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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
Luck always seemed to be with young Wilkinson. By a series of fortunate chances he caught Washington’s eye in a lucky moment at Trenton. General Horatio Gates, to whose headquarters staff he had transferred, found him pliable and sympathetic, a young officer adept at scrounging up a meal or a drink or a wench. In 1777 Wilkinson was promoted to deputy adjutant-general and brevetted brigadier general. In his memoirs he took credit for choosing General Gates’ fine position on Bemis Heights and so bringing about Burgoyne’s surrender.
Wilkinson had just turned twenty-one when he married Ann Biddle, the attractive daughter of a Quaker innkeeper rising in Philadelphia society. Because of some association with the discredited anti-Washington “Conway Cabal,” Wilkinson had thought it prudent to resign from active service, but the young man had a way of ingratiating himself. Plump, popeyed, and convivial, he somehow slipped in and out of scrapes and scandals without leaving bad feelings behind. Finding a living hard to come by on the Bucks County farm he took over from a dispossessed Tory, he sold it in 1784, piled his wife and two children into a carriage and his household goods into a Conestoga wagon, and set out for Kentucky. As agent for the Philadelphia firm of Barclay, Moylan and Co., he opened a general store in Lexington.
In Kentucky he was in his element. Storekeepers were making fortunes. Speculation in military land grants held out prospects of wealth to every settler. Politics was a hive of intrigue. Not many months passed before young Wilkinson had outrun George Rogers Clark as the spokesman for the grievances of the frontiersmen along the Ohio.
When the Spanish attempted to close the Mississippi to American commerce in 1786, it could have meant ruin to the Kentuckians, especially Wilkinson, who invested in everything. He dealt in land. He speculated in cargoes for export. His livelihood depended on trade through New Orleans. Along with his business associate, Judge Harry Innes, he promoted the notion that the future of Kentucky depended on accommodation with the Spaniards, and he developed a real knack for dealing with them.
In the spring of 1787 he made his way down the Mississippi. His handsome gifts, such as the pair of blooded horses he presented to the commander at Natchez, opened every door. During the two months he spent in New Orleans, he and the Spanish governor, Don Esteban Miró, became thick as thieves. Wilkinson confided in Don Esteban that though he had a poor head for figures he had noticed that tobacco which could be bought for two dollars a hundredweight in Kentucky sold for nine and a half at the royal warehouse in New Orleans. Why not let him have the monopoly of the traffic down the Mississippi?
Don Esteban was no mean horse trader. Joining in the monopoly of the tobacco trade would require a somewhat hazardous interpretation of the royal regulations. He demanded a quid pro quo . Wilkinson intimated that there might be services he could perform for His Most Catholic Majesty.
Always an eager penman, Wilkinson set to work to draft a memorial setting forth for the Spanish officials the benefits that would accrue to them from a separation of the western settlements from the Atlantic states. Don Esteban was eager for news of disaffection in Kentucky. He pointed out that it would be a graceful gesture, as a mere formality between men of the world, if the General would sign an oath of allegiance to the Spanish sovereign. That grateful monarch furnished pensions to his retainers. Wilkinson signed, and his name was entered in the secret ledgers of the Ministry for the Colonies as Agent Number Thirteen. Two thousand silver dollars a year was mentioned as a suitable honorarium.
The tobacco monopoly failed to prove as lucrative as Wilkinson expected. His Spanish pension appeared intermittently. By 1790, high living and careless speculation had reduced him to bankruptcy. He applied for a commission in the new Army of the United States that President Washington was organizing to protect the frontier, and soon attained his old rank of brigadier. When Burr became Vice President, Wilkinson felt he had a friend at court. They had become intimate as young men in the days of the Conway Cabal, and occasionally corresponded in a private cipher. He had every reason for feeling cordial toward Burr, whose influence was thought by some to have brought Wilkinson the appointment, in 1805, as governor of the Territory of Louisiana. Furthermore, Burr’s elimination of Hamilton left Wilkinson the ranking general officer in the United States Army.
Now, in June of 1805, the congenial pair spent four days together at Fort Massac tracing out the trails to Mexico on their maps. With Wilkinson’s help, Burr believed, his project was certain of success.
The War Department, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio—all were in the palm of his hand. Now he must sound out the Creoles, the French-speaking natives of New Orleans, who were restive under the new regulations—and taxes—imposed by the Americans since the Louisiana Purchase. Wilkinson may have had his doubts, but if Burr did manage his coup, he wanted to be in on the loot. He offered Colonel Burr every civility.
“The general and his officers,” Burr wrote Theodosia, “fitted me out with an elegant barge, sails, colours and ten oars, with a sergeant and ten able faithful hands.”