The Treason Trial of Aaron Burr : Law, Politics, and the Character Wars of the New Nation
Aaron Burr was a central character in three fascinating political dramas of the early American republic: the 1800 presidential election, when an electoral college tie between Burr and Thomas Jefferson took 36 ballots to resolve; the fatal duel with Alexander Hamilton in 1804; and Burr’s high-profile treason trial of 1807, where Burr was suspected of plotting violently to sever the Kentucky region from the United States, or perhaps to lead an illegal invasion of Spanish territories, or perhaps something else altogether. No one knew at the time, and no one knows today, exactly what Aaron Burr intended when he arranged for a large gathering of men and boats on Blennerhassett Island in the Ohio River on December 9, 1806.
Burr was publicly accused of treason by President Thomas Jefferson, who declared to Congress in advance of any trial that Burr’s “guilt is placed beyond question.” In a trial presided over by John Marshall (Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but here serving as presiding judge of the federal circuit) the jury acquitted Burr of treason on September 1, 1807 (U.S. v. BURR 1807).. The treason trials of Burr and his alleged co-conspirators Erich Bollman and Samuel Swartwout are described in detail in this engaging and readable book by Peter Charles Hoffer (University of Georgia), a specialist in American legal history.
Any reader looking for final and definitive explanation of what exactly Burr was up to will not find it here. By the end of the book Burr’s character and actions remain as mysterious as before. Hoffer presents his own conjectures, but resolving Burr’s plan (if he had one) is not the purpose of the book, and its major contribution lies elsewhere.
Available in the Law Library at KF 223 B8 N48 2012