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 History
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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.

About the Author

Peter Charles Hoffer is Distinguished Research Professor of History at the University of Georgia and the author or coauthor of many books, including The Great New York Conspiracy of 1741: Slavery, Crime, and Colonial Law and The Supreme Court: An Essential History.

Additional Titles in the Landmark Law Cases and American Society Series