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The Conspiracy And Trial Of Aaron Burr
No one who met him ever forgot him. His charm captivated beautiful women, his eloquence moved the United States Senate to tears, his political skills carried him to the very threshold of the White House. Yet while still Vice President he was indicted for murder, and was already dreaming the dreams of empire that would bring him to trial for treason. After a century and a half, historians still cannot decide whether he was a traitor, a con man, or a mere adventurer. Now, a distinguished writer enters the controversy with an account of
February 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 2
About eleven o’clock on the night of February 18 or 19, he never could remember which, in the year of our Lord 1807, a backwoods lawyer named Nicholas Perkins who headed the federal land office in Mississippi Territory left the group around the fire in Sheriff Theodore Brightwell’s log tavern and went to the door for a breath of fresh air. It was a night of clear frosty moonlight. Perkins could see far clown the rutted road. Though he was described as a fearless giant of a man, and a major in the territorial militia, Perkins was startled to see two horsemen come riding up out of the forest.
The smaller of the horsemen rode right past. He was a shabby-looking little fellow lost under a broad-brimmed beaver hat. His companion reined in his horse and asked Perkins the way to Major Hinson’s. His name, it turned out, was Major Robert Ashley.
Perkins told Ashley that the major was away from home, and added that, on account of a freshet, the flooding of the creeks would make it hard for a stranger to reach the Hinson house that night. The sensible thing would be to put up at the tavern, where there was refreshment for man and beast. Ashley insisted they must push on, so Perkins told him the best places to ford the streams. While he was talking to Ashley, Perkins kept staring at the first traveller, who had pulled up his horse thirty or forty yards up the road. Something about the man aroused his suspicions.
Perkins had read President Jefferson’s proclamation warning of a treasonous conspiracy on the Mississippi, and the territorial governor’s proclamation that followed it offering a reward of two thousand dollars for the apprehension of the former Vice President of the United States, Colonel Aaron Burr. Colonel Burr was said to have jumped his bail at Natchez, 200 miles to the west, two weeks before. Perkins scratched his head as he walked to the fire. These men were up to no good. Mightn’t the little man with the hatbrim flapped over his face be Aaron Burr himself?
Right away Perkins routed the sheriff, who was related to Mrs. Hinson, out of bed. They saddled their horses and rode off after the travellers. They found Ashley in the Hinsons’ front room. When she heard voices she knew, Mrs. Hinson, who’d been hiding in the back of the house in a fright ever since the strangers walked in, let herself be seen, and started to fry up some supper for her visitors.
The small man sat warming himself beside the kitchen fire, his hat still pulled down over his face. Perkins observed him narrowly. He wore a boatman’s ragged pantaloons and a coarse blanket wrap-around belted in by a strap. The hat that had once been white was stained and shabby, but the riding boots on his very small feet were elegant and new. Perkins caught one quick glance of his eyes from under the brim of the hat and was convinced that the man must be Colonel Burr. Everybody spoke of how Burr could look clear through you with his lustrous black eyes.
He took Ashley aside and asked him point-blank if his companion was Colonel Burr. Ashley became agitated and walked out of the house without a word.
Perkins began to feel the two thousand dollars almost in the palm of his hand, but he had to move with circumspection. The little colonel was held in great respect in the western country—and he was known to be a dead shot. Mumbling a misleading excuse, Perkins rode off in a hurry, borrowed a canoe, and went speeding down the flooding Tombigbee River to a palisade named Fort Stoddert, the last American fortification before the frontier of Spanish West Florida.
Arriving there about daybreak, he roused Lieutenant Edmund P. Gaines, commander of the federal detachment, and told him he had the traitor Burr in his grasp. Right at this moment Burr would be starting down the trail to Pensacola; there was no way to cross the river except at Mrs. Carson’s ferry. The lieutenant ordered out a file of mounted soldiers, and they galloped off to intercept him.
They found Burr and his companion on the trail to the ferry. The sheriff, whom Burr seemed to have completely fascinated in a few minutes’ conversation, was acting as their guide to the Spanish border. Colonel Burr pointed out to the young lieutenant the risk he took in making an arrest without a warrant. The lieutenant brought out the President’s proclamation and that of the territorial governor. Burr declared both were illegal and unconstitutional. The lieutenant insisted that he was an officer in the United States Army and had to do his duty. Colonel Burr would be treated with all the respect due a former Vice President of the United States—if he made no effort to escape. The little colonel was conducted back to the fort and shut up in a room. Dinner was served him in solitary state. Sentries were posted at the windows and doors. Ashley meanwhile had managed to disappear into the woods.
Lieutenant Gaines and Perkins started racking their brains as to how they could get their prisoner safely to Washington, D.C. The weather was freezing and drizzly. There were no roads yet through the enormous woodlands of Mississippi Territory. The country abounded in Indians of doubtful loyalty. Rumors had enormously magnified the size of Burr’s expedition. For all Gaines and Perkins knew, the back country was full of partisans grouping to rescue their leader.