That is the question. Except, contends Professor of History James Lewis, it isn’t. There’s insufficient material for historians (or novelists and playwrights) to ever know the minds and motives of the principals in the so-called Burr Conspiracy. On the other hand, there is something that is knowable: the way Americans of the time used stories to make sense of the event. In 1807 Aaron Burr was tried (and acquitted) for supposedly trying to divide the United States into two countries. His actions in the run-up to his arrest and trial are shrouded in impenetrable mystery. “Just what was he up to?” has been the question for decades. Because it’s unknowable it uncovers much less about the early years of a fledgling republic than does a new set of questions posed by Lewis in his recent book, specifically: Why were so many Americans so worried? How did they arrive at the certainty that they knew his guilt, or innocence? In what ways are the crisis and the certainty related? Lewis’s painstaking exploration of contemporary source materials provide answers to these better questions. The way Americans of the time used stories about the conspiracy story says much about their hopes and anxieties, particularly about the very means of “American.” Could Americans be a unified people living together under this nascent republic? Lewis’s book is titled “The Burr Conspiracy: Uncovering the Story of an Early American Crisis.” Note the nuance: not uncovering the crisis; instead uncovering the stories told to make sense of contemporary fears, both conscious and subconscious.
LISTEN to a podcast on The Burr Conspiracy featuring James. E Lewis, Jr.