Newark-born Aaron Burr became a notorious figure in American history when, on the morning of July 11, 1804, he killed Alexander Hamilton in a pistol duel on a bluff above the Hudson River in Weehawken. The duel is all the more memorable because at the time, Burr was Thomas Jefferson’s vice president. Yet, as David O. Stewart describes in engaging detail in American Emperor, the Hamilton duel was hardly the most outrageous act of Burr’s checkered life.
Jefferson, no fan of Burr’s, tossed him aside when he ran for reelection later in 1804. An outcast in Washington and under indictment in New York and New Jersey for Hamilton’s murder, Burr looked westward. But while others in post-Colonial America dreamed of a piece of frontier land to farm, Burr was bent on conquest.
Perhaps driven by his resentment of Jefferson, Burr set out to raise a private army in the American West. His goal was to drive the Spanish from Mexico and capture Florida and other North American territories under Spain’s control. Once he had seized those lands, he could start an empire of his own. To promote his audacious plan, Burr travelled throughout the western frontier (newly expanded by Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase), seeking partners for his undertaking and encouraging secession of the American territories (they could join his new republic).
American Emperor is the story of Burr’s western travels, his aborted military campaign, his multiple trials for treason (he was acquitted twice) and his legacy as the most bizarre of America’s founding fathers.