- Series: Cambridge Studies on the American Constitution
- Paperback: 242 pages
- Publisher: Cambridge University Press; F First Edition edition (September 24, 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1107606616
- ISBN-13: 978-1107606616
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 17 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #801,234 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Treason Trial of Aaron Burr: Law, Politics, and the Character Wars of the New Nation (Cambridge Studies on the American Constitution) F First Edition Edition
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"Newmyer proves a worthy, wise guide to the Burr treason trial. This book has no heroes. Jefferson is manipulative. Burr is an arrogant anti-hero. Marshall slowly picks and cavils his way toward an independent federal judiciary. Gifted, flawed lawyers successfully defend one of the last men in America worth defending. The epilogue serves as a stunning summary of Newmyer's brilliant insights on the early republic."
Mary Sarah Bilder, Boston College Law School
"This lively narrative is the best short account of the Aaron Burr treason trial, one of the most colorful and dramatic episodes in the nation's history. Kent Newmyer brings a fresh perspective to the task, showing how a distinctively American law of treason emerged from the clash of outsized personalities gathered in Richmond in the summer of 1807. He is unexcelled in his mastery of the interplay of law and politics in the early republic."
Charles F. Hobson, William and Mary Law School
"Kent Newmyer has long been one of our leading constitutional historians, and this book displays his command of both the political and the technical aspects of early American public law. This book is a tremendous scholarly achievement, but that is not all: Newmyer has crafted a riveting story about the all-star cast of lawyers who took part in the trial and, of course, the three great antagonists, Jefferson, Marshall, and Burr himself. A masterpiece."
H. Jefferson Powell, Duke University School of Law
"The trial of Aaron Burr for treason in 1807 has been one of those episodes in American legal history to which many people refer and few understand. Kent Newmyer is exceptionally well qualified to unravel the complicated legal and political dimensions of the trial, and he has done so in erudite and accessible fashion."
G. Edward White, University of Virginia School of Law
"Kent Newmyer, one of the most distinguished legal historians in the country, has written an extraordinarily learned and balanced account of what is arguably the greatest criminal trial in American history. The trial seems as relevant today as it was in 1807."
Gordon S. Wood, Brown University
"Newmyer excels at presenting legal issues with microscopic clarity."
Daniel Dyer, The Plain Dealer
"R. Kent Newmyer ... has quite a story to tell, and he tells it well."
The Weekly Standard
"This engaging and readable work offers a new look at a major historical moment in an early period of the development of the U.S. legal system, and in doing so offers a fresh perspective on a much-studied subject."
Harvard Law Review
"... this book is well constructed with useful footnotes, helpful illustrations, and an engaging tone. It should be considered for acquisition by academic libraries (both law and general), especially if they serve patrons who focus on early American trials, lawyers, or federalism."
Franklin L. Runge, Law Library Journal
The Burr trial featured some of America's most gifted lawyers and pitted Marshall, Jefferson, and Burr in a three-way contest that tracked the political and cultural differences of the new republic. This book focuses on the complex interaction of legal doctrine, political ideology, and character in the lawmaking process. The law that came out of the trial - the rights of criminal defendants, the constitutional meaning of treason, and the separation of powers, indeed the rule of law itself - left a permanent mark on American history.
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The book, by a legal historian, does a good job of discussing the details of the case, the political milieu in which it was conducted, and the conduct of the trial itself and its implications. While the book is ostensibly about Burr's trial, much of it is actually devoted to the struggle between John Marshal and Thomas Jefferson, and to a discussion of their beliefs about how the US should be governed. It paints Thomas Jefferson in a very negative light, John Marshal in a very positive one, and Aaron Burr if not favorably, at least not guilty of being a traitor to the US. I would recommend this book to legal scholars and serious students of US history and governance. However, more casual readers may find the book a bit too legalistic and oriented to a scholarly audience.
What is in the book -
· The book starts with an overview of Burr and Jefferson, who served together as vice president and president respectively and why Jefferson hated Burr. (Burr the nominal vice presidential candidate did not step aside in favor of Jefferson, the presidential candidate, when they both had the same number of electoral college votes in the election of 1800.)
· There is then a discussion of Jefferson and John Marshal, and a bit about why there was so much animosity between the two. Having read Jean Smith's biography of John Marshal I had a good idea of how this developed, but someone who had not read this sort of material would likely need more than is provided in this book to clarify things. (The reasons were numerous, and both political and family as they were cousins as well as representatives of opposing political ideologies.)
· The remainder of the book is devoted to the treason trial, a subsequent trial on a lesser charge, and finally to the aftermath of the trials.
· The jury for the treason trial found Burr "not proved to be guilty under the indictment by any evidence submitted to us", which has led to the feeling that Burr was guilty, but just was not be proved to be so. This has led many current histories to paint Burr as guilty, but to have escaped punishment because Marshal prevented the presentation of evidence that had no bearing on the indictment, but would have nonetheless swayed the jury to a guilty verdict. This book supports Marshal's rulings and the contention that there was no evidence that Burr even planned to commit treason by leading the western states out of the union, let alone actually leading troops to do much of anything.
