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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
Hamilton, who had been instrumental in trying to swing votes away from Burr to Jefferson in the House of Representatives, again stood in the way. He was letting it be known he considered Burr “the Catiline of America.” And Burr, having lost the support of the upstate Republicans, needed the Federalists to win. In the June, 1804, gubernatorial election he carried New York City, but upstate the various Republican factions combined to snow him under. In bitter frustration he challenged Hamilton to a duel.
The bullet that killed Alexander Hamilton that early July morning on the Weehawken shore put an end to Aaron Burr’s political career. By a strange ricochet Hamilton’s death also ruined the plans of the New England secessionists: Republicans and Federalists united to mourn the great man dead. Burr was denounced as a murderer. Proceedings were instituted to indict him in New York and New Jersey, and in spite of his office the Vice President became a fugitive from justice.
He made off to Philadelphia. From there he wrote Theodosia that he was retiring to a friend’s plantation to the southward. Only the risk of crossing the lowlands in the malarial season kept him from paying her a visit. Already her little son, Aaron Burr Alston, was the center of his grandfather’s ambitious dreams.
He kept her posted on his prospects of marrying a wealthy woman. “If any male friend of yours should be dying of ennui, recommend to him to engage in a duel and a courtship at the same time. …” She must ignore stories of attempts to assassinate him: “Those who wish me dead prefer to keep at a very respectful distance. … I am very well and not without occupation and amusement.”
The occupation Aaron Burr found so amusing in Philadelphia was plotting a dream castle even more breathtaking than the one that had just collapsed. He found a kindred spirit in his old friend Jonathan Dayton, U.S. Senator from New Jersey. The two dreamers turned their eyes far from Philadelphia, looking to exciting prospects both in Europe and the new American West.
Bonaparte’s successes in Europe were tantalizing every ambitious schemer of the age. His victory over the Spanish Bourbons had knocked the props out from under the Spanish dominions in the New World. Out of the weakening of Spanish power in Mexico and the restless land hunger of the American settlers beyond the Alleghenies, men with a knack for leadership should be able to build themselves a Napoleonic empire on the Mississippi. Burr and Dayton would mask the early stages of their enterprise behind a perfectly reasonable project to build a canal around the falls of the Ohio opposite Louisville.
Since anyone who summered in Washington City was thought to be risking his life from malaria, most of the diplomatic corps spent the hot months in Philadelphia. Waiting on the British minister, Anthony Merry, was Colonel Charles Williamson, with whom Burr had been associated in land deals in upstate New York. Though Williamson had assumed American citizenship in order to take title to real estate, he was a retired British army officer and a long-term agent of the Foreign Office. Williamson had for years been urging on His Majesty’s government a scheme to curb the growing power of the United States by spreading British influence down the Mississippi. The Louisiana Purchase had ruined these plans. When Burr let drop the suggestion that the settlers on the western waters might be induced to secede from the Union, Williamson caught fire.
Mr. Merry, who had nothing but scorn for President Jefferson and his levelling democratic tendencies, could hardly conceal his pleasurable astonishment when Burr declared to him outright that, given a naval force and financial backing, he would “effect the separation of the western part of the United States.” Burr could speak with authority: after all, he was still Vice President.
On August 6, 1804, Merry urged consideration of Burr’s plan in a dispatch to the Foreign Office. Colonel Williamson, soon to set sail for England, would explain the details. Though Merry admitted “the profligacy of Mr. Burr’s character” and acknowledged that he had been “cast off as much by the democratic as by the Federal Party,” he insisted that Burr “still preserves connections with some people of influence, added to his great ambition and a spirit of revenge against the present Administration.” These factors, he wrote, “may possibly induce him to exert the talents and activity which he possesses with fidelity to his Employers.”
With the Hamilton murder indictments still hanging over his head, Burr had to keep out of the way of the sheriff. He wangled an invitation from one of the Georgia senators to visit his plantation on St. Simon Island. With a follower named Sam Swartwout in attendance, he set out in high spirits on a coastal vessel. While the ship beat its way down the coast against light summer breezes, he had plenty of time to indulge himself with the glorious prospects of his great scheme.
First he would establish a government at New Orleans, and then he would launch a two-pronged expedition against Spanish Mexico. One army would advance overland while a naval expedition would disembark at Veracruz or the Rio Pánuco. All this would cost a great deal of money, but his interview with the British minister had opened up the prospect of a copious source of funds. With British help Burr would conquer Mexico. The Mexicans would flock to his standard. He was already counting all the fresh silver dollars that would flow from the Mexican mint.