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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 a winter’s study of his grandfather’s theology, he borrowed the best horse in his tutor’s stable and rode off for Connecticut, declaring that predestined damnation was an unchristian doctrine. While a student at the Litchfield Law School, he put in more time piercing the hearts of the village girls with his intense black gaze than in memorizing Coke’s Littleton. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War he hurried to Cambridge in hopes of a commission. General Washington turned him down, so it was as a gentleman volunteer that in 1775 he joined Benedict Arnold’s expedition against Quebec.
In view of his delicate frame his hardihood surprised his mates. He met privations fearlessly. Having at last procured a captain’s commission from General Richard Montgomery, he walked beside the tall, laughing Irishman on the snowy night when they attempted to assault the lower city of Quebec. When the vanguard was cut down by a burst of grapeshot, Captain Burr distinguished himself by trying to drag the huge carcass of his fallen chief back to the American lines. Before reaching twenty he was counted a national hero.
Washington invited him to join his staff. Young Burr made sport of his Commander in Chief’s spelling, and criticized his handling of the New York campaign. At Valley Forge he was one of the grumblers, and, for all his services, the highest rank he attained was that of lieutenant colonel. At Monmouth he disobeyed orders and led his regiment into a British ambush. His horse was shot from under him. Shock and frustration brought on an illness which eventually caused him to resign from the service in the spring of 1779. If Colonel Burr did not appreciate General Washington, it had also become clear that General Washington did not appreciate Colonel Burr.
Burr was nursed back to health by a motherly lady named Theodosia Prevost. Though she was the wife of a British army officer, Mrs. Prevost entertained so charmingly during lulls in the war in the Jerseys that her stone house at Paramus became popular with George Washington and his staff. Her husband died in 1779. In July of 1782 Burr induced her to marry him, though she was ten years older than he. A year later they settled in New York, where he took up the law in earnest. The city was a paradise for young lawyers who had served in the Continental Army, since all Tory attorneys had been disbarred. Soon Burr had a practice rivalled only by Alexander Hamilton’s.
The law led to politics. Burr climbed fast. He cast his lot with Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans when Governor Clinton made him attorney general of the state of New York. He served the Clinton faction so well they sent him to the United States Senate. During the years of the growth of the Jeffersonian party, he built himself a strong political machine in New York City. His wife died, leaving him a daughter he adored.
It was young Theodosia, hardly into her teens, who presided at Burr’s great dinners at Richmond Hill, his country place on the outskirts of Greenwich Village, the same house which Washington had made his headquarters and which John Adams occupied as Vice President. Meanwhile Burr’s ambitions became national. Though outwardly friends, Burr and Hamilton were now bitter rivals for the control of ward politics in the city. Gossip claimed they were rivals too for the favors of a young woman named Eliza Bowen, who was one of the city’s better-known harlots. But setting the best table and pouring the choicest wines in New York cost a great deal, and Burr was dangerously in debt.
In the bitter presidential campaign of 1800, which brought about the defeat of Adams and the Federalists, Burr and his “Little Band”—a group of young hotspurs he had gathered around him—were instrumental in holding New York in the Republican column. By a fluke in the procedure, though nobody seems to have intended Burr for the Presidency, the vote in the Electoral College was a tie: seventy-three for Jefferson and seventy-three for Burr. After thirty-six ballots the House of Representatives finally chose Jefferson, and Burr was elected Vice President.
Just before the long stalemate in the House, Burr presided over the wedding of his darling Theodosia to Joseph Alston, member of a wealthy and powerful family of South Carolina planters. Friends of his daughter in New York wondered whether Aaron Burr had bartered Theodosia’s hand for the eight votes from South Carolina that helped cause the tie. In any event, his connection with the wealthy Alstons certainly helped keep his creditors at bay.
Though Burr was an able presiding officer in the Senate, President Jefferson, like General Washington before him, soon began to show a lack of confidence in him. The New York Burrites were disappointed by the small share of federal patronage that went their way. The Louisiana Purchase, by threatening to upset the balance of power among the original states, stung some extreme Federalists in New England into agitating for secession and thereafter Burr’s politics began to change. Jefferson’s control of the Republican Party would bar his way to renomination. Plainly, Burr’s future now lay with the Federalists.
Burr’s ambitions began to build him a castle in the air. If he could get himself elected governor of New York, when the time was ripe he might swing that state into a New England federation. As scion of two great New England families, he would be in line for the presidency of a new government. The Little Band went to work with a will.