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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
There was nothing for it but for Lieutenant Gaines to take the little colonel into his family under a sort of parole. Gaines’ brother, who was government factor to the Choctaw nation, was ill in bed. Burr showed himself the soul of tact and courtesy. Explaining that he’d picked up a certain amount of medical information on his travels, he helped nurse the brother back to health. Meanwhile, he sat at his bedside keeping him amused with sprightly talk about Indian quirks and customs. At the table he fascinated the family with his knowledge of books and pictures and the great world. He fixed his black eyes on the ladies with respectful attention. He played chess with Mrs. Gaines. So long as he stayed at Fort Stoddert not a word passed his lips about the failure of his western project, or about his arrest or his plans.
Lieutenant Gaines was counting the hours until he should see the last of his charming prisoner, whose friends had spread the story that the aim of Burr’s thwarted expedition was to drive the Spaniards out of West Florida. As that was the dearest wish of every settler in the Mississippi Territory, expressions of sympathy were heard on every hand. “A week longer,” Gaines wrote to his commander, “[and] the consequences would have been of a most serious nature.”
At last the floods subsided to the point where Gaines felt it would be safe to try to take his prisoner up the Alabama River. The party was rowed in a government boat. When they stopped at John Mills’ house on the Tensaw River, the ladies of the family all wept over the sorrows of Colonel Burr. Indeed a certain Mrs. Johnson was so moved by his plight that when a boy was born to her some months later, she named him Aaron Burr. “When a lady does me the honor to name me the father of her child,” Burr was wont to remark, “I trust I shall always be too gallant to show myself ungrateful for the favor.”
At a boat yard at the head of navigation on the Alabama, Gaines turned his prisoner over to Perkins, Perkins’ friend Thomas Malone, and a guard of six men, including two federal soldiers with muskets, to be conducted to Washington, D.C. Gaines sent them off under the strictest injunction not to speak to their prisoner or listen to his blandishments, and to shoot to kill at his first effort to escape.
The lieutenant had found them good horses. Riding thirty or forty miles a day, avoiding the settlements, they hurried their prisoner along Indian traces through drowned woodlands. It was a rainy March. The nights were cold. Wolves howled about their campfires. Half the time they were drenched to the skin. Burr’s fortitude amazed his guards. Never a word of complaint. Never a sign of fatigue. He rode his fine horse with as much style, so one of the guards told his friends, as if he were at the head of his New York regiment.
They crossed the rivers in Indian canoes, swimming their horses alongside. At last, on the Oconee River in the state of Georgia, they found a ferry and an inn not far beyond. For the first time since leaving the Alabama country they slept under a roof. When they crossed into South Carolina, Perkins redoubled his precautions. He knew that Joseph Alston, the husband of Burr’s beloved daughter, Theodosia, was a member of the legislature. Public sentiment there was supposed to be strong for Burr. Perkins arranged his cavalcade in a square with Burr in the middle. Two riders went ahead of him, two on either flank, and two behind. They passed through towns and villages at a brisk trot.
In the village of Chester, about fifty miles south of the North Carolina border, they rode past an inn. From inside came a sound of music and dancing, and a crowd had gathered to look in the windows. The prisoner suddenly jumped from his horse and cried out to the bystanders that he was Aaron Burr under military arrest, and must be taken to a magistrate. Perkins dismounted at one leap with a pistol in either hand and ordered Burr to remount.
“I will not,” cried Burr.
Perkins, a man of enormous strength, dropped his pistols and, grabbing the little colonel round the waist, lifted him back on his horse as if he were a child. Malone grabbed Burr’s reins, pulled them over his horse’s head, and led him off as fast as he could while the guards formed up around him. Before the astonished villagers could open their mouths the cavalcade was lost in the dust. Aaron Burr broke into a flood of tears. Malone, who rode beside him, was so distressed at his prisoner’s humiliation that he found tears streaming down his own face. It was the man’s eyes that moved him so, Malone told his friends afterward: his eyes were like stars.
Aaron Burr, at fifty-one, had reached the end of his rope.
If ever a man was born to eminence it was Aaron Burr. On both sides of his family he was descended from clergymen, the aristocrats of colonial New England. Burr’s father, though a Connecticut man, was the second president and virtual founder of the College of New Jersey, later Princeton University. His mother’s father was the famous Jonathan Edwards, who preached predestined damnation so vividly that once a congregation ran out of the church in terror. On both sides there were strains of madness among the eminent divines. Burr early showed that he had inherited the family brains—and certain idiosyncrasies as well. He was only sixteen when he was graduated with honors from Princeton. While his classmates declaimed against taxation without representation, young Aaron graced the commencement with an Addisonian essay on building castles in the air.