American Emperor

Title: American Emperor: Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America
Published by: Simon & Schuster
Pages: 432
ISBN13: 978-1439157206
Buy the Book: AmazonBarnes & NobleBookshopPolitics and ProseApple


This vivid biography portrays Aaron Burr, the third vice president, as a daring and perhaps deluded figure who shook the nation’s foundations in its earliest, most vulnerable decades.

In 1805, the United States was not twenty years old, a largely unformed infant.  The government consisted of a few hundred people.  The immense frontier swallowed up a tiny army of 3,300 soldiers.  Following the Louisiana Purchase, no one even knew where the nation’s western border lay.  Secessionist sentiment flared in New England and beyond the Appalachians.

Burr had challenged Jefferson, his own running mate, in the presidential election of 1800.  Indicted for murder in the dueling death of Alexander Hamilton in 1804, he dreamt huge dreams.  He imagined an insurrection in New Orleans, a private invasion of Spanish Mexico and Florida, and a great empire rising on the Gulf of Mexico, which would swell when America’s Western lands seceded from the Union.  For two years, Burr pursued this audacious dream, enlisting support from the General-in-Chief of the Army, a paid agent of the Spanish king, and from other Western leaders, including Andrew Jackson.  When the army chief double-crossed Burr, Jefferson finally roused himself and ordered Burr prosecuted for treason.

The trial featured the nation’s finest lawyers before the greatest judge in our history, Chief Justice John Marshall, Jefferson’s distant cousin and determined adversary.  The case became a contest over the nation’s identity:  Should individual rights be sacrificed to punish a political apostate who challenged the nation’s very existence?  In a revealing reversal of political philosophies, Jefferson championed government power over individual rights, while Marshall shielded the nation’s most notorious defendant.  By concealing evidence, appealing to the rule of law, and exploiting the weaknesses of the government’s case, Burr won his freedom.

Afterwards Burr left for Europe to pursue an equally outrageous scheme to liberate Spain’s American colonies.  Finding no European sponsor during four nomadic years, he returned to America and lived to an unrepentant old age.

American Emperor’s vivid account of Burr’s tumultuous life offers a rare and eye-opening description of the brand new nation struggling to define itself.


“Talk about a page turner! David O. Stewart has written a riveting account of Aaron Burr's swashbuckling adventures in the American West.”
—Douglas Brinkley, author of The Wilderness Warrior, Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America

"A fresh, vivid exploration of the exploits and trial of Aaron Burr (1756–1836), the most notorious figure of the early American republic. . .  Stewart works the miracle of making even early-19th-century legal opinions and argument accessible and vital to modern readers. Two parts adventure story and one part courtroom thriller, Burr’s saga unfolds in “a North America of possibilities, not certainties,” . . . The author . . . lays out this complicated story with admirable clarity, while also explaining the long-term significance of its outcome for individual rights, the judiciary and the stability of the young nation.  A persuasive, engaging examination."
Kirkus Reviews (September 1, 2011) (STARRED REVIEW)

"True rogues are more common in fiction than in life . . . . It's easier to invent such a person than to be one.  Aaron Burr managed it, and David Stewart explains how. . . . Stewart does a fine job of conveying the restlessness, resentment and unmoored fancies that prevailed among the men who had gone west to make their fortune while France, England and Spain continued to jockey for position in the New World.  American Emperor delivers a colorful narrative of the schemes that carried Burr from one reckless venture to the next."
Joyce Appleby, Washington Post, December 18, 2011

"[American Emperor is] an excellent book about Burr's transgressions and how the attempts to punish him for them helped shore up the operating instructions for our fledgling system of government. . . . 'While presiding over Burr's case,' Stewart writes in his lucid and fascinating book, '[Chief Justice John] Marshall issued rulings that defined America's law of treason, constrained the powers of the president, and vindicated the constitutional right of habeas corpus.'"
—Julia Keller, Chicago Tribune, April 27, 2012

"American Emperor offers a compelling, provocative portrait of Aaron Burr. . . . A skilled historian and a splendid storyteller, Stewart makes the most of the episode and its compelling cast of characters. Stewart’s Burr is an American Satan with feet of clay. A rogue and a rake, he “fouled the punch bowl” rather than revering the Founding Fathers."
Glenn Altschuler, Kansas City Star, July 16, 2011

