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Always an honest man, often a great one, but sometimes absolutely mad… Benjamin Franklin

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They were all heroes of the American revolution and many would go on to play important roles in the nation’s history for the following decades with Burr’s young defense attorney, Henry Clay, serving as a model for the young Lincoln. Without a strong specie backed currency true wealth in the early republic depended upon the ability to produce income and the principal means of that was ownership of land. So many members of the establishment were entrepreneurs at a the time when that term was synonymous with land speculation that it is difficult to know who was an impressario, who was an empire builder and who was an opportunist with an eye to the main chance.

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Most of the players in this drama probably fit into one or all of the categories and they were all such practitioners of the dark arts of speculation that Thomas Jefferson tried to build his case against Burr by bribing the main witness with government funds and arming his prosecutor with a fistful of blank presidential pardons to induce testimony from the principal players. Jefferson’s cousin – John Marshall – the chief justice of the supreme court presided over the trial and was having none of it and, which is even more important, established the necessity of a specific sequence of concrete acts to define the very idea of treason as an actionable offense.

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Was Aaron Burr involved in an early attempt to separate parts of the territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase and build a southwestern empire? He probably would have very much liked to have been. Was he able to use his plans as a springboard to seize the national government from Jefferson? History not only tells us that he wasn’t but a close examination of the facts suggest that it was neither his intention nor a remote possibility.

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Part of what is so important about the case is that it established precedents that kept the officer’s who resigned their commissions to join the Southern Cause during the War for Southern Independence from being tried and hanged as traitors – something the north was looking for any excuse to do.  It helped save Jefferson Davis and the political leaders of the South from interminable incarceration in prison after the war and enabled them to reassume positions of political leadership after the end of the military occupation of the South before the federal government became absolute in its powers.

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The treason trials of Aaron Burr Lawrence, Kan. : University Press of Kansas, c 2008  Peter Charles Hoffer Burr Conspiracy, 1805-1807 Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. viii, 212 p. ; 22 cm. Includes bibliographical references ( p. 199-206) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

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Aaron Burr was an enigma even in his own day. Founding father and vice president, he engaged in a duel with Alexander Hamilton resulting in a murder indictment that effectively ended his legal career. And when he turned his attention to entrepreneurial activities on the frontier he was suspected of empire building — and worse.

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Burr was finally arrested as a threat to national security, under suspicion of fomenting insurrection against the young republic, and then held without bail for months. His trial, witnessing the unfortunate intrusion of partisan politics and personal animosity into the legal process, revolved around a highly contentious debate over the constitutional meaning of treason.

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Hoffer unveils a cast of characters ensnared by politics and law at the highest levels of government, including President Thomas Jefferson — one of Burr’s bitterest enemies — and Chief Justice John Marshall, no fan of either Burr or Jefferson. Hoffer recounts how Jefferson’s prosecutors argued that the mere act of discussing an “overt Act of War” — the constitution’s definition of treason — was tantamount to committing the act. Marshall, however, ruled that without the overt act, no treasonable action had occurred and neither discussion nor conspiracy could be prosecuted. Subsequent attempts to convict Burr on violations of the Neutrality Act failed as well.

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A fascinating excursion into the early American past, Hoffer’s narrative makes it clear why the high court’s ultimate finding was so foundational that it has been cited as precedent 383 times. Along the way, Hoffer expertly unravels the tale’s major themes: attempts to redefine treason in times of crisis, efforts to bend the law to political goals, the admissibility of evidence, the vulnerability of habeas corpus, and the reach of executive privilege. He also proposes an original and provocative explanation for Burr’s bizarre conduct that will provide historians with new food for thought.

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Deftly linking politics to law, Hoffer’s highly readable study resonates with current events and shows us why the issues debated two centuries ago still matter today.

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