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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 dream swelled to grand dimensions. There would be no more republican nonsense. Mexico would proclaim him emperor. He would govern with the aid of a council of worthies made up of the best brains in the land. Theodosia would be empress apparent, and little Gamp (Burr and his grandson each called the other Gamp) heir to the throne.
But by early December Burr was back in Washington presiding with his usual punctilious gravity over the Senate. Senator William Plumer of New Hampshire, the diarist of the session, found him changed. “He appears to have lost those easy graceful manners that beguiled the hours away last session—He is now uneasy, discontented & hurried.—So true it is ‘great guilt ne’er knew great joy at heart.’” Plumer set to wondering what Burr’s future would be. “He can never I think rise again. But surely he is a very extraordinary man & is an exception to all rules. … And considering of what materials the mass of men are formed—how easily they are gulled—& considering how little restraint laws human or divine have on his mind, it is impossible to say what he will attempt—or what he may obtain.”
Burr’s last appearance before Congress wound up all business on March 2, 1805, was impressive. He delivered the most effective address of his career. “This house is a sanctuary,” he declaimed, “a citadel of law, of order, and of liberty; it is here—it is here in this exalted refuge, here, if anywhere, will resistance be made to the storms of political phrenzy and the silent arts of corruption; and if the Constitution be destined ever to perish by the sacrilegious hands of the demagogue or the usurper, which God avert, its expiring agonies will be witnessed on this floor.”
When he walked out of the hushed chamber, many senators were in tears.
Two weeks later Burr was back in Philadelphia telling Anthony Merry that the French inhabitants of Louisiana were ready to revolt against the United States and to ask for the protection of Great Britain. He suggested that the Foreign Office send as consul at New Orleans a confidential agent who spoke French, and arrange for a flotilla of two or three frigates and some smaller vessels to blockade the mouth of the river when Burr established his government there. For himself he requested an immediate loan of one hundred thousand pounds.
The same day that Mr. Merry transmitted this remarkable request for the consideration of his government, Burr wrote Theodosia that he was off for the West. He found the trip down the Ohio River a tonic to his spirits. Below Marietta he stopped at an island that was one of the showplaces of the region. A rich immigrant named Harman Blennerhassett had built himself a mansion there with gardens and parklands in the English style, almost ruining himself in the process. Blennerhassett, a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, was a big, gangling, nearsighted man with some learning but not a trace of common sense. To the settlers up and down the Ohio he was known, half in affection, half in derision, as “Blanny.” Blanny was away during Burr’s first visit, but Burr was entertained by Mrs. Blennerhassett, described as an accomplished and well-educated woman who was pining for talk of music and books on that far frontier. Colonel Burr had at his tongue’s tip all the fashionable conversation of the age. One contemporary historian claimed that Burr played Ulysses to Mrs. Blennerhassett’s Calypso. Be that as it may, from that moment on, the Blennerhassetts, man and wife, were as fascinated by the little colonel as a pair of cuckoos by a snake.
By mid-May Burr was in Cincinnati, being entertained by Jonathan Dayton’s colleague in the Senate, a busy Jack-of-all-trades named John Smith, who was storekeeper, land speculator, Baptist preacher, and politician. Dayton joined them. The three men put their heads together. The plan took shape.
Leaving his boat to follow the curves of the river, Burr rode briskly across country into Tennessee. The early summer weather was fine. He enjoyed the riding. No word in public of secession, only of a coming war with Spain; that was his posture. His progress became a personal triumph. Without quite saying so he managed to give the impression that his good friend Henry Dearborn, the Secretary of War, was only waiting for a declaration of war to put him in command of an expedition against the Spanish possessions. In Nashville he was tendered a public dinner. Andrew Jackson grasped him warmly by the hand and took him home to the Hermitage.
An enthusiastic duellist himself, Jackson considered the hue and cry against Burr over the death of Hamilton damnable persecution. And an expedition against the Dons had his hearty approval. General Jackson furnished Burr a boat to take him down the Cumberland River to Fort Massac, on the lower Ohio near present-day Cairo, Illinois, where he was to pick up his own boat again. There Burr at last caught up with an old acquaintance he had determined on as his second in command. This was Brigadier General James Wilkinson, General in Chief of the small Army of the United States.
Wilkinson was then nearing fifty, short, red-faced, and corpulent from high living; grown gray before his time, so he liked to put it, in the service of his country. Like Burr he had served under Arnold in the botched Canadian expedition, but unlike Burr he had found promotion quick and easy.