"[Stewart's] brilliant depiction of the hostile relationships of Hamilton, Burr and Jefferson reminds us of historian Henry Adams’s classic remark about sketching the semi-transparent shadows of character 'touch by touch with a fine pencil' . . . And American Emperor is a page-turner as well! It is no wonder that Brown University’s Pulitzer-winning Gordon S. Wood, reigning dean of historians of early America, recently placed David O. Stewart on his short list of 'popular historians who dominate narrative history-writing in the United States today.'
Jon Kukla, Washington Independent Review of Books, October 25, 2011

"Stewart’s American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America is a rattling tale . . . The author, who has written two other compelling works of American history, is that rare commodity: a lawyer who writes well. . . .The complexity of his topic does not inhibit his narrative in the least. He depicts his subject in all his eccentric vainglory."
David Holahan, Christian Science Monitor, October 26, 2011

"Burr's great struggle with Jefferson provides the narrative thread to David O. Stewart's compelling account of Burr's later career . . . . Burr is a fascinating character, and questions of character have dominented the literature . . . . Stewart is remarkably successful in avoiding this interpretative trap . . . [and reaching an] evenhanded verdict."
—Peter S. Onuf, Journal of American History, September 2012

"Stewart provides an outstanding account [of] Burr's suspicious western exploits . . . His gripping narrative reveals a founder with a passion for expansion . . . .VERDICT:  Stewart's sympathetic but unapologetic study of the enigmatic Burr . . . transcends its subject in exposing the frailty of early America's westward ambitions.  HIGHLY RECOMMENDED."
—Library Journal, July 15, 2011

"Great men behaving badly make for entertaining reading, so readers may roll their eyes, but will keep turning the pages of this meticulous, almost day-by-day account of a plot so bizarre that it's hard to believe it actually happened."
Publishers Weekly, July 21, 2011

"Stewart weaves a compelling tale of a man who is hard to understand . . . American Emperor is fascinating, surprising, and a good read."
Jeff Ayers, Associated Press, November 10, 2011

“A proven storyteller, David O. Stewart takes us on a wonderful journey back to a fascinating chapter of American life . . . 'American Emperor' is a great tale.”
—Jon Meacham, author of American Lion:  Andrew Jackson in the White House

“[A] luminous portrait of Aaron Burr as well as the first high-definition picture of an endlessly baffling, infuriating, and mesmerizing life.”
—Patricia O’Toole, author of When Trumpets Call:  Theodore Roosevelt after the White House

"[American Emperor] dramatically reminds us of the political unruliness of the young nation. . . Stewart the lawyer-historian excels once again at vividly capturing a notable episode in the nation's past."
—Patrick McGlone, Washington Lawyer, December 2011

"American Emperor is a rousing book . . .  with a cast of characters that could slip comfortably into a three-volume melodrama of the 19th century."
Richmond Times-Dispatch, October 23, 2011

“David Stewart brings the scheming, brilliant Burr to life in this lively but also judicious portrait of grand and unfulfilled ambition.”
—Evan Thomas, author of The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898

“[A] gripping narrative about a political adventure that might have changed the history of the United States and Mexico.”
—Thomas Fleming, author of Duel: Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton and the future of America.

Videos and Podcasts

Catch the video of David's presentation on American Emperor to the Virginia Historical Society in March 2012.

Or listen to him talking about American Emperor with Barry Lynn of Culture Shocks radio!

Or with Bill Thompson at Eye on Books!

Or with Kris Boyd on KERA's Think!

Or with Stu Levitan on Books and Beats!


Chapter 1: The Dark star of the Founding

In early 1800, at the dawn of a new century, Aaron Burr was on every short list of men who could become president of the United States. He was the most prominent northern leader of the republican party, which was poised to win the national elections that fall. As an emerging political star, he seemed fated to shape the infant republic as it struggled for its place in a world of warring monarchies and despotisms.

Burr had reached this extraordinarily favorable position by measured steps. From an early age, Burr preferred to advance on his own careful terms, beholden to no one. He had been just old enough to join the fight for independence from Britain.  In 1776, when the Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence, the twenty-year-old Burr served as a lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army.  When General George Washington picked him as a personal aide, Burr swiftly lateraled into another assignment, out from under the great man’s shadow.  When the Constitutional Convention met in 1787 to create a new government, Burr avoided the highly charged debates, building his New York law practice and local political standing.  When the new Congress convened in 1789 and George Washington assembled the first government under the Constitution, Burr served in the New York State government. Yet by 1800, Burr was a leading contender for the highest national offices.

Read the complete excerpt (PDF)