The Treason Trials of Aaron Burr
Peter Charles Hoffer
Langum Prize, Honorable Mention
Aaron Burr was an enigma even in his own day. Founding father and vice president, he engaged in a duel with Alexander Hamilton resulting in a murder indictment that effectively ended his legal career. And when he turned his attention to entrepreneurial activities on the frontier he was suspected of empire building—and worse.
“The Burr trial provided that a judiciary defending the rule of law could stand up to the president and a Congress bent on revenge, and that judges had the power to deny to the other branches ill-founded prosecutions of unpopular and even dangerous men. This is the most important precedent of the Burr treason trials, the most important story we can tell about law in the early republic, and the one we have to remember. Making that argument, and making it as convincingly as Hoffer does, brings us to a new understanding of this famous trail and its most compelling and enduring lessons. This is a significant contribution and the real importance of Hoffer’s book.”
—Reviews in American History
“A lively, readable legal history. . . . An interesting book both useful to scholars and well suited to the classroom.”
—Journal of American HistorySee all reviews...
“The Burr story deserves to be retold because it shows the human side of our Founding Fathers as well as an important stepping-stone in our nation’s constitutional jurisprudence.”
—New York Law Journal
“An engaging and readable book. . . . Hoffer observes that most historians treat the Burr trial as a political drama, but maintains that the legal story is equally important. He argues convincingly that the Burr trial was an important moment in the history of American constitutional law.”
—Law and Politics Book Review
“This examination of the strange case of the trials of Aaron Burr is a valuable addition to the excellent series on landmark law cases by the University Press of Kansas. . . . This book is well written and deals very effectively with the confused and confusing charges and evidence against Burr. Recommended.”
“Hoffer musters a stellar cast—Burr, Jefferson, and Marshall—to reveal dramatic trials that tested the rule of law and probed the nature of treason in the early republic. Vivid and persuasive, his book illuminates constitutional issues of compelling and enduring importance.”
—Alan Taylor, author of William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic
“A prolific and insightful chronicler of American legal history, Peter Hoffer once again shows that he is adept at finding timely lessons for today in past cases and controversies.”
—Edward J. Larson, author of A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential CampaignSee fewer reviews...
Burr was finally arrested as a threat to national security, under suspicion of fomenting insurrection against the young republic, and then held without bail for months. His trial, witnessing the unfortunate intrusion of partisan politics and personal animosity into the legal process, revolved around a highly contentious debate over the constitutional meaning of treason.
In the first book dedicated to this important case, Peter Charles Hoffer unveils a cast of characters ensnared by politics and law at the highest levels of government, including President Thomas Jefferson—one of Burr's bitterest enemies—and Chief Justice John Marshall, no fan of either Burr or Jefferson. Hoffer recounts how Jefferson's prosecutors argued that the mere act of discussing an "overt Act of War"—the constitution's definition of treason-was tantamount to committing the act. Marshall, however, ruled that without the overt act, no treasonable action had occurred and neither discussion nor conspiracy could be prosecuted. Subsequent attempts to convict Burr on violations of the Neutrality Act failed as well.
A fascinating excursion into the early American past, Hoffer's narrative makes it clear why the high court's ultimate finding was so foundational that it has been cited as precedent 383 times. Along the way, Hoffer expertly unravels the tale's major themes: attempts to redefine treason in times of crisis, efforts to bend the law to political goals, the admissibility of evidence, the vulnerability of habeas corpus, and the reach of executive privilege. He also proposes an original and provocative explanation for Burr's bizarre conduct that will provide historians with new food for thought.
Deftly linking politics to law, Hoffer's highly readable study resonates with current events and shows us why the issues debated two centuries ago still matter today.