If you are looking for a biography about Aaron Burr and/or his exploits (including, the so-called Burr conspiracy) or a straightforward detailed event-by-event recreation of the in/famous trial, this is probably NOT the book you are looking for; on the other hand, if you are looking for a book about the repercussions, implications and interpretations of the trial, one of the most important in American history, then you should pick this book up right away. A well-written, and easy-to-read account of the Burr trial, where Burr, himself, is only ONE of the major participants.
To say the Burr trial is one of the most important in American history is understating it. Even the principal figure of the trial (a former Vice President, the duelist of Alexander Hamilton, and considered a Founding Father) and his mysterious exploits, but also the vast array of other characters involved was enough to elevate a trial into a legal drama. While Burr is obviously the book's and the trial's main subject, this book is less about HIM in his own trial; Burr's life was undoubtedly on the line, but so was the nature and character of the United States, at that point still a young republic trying to figure the best way to grow up. Step into this trial (conflict), Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall, two other principal actors in the melodrama. Before them was assembled some of the most gifted and leading lawyers of the age, doing their own part, in their orations and interpretations of the law, to steer the course of not only the trial, but the future of law in America.
Indeed, the lack of any detailed account of the Burr conspiracy (what is known about it, anyway) shows Newmyer's intent at providing a book less about Burr and his life, but the "life" of the trial. As an aside, it is interesting to consider whether or not knowing about Burr and the conspiracy is helpful to understanding the book. I wonder about this only because: (A) we still do not know what the true nature of the conspiracy was (Burr, an enigma even in his own day, was not exactly forthcoming with the details, and he apparently told many different people many different things); and (B) it might actually help not to go into this book with preconceived notions about Burr or his guilt. Whether or not Burr was found guilty or not guilty (though there is a small section on the verdict and the wording of the verdict itself) is no more or less important than all of the whos, whys and hows, in other words, the entirety of the trial, itself.
Furthermore, this book's intent is not to make Burr the villain, nor is it to rehabilitate his character. One of the things I loved about this book was the lack of apparent bias against or towards the figures involved. Newmyer, in his detail, tries to create an account with no "heroes" or "villains". Burr is portrayed as Burr, the anti-hero; Jefferson less as a mythic Founding Father, and more as a person whose politics and prejudices informed his actions; and so on and so on. And despite having picked up the book because of my fascination with the enigmatic Burr, it was probably Newmyer's explanations and implications of John Marshall's decisions and actions that I found the most interesting.
If the Burr-Hamilton duel was the prime example of the early republic's conflicts of personalities, prejudices, and politics, set to that now-antiquated notion of "honor", on an individual level, the Burr trial was all that on a national scale. Personal rivalries, party politics, individual prejudices, and even honor, figured into the trial. Newmyer does an excellent job in detailing the many personalities, including motives and possible/probable reasons for their decisions and actions. Yet, hovering over all of them was the character of the United States. As law was interpreted, as politics muddied the proceedings, as personalities clashed, a nation watched, fascinated not only with the melodrama, but, indirectly, how the trial was to figure into the future of the United States.
Newmyer does a good job in capturing much of the drama, but does an even better job at explaining the legal proceedings and their implications. Yes, he does have a lot of help from the people involved, including John Marshall's own explanations and reasoning, and the lawyers who so brilliantly argued their cases. In a sense, they helped to write history. But where the written history shows itself to be confusing, Newmyer does an excellent job in explaining it. Points which are either important or hard to understand ARE often repeated, but in an easy-to-read fashion that makes it understandable to the average reader. He also makes it interesting.
Indeed, the explanations of law and lawmaking are as important and exciting as the rest of the drama. Newmyer succeeds in combining the technical legal bits and the history of the trial, itself, into an exciting, yet informative, story (that really happened). If you are looking for Burr's tale (or what we know of it, anyway), try another book (David O. Stewart's American Emperor
is highly recommended). If you want high drama, trial history, lawmaking, and its effect on the future of the United States (for better or worse), this book is for you.