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Aaron Burr's 1807 trial challenged the Constitution
Spring 2012 | Volume 62, Issue 1
In late March 1807 Aaron Burr arrived in Richmond, Virginia, in a vile mood, filthy and stinking. He had just endured a month of hard travel under heavy guard through the dense forests of the Southeast. “It is not easy for one who has been robbed and plundered till he had not a second shirt,” he complained to a friend, “to contend with a Govt having millions at command and active and vindictive agents in every quarter.”
Only two years after finishing his term as America’s third vice president, Burr was entering the shadow of the gallows. Nine rough-looking federal deputies had escorted him more than a thousand miles from near Mobile, Alabama, to Richmond. Not only did Burr face murder indictments in two states for killing Alexander Hamilton in their famous duel, but he now expected to be charged with treason.
No high American official has ever faced such profound legal peril. When the government did charge the small, slender, and charismatic lawyer with raising an insurrection against the government, the resulting trial would become one of the splashiest proceedings the nation has ever seen. Despite persuasive proof to the contrary, Burr would protest his innocence, cunningly conceal evidence, and run rings around his accusers, who were led by an extremely angry President Thomas Jefferson.
When Burr left office as vice president in early March 1805, his public career lay in tatters, largely the result of a frosty relationship with fellow Republican Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson had relied on Burr in the 1800 election to win New York for their Republican ticket, and Burr had delivered. New York’s electoral votes were essential to the Republican victory that year. But Jefferson and Burr, ostensibly running mates, finished in a tie in the electoral vote. Federalists in the House of Representatives supported Burr, blocking Jefferson’s election for 35 ballots. The relationship between Jefferson and Burr, never close, did not survive the constitutional ordeal. For the 1804 election, the president dropped Burr as his running mate.
In the spring of 1804 Burr ran for governor of New York. The attempt to revive his political prospects failed miserably when his opponent, tacitly supported by Jefferson, thrashed him at the polls. Burr discovered that his longtime rival Alexander Hamilton had made a scurrilous remark about him during the race. He promptly challenged Hamilton and killed him in a duel on July 11, 1804.
Burr’s political opponents engineered his indictment on murder charges in both New York and New Jersey, which ensured the end of his political career. In response, he charted a course that was unconventional, to say the least. First he sent an emissary to Anthony Merry, the British minister to the United States, offering to assist Great Britain in separating the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains from the rest of the nation. Months later, Burr himself advised the British diplomat that the residents of Louisiana, who had recently joined the Union when France sold the territory, would join westerners in seceding. Burr promised he could make that happen.
In a subsequent six-month journey through the west in 1805, Burr trolled for supporters for this audacious project, which also included a private invasion to liberate Spanish Florida, Texas, and Mexico. At its most ambitious, the plan would have created a new empire that would circle the Gulf of Mexico from the Florida Keys to Central America and stretch deeply into the North American continent. No one had to ask who would lead it.
Burr’s most critical ally—Gen. James Wilkinson, the U.S. Army’s top officer—was a thoroughgoing scoundrel. For more than a decade, Wilkinson had accepted bribes from Spain in exchange for clandestine reports about America’s political and military intentions and capabilities.
Selectively disclosing aspects of his plans, Burr enlisted support from leading U.S. officials, including three senators, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Andrew Jackson, a Tennessee militia general and future president. Burr ordered construction of riverboats capable of carrying more than a thousand men down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
In late 1806 Burr traveled west again, this time to bring his bold plan to life. Instead, it crumbled around him. A Kentucky prosecutor hauled him into court on charges of making war on Spain, a nation with which the United States was at peace, in violation of the Neutrality Act of 1794. An Army veteran recruited for the expedition, William Eaton of Massachusetts, revealed some of Burr’s most outrageous proposals. Jefferson, finally crediting the numerous reports of Burr’s nefarious plans, issued a proclamation warning citizens to guard against secessionist schemes. Volunteers abandoned the expedition in droves. Burr floated down the Mississippi River with a threadbare contingent of barely one hundred men.
When he reached Mississippi Territory, crushing news awaited him. Not only had General Wilkinson betrayed him, but that double agent was rousing Jefferson and New Orleans against him. Burr was arrested, then released on bail. He fled into the Mississippi forest, only to be arrested again above Mobile. Federal agents took him to Richmond for trial.
19th-Century Dream Team
Upon reaching Richmond, Burr swiftly assembled a formidable defense team. He hired Richmond’s finest lawyer, John Wickham, retaining him only hours before the federal government asked Wickham to lead the prosecution. The defense phalanx included two former U.S. attorneys general, Edmund Randolph and Charles Lee of Virginia, as well as the bibulous Luther Martin of Maryland, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787.