February 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 2
About eleven o’clock on the night of February 18 or 19, he never could remember which, in the year of our Lord 1807, a backwoods lawyer named Nicholas Perkins who headed the federal land office in Mississippi Territory left the group around the fire in Sheriff Theodore Brightwell’s log tavern and went to the door for a breath of fresh air. It was a night of clear frosty moonlight. Perkins could see far clown the rutted road. Though he was described as a fearless giant of a man, and a major in the territorial militia, Perkins was startled to see two horsemen come riding up out of the forest.
The smaller of the horsemen rode right past. He was a shabby-looking little fellow lost under a broad-brimmed beaver hat. His companion reined in his horse and asked Perkins the way to Major Hinson’s. His name, it turned out, was Major Robert Ashley.
Perkins told Ashley that the major was away from home, and added that, on account of a freshet, the flooding of the creeks would make it hard for a stranger to reach the Hinson house that night. The sensible thing would be to put up at the tavern, where there was refreshment for man and beast. Ashley insisted they must push on, so Perkins told him the best places to ford the streams. While he was talking to Ashley, Perkins kept staring at the first traveller, who had pulled up his horse thirty or forty yards up the road. Something about the man aroused his suspicions.
Perkins had read President Jefferson’s proclamation warning of a treasonous conspiracy on the Mississippi, and the territorial governor’s proclamation that followed it offering a reward of two thousand dollars for the apprehension of the former Vice President of the United States, Colonel Aaron Burr. Colonel Burr was said to have jumped his bail at Natchez, 200 miles to the west, two weeks before. Perkins scratched his head as he walked to the fire. These men were up to no good. Mightn’t the little man with the hatbrim flapped over his face be Aaron Burr himself?
Right away Perkins routed the sheriff, who was related to Mrs. Hinson, out of bed. They saddled their horses and rode off after the travellers. They found Ashley in the Hinsons’ front room. When she heard voices she knew, Mrs. Hinson, who’d been hiding in the back of the house in a fright ever since the strangers walked in, let herself be seen, and started to fry up some supper for her visitors.
The small man sat warming himself beside the kitchen fire, his hat still pulled down over his face. Perkins observed him narrowly. He wore a boatman’s ragged pantaloons and a coarse blanket wrap-around belted in by a strap. The hat that had once been white was stained and shabby, but the riding boots on his very small feet were elegant and new. Perkins caught one quick glance of his eyes from under the brim of the hat and was convinced that the man must be Colonel Burr. Everybody spoke of how Burr could look clear through you with his lustrous black eyes.
He took Ashley aside and asked him point-blank if his companion was Colonel Burr. Ashley became agitated and walked out of the house without a word.
Perkins began to feel the two thousand dollars almost in the palm of his hand, but he had to move with circumspection. The little colonel was held in great respect in the western country—and he was known to be a dead shot. Mumbling a misleading excuse, Perkins rode off in a hurry, borrowed a canoe, and went speeding down the flooding Tombigbee River to a palisade named Fort Stoddert, the last American fortification before the frontier of Spanish West Florida.
Arriving there about daybreak, he roused Lieutenant Edmund P. Gaines, commander of the federal detachment, and told him he had the traitor Burr in his grasp. Right at this moment Burr would be starting down the trail to Pensacola; there was no way to cross the river except at Mrs. Carson’s ferry. The lieutenant ordered out a file of mounted soldiers, and they galloped off to intercept him.
They found Burr and his companion on the trail to the ferry. The sheriff, whom Burr seemed to have completely fascinated in a few minutes’ conversation, was acting as their guide to the Spanish border. Colonel Burr pointed out to the young lieutenant the risk he took in making an arrest without a warrant. The lieutenant brought out the President’s proclamation and that of the territorial governor. Burr declared both were illegal and unconstitutional. The lieutenant insisted that he was an officer in the United States Army and had to do his duty. Colonel Burr would be treated with all the respect due a former Vice President of the United States—if he made no effort to escape. The little colonel was conducted back to the fort and shut up in a room. Dinner was served him in solitary state. Sentries were posted at the windows and doors. Ashley meanwhile had managed to disappear into the woods.
