Review: James Lewis, THE BURR CONSPIRACY

The Broadway musical Hamilton did a lot for the protagonist Alexander Hamilton, but little for his nemesis Aaron Burr. Despite the valiant effort of historians like Nancy Isenberg, the victor of the 1804 duel was now seen as the villain of one of America’s greatest rivalries. But what’s fascinating is that one of the most intriguing elements of an overall intriguing life took place in the years immediately following that storied morning at Weehawken: rumors quickly spread that Burr was canvassing the nation’s westward territory, possibly plotting an insurrection or even the establishment of a new empire. Now that would be a great plot for the theater.

Historians have long investigated what Burr was actually doing. Indeed, Burr’s own contemporaries were desperate to find out details themselves. President Thomas Jefferson sent a man out west to follow Burr’s tracks. Federalist newspapers printed outlandish stories about a treasonous cabal seeking the nation’s ruin. One Spanish delegate wrote to his magistrate that Burr was conspiring to conquer DC and overthrow the American empire. Eventually one of Burr’s contacts, James Wilkinson, the territorial governor of Louisiana, decided to cut his way out and report to Jefferson of Burr’s activities. Wilkinson turned over decoded letters, originally written in cypher, as evidence of Burr’s guilt. He also made sure to alter the text to preserve his own evidence. What made this a calculated, if ironic, move was that Wilkinson himself was an undercover agent for Spain. If not a musical, this could at least be a film.

Jefferson then charged Burr with treason, inaugurating a trial that caught the entire nation’s attention. Argued before Chief Justice John Marshall, the case tested the boundaries and definitions of American justice in the young republic. Did conspiracy require action, or just intent? What was the standard for evidence? Burr was eventually acquitted because there was no proof he had actually done anything, and any angst he expressed toward the nation was permitted under the Constitution. Though his reputation was now destroyed, Burr was still a free man. To this day, scholars still debate the extent of his plans.

In his new book, The Burr Conspiracy: Uncovering the Story of an Early American Crisis (Princeton UP, 2017), James E. Lewis is not intent on solving that riddle. He frankly confesses that due to the nature of evidence still available to us today, it would be impossible full reconstruct the story. His focus, instead, is on the stories of the story. That is, how did America receive the news, and how did the nation cultivate an environment in which the news would be possible in the first place? In Lewis’s telling, the young republic, only a couple decades into independence and just a few years past a massive geographic extension, was simultaneously triumphant in its strength yet terrified of its frailties. Was the nation spread too thin? Could a democracy give way to treasonous insurrections? Was there enough to hold such a disparate republic together?

The structure of the book is a bit odd, but it fits the author’s purpose. It begins with a sophisticated accounting of how news traveled during the first decade of the nineteenth century—by mouth, by letter, by printed word. Americans didn’t suffer from too little information, but rather too much. How could they decipher between news and rumor? What sources were credible, what were speculative, and what were partisan? The book is then divided into three parts that view the conspiracy from three different perspectives, each of which are further divided into thematic chapters that look at specific places, particular stories, as well as contextual baggage. In other words, how did a location react to Burr’s activities, what types of narratives took hold, and how did the characters connect these events to historic analogies?

If that sound somewhat circuitous and confusing, I sympathize. I understand that Lewis packaged the work in such a way in order to peel back the layers found in particular contexts and at different moments—the greatest strength of the book is its depth—but at times it felt a bit like overkill. Especially when he shies away from providing any definitive answers concerning Burr’s agenda; indeed, at times it seems Lewis gleefully plays with the fact that he is portraying the negative of a photo that will never quite come into focus. The narrative can at times get too dense, and peering through the fog of uncertainty too taxing—not, ironically, unlike how early Americans would have read Burr’s trial. There were moments when I thought Lewis’s smart and necessary argument could have been told more efficiently.

But, to be honest, that sort of change would have cut away from The Burr Conspiracy’s biggest virtue: its exhaustive scope. This is not only a history of the cultural reaction to Burr’s conspiracy over the span of three years, but rather an analysis of how news, politics, and power worked in Jeffersonian America. The depth of Lewis’s research is simply astounding. I would not be surprised if he read every letter and newspaper written between 1805 and 1807. Nearly every paragraph drips with substantive weight. I came away with more insight not only about Burr, but about the world Burr helped create.

I feel like this is a text to which historians of the early republic will want to keep returning. If it were shorter, it would probably be assigned in numerous grad courses. As it stands, it will fill fit on the shelf with other large tomes that remind us of the depths and complexities of America’s earliest decades, a dimension that no musical could ever really capture.

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