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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
Mrs. Blennerhassett follows in a big flatboat manned by a group of youngsters from Pittsburgh. From then on, the expedition is a race between the speed of the current and the couriers distributing the President’s proclamation.
Almost two weeks go by before the Blennerhassetts get news of their leader. Taking refuge one late December evening from the chop and the storm in the mouth of the Cumberland, they are met by a skiff with a letter. Colonel Burr is anchored a couple of miles upstream and requests five hundred dollars in paper and fifty in silver. Next day the whole flotilla pushes off downstream.
For Burr it is just in time. A certain Colonel Hardin of South Carolina is already on his way down the Cumberland with the announced intention of shooting him on sight. The President’s proclamation has thrown Nashville into a fury. The citizens have hardly read it before they get ready to burn Burr in effigy. General Jackson musters his militia. He almost breaks down with patriotic emotion when the elderly veterans of the Revolutionary War, who have formed a corps known as the Invincibles, ride up to tender their lives in defense of the Union. Days before, Jackson’s man John Coffee has returned to Colonel Burr $1,725.62, which represents the unfinished boats that Burr had to abandon in his haste to depart. Accounts are closed between them, except for a note for $500 that Jackson unwisely put his name to, which eventually was to come back protested.
Unopposed except by cold rain and high winds and an occasional floating log, Burr’s flotilla, amounting now to thirteen boats manned by some sixty men, drifts down the Ohio to Fort Massac. The lieutenant in command there, who has not heard of the proclamation or of orders to apprehend Burr, exchanges civilities with the little colonel, and, believing Burr to be leading a group of settlers to the Bastrop lands, gives one of his sergeants a furlough to go along as guide.
New Year’s Day, 1807, finds the flotilla comfortably beached at New Madrid, on the Mississippi, in Louisiana Territory. According to one account, forty new recruits join Burr’s party. Other witnesses were to speak of cannon, and of two gunboats building there. Some were to accuse Blennerhassett of trying to buy arms and ammunition from the army post. Next morning they push off. Still keeping ahead of the hue and cry, they are borne swiftly southward on the current of the enormous brown river. As they glide along, Blanny and Burr follow their boats’ progress on their maps. Blanny is later to declare that it is when the boats sweep past what seems to him the logical landing from which they should have proceeded overland to the Bastrop lands that he first suspects an imposture.
Burr for his part seems to have forgotten all about the Bastrop settlement. His talk now is of Baton Rouge. This outpost of Spanish West Florida is supposedly so ill-defended that even the peaceable Governor Claiborne of Orleans Territory is said to have suggested jokingly over the wine after dinner that he and his guests drive up the levee in their carriages some evening and take it.
The weather has cleared. The little colonel is in high spirits. He appoints officers and noncoms. Muskets are brought out of a packing case, and he puts some of the boys through the manual of arms on one of the big flatboats as they drift down the river. At his friend Judge Peter Bruin’s plantation some thirty miles above Natchez he is confidently expecting news from General Wilkinson, whom he believes to be waiting in New Orleans for the word.
Burr is so anxious to reach Judge Bruin that he has himself rowed ahead of the flotilla in a keelboat. He reaches Bayou Pierre the morning of January 10. Judge Bruin has the reputation of being a hard drinker. Burr finds him in a state. Burr is shown the President’s proclamation. He is told that Acting Governor Cowles Mead of Mississippi has called out the militia with orders to arrest him. He is handed an issue of the Mississippi Messenger containing a transcription of his cipher message. For the first time Burr learns that Wilkinson has betrayed him.
He slips back into the role of injured innocence. Skillfully he fences for terms with Cowles Mead. Mead later declared that Burr’s statements were so strange he doubted his sanity. After surrendering on terms to the civil authority, Burr lets himself be taken to Natchez. Friends stand bail.
Again Burr finds himself the toast of Federalist dinners. The ladies ply him with dainties. In Natchez he has a host of defenders. Another grand jury refuses to find him guilty of an indictable offense and furthermore issues a presentment against General Wilkinson’s illegal arrests of suspected persons in New Orleans.
The presiding judge, Thomas Rodney, an administration supporter, has a different view. His son Caesar Augustus has just been appointed Attorney General of the United States. Judge Rodney refuses to lift Burr’s bond.
News comes of the apprehension of Bollman and Swartwout. General Wilkinson has offered five thousand dollars for Burr’s capture, living or dead. Burr knows the General well enough to be sure that, with all he knows, Wilkinson would much prefer to have him dead. Panic seizes the usually imperturbable conspirator. Nothing for it but to jump his bail and vanish into the wilderness.