Joseph Wheelan raises serious questions about Thomas Jefferson's legacy as a wise, elegant and eloquent Founding Father in Jefferson's Vendetta: The Pursuit of Aaron Burr and the Judiciary. "Belying his carefully constructed image of benevolence was Jefferson's dark history of vindictiveness," Whelan writes. That aspect of the third president's character is the focus of this book about Jefferson's efforts to rein in the power of the federal judiciary, which he believed had overreached its authority, as well as his zeal in tracking and prosecuting his former vice president on a charge of treason.
Aaron Burr was bright, energetic and from a distinguished family. A skilled politician, he came close to being elected president in 1800. Although he was on the Republican ticket as its vice presidential candidate, the electoral system at that time gave him the same number of electoral votes as Jefferson. The tie in the House of Representatives was not broken until a Burr supporter switched his vote to Jefferson in exchange for the latter's commitment to certain Federalist policies. Burr's refusal to bow out of the presidential race, after having agreed to do so, fueled a hostility that created an irreparable breach between the two men. In 1806, when Jefferson learned that Burr was pursuing an ill-advised attempt to appropriate Spanish territory in North America, the president led an effort to bring him to trial. Wheelan's narrative skillfully weaves together political, legal and diplomatic history leading to the most important of Burr's trials at Richmond, Virginia, in 1807. The re-creation of this lengthy trial, which occupies a considerable portion of the text, is masterfully done. It was the "trial of the century" with appearances by some of the country's best lawyers, including William Wirt, whose published text of his speech for the prosecution became an "instant classic" according to Wheelan. Wheelan says this speech "probably single-handedly did more than anything else to fix Burr's villainy in the public memory." For the defense, Luther Martin spoke for 14 hours over a two-day period.
The presiding judge was Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. A Federalist appointed by John Adams and under threat of losing his position, Marshall rendered his opinion in a four-hour presentation which found that the prosecution had not made its case; the jury found Burr "not guilty." Jefferson's extraordinary efforts to convict Burr included a national manhunt, a dragnet for evidence and a trial with 140 witnesses, though the president knew his adversary was not guilty.
Wheelan's stimulating book, with its finely drawn portraits of Burr, Marshall and Jefferson, among many others, helps us to better understand a crucial episode in the early history of the country.
Roger Bishop is a Nashville bookseller and frequent contributor to BookPage.