Review: American Emperor

american emporerSo, as you might have gathered by now, we’re big Hamilton fans.  We went in November to Chicago to see the show and we’ve both listened to the soundtrack about 950 times.  Can sing all the words.  Etc.

So a co-worker loaned me this book (American Emporer by David O. Stewart) about Aaron Burr, mostly after he shot Alexander Hamilton.  It’s excellent and recommended.  Difficult as it might be to believe, Burr’s life was even more tormented and treacherous after the duel than his life was before shooting Hamilton.

Truly, it’s a Shakespearean Tragedy.  When you get to the end–when his grandson dies and then his beloved daughter dies in a shipwreck on her way to see him for comfort–within days of each other–you’re seeing a life in complete collapse.

We actually heard some of this story when I was in middle school.  We did one of those long-term projects that centered on Blennerhassett Island–a Marietta-area island in the Ohio River that was owned by a rich family (eponymously) and was the location of much of the intrigue.

Stewart captures this perfectly.  It was an idyllic island, beautiful, self-sufficient, wealthy…and then…

Into this Eden slithered Burr.

The Blennerhassetts were no revolutionaries.  They were innocents who were duped by the flattery and persuasion of Aaron Burr–eventually losing everything.  (You can visit the island today, including their mansion.  It is a West Virginia State Park).

Maybe the most interesting thing about the book, though, is that it offers another linkage between books–in this case, The Brothers Karamazov.

So, Burr was put on trial for treason, which history shows us he was 100% guilty.  Much like Dmitry, who was put on trial for a crime for which he was 100% not guilty.

Beyond that, both trials were public spectacles, with huge rooms filled with spectators and more people following the trial in the newspapers.  And in both cases, an all-star team of defense lawyers battled a group of competent but overmatched government bureaucrats.

But the most important difference was that neither trial was actually about what it was supposed to be about.  In Dmitry’s case, he was convicted because there was a dead body and somebody had to be responsible, and he was the only one available to do that.  The arguments were not about whether he did it, but whether his actions afterward were the actions of a man who did it.  Whether it fit with the patterns of before and after.  Or whether there had been a packet of money or not.

But the trial did not turn on whether or not he actually killed his father.

My view is that Dostoyevsky was telling us that the as pure as ideals like justice might be, their translation into human life is naturally flawed.  He made similar observations about the Church.

Burr’s trial was similar.  The actual battle was over a bizarrely bad indictment written by prosecutors, the Framer’s very narrow definition of treason and the fact that Chief Justice John Marshall could not stand his cousin, President Thomas Jefferson.  The drama spun on this, while Burr’s guilt sat in the middle like the eye of a storm.

This is an era of our history that I was less educated on.  In fact, Chernow’s Grant biography combined with this one suggests that we might have been over-taught on the wars and under-taught on the aftermath.  Just one thing to illustrate.  Following the Revolution, there had been a bunch of secession crises in the US, including in New England.  The idea that the West might secede–as Burr dreamed of–looks a little less delusional in the right context.

Beyond all that, this is a great story told well.  To answer the inevitable question, not sure there’s a rap musical in this.  But there is a tragedy–for the stage or film.  Recommended.

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