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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
Men’s accounts of the scene in the Hall of Delegates varied according to their political persuasions. Washington Irving, who reported the trial for a Burrite newspaper in New York, said Wilkinson “strutted into court … swelling like a turkey cock.” David Robertson, the stenographer, described the General’s countenance as “calm, dignified and commanding while that of Colonel Burr was marked by a haughty contempt.”
Wirt’s description in his letter to Ninian Edwards was possibly more discerning. “In the midst of all this hurly-burly came Wilkinson and his suite, like Pope’s fame ‘unlooked for’ at least by Burr’s partisans. It was curious to mark the interview between Burr and Wilkinson. There was no nature in it—they had anticipated the meeting and resolved on the countenance which they would wear—Wilkinson had been some time within the bar before Burr would look towards him affecting not to know he was there until Hay introduced him by saying to the court: ‘It is my wish that General Wilkinson, who is now before the court, should be qualified and sent up to the Grand Jury.’ At the words ‘who is now before the court,’ Burr started in his chair, turned quickly and fastened a look of scorn and contempt on Wilkinson—Wilkinson bowing to the court on his introduction did not receive Burr’s first glance; but his bow finished, he turned his face down on Burr and looked with all the sullenness and protervity of a big black bull—Burr withdrew his eyes composedly and that was the end of it.”
Wilkinson himself described the scene in a letter to President Jefferson in his own inimitable style. “I saluted the Bench & in spite of myself my eyes darted a flash of indignation at the little Traitor on whom they continued fixed until I was called to the Book—The Lyon hearted Eagle Eyed Hero, sinking under the weight of conscious guilt, with haggard Eye, made an Effort to meet the indignant salutation of outraged Honor, but it was in vain, his audacity failed Him, He averted his face, grew pale & affected passion to conceal his perturbation.”
As soon as Wilkinson had taken the oath, he was sent to the grand jury. He had dressed in his best in the commanding general’s uniform of his own devising. His enormous gold epaulets glittered in the light pouring through the tall windows. He wore his famous gold spurs, and his heavily encrusted sword trailed on the ground. John Randolph, the foreman, immediately piped up that the marshal must take that man out and disarm him.
It was soon clear that the jurymen were set to give the General a hard time. John Randolph had discovered that the copies of Burr’s and Dayton’s cipher messages which had been in the General’s hands had been tampered with. Phrases had been erased, words written in. The grand jurors kept asking the General why, since he claimed he’d first learned of Burr’s plot from Swartwout in October, he had let a whole month go by before warning Governor Claiborne that an attack on New Orleans was imminent? In fact, wasn’t Wilkinson guilty too? And when the grand jury came to vote its indictments, a motion to add Wilkinson’s name to the list of defendants was just barely lost, seven to nine.
John Randolph was furious: “But the mammoth of iniquity escaped,” he wrote a friend; “not that any man pretended to think him innocent , but upon certain wire-drawn distinctions that I will not pester you with. W—n is the only man that I ever saw who was from the bark to the very core a villain.”
While the grand jury was closeted day after day in one part of the capitol, at the public sessions in the Hall of Delegates Burr and his lawyers hammered on a similar theme—that the true traitor of the piece was Wilkinson; instead of being a witness for the prosecution he should be in the prisoners’ dock.
On Wednesday, June 24, Burr’s attorneys brought in a motion for the attachment of the person of General Wilkinson. While this motion was being argued, word went around that the grand jury was about to bring in an indictment. Every man who could puffed up the hill to the capitol. At two o’clock that afternoon, as one of Burr’s lawyers was arguing for the attachment of General Wilkinson (who, since he had emerged from his ordeal, was sitting brazen with self-righteousness among the government lawyers), John Randolph led his sober-faced jurors into court and laid several indictments on the clerk’s table.
The clerk read out the endorsements: True bills against Burr and Blennerhassett for treason and misdemeanor.
In his letter to Ninian Edwards, Wirt described with relish the consternation in the camp of the defense: “When the grand-jury came down with the Bills against Burr and Blennerhassett, I never saw such a group of shocked faces. The chief justice, who is a very dark man, shrunk back with horror upon his seat and turned black. He kept his eyes fixed on Burr with an expression of sympathy so agonizing and horror so deep & overwhelming that he seemed for two or three seconds to have forgotten where & who he was. I observed him & saw him start from his reverie under the consciousness that he was giving away too much of his feelings and look around upon the multitude to see if he had been noticed. …”