- Historic Sites
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
Back in Nashville, Burr finds the Republican part of the population in a fever to march on the Spaniards. General Jackson has alerted his militia, but he still has occasional doubts. When he confronts Burr with rumors of secessionist talk drifting down river from Ohio, Burr is said to have shown him a blank commission signed by Jefferson. To cap that, he produces $3,500 in Kentucky banknotes to pay for the boats that Jackson’s partner, John Coffee, is building at Clover Bottom. He has already paid five thousand (in his own paper) to a Colonel Lynch for his claims on the Bastrop lands. He draws sight drafts on all and sundry. According to the newspapers he is spending $200,000 on boats and provisions. Blanny’s money flows like river water. Thoroughly reassured, Andrew Jackson puts on his best uniform to introduce Burr to the citizens of Nashville at a public ball.
To certain parties in Kentucky, this is all a red flag to a bull: the Spanish conspiracies all over again. Humphrey Marshall, Federalist brother-in-law of Jefferson’s Chief Justice, has set up a newspaper named The Western World to expose the old Spanish intrigue to separate Kentucky from the Union; in it he charges that Wilkinson’s old associate, Innes, is implicated. Joseph Daveiss, United States District Attorney, another brother-in-law of the Chief Justice, has been writing President Jefferson all summer warning him that Wilkinson and Burr are engaged in plots dangerous to the Union. On November 8, 1806, he presents an affidavit in federal court, charging Aaron Burr and John Adair with illegally promoting an expedition against Mexico. The presiding judge is none other than Harry Innes, under attack in The Western World as a pensioner of Spain. Motion dismissed.
Aaron Burr, ever eager to assume the role of injured innocence, rides back to Lexington and demands an inquiry. Popular sentiment in Kentucky is still with him. He has induced a rising young lawyer named Henry Clay to act as his counsel. When a grand jury is impanelled to hear Daveiss’ charges, Daveiss is unable to present them because his key witness is absent on business. Daveiss has to ask for a postponement. Burr makes an address to the court and walks out in triumph.
He is heard by a bystander to remark that Daveiss must think him a great fool if, supposing he did have an unlawful enterprise in view, he should conduct it in such a manner as to give anyone an opportunity of proving it.
Andrew Jackson is assailed by doubts again. On November 12 he writes his old friend Governor Claiborne in New Orleans one of his tempestuous epistles:
“… I fear treachery is become the order of the day … Put your Town in a State of Defence organize your Militia, and defend your City as well against internal enemies as external … keep a watchful eye upon our General [Wilkinson]—and beware of an attack, as well from your own Country as Spain … your government I fear is in danger, I fear there are plans on foot inimical to the Union … —beware the month of December—I love my Country and Government, I hate the Dons—I would delight to see Mexico reduced, but I will die in the last ditch before I would yield a part to the Dons or see the Union disunited. This I write for your own eye and your own safety, profit by it and the Ides of March remember. …”
On November 25, in Frankfort this time, the District Attorney renews his motion for Burr’s indictment. When Henry Clay demands an assurance from his client that Burr’s expedition has no treasonable intent, Burr hands him the same written statement he has already sent to his old friend Senator Smith of Ohio, denying any intention of subverting the Union by force. Clay is convinced and declares to the court that he pledges his own honor on Burr’s innocence. A second grand jury refuses to find a true bill. The Republicans of Frankfort honor the little colonel with another ball.
Meanwhile, President Jefferson and his Cabinet have been startled into activity by General Wilkinson’s first warning of the conspiracy, which the General dispatched from Natchitoches some twelve days after he received Burr’s cipher letter. Hitherto they seem to have discounted Daveiss’ warnings as expressions of party spite by pestiferous Federalists. Now the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy send out messengers to alert their forces, and on November 27 President Jefferson issues his proclamation that “sundry persons … are conspiring and confederating together to begin a military expedition or enterprise against the dominions of Spain,” and enjoining “all faithful citizens who have been led without due knowledge or consideration to participate in the said unlawful enterprises to withdraw from the same without delay. …”
During this period a private emissary of the President gives information he has collected about the conspiracy to Governor Edward Tiffin of Ohio. Tiffin informs the legislature, then in session in Chillicothe. A bill is rushed through authorizing the militia to seize Burr’s boats and supplies.
Tatterdemalion troops take possession of the boats being built at Belpre. They descend on Harman Blennerhassett’s island paradise, break into the wine cellar, plunder the kitchens, trample the flowerbeds, slaughter the sheep, and break up the fence rails for campfires. Blanny himself escapes by boat into a snowy night, while, according to one witness’ story, the levelled muskets of his recruits hold off the militia officer come to arrest him.