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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
The Chief Justice had no choice but to order Burr to the public jail, although he was moved the following day to a comfortable guarded room in a private house where Luther Martin lodged. Meanwhile the grand jury was deliberating further indictments, and John Randolph asked the court’s assistance in obtaining a copy of a letter postmarked May 13, 1806, written by James Wilkinson, to which Burr’s cipher letter was thought to be an answer. The members of the grand jury were aware that they could not ask the accused to present material which might incriminate him but hoped he would facilitate their inquiry into the facts. John Randolph was hinting that the letter might incriminate Wilkinson.
The Chief Justice replied dryly that the jurors were quite right in their opinion that the accused could not be required to incriminate himself.
Colonel Burr rose and in his most disarming manner declared that it would be impossible for him “to expose any letter which had been communicated to him confidentially.” He added, with that suggestion of the steel claw under the velvet glove of which he was a master, that he was not then prepared to decide “how far the extremity of circumstances might impel him to such action.”
Mr. McRae of the prosecution interposed that General Wilkinson had informed him that he wished to have the whole of the correspondence between Colonel Burr and himself exhibited before the court. Wilkinson was referring to other letters in his possession even more damaging to Burr.
Burr replied sarcastically that the General was “welcome to all the éclat which he may expect to derive from his challenge,” but that the letter postmarked May 13 would not be produced. “The letter is not at this time in my possession and General Wilkinson knows it.”
Even in their deadly grapple a curious intimacy persisted between the two men. Each knew how the other’s mind worked. Each was telegraphing to the other that he held in his possession the evidence needed to convict him. Whoever produced any more damaging correspondence would do so at his own risk.
The grand jury promptly returned with a new set of indictments presenting ex-Senator Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey and Senator John Smith of Ohio, along with Comfort Tyler, Israel Smith, and Davis Floyd, who had been Burr’s agents in organizing the expedition, as guilty of treason and of levying war against the United States on Blennerhassett’s island in Wood County, Virginia, on December 13, 1806.
A few days later Burr was removed to the penitentiary which Benjamin Latrobe, the architect of the south wing of the U.S. Capitol, had designed and recently completed for the commonwealth of Virginia.
Burr seems to have been happy under the cool, vaulted ceilings of his new quarters. It was at least a protection from his creditors, who were getting ready to place Colonel Burr in debtors’ prison whenever they could lay hands on him.
“I have three rooms in the third story of the penitentiary,” Burr wrote Theodosia, “making an extent of a hundred feet. My jailer is quite a polite and civil man—altogether unlike the idea one would form of a jailer. You would have laughed to have heard our compliments last evening.”
The jailer apologized for having to keep the door locked after dark. Burr replied that he would prefer it, to keep out intruders. When the jailer told him lights would have to be extinguished at nine, Colonel Burr said that was quite impossible because he never went to bed before midnight. “As you please, Sir,” said the jailer.
Under the plea that travelling back and forth between the penitentiary and the capitol would be too great a tax on the accused and his lawyers during the sessions of the trial, Burr, accompanied by his seven guards, was again removed in the first days of August to a private house. His suite at the prison was promptly occupied by the chief victim of his impostures, Harman Blennerhassett.
Poor Blanny had been taken into custody by the federal marshal in Kentucky, where he had already fallen into the clutches of Burr’s creditors, bent on attaching his person and property. He called in Henry Clay as his counsel and with Clay’s help held off the bailiffs by producing a letter from Joseph Alston which promised to assume at least part of the indebtedness. Mrs. Blennerhassett meanwhile was struggling to exist with their two boys in Natchez.
When the Alstons arrived they took over Burr’s old quarters in Luther Martin’s house. “I want an independent and discerning witness to my conduct and to that of the government,” Burr had written Theodosia. “… I should never invite anyone, much less those so dear to me, to witness my disgrace. I may be immured in dungeons, chained, murdered in legal form, but I cannot be humiliated or disgraced. If absent you will suffer much solicitude. In my presence you will feel none, whatever be the malice or the power of my enemies. …”
People were beginning to lose interest in Burr’s machinations. It was the prospect of a war with England that worried them now. Late in June the British frigate Leopard had made an unprovoked attack on the American frigate Chesapeake off Cape Henry, and indignation was sweeping the country. The government witnesses had scattered to the hills.