Lieutenant Gaines and Perkins started racking their brains as to how they could get their prisoner safely to Washington, D.C. The weather was freezing and drizzly. There were no roads yet through the enormous woodlands of Mississippi Territory. The country abounded in Indians of doubtful loyalty. Rumors had enormously magnified the size of Burr’s expedition. For all Gaines and Perkins knew, the back country was full of partisans grouping to rescue their leader.
There was nothing for it but for Lieutenant Gaines to take the little colonel into his family under a sort of parole. Gaines’ brother, who was government factor to the Choctaw nation, was ill in bed. Burr showed himself the soul of tact and courtesy. Explaining that he’d picked up a certain amount of medical information on his travels, he helped nurse the brother back to health. Meanwhile, he sat at his bedside keeping him amused with sprightly talk about Indian quirks and customs. At the table he fascinated the family with his knowledge of books and pictures and the great world. He fixed his black eyes on the ladies with respectful attention. He played chess with Mrs. Gaines. So long as he stayed at Fort Stoddert not a word passed his lips about the failure of his western project, or about his arrest or his plans.
Lieutenant Gaines was counting the hours until he should see the last of his charming prisoner, whose friends had spread the story that the aim of Burr’s thwarted expedition was to drive the Spaniards out of West Florida. As that was the dearest wish of every settler in the Mississippi Territory, expressions of sympathy were heard on every hand. “A week longer,” Gaines wrote to his commander, “[and] the consequences would have been of a most serious nature.”
At last the floods subsided to the point where Gaines felt it would be safe to try to take his prisoner up the Alabama River. The party was rowed in a government boat. When they stopped at John Mills’ house on the Tensaw River, the ladies of the family all wept over the sorrows of Colonel Burr. Indeed a certain Mrs. Johnson was so moved by his plight that when a boy was born to her some months later, she named him Aaron Burr. “When a lady does me the honor to name me the father of her child,” Burr was wont to remark, “I trust I shall always be too gallant to show myself ungrateful for the favor.”
At a boat yard at the head of navigation on the Alabama, Gaines turned his prisoner over to Perkins, Perkins’ friend Thomas Malone, and a guard of six men, including two federal soldiers with muskets, to be conducted to Washington, D.C. Gaines sent them off under the strictest injunction not to speak to their prisoner or listen to his blandishments, and to shoot to kill at his first effort to escape.
The lieutenant had found them good horses. Riding thirty or forty miles a day, avoiding the settlements, they hurried their prisoner along Indian traces through drowned woodlands. It was a rainy March. The nights were cold. Wolves howled about their campfires. Half the time they were drenched to the skin. Burr’s fortitude amazed his guards. Never a word of complaint. Never a sign of fatigue. He rode his fine horse with as much style, so one of the guards told his friends, as if he were at the head of his New York regiment.
They crossed the rivers in Indian canoes, swimming their horses alongside. At last, on the Oconee River in the state of Georgia, they found a ferry and an inn not far beyond. For the first time since leaving the Alabama country they slept under a roof. When they crossed into South Carolina, Perkins redoubled his precautions. He knew that Joseph Alston, the husband of Burr’s beloved daughter, Theodosia, was a member of the legislature. Public sentiment there was supposed to be strong for Burr. Perkins arranged his cavalcade in a square with Burr in the middle. Two riders went ahead of him, two on either flank, and two behind. They passed through towns and villages at a brisk trot.
In the village of Chester, about fifty miles south of the North Carolina border, they rode past an inn. From inside came a sound of music and dancing, and a crowd had gathered to look in the windows. The prisoner suddenly jumped from his horse and cried out to the bystanders that he was Aaron Burr under military arrest, and must be taken to a magistrate. Perkins dismounted at one leap with a pistol in either hand and ordered Burr to remount.
“I will not,” cried Burr.
Perkins, a man of enormous strength, dropped his pistols and, grabbing the little colonel round the waist, lifted him back on his horse as if he were a child. Malone grabbed Burr’s reins, pulled them over his horse’s head, and led him off as fast as he could while the guards formed up around him. Before the astonished villagers could open their mouths the cavalcade was lost in the dust. Aaron Burr broke into a flood of tears. Malone, who rode beside him, was so distressed at his prisoner’s humiliation that he found tears streaming down his own face. It was the man’s eyes that moved him so, Malone told his friends afterward: his eyes were like stars.
Aaron Burr, at fifty-one, had reached the end of his rope.
If ever a man was born to eminence it was Aaron Burr. On both sides of his family he was descended from clergymen, the aristocrats of colonial New England. Burr’s father, though a Connecticut man, was the second president and virtual founder of the College of New Jersey, later Princeton University. His mother’s father was the famous Jonathan Edwards, who preached predestined damnation so vividly that once a congregation ran out of the church in terror. On both sides there were strains of madness among the eminent divines. Burr early showed that he had inherited the family brains—and certain idiosyncrasies as well. He was only sixteen when he was graduated with honors from Princeton. While his classmates declaimed against taxation without representation, young Aaron graced the commencement with an Addisonian essay on building castles in the air.
After a winter’s study of his grandfather’s theology, he borrowed the best horse in his tutor’s stable and rode off for Connecticut, declaring that predestined damnation was an unchristian doctrine. While a student at the Litchfield Law School, he put in more time piercing the hearts of the village girls with his intense black gaze than in memorizing Coke’s Littleton. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War he hurried to Cambridge in hopes of a commission. General Washington turned him down, so it was as a gentleman volunteer that in 1775 he joined Benedict Arnold’s expedition against Quebec.
In view of his delicate frame his hardihood surprised his mates. He met privations fearlessly. Having at last procured a captain’s commission from General Richard Montgomery, he walked beside the tall, laughing Irishman on the snowy night when they attempted to assault the lower city of Quebec. When the vanguard was cut down by a burst of grapeshot, Captain Burr distinguished himself by trying to drag the huge carcass of his fallen chief back to the American lines. Before reaching twenty he was counted a national hero.
Washington invited him to join his staff. Young Burr made sport of his Commander in Chief’s spelling, and criticized his handling of the New York campaign. At Valley Forge he was one of the grumblers, and, for all his services, the highest rank he attained was that of lieutenant colonel. At Monmouth he disobeyed orders and led his regiment into a British ambush. His horse was shot from under him. Shock and frustration brought on an illness which eventually caused him to resign from the service in the spring of 1779. If Colonel Burr did not appreciate General Washington, it had also become clear that General Washington did not appreciate Colonel Burr.
Burr was nursed back to health by a motherly lady named Theodosia Prevost. Though she was the wife of a British army officer, Mrs. Prevost entertained so charmingly during lulls in the war in the Jerseys that her stone house at Paramus became popular with George Washington and his staff. Her husband died in 1779. In July of 1782 Burr induced her to marry him, though she was ten years older than he. A year later they settled in New York, where he took up the law in earnest. The city was a paradise for young lawyers who had served in the Continental Army, since all Tory attorneys had been disbarred. Soon Burr had a practice rivalled only by Alexander Hamilton’s.
The law led to politics. Burr climbed fast. He cast his lot with Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans when Governor Clinton made him attorney general of the state of New York. He served the Clinton faction so well they sent him to the United States Senate. During the years of the growth of the Jeffersonian party, he built himself a strong political machine in New York City. His wife died, leaving him a daughter he adored.
It was young Theodosia, hardly into her teens, who presided at Burr’s great dinners at Richmond Hill, his country place on the outskirts of Greenwich Village, the same house which Washington had made his headquarters and which John Adams occupied as Vice President. Meanwhile Burr’s ambitions became national. Though outwardly friends, Burr and Hamilton were now bitter rivals for the control of ward politics in the city. Gossip claimed they were rivals too for the favors of a young woman named Eliza Bowen, who was one of the city’s better-known harlots. But setting the best table and pouring the choicest wines in New York cost a great deal, and Burr was dangerously in debt.
In the bitter presidential campaign of 1800, which brought about the defeat of Adams and the Federalists, Burr and his “Little Band”—a group of young hotspurs he had gathered around him—were instrumental in holding New York in the Republican column. By a fluke in the procedure, though nobody seems to have intended Burr for the Presidency, the vote in the Electoral College was a tie: seventy-three for Jefferson and seventy-three for Burr. After thirty-six ballots the House of Representatives finally chose Jefferson, and Burr was elected Vice President.
Just before the long stalemate in the House, Burr presided over the wedding of his darling Theodosia to Joseph Alston, member of a wealthy and powerful family of South Carolina planters. Friends of his daughter in New York wondered whether Aaron Burr had bartered Theodosia’s hand for the eight votes from South Carolina that helped cause the tie. In any event, his connection with the wealthy Alstons certainly helped keep his creditors at bay.
Though Burr was an able presiding officer in the Senate, President Jefferson, like General Washington before him, soon began to show a lack of confidence in him. The New York Burrites were disappointed by the small share of federal patronage that went their way. The Louisiana Purchase, by threatening to upset the balance of power among the original states, stung some extreme Federalists in New England into agitating for secession and thereafter Burr’s politics began to change. Jefferson’s control of the Republican Party would bar his way to renomination. Plainly, Burr’s future now lay with the Federalists.
Burr’s ambitions began to build him a castle in the air. If he could get himself elected governor of New York, when the time was ripe he might swing that state into a New England federation. As scion of two great New England families, he would be in line for the presidency of a new government. The Little Band went to work with a will.
Hamilton, who had been instrumental in trying to swing votes away from Burr to Jefferson in the House of Representatives, again stood in the way. He was letting it be known he considered Burr “the Catiline of America.” And Burr, having lost the support of the upstate Republicans, needed the Federalists to win. In the June, 1804, gubernatorial election he carried New York City, but upstate the various Republican factions combined to snow him under. In bitter frustration he challenged Hamilton to a duel.
The bullet that killed Alexander Hamilton that early July morning on the Weehawken shore put an end to Aaron Burr’s political career. By a strange ricochet Hamilton’s death also ruined the plans of the New England secessionists: Republicans and Federalists united to mourn the great man dead. Burr was denounced as a murderer. Proceedings were instituted to indict him in New York and New Jersey, and in spite of his office the Vice President became a fugitive from justice.
He made off to Philadelphia. From there he wrote Theodosia that he was retiring to a friend’s plantation to the southward. Only the risk of crossing the lowlands in the malarial season kept him from paying her a visit. Already her little son, Aaron Burr Alston, was the center of his grandfather’s ambitious dreams.
He kept her posted on his prospects of marrying a wealthy woman. “If any male friend of yours should be dying of ennui, recommend to him to engage in a duel and a courtship at the same time. …” She must ignore stories of attempts to assassinate him: “Those who wish me dead prefer to keep at a very respectful distance. … I am very well and not without occupation and amusement.”
The occupation Aaron Burr found so amusing in Philadelphia was plotting a dream castle even more breathtaking than the one that had just collapsed. He found a kindred spirit in his old friend Jonathan Dayton, U.S. Senator from New Jersey. The two dreamers turned their eyes far from Philadelphia, looking to exciting prospects both in Europe and the new American West.
Bonaparte’s successes in Europe were tantalizing every ambitious schemer of the age. His victory over the Spanish Bourbons had knocked the props out from under the Spanish dominions in the New World. Out of the weakening of Spanish power in Mexico and the restless land hunger of the American settlers beyond the Alleghenies, men with a knack for leadership should be able to build themselves a Napoleonic empire on the Mississippi. Burr and Dayton would mask the early stages of their enterprise behind a perfectly reasonable project to build a canal around the falls of the Ohio opposite Louisville.
Since anyone who summered in Washington City was thought to be risking his life from malaria, most of the diplomatic corps spent the hot months in Philadelphia. Waiting on the British minister, Anthony Merry, was Colonel Charles Williamson, with whom Burr had been associated in land deals in upstate New York. Though Williamson had assumed American citizenship in order to take title to real estate, he was a retired British army officer and a long-term agent of the Foreign Office. Williamson had for years been urging on His Majesty’s government a scheme to curb the growing power of the United States by spreading British influence down the Mississippi. The Louisiana Purchase had ruined these plans. When Burr let drop the suggestion that the settlers on the western waters might be induced to secede from the Union, Williamson caught fire.
Mr. Merry, who had nothing but scorn for President Jefferson and his levelling democratic tendencies, could hardly conceal his pleasurable astonishment when Burr declared to him outright that, given a naval force and financial backing, he would “effect the separation of the western part of the United States.” Burr could speak with authority: after all, he was still Vice President.
On August 6, 1804, Merry urged consideration of Burr’s plan in a dispatch to the Foreign Office. Colonel Williamson, soon to set sail for England, would explain the details. Though Merry admitted “the profligacy of Mr. Burr’s character” and acknowledged that he had been “cast off as much by the democratic as by the Federal Party,” he insisted that Burr “still preserves connections with some people of influence, added to his great ambition and a spirit of revenge against the present Administration.” These factors, he wrote, “may possibly induce him to exert the talents and activity which he possesses with fidelity to his Employers.”
With the Hamilton murder indictments still hanging over his head, Burr had to keep out of the way of the sheriff. He wangled an invitation from one of the Georgia senators to visit his plantation on St. Simon Island. With a follower named Sam Swartwout in attendance, he set out in high spirits on a coastal vessel. While the ship beat its way down the coast against light summer breezes, he had plenty of time to indulge himself with the glorious prospects of his great scheme.
First he would establish a government at New Orleans, and then he would launch a two-pronged expedition against Spanish Mexico. One army would advance overland while a naval expedition would disembark at Veracruz or the Rio Pánuco. All this would cost a great deal of money, but his interview with the British minister had opened up the prospect of a copious source of funds. With British help Burr would conquer Mexico. The Mexicans would flock to his standard. He was already counting all the fresh silver dollars that would flow from the Mexican mint.
The dream swelled to grand dimensions. There would be no more republican nonsense. Mexico would proclaim him emperor. He would govern with the aid of a council of worthies made up of the best brains in the land. Theodosia would be empress apparent, and little Gamp (Burr and his grandson each called the other Gamp) heir to the throne.
But by early December Burr was back in Washington presiding with his usual punctilious gravity over the Senate. Senator William Plumer of New Hampshire, the diarist of the session, found him changed. “He appears to have lost those easy graceful manners that beguiled the hours away last session—He is now uneasy, discontented & hurried.—So true it is ‘great guilt ne’er knew great joy at heart.’” Plumer set to wondering what Burr’s future would be. “He can never I think rise again. But surely he is a very extraordinary man & is an exception to all rules. … And considering of what materials the mass of men are formed—how easily they are gulled—& considering how little restraint laws human or divine have on his mind, it is impossible to say what he will attempt—or what he may obtain.”
Burr’s last appearance before Congress wound up all business on March 2, 1805, was impressive. He delivered the most effective address of his career. “This house is a sanctuary,” he declaimed, “a citadel of law, of order, and of liberty; it is here—it is here in this exalted refuge, here, if anywhere, will resistance be made to the storms of political phrenzy and the silent arts of corruption; and if the Constitution be destined ever to perish by the sacrilegious hands of the demagogue or the usurper, which God avert, its expiring agonies will be witnessed on this floor.”
When he walked out of the hushed chamber, many senators were in tears.
Two weeks later Burr was back in Philadelphia telling Anthony Merry that the French inhabitants of Louisiana were ready to revolt against the United States and to ask for the protection of Great Britain. He suggested that the Foreign Office send as consul at New Orleans a confidential agent who spoke French, and arrange for a flotilla of two or three frigates and some smaller vessels to blockade the mouth of the river when Burr established his government there. For himself he requested an immediate loan of one hundred thousand pounds.
The same day that Mr. Merry transmitted this remarkable request for the consideration of his government, Burr wrote Theodosia that he was off for the West. He found the trip down the Ohio River a tonic to his spirits. Below Marietta he stopped at an island that was one of the showplaces of the region. A rich immigrant named Harman Blennerhassett had built himself a mansion there with gardens and parklands in the English style, almost ruining himself in the process. Blennerhassett, a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, was a big, gangling, nearsighted man with some learning but not a trace of common sense. To the settlers up and down the Ohio he was known, half in affection, half in derision, as “Blanny.” Blanny was away during Burr’s first visit, but Burr was entertained by Mrs. Blennerhassett, described as an accomplished and well-educated woman who was pining for talk of music and books on that far frontier. Colonel Burr had at his tongue’s tip all the fashionable conversation of the age. One contemporary historian claimed that Burr played Ulysses to Mrs. Blennerhassett’s Calypso. Be that as it may, from that moment on, the Blennerhassetts, man and wife, were as fascinated by the little colonel as a pair of cuckoos by a snake.
By mid-May Burr was in Cincinnati, being entertained by Jonathan Dayton’s colleague in the Senate, a busy Jack-of-all-trades named John Smith, who was storekeeper, land speculator, Baptist preacher, and politician. Dayton joined them. The three men put their heads together. The plan took shape.
Leaving his boat to follow the curves of the river, Burr rode briskly across country into Tennessee. The early summer weather was fine. He enjoyed the riding. No word in public of secession, only of a coming war with Spain; that was his posture. His progress became a personal triumph. Without quite saying so he managed to give the impression that his good friend Henry Dearborn, the Secretary of War, was only waiting for a declaration of war to put him in command of an expedition against the Spanish possessions. In Nashville he was tendered a public dinner. Andrew Jackson grasped him warmly by the hand and took him home to the Hermitage.
An enthusiastic duellist himself, Jackson considered the hue and cry against Burr over the death of Hamilton damnable persecution. And an expedition against the Dons had his hearty approval. General Jackson furnished Burr a boat to take him down the Cumberland River to Fort Massac, on the lower Ohio near present-day Cairo, Illinois, where he was to pick up his own boat again. There Burr at last caught up with an old acquaintance he had determined on as his second in command. This was Brigadier General James Wilkinson, General in Chief of the small Army of the United States.
Wilkinson was then nearing fifty, short, red-faced, and corpulent from high living; grown gray before his time, so he liked to put it, in the service of his country. Like Burr he had served under Arnold in the botched Canadian expedition, but unlike Burr he had found promotion quick and easy.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
Back in Nashville, Burr finds the Republican part of the population in a fever to march on the Spaniards. General Jackson has alerted his militia, but he still has occasional doubts. When he confronts Burr with rumors of secessionist talk drifting down river from Ohio, Burr is said to have shown him a blank commission signed by Jefferson. To cap that, he produces $3,500 in Kentucky banknotes to pay for the boats that Jackson’s partner, John Coffee, is building at Clover Bottom. He has already paid five thousand (in his own paper) to a Colonel Lynch for his claims on the Bastrop lands. He draws sight drafts on all and sundry. According to the newspapers he is spending $200,000 on boats and provisions. Blanny’s money flows like river water. Thoroughly reassured, Andrew Jackson puts on his best uniform to introduce Burr to the citizens of Nashville at a public ball.
To certain parties in Kentucky, this is all a red flag to a bull: the Spanish conspiracies all over again. Humphrey Marshall, Federalist brother-in-law of Jefferson’s Chief Justice, has set up a newspaper named The Western World to expose the old Spanish intrigue to separate Kentucky from the Union; in it he charges that Wilkinson’s old associate, Innes, is implicated. Joseph Daveiss, United States District Attorney, another brother-in-law of the Chief Justice, has been writing President Jefferson all summer warning him that Wilkinson and Burr are engaged in plots dangerous to the Union. On November 8, 1806, he presents an affidavit in federal court, charging Aaron Burr and John Adair with illegally promoting an expedition against Mexico. The presiding judge is none other than Harry Innes, under attack in The Western World as a pensioner of Spain. Motion dismissed.
Aaron Burr, ever eager to assume the role of injured innocence, rides back to Lexington and demands an inquiry. Popular sentiment in Kentucky is still with him. He has induced a rising young lawyer named Henry Clay to act as his counsel. When a grand jury is impanelled to hear Daveiss’ charges, Daveiss is unable to present them because his key witness is absent on business. Daveiss has to ask for a postponement. Burr makes an address to the court and walks out in triumph.
He is heard by a bystander to remark that Daveiss must think him a great fool if, supposing he did have an unlawful enterprise in view, he should conduct it in such a manner as to give anyone an opportunity of proving it.
Andrew Jackson is assailed by doubts again. On November 12 he writes his old friend Governor Claiborne in New Orleans one of his tempestuous epistles:
“… I fear treachery is become the order of the day … Put your Town in a State of Defence organize your Militia, and defend your City as well against internal enemies as external … keep a watchful eye upon our General [Wilkinson]—and beware of an attack, as well from your own Country as Spain … your government I fear is in danger, I fear there are plans on foot inimical to the Union … —beware the month of December—I love my Country and Government, I hate the Dons—I would delight to see Mexico reduced, but I will die in the last ditch before I would yield a part to the Dons or see the Union disunited. This I write for your own eye and your own safety, profit by it and the Ides of March remember. …”
On November 25, in Frankfort this time, the District Attorney renews his motion for Burr’s indictment. When Henry Clay demands an assurance from his client that Burr’s expedition has no treasonable intent, Burr hands him the same written statement he has already sent to his old friend Senator Smith of Ohio, denying any intention of subverting the Union by force. Clay is convinced and declares to the court that he pledges his own honor on Burr’s innocence. A second grand jury refuses to find a true bill. The Republicans of Frankfort honor the little colonel with another ball.
Meanwhile, President Jefferson and his Cabinet have been startled into activity by General Wilkinson’s first warning of the conspiracy, which the General dispatched from Natchitoches some twelve days after he received Burr’s cipher letter. Hitherto they seem to have discounted Daveiss’ warnings as expressions of party spite by pestiferous Federalists. Now the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy send out messengers to alert their forces, and on November 27 President Jefferson issues his proclamation that “sundry persons … are conspiring and confederating together to begin a military expedition or enterprise against the dominions of Spain,” and enjoining “all faithful citizens who have been led without due knowledge or consideration to participate in the said unlawful enterprises to withdraw from the same without delay. …”
During this period a private emissary of the President gives information he has collected about the conspiracy to Governor Edward Tiffin of Ohio. Tiffin informs the legislature, then in session in Chillicothe. A bill is rushed through authorizing the militia to seize Burr’s boats and supplies.
Tatterdemalion troops take possession of the boats being built at Belpre. They descend on Harman Blennerhassett’s island paradise, break into the wine cellar, plunder the kitchens, trample the flowerbeds, slaughter the sheep, and break up the fence rails for campfires. Blanny himself escapes by boat into a snowy night, while, according to one witness’ story, the levelled muskets of his recruits hold off the militia officer come to arrest him.
Mrs. Blennerhassett follows in a big flatboat manned by a group of youngsters from Pittsburgh. From then on, the expedition is a race between the speed of the current and the couriers distributing the President’s proclamation.
Almost two weeks go by before the Blennerhassetts get news of their leader. Taking refuge one late December evening from the chop and the storm in the mouth