R. Kent Newmyer is the author of The Treason Trial of Aaron Burr: Law, Politics, and the Character Wars of the New Nation (on sale September). For more exclusive features and a 30% discount on this book and related titles, check out our Book Club.
Legal historians often privilege legal doctrine in their work, which is understandable since the lawyers, paying homage to stare decisis in their briefs, cite old rules to create new ones. Doctrinal arguments—about evidence, trial procedure, and treason law among other issues—did figure prominently in the trial and have to be treated seriously. But learned lawyer talk was inseparably connected to political ideology, which in turn was refracted by the character traits of those involved. Character influenced the outcome of the trial; and the trial, as trials often do, cast a bright light on character.
Jefferson’s behavior before, during and after the trial is both puzzling and revealing. Given the unfinished nature of the new nation—its contested western boundaries, the constant rumors of secession, and the as-yet-unformed loyalty to the national government—one can understand Jefferson’s sensitivity to the western filibustering activities of Burr in l805 and l806. But why declare Burr guilty to the entire nation before he had been indicted? And why rely on the testimony of James Wilkinson, whom everyone, including Jefferson, knew was unreliable? Burr’s lawyers made the most of Jefferson’s association with Wilkinson at the trial, a strategy that almost certainly led to Burr’s acquittal.
Jefferson’s many contributions to American history no doubt guarantee him a place in the Pantheon, but he had a dark side too, which comes out in the trial. What the records show is that Jefferson’s approach to Burr and to John Marshall, and to the trial process—indeed to the office of president—was highly personalized, emotional, and vindictive. Jefferson the president assumed without question or self-doubt that he was the chosen protector of republican truth—a posture that prompted one of Burr’s lawyers to liken him to King George III, or to God-almighty.
If Jefferson’s character figured in his vendetta against Burr, Burr’s own character—his preference for manly action over high- flown rhetoric, his sense of frustrated entitlement, his unapologetic and seemingly un-republican ambition—made him a perfect target for Jefferson’s wrath. Burr’s contempt for Jefferson and his policies, on the other hand, led to Burr’s filibustering efforts against Spain in the Southwest, which Jefferson assumed were treasonous. As the trial makes all too clear, Burr brought out the worst in Jefferson and Jefferson brought out the worst in Burr. The prickly sensitivity of both men harkens back to the 18th century when personal honor was inseparable from public behavior.