Aaron Burr treason trial is 18th century OJ Simpson case
Published: Thursday, September 27, 2012
Updated: Thursday, September 27, 2012 23:09
On Thursday evening, a large number of people gathered in the Co-op for a book reading by UConn Professor Kent Newmyer on his newly published book, “The Treason Trial of Aaron Burr”. The book (which the Co-op received advance copies of direct from the publisher) is about the scandalous treason trial of the third vice president of the United States, Aaron Burr. In essence, the trial revolves the personal and political differences between President Thomas Jefferson, his former vice president, Aaron Burr, and another enemy of Jefferson, Chief Justice John Marshall. The case starts with Jefferson unilaterally and publically declaring Burr guilty of treason by trying to get the Western states to secede from the Union. The trial includes sensational testimony, and President Jefferson sends the prosecuting attorney a stack of blank pardons for witnesses against Burr. Although this seems inconceivable to us today, the justice system was still in its infancy. The exact definition of treason wasn’t even fully understood. To write this book, Newmyer poured over 1,200 pages of stenographic transcripts and newspaper articles from what he called, “the OJ Simpson trial of the nineteenth century.” The trial of Aaron Burr is considered the first trial that had a national following due to the scandalous nature of the case itself, but also due to the involvement of leading political figures Burr, Jefferson and Marshall.
Newmyer, who “went into history because I liked to read other people’s mail,” said that it was a “lot of fun to try and make sense of all of this.” As a professor at the UConn School of Law and an expert in the field of the history of law, Newmyer’s book takes a legal perspective and talks extensively about how the case has effects stretching to modern day. This case, which was primarily a separation of powers issue, helped both to ensure that the charge of treason is not brought up for political reasons and to create strict guidelines for charging someone with treason. Newmyer believes that we can learn from the treason trial of Aaron Burr, including the fragility of judicial independence and the importance of the character of judges. When asked by an audience member how his book would affect the public perceptions of historical figures like Jefferson and Marshall, Newmyer responded that there were “no perfect heroes. Some where less perfect than others.”