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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
Actually, Burr’s difficulties at that moment stemmed from the fact that he hadn’t succeeded in becoming a British pensioner. It was only with the help of the Alstons that he paid his travelling expenses. Jonathan Dayton, too was flat broke; and despite extraordinary eiforts, was able to raise only a few thousand dollars from the Spanish minister by selling him the details of a rival expedition against the Spanish dominions. For the moment, Theodosia’s husband remained the conspirators’ chief banker. Meanwhile, Burr was no more successful in his efforts to recruit prominent American naval and military officers for his enterprise. He approached men he knew had some grievance against the Jefferson administration—Thomas Truxtun, Stephen Decatur, William Eaton—but they all thumbed him down when they realized the illicit character of Burr’s plans. Still, Burr had Harman Blennerhassett under his spell.
Blanny proved even more credulous than Alston. He wrote Colonel Burr that his island estate was up for sale and that he was looking for a profitable way to invest his capital. He offered his services as a lawyer. Burr answered that he could offer Mr. Blennerhassett not only fortune but fame. He congratulated him on giving up “a vegetable existence” for a life of activity. He explained that he couldn’t go into the details of his plans until they met face to face. His letter left Blanny panting to give his all.
Burr had gone too far now to turn back. He must act the part to the end. He recruited a German secretary and the services of a down-at-the-heels French officer named Julien de Pestre to act as chief of staff. Burr and Dayton were now dropping the fiction of the Ohio canal. The young men enlisted for service on the Mississippi were being told instead that in accordance with the secret policy of the administration they were to establish an armed settlement on Colonel Burr’s lands up the Ouachita River. Each man was to have a hundred acres for his own.
Though many old Philadelphia friends turned Burr down, the famous Dr. Erich Bollman swallowed his scheme hook, line, and sinker. Bollman was the German physician who had been subsidized by Americans in London to try to free Lafayette from prison at Olmÿtz, in Austria. He was desperate for money. Burr told him he would send him to Europe as his diplomatic representative.
Somehow during the next few months he did scrape up funds to ship Bollman to New Orleans by sea, while Sam Swartwout and Peter Ogden of the Little Band started off across country to join forces with General Wilkinson. Each man carried a copy of a cipher letter that was soon to become famous. With its dispatch, Burr burned all his bridges.
“… At length I have obtained funds and have actually commenced. The Eastern detachments, from different points and under different pretenses, will rendezvous on the Ohio 1st November. … Naval protection of England is secured. Truxtun is going to Jamaica to arrange with the [British] admiral on that station. It will meet us at the Mississippi. England, a navy of the United States, are ready to join, and final orders are given to my friends and followers. It will be a host of choice spirits. Wilkinson shall be second to Burr only. … Burr will proceed westward 1st August, never to return. With him goes his daughter; the husband will follow in October, with a corps of worthies. … Our object, my dear friend, is brought to a point so long desired. Burr guarantees the result with his life and honor, with the lives and honor and the fortunes of hundreds, the best blood of our country. Burr’s plan of operation is to move down rapidly from the Falls [of the Ohio] on the 15th of November, with the first five hundred or a thousand men, in light boats now constructing for that purpose; to be at Natchez between the 5th and 15th of December, there to meet you; there to determine whether it will be expedient to seize or pass by Baton Rouge. … The gods invite us to glory and fortune. …”
It is not till early October, 1806, that Sam Swartwout, after many hundreds of miles of weary riding, finds the General in camp at Natchitoches on the Red River, and delivers the cipher message. His companion, Ogden, hands Wilkinson an even more extravagant communication from Jonathan Dayton, warning him that he is to be put out of office by Jefferson at the next session of Congress: “You are not a man to despair, or even despond, especially when such prospects offer in another quarter. Are you ready? Are your numerous associates ready? Wealth and glory! Louisiana and Mexico!”
In the solitude of his tent, with the help of a pocket dictionary that furnishes the key, the General sits up half the night deciphering the hieroglyphics. Food for thought indeed. Wilkinson is a gentleman with the profoundest regard for the safety of his own skin. It strikes him at once that the conspiracy in its present form is crack-brained.
Burr is lying to him. Wilkinson knows that the administration has decided against war with Spain. His orders are to patch up a truce with the Spanish force which has advanced across Texas to meet a rumored American invasion, and to agree to the Sabine River as a provisional boundary.