joseph M. Street's 1806 charges that a good many of early Kentucky's founding elites had similarly conspired with the Spanish in the 1780s.
Twenty years in the making, Lewis's study is heroically researched [End Page 384] and tells of America's reaction to the Burr Conspiracy story in exhaustive—and occasionally exhausting—detail. The book's penchant for digression and redundancy occasionally strains the patience of the reader, while Lewis's unwillingness to hazard any judgment as to the nature of the conspiracy itself can be frustrating. After two decades' worth of study, the author, one surmises, surely developed an informed opinion as to what really happened. Such insight would have been dearly appreciated, especially in the aftermath of studies such as Nancy Isenberg's attempted whitewash of Burr's reputation in Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr (2007). Although contemporary stories constructed matter a great deal, history is not and can never be solely a matter of "sense-making." The realities of the time—though dimly perceived and subject to distortion—matter. In fact, such a dialectic between events and perception is the only means of preserving the integrity of history itself.
That said, Lewis's study is major contribution to early American history—well-written, nuanced, and thoughtful. By examining what people made of the events and how those stories illuminate the early nineteenth century, Lewis ably charts a borderland between the known and the unknowable, between story and history—and thereby illustrates the limits of the historian's endeavor: despite our fondest wishes, there are some things we will never know.
MATTHEW G. SCHOENBACHLER teaches history at the University of North Alabama. He is the author of...