· Thomas Jefferson comes off as somewhat of a villain; pronouncing Burr guilty before the trial, offering a pardon in exchange for an admission of guilt and testimony against Burr (turned down because the person being offered the pardon would not perjury himself by pleading guilty to a crime that he did not commit), being the behind the scene prosecutor, and using his presidential powers to the utmost to see that Burr hanged. He is shown to be willing to abandon his libertarian principals by favoring an interpretation of treason that allowed the British monarchy to politicize the crime and use it to behead their enemies for political reasons rather than for what we would call treason. (Treason was defined in the US constitution in a limited and specific manner in order to prevent this sort of abuse.) Furthermore, Jefferson was willing to abandon the rule of law in favor of a president acting in what he believed to be the will of the people. In contrast, John Marshal is shown to have fought for the rule of law (following accepted legal practice in order to protect the rights of the accused), even if it might lead to his impeachment.
While I liked this book I did not "love" it and could therefore not give it 5-stars (according to the Amazon rating system). I had problems with the following:
· Legal terms are not discussed or defined. This is fine for lawyers, but for others like myself I found this to be a deficiency. For instance, the terms ex parte and duces tecum are not defined or explained. (I was able to determine the meaning of these terms from Google, but I would have preferred to have these and other terms explained in the book, along with the context in which they were being used.) Likewise other terms such as "filibustering" are used, but not discussed. The nineteenth century use of this term refers to an irregular military action into a foreign country to foment or support a revolution, and not to a procedure in the US senate to stall legislation.
· The book is footnoted, with references appearing in these footnotes. However, the book does not contain a unified bibliography and the complete reference to a book or article only appears on its first occurrence. Thereafter, only the last name of the author is used along with a shorthand reference to the book, making it necessary to hunt through previous footnotes to find the complete reference to a book.
· While some background is provided - enough for someone familiar with the history of the US in the early 1800's, I do not think that enough was presented for a more casual reader. I think that a very brief (10-20 page) summary of this history would have greatly enhanced this book for a more casual reader.
There have been dozens of "trials of the century" since the founding of the republic. Be it the O.J. Simpson trial, that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, or the impeachment trials of Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson, these trials (for good or ill) captured the public imagination and bombarded us with breathless wall-to-wall media coverage. But of all these trials the first great American `show-trial', the trial of Aaron Burr may be the one that had the longest and most permanent impact on the American `justice system'. R. Kent Newmyer's "The Treason Trial of Aaron Burr" sets out to tell not just the story of this trial and its legal machinations but to also put that trial in the social and political context of the times. It is no exaggeration to say that this trial saw America coming to terms with the new Constitution that governed it and it set the stage, in good part, for two hundred years of criminal and Constitutional jurisprudence that followed it. Newmyer has done an exemplary job and he has created a book that it is as entertaining as it is informative.
The treason trial of Aaron Burr pitted the might and power of a sitting President, Thomas Jefferson against his former Vice President, the tarnished and diminished Aaron Burr. The chare was treason as defined in Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution. (Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.) Exercising, rather injudiciously, the prerogative of office, Jefferson not only publicly accused Burr of treason but repeatedly pronounced him guilty. The hyper-partisan media of the day had a field day with the charge and subsequent trial. The public at large sided with Jefferson and Burr was pretty much tried and convicted well before his trial in Richmond, Virginia got started. The only thing standing between Burr and the gallows was Burr and his trial team (the legal superstars of their day and the elite of the Virginia bar) and Chief Justice John Marshall.
Chief Justice Marshall had already incurred the eternal wrath of Jefferson subsequent to his decision in Marbury v. Madison, which Jefferson took as a personal affront to his power as President. Marshall was not acting as a Supreme Court Justice for this trial. Rather, as was the custom of the time, he was `riding circuit' and sitting as a trial judge. The aspect of the book that held the most interest for me were the legal and evidentiary questions, issues of first impression that Marshal had to deal with as the trial progressed.
As an initial matter, Marshall had to decide exactly what the Constitutional definition of treason actually meant. This was no easy task as the provision originated with certain aspects of English law that the new Republic seemed incline to distance them from. Specifically, the prosecution (Jefferson's dream-team) called for the application of the English doctrine of `constructive treason' a very broad and amorphous definition that the English crown and prosecutors had often used in oppressive and extra-legal ways. Burr and his attorneys called for a very strict interpretation of the text that treason meant the physical act of levying war against the United States. No matter Burr's intent, there is nothing in the public record or the historical record establishing that the rag-tag band of men ostensibly gathered to attack Spanish-Mexico in the event of a U.S. war with Spain had done anything approaching a war-like act.
Second, Marshal had to make a critical evidentiary ruling. The prosecution's direct case against Burr was weak. However they were prepared to introduce a lot of testimony as to Burr's character and a whole host of bad deeds he had done in the past that it thought tended to prove Burr's guilt in this matter.
Marshall's decisions with regard to treason and evidence set a standard that trial courts have followed ever since. Basically, when it comes to criminal accusations, statutes are to be read literally for the plain meaning. They cannot be construed in some amorphous fashion that can be shaped to fit around a certain set of facts. As to his evidentiary decision, today's rules of evidence still track Marshal's ruling: the prejudice of an accused's prior bad acts unrelated to the crime he is charge with is too great to allow into evidence. There are exceptions to this rule of course but Marshal set the foundation.
As a final note, the fact that I appreciated certain legal aspects of this book should not detract from the fact that this book is valuable not just to people in that profession. On the contrary, although meticulously researched and annotated, "The Treason Trial of Aaron Burr" is accessible and should be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in the early days of our Republic and/or the history and development of our Constitution. The book, like the trial itself, reads like a thriller even if you know the outcome.
Highly recommended. L. Fleisig