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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
In New Orleans Colonel Burr was soon the toast of the Vieux Carré. He was dined by the very Jeffersonian governor of Orleans Territory, W. C. C. Claiborne, and set up to grand turnouts by members of the Mexican Association, made up of buccaneering characters on fire to make their fortunes by promoting a new revolution in Mexico. He fluttered the hearts of the Creole beauties with his mysterious charm. He became fluent in bad French. He was attentive to the Catholic bishop, who like much of the local Spanish clergy was disgusted with the subjection of his homeland to the infidel French and eager for the independence of Mexico. As Burr told the story, the bishop sent off three Jesuit priests to prepare the Mexicans for Colonel Burr’s expedition.
New Orleans seemed so ripe for Burr’s plans that he felt he had to have fresh interviews with Andrew Jackson and General Wilkinson. After leaving New Orleans and spending a few days in Natchez (“and saw some tears of regret as I left it”—he kept boasting of his conquests in his letters to his daughter), he rode north along the Natchez Trace, “drinking the nasty puddle-water, covered with green scum, and full of animalculae—bah!” into the clear air of the Tennessee mountains.
From Nashville he wrote Theodosia: “For a week I have been lounging at the house of General Jackson, once a lawyer, after a judge, now a planter; a man of intelligence, and one of those prompt, frank, ardent souls I love to meet.” To Andrew Jackson he said not a word about secession or funds from the British, but talked long of Santa Fe and his contacts with the Mexican patriots. He declared that the Mexican Association in New Orleans was behind him to a man.
A new project was rising on his horizon as a cover-up for his secret plan. While Louisiana was still under the control of the Dons, the Spanish governor had granted an enormous area—1,200,000 acres—of fertile land on the Ouachita River to a certain Baron de Bastrop. This tract was now, supposedly, on the market. Burr would find funds to buy it.
Burr’s physical energy was inexhaustible. From Nashville he rode 250 miles to St. Louis for a second conference with General Wilkinson, who had now taken up his post as governor of the Louisiana Territory. As usual the two men enjoyed each other’s company. Wilkinson was a great trencherman and amusing over his wine. Now Burr could report to him amid considerable merrymaking that General Jackson would march for Mexico at the drop of a hat. The Bastrop lands, which by this time Burr felt he virtually owned, would make them all rich, if everything else failed. They reached the point of drawing up lists of officers for their army.
By mid-November Burr was back in Washington, D.C., calling on Anthony Merry. Mr. Merry had disappointing news. His first dispatches had been lost at sea when a British packet was captured by the French. Duplicates had so far elicited no response from the Foreign Office. Jonathan Dayton, whom Burr had hoped would be on hand during the summer to fan Mr. Merry’s enthusiasm for the scheme, had been delayed by illness and had only just arrived.
Though Merry wrote the Foreign Office on November 25, 1805, that Burr showed every sign of distress at the bad news, it didn’t take the little colonel long to rally his spirits. He refused to be discouraged. He now demanded £110,000 and three ships of the line as well as the several frigates and smaller vessels to cruise off the mouth of the Mississippi. He set March of 1806 for the beginning of operations. The revolution in New Orleans would follow in April or May. He told Merry he had found a deposit there of ten thousand stand of arms and fifty-six pieces of artillery abandoned by the French. He must have “pecuniary aid” by February.
He held out a glittering prospect to the Foreign Office. As a result of the coup d’état to set up a western federation, “the Eastern States will separate themselves immediately from the Southern:—and … thus the immense power which has risen up with such rapidity in the Western Hemisphere will, by such a division, be rendered at once informidable.”
A few days later Colonel Burr dined with President Jefferson. It didn’t take much conversation to discover another check to his plans. Jefferson believed his envoys in Paris were about to accomplish a deal through Talleyrand to purchase the Floridas. He had dropped any project for a war with Spain.
News of Burr’s goings and comings could hardly be kept out of the newspapers. For all his successful intriguing, Wilkinson was famous for his indiscretions when he’d had too much to drink, and that was almost every time the wine was uncorked after dinner. Burr too, usually enigmatic in his utterances, was so intoxicated by the prospects of grandeur that he allowed himself to be overheard making jeering remarks about the need for a change in Washington. Rumors circulated and multiplied.
On December 1, 1805, President Jefferson received an anonymous letter warning him against Burr’s conspiracy. “You admit him to your table, and you held a long and private conference with him a few days ago after dinner at the very moment he is meditating the overthrow of your Administration. … Yes, Sir, his abberations through the Western states had no other object . … Watch his connections with Mr. M—y and you will find him a British pensioner and agent.”