Monday, August 16, 2010


Treason is a part of David Nevin's "The American Story, 1800-1860" historical novel series and takes place from the fall of 1803 through the late summer of 1807. This basically equates to the end of Thomas Jefferson's first term and his entire second term. These were important years in the history of the United States, a timeframe that included the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark expedition, and the election of James Madison.

The novel is essentially about Aaron Burr although we experience this era through the eyes of many characters, most especially Dolly Madison. At the beginning of the novel Burr is Vice President but completely marginalized by the Jefferson administration. In those days the man who came in second in the election became the vice president, not the best recipe for a cooperative management effort. Burr is prominent in New York but when he returns there to run once again for political office, he is badly beaten. His personality is one that demands satisfaction and when he becomes convinced that Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury at that time, is responsible for his defeat, Burr finds an excuse to blow an insult out of proportion and challenge Hamilton to a duel.

This is an oft-visited episode in US history. Most people know of Burr's duel with (and victory over) Hamilton but far fewer know what Burr was up to after that. None of what follows in the novel, concedes the author, is perfectly factual as Burr never admitted to it. But based on the historical record, it seems highly probable that Burr conceived of and attempted to carry out a plan to take advantage of the newly completed Louisiana Purchase by creating a whole new country. He planned to exploit New Orleans's desire to remain "French", raise an army, convince the leadership of the Western states such as Ohio, Tennessee, and Kentucky to succeed from the union and attack Mexico, using their gold to finance the new country. They would then become strong allies of Britain/Canada and limit the US to an east coast-only country, much less of a threat to the continent. This would also set up the possibility for the industrial New England states to separate from the agrarian slave-friendly South, a concept favored by Northern governors at the time.

An intriguing concept, but of course it never happened. I was amazed to read about it though and see just how widespread the whole thing was, involving a number of governors, senators, and other prominent people. It failed for a number of reasons, chiefly, that his co-conspirator, General James Wilkinson, lost his nerve and tried to pin it all on Burr. But James and Dolly Madison also uncovered the plot and convinced Jefferson to act to prevent such treason.

The book itself was intriguing albeit a bit slow in places. The author's style is to use actual historical figures as his main characters, not a fictional person who is affected by history's great events, like many historical novelists do. This requires extraordinary research, of course, not only to get the facts right on where people were when, but also to know them well enough to extrapolate how they would react to events. I think the author does this very well indeed.

I've read 4 of the 5 books in this series, missing only Meriwether so far. Mr. Nevin plans more of these novels, but the last one was published in 2005 and so I have to wonder if there will be more.

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