Book Review – American Emperor

Mention Aaron Burr’s name and the first thing that comes to a person’s mind will most likely be his infamous duel with Alexander Hamilton.  What might not be so well known is the path Burr took after he fled New York or the fact that, even during his tenure as vice-president under Jefferson, he was plotting to build his own empire in the western half of the United States.  In American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America, David O. Stewart masterfully sheds light on this lesser-known portion of Burr’s career.  While the Burr/Hamilton duel is touched on, it is only briefly and as a backdrop to the animosity many Americans felt towards him at the time.  The majority of the book is spent covering Burr’s machinations with General James Wilkinson and Harman Blennerhassett along his subsequent trial for treason.  Stewart also discusses the dislike Jefferson had for Burr and Jefferson’s dead-level best attempts at ensuring Burr was found guilty of treason.

While the book doesn’t portray Burr in the most favorable light, I was left with the impression that Stewart gave a fair account of Burr’s character as well as his attempts at empire building without necessarily labeling him an outright traitor.  Burr isn’t painted as a monstrous traitor but neither are the charges of treason completely whitewashed.  In the end, Stewart agrees with the “not guilty” verdict based on John Marshall’s interpretation of the Constitution and not on whether or not Burr actually schemed against the U.S., which Stewart notes as being completely plausible.  The book also includes a copy of the “cipher letter” and the indictment against Burr.

American Emperor is a well-researched, readable account of Aaron Burr’s controversial plans.  I would recommend this book to anyone wanting to know more about what happened after the duel.  (5/5 stars)

(Thanks to Simon and Schuster for providing an electronic copy of this book.)

Book Review – The Greater Journey

Ever since I picked up John Adams, I have been an avid fan of David McCullough.  His biography of Harry Truman is perhaps the best one I’ve ever read.  McCullough has a knack for taking people or things that perhaps have escaped the popular limelight (such as the Panama Canal or the Brooklyn Bridge) and writes a completely captivating history of them.  You do not simply read a McCullough book, you experience it.

When I first heard that McCullough was penning a new work focusing on the impact that Parisian life had on Americans of the 19th century, I was quite excited to say the least.  And when I was offered the chance to do a pre-release review of The Greater Journey, I was thrilled and jumped at the opportunity.  McCullough did not disappoint.

The Greater Journey varies in focus from his other works.  While the majority of his previous books have focused on political and engineering aspects of American history, The Greater Journey instead highlights many of the artistic influences of American history (Adams, Jefferson and Franklin get barely a mention).  Although working with a large cast of characters such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mary Cassatt, Louis Moreau Gottschalk and Harriet Beecher Stowe, McCullough spotlights a few in more detail.  Although Samuel F. B. Morse is more widely known for inventing the telegraph, McCullough spends more time discussing Morse’s artistic work in the Louvre.  Augustus Saint-Gaudens, sculptor of such memorials as the Farragut, Sherman and Robert Gould Shaw Memorials, was greatly influenced by his time in Paris.  Of particular interest to me was the account of Elihu Washburne’s efforts during the Franco-Prussian War to protect French, American and German citizens.  With each of these and others, McCullough writes of how their time in Paris influenced their artistic abilities or, as was the case with Charles Sumner, their political/humanitarian views.

When I first heard of the subject matter of the book, I wasn’t sure it would be as interesting as McCullough’s other works that dealt with more sweeping changes such as 1776.  But while watching an interview of McCullough about the book, he made a statement that convinced me otherwise.  He said “History is much more than just politics and generals.  History is about life.  History is human.  And music, art, literature, poetry, theatre, science, the whole realm of the human spirit is all part of history.”

As captivating and readable as his other books, The Greater Journey offers a unique glimpse of the more cultural side of American history and the huge role Paris life played in shaping this culture. (5/5 stars)