The Burr Conspiracy: Uncovering the Story of an Early American Crisis, by James E. Lewis, Jr. (Princeton University Press; 728 pp., $35.00). This well-written and readable book considers the political and social context of the so-called Burr Conspiracy (1805-06), in which Jefferson’s former Vice President Aaron Burr was rumored to have plotted to enlist conspirators to free Spanish Mexico from the Spanish government, to establish a trans-Appalachian empire, and to take land acquired from the Orleans Territory for his followers. At the center of the controversy were Burr himself, Jefferson, and James Wilkinson, then ranking general in the U.S. Army and governor of the Louisiana Territory. Though Jefferson, in his proclamation to Congress, avowed his belief in Burr’s guilt, Burr was afterward tried in Richmond in the court of Chief Justice John Marshall and acquitted, whereupon he exiled himself to Europe. Nevertheless, the facts of the case have never been resolved to anyone’s satisfaction. “Rather than retelling the story of the Burr Conspiracy,” Professor Lewis writes, “this book focuses upon the stories about the Burr Conspiracy that were told at the time and over the next few decades.” Lewis’s interest is in demonstrating how the intense concern with which Americans, east and west of the Appalachian range and in the South, viewed these events revealed popular uncertainty about the future of the United States as an independent, sovereign country, as a union, and as a young republic. His approach to the history of the early American Republic is both original and fruitful, resulting in a significant historical study. What, one wonders, would Tocqueville have had to say about the crisis, had he made his American journey in 1805 rather than 1830? We might wonder further whether, from the vantage point of our own time of growing political and regional disunity, it would have been better for America had she developed as several contiguous regional republics instead of as the vast continental country she became.
The Cold War: A World History, by Odd Arne Westad (New York: Basic Books; 720 pp., $40.00). Professor Westad’s thesis is that the Cold War, from 1945 to 1989, dominated and shaped world history, not just that of the West, during this period. He describes it as a confrontation between the capitalist and socialist systems that, although it reached its apogee during those years, had its origins in the late 19th century. The Cold War, he says,
was born from the global transformations of the late nineteenth century and was buried as a result of tremendously rapid changes a hundred years later. Both as an ideological conflict and as an international system it can therefore only be grasped in terms of economic, social, and political change that is much broader and deeper than the events created by the Cold War itself.
To these terms he elsewhere adds technological change, which of course is of extreme importance. “The Cold War grew along the fault-lines of conflict, starting out in the late nineteenth century, just as European modernity seemed to be reaching its peak.” This argument makes considerable sense when one considers that the Second World War was really the resumption of the First, following an intermission that lasted for a generation.
The Cold War is a very interesting book. It may be an important one as well.