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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
To his diary Blennerhassett confided his hopes that in exchange for letters to people of rank Burr might be induced to start repaying the money he owed, but when Blanny hinted at this quid pro quo , Burr would talk only of his projects. The new aggressive mood showing itself at the British Foreign Office would provide just the climate he needed for getting backing for his plan of disunion. “He is as gay as usual,” Blanny noted, “and as busy in speculations on reorganizing his projects for action as if he had never suffered the least interruption.”
The misdemeanor trial proved to be more of a trial of General Wilkinson than of Aaron Burr. The lawyers for the prosecution had lost heart. Important papers were mislaid. They had only the most perfunctory assistance from the Attorney General, and the result was another series of verdicts of Not Guilty. Other charges in Ohio were never pressed.
Aaron Burr departed for Philadelphia. Already he was trying to recruit young men to form his suite on his projected journey to England. Blennerhassett followed in his trail, still hopeful of a settlement of his claims.
A mob threatening tar and feathers caused them to hurry through Baltimore. In Philadelphia Blanny noted that the Colonel as usual moved in the best circles. Finding himself one of a crowd of creditors whom Burr always managed to avoid, Blanny gave up. Travelling under assumed names and under strange disguises, Aaron Burr managed to shake loose from his creditors long enough to get himself smuggled aboard a packet boat for England. One of his last acts in New York was to borrow a few dollars from his German cook, who, knowing his master, made him leave the deed to a trunkload of personal effects as security.
Burr’s wanderings during his years of exile in Europe were as puzzling as his performances on the western waters. In England he ingratiated himself with Jeremy Bentham, the political economist whose utilitarian theories Burr claimed to find admirable. Bentham put him up and furnished him with funds while the little colonel tried to interest the government in the conquest of Mexico. When Lord Liverpool’s administration turned his proposition down, and sought to expel him from Great Britain, Burr had the effrontery to claim that, having been born under King George, he was a British subject. He ran up so many bills that he had to take it on the run, nevertheless, to escape imprisonment for debt, and retired to Sweden. There he panhandled his way from nobleman’s seat to nobleman’s seat, keeping all the while, expressly for the eyes of Theodosia and little Gampillo, his grandson, one of the most extraordinary journals in the history of the human mind.
Using a curious code compounded of German and English and Swedish and French, he noted, for the edification of the only two people he loved in the world, every single detail of an existence dedicated to a conscienceless depravity without match in confessional literature. He noted every subterfuge he indulged in to cadge a meal or a handout; every time he drank too much; his efforts to ease the vacant spirit with opium; every success with a woman, were she duchess or chambermaid; the price he paid his harlots and whether they were worth it or not. Intermingled were sparkling descriptions of weather and places, shrewd estimates of people, philosophical disquisitions on the meaninglessness of life, but never a word or a phrase that betrayed a moment’s escape from the strait jacket of self-worship.
When he wore out his welcome in Sweden and Germany, he made his way to Paris. There he presented to the Emperor Napoleon’s foreign office a fanciful scheme involving the reconquest of Louisiana and Canada for France. The response of Burr’s old idol was to have him watched by the police.
In the end Burr somehow managed to shake down the French foreign office for his passage home. In June of 1812 he slipped back into New York in disguise and was sheltered by such members of the Little Band as still retained political influence. He even ventured to open a law office on Nassau Street. He had barely settled in practice before a distracted letter reached him from Theodosia. His grandson was dead. He would never see Gampillo again. Desperate with grief, Theodosia could think only of rejoining her father. Too ill to travel by land, she tried to run the British blockade and was lost at sea on the pilot boat Patriot .
Friends remarked how nobly Burr bore his affliction. Stoicism amid total disaster fitted into his philosophy. He managed to make a living at the law, surrounded himself with a new family of outcasts, unfortunate women and foster children, some of whom were reputed to be his own bastards and whose education he supervised with pedantic care. He lived on for years as one of New York’s minor notorieties. Men pointed him out on the street to their sons as the wickedest man alive.