Reviewed by F. Scott

Aaron Burr is most famous for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804, but in David Stewart’s American Emperor, the focus is his grand design to liberate the Spanish colonies and former colonies in North America, from Florida to the Louisiana territories to Mexico, and put himself on the throne of it all.

Stewart, an accomplished writer and constitutional lawyer himself, gives us a pretty thorough portrait of Burr the lawyer, dreamer, lady charmer, debtor, liar, and (probably) traitor, but also the loving father and doting grandfather. All this in 300 pages and from so much original source material is quite a feat.

I discern three main sections in the book: (1) review of Burr’s early career (he was Jefferson’s vice president and nearly won the top job in the Election of 1800) and the duel with Hamilton, (2) narrative and details of Burr’s miserably failed expedition to liberate the Spanish colonies and his trial and acquittal on treason charges (Chief Justice of the United States John Marshall, presiding), and (3) a quick tour of the last 29 years of his life, which would make a good book too.

Great fun is had in encountering famous or eventually famous people along the way. There is mortal enemy Jefferson (sometimes not who you think he is), of course, but we also meet Andrew Jackson, John Marshall, Washington Irving, Henry Clay, William Henry Harrison, Jeremy Bentham, to name a few.

Also fun is the reminder of just how fluid our early republic was in those days, with all sort of goings-on and frequent talk of secession in various parts of the new union. And, if you think the media is biased today . . . most newspapers back then were founded and funded for very specific political and partisan purposes! One of my favorite lines from Stewart is “In 1805, American journalism occupied a gray area between news, gossip, and commentary.” We should be so lucky.

Most touching is Burr’s relationship with his daughter, Theodosia. Burr was intensely interested in her education, acting as her tutor, and she indeed became one of the most accomplished women of her time. Burr held up Mary Wollstonecraft as the ideal.

The maps supplied of our young country are pretty good, but I would have liked to have seen more detail on the rivers—the main routes of transport and communication across the United States and territories in 1805. Stewart also provides an extensive “List of Characters” and extensive footnotes.

Mysteries still abound, as Stewart acknowledges, on many aspects of Burr’s mind and life. For example, we still don’t know exactly how the ex-vice president, under indictment for murder in New York and New Jersey, with no property, no job, no bank account, was able to travel so extensively, to entertain (and be entertained), and to gather others to his cause with no income of his own. Best guesses say support came from his son-in-law’s wealth.

The greatest mystery, however, is what in tarnation was Burr trying to do in his semi-traitorous attempt to liberate the Spanish colonies? And even get the western US states to secede?

Rating: ★★★★½ 

F. Scott reads and writes from the catacombs of western Massachusetts.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Simon & Schuster. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.