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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
After all challenges were exhausted, the list of grand jurors selected turned out to be a roster of some of the ablest men in Virginia. When the Chief Justice chose John Randolph of Roanoke as foreman, the Federalist dinner tables rocked with satisfaction. Nobody could accuse Marshall of bias; he had chosen a Republican; but of all Republicans, John Randolph was the least friendly to Jefferson. The erstwhile administration leader in the House was now making a career of opposition to the man he was coming to jeer at as “St. Thomas of Cantingbury.”
As May wore on, Richmond filled to overflowing with curious visitors. The Burr trial was the greatest show in the history of the commonwealth. Every bed in every inn was taken. Every house was stuffed with guests sleeping on truckle beds in the attics. Every stable and shed had its complement of horses and gigs. Coaches and carriages encumbered the inn yards. Families of country people came in covered wagons and camped in the open lots. The streets were brilliant with uniforms of the Army and Navy and of various militia organizations. The ladies all wore their best.
Though many Republicans were wagering that Colonel Burr would jump his bail again, on the morning of May 22 the little colonel was seen flitting among his lawyers, cool as a cucumber, wearing a neat suit of black silk, with his hair carefully powdered and tied in a queue. Judge Cyrus Griffin, George Washington’s appointee to the Virginia district court, joined the Chief Justice on the bench.
From day to day the crowds were disappointed. The trial marked time. The Chief Justice would not allow the grand jury to start examining witnesses until General Wilkinson arrived. Aaron Burr’s friends scoffed loudly as May passed into June. The General would never dare show his face. While the grand jurors sat idly deploring their wasted days, counsel for both sides entertained the courtroom with rambling arguments over the nature of treason and the amount of the prisoner’s bail.
On May 28 the session was enlivened by the appearance of Luther Martin on behalf of Colonel Burr. Martin had been carrying on a vendetta with Thomas Jefferson for years. A great wassailer and brandy-drinker, fast drifting into helpless alcoholism, Luther Martin was a prey to violent hatreds and affections. But he was also the leading lawyer of his native Maryland, and he had taken a fancy to Aaron Burr.
When Burr, who never let an opportunity pass of playing up to the Chief Justice, did the handsome thing to end the dispute over bail by offering to raise his security to twenty thousand dollars “so that the court should not be embarrassed,” Luther Martin stood up and offered himself as one of the sureties.
On June 13, a Saturday, the news spread that General Wilkinson with a suite of witnesses had disembarked from a U.S. Navy schooner and was on his way to Richmond. George Hay reported to the court that only the fatigue of the journey prevented the General from presenting himself that very day.
The General in Chief had every reason to be fatigued. For three months Wilkinson had been charging about New Orleans in a state of frenzy. To clear his own skirts he had blown up such a bogey out of Burr’s schemes that he ended by frightening himself. He kept the city under martial law. He set his troops to digging earthworks and building palisades. He sent out squads to arrest Burr’s associates. Though Burr himself had slipped through his fingers, Wilkinson pounced on an old friend, John Adair, in town by pre-arrangement with the conspirators, and marched him off from his dinner table at the inn to the city prison. Wilkinson could not rest easy until every man jack who knew of his complicity in Burr’s conspiracy was behind bars.
In February the General’s wife died at the house of a hospitable Creole planter who was serving as the General’s aide. Shattered with grief, Wilkinson lingered on in New Orleans in spite of insistent requests from Washington that he come north immediately to testify in Burr’s trial. Meanwhile he tried to distract the administration from the clamor against his arbitrary acts by thundering letters about the torrent of Burrites that was about to descend on him.
Finally, with his son James for an aide and in company with a large band of witnesses under subpoena, he embarked May 20,1807, for Hampton Roads.
As soon as the news of General Wilkinson’s safe arrival was confirmed, the court began to swear witnesses for the grand jury. Two veterans of the naval war with France, Commodore Truxtun and Captain Decatur, led the way, along with Benjamin Stoddert, who had been John Adams’ Secretary of the Navy. When Erich Bollman’s turn came, George Hay tried rather clumsily to hand him the presidential pardon he had so eagerly sought in return for the information he gave during an interview with Jefferson and Madison back in Washington. But Bollman had changed his mind. He had been feted by the Richmond Federalists as a minor hero of Burr’s odyssey. Emboldened by the atmosphere of success in Burr’s camp, he now refused to accept any pardon. Luther Martin hastily explained that Bollman preferred to rely on the constitutional guarantee that no man would be forced to testify against himself. The court sent him in to the grand jury anyway.
On Monday, June 15, the halls and lobbies of the capitol were jammed with people. General Wilkinson was on his way up the hill. Crowds stumbled panting after him. Men and boys hung from the window ledges and climbed the great trees on the eroded slope, craning their necks for a glimpse of the actors in the grand confrontation.