Stewart’s American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America is a rattling tale that takes place in an America which was not fully formed or steady on its feet. Long before the South waxed secessional, both New England and the West (just over the Alleghenies) toyed with notions of separation from the union. Meanwhile, Burr’s career was in tatters. Abandoned by Jefferson after the Chase trial, he was unable to return to his home in New York (where he was wanted for Hamilton’s murder). He had no job, home, or prospects.
But the restless, ambitious, and egotistical Burr was not one to sulk. Rather, he decided to take advantage of America’s multiple geographic personalities and regional resentments. His life would have a second act, come hell or high water. Burr’s “Western Strategy” went like this: he would conspire with fellow disgruntled citizens and foreign nations to conquer and become Emperor of an ill-defined combination of American and Spanish territories, encompassing Florida, perhaps New Orleans and environs, and all of Mexico – or whatever he could cobble together.
Burr’s plans were always somewhat vague and fluid, which helped him tell possible recruits, such as Andrew Jackson, exactly what they wanted to hear. (He reassured Jackson that Jefferson approved of his covert plan to attack Spanish territories from New Orleans). As he does often throughout, Stewart sums it up nicely: “The confusion [over Burr’s plans] has persisted because he had several alternative goals, and because he said so many different things to so many different people. Then he stood before his adventurers at the mouth of the Cumberland and chose not to say what his goal was.” To be fair, Burr was not the only American lusting after Spanish possessions, large chunks of which would fall into the hands of the young nation before mid-century.