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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
Furthermore, even to this distant outpost news has come of Pitt’s death and of the appointment of Charles James Fox, the most pro-American of British statesmen, as Foreign Minister. Wilkinson has no way of knowing that one of Fox’s first acts in office was to recall the eager Mr. Merry, thereby putting a quietus on any hope of British help for Burr, but it is obvious that Fox is no man to back an insurrection against the United States. By now Wilkinson knows too that the western settlers are “bigotted for Jefferson,” as he put it a few months later, and that the conspiracy has no backing among the people.
The General decides that the safest thing for him to do is to turn state’s evidence on Dayton and Burr. Once that decision is made, he lashes himself up into a frenzy of righteous indignation. He writes the President in heroic vein: He will defend the Union with his life. He writes Governor Claiborne in New Orleans to be on his guard: “You are surrounded by dangers of which you dream not and the destruction of the American Union is seriously menaced. The Storm will probably burst on New Orleans, when I shall meet it & triumph or perish.”
Not a word to Swartwout and Ogden; they must be deceived into believing that he is still one of them. But among his officers, in the privacy of the wine after dinner, he swells like a bullfrog. He is the man who will stamp out this foul conspiracy, so help him God. How better can he squelch the libellous rumors of his being on the Spanish payroll than by saving New Orleans for the Union? He and his little force will stand like the Spartans at Thermopylae.
After further cogitation the General hits on a scheme that he feels will not only keep him in good odor with the administration in Washington but will produce a handsome bonus from his Spanish employers. He knows that President Jefferson is agog for exploration of the West. Wilkinson already has Lieutenant Zebulon Pike searching out the trails to Santa Fe. Now he sends off his aide, Walter Burling, to Mexico City—ostensibly to buy mules, but actually on a mission to the viceroy. For Washington his story will be that Burling is making a survey of roads and fortifications. For the viceroy he drafts a letter, picturing himself, again like Leonidas holding back the Persian hordes, as averting an attack on Mexico. He respectfully demands the sum of $121,000 in payment for these services.
Never suspecting that his plans have been betrayed, Burr meanwhile is building his dream castle with the help of the doting Theodosia, Alston, and little Gampillo in the crisp air of Bedford Springs in the Pennsylvania mountains. They are already living in the imagined splendors of Montezuma’s court under Aaron the First. They will put the Emperor Napoleon to shame. No title has yet been found for Joseph Alston. He announces that he will earn one by his deeds “in council and in the field.”
Leaving the Alstons to follow by slow stages, Burr, attended by his secretary and chief of staff, rides off to Pittsburgh. There he sets up his headquarters at O’Hara’s Tavern and starts recruiting young men of mettle. He contracts for twenty thousand barrels of flour and five thousand barrels of salt pork. He pays for everything with his own bills of exchange, guaranteed by the infatuated Alston.
Burr talks so big in Pittsburgh that a number of military men become alarmed and send warnings to Washington. Burr has already gone down river. On Blennerhassett’s island he conquers all hearts. Poor nearsighted Blanny is transfigured by the prospect of glory. He sets to work collecting fowling pieces and muskets, and whiskey by the barrel. He has his hands build a kiln for drying Indian meal. They roll out tubs of salt pork and corned beef. Mrs. Blennerhassett packs her trunks, and when Theodosia arrives, pronounces her the loveliest woman she has ever met.
Blanny mortgages what is left of his fortune to raise funds. Alston has told him he will guarantee every dollar. They sign a contract for fifteen boats with the Woodbridges at Belpre, across from the island. Blanny writes his name on every bill of exchange Burr puts under his nose. He retires to his study to prepare four articles for the Ohio Gazette advocating the secession of the western states.
Burr moves on in a fever of activity. He can’t stay in one place long enough to complete his arrangements. Leaving Blennerhassett and Alston to recruit riflemen and to follow with the provisions when the boats are ready, he hurries to Cincinnati. On the way, at Wilmington, a mob denouncing disunion and treason surrounds Burr’s lodgings. When fife and drum play “The Rogue’s March,” Colonel Burr declares coolly that there is nothing he enjoys more than martial music. The outcry can’t refer to him because his plans are all for the honor and glory of the United States. His disclaimer is so plausible that he is tendered an apology and the mob goes home.
Mobs or senators, Burr pulls the wool over all eyes. John Adair, an old Indian fighter associated with Wilkinson in his wars against the Miamis, now a senator from Kentucky, joins Burr and lends a willing ear to his Mexican project. They ride through Kentucky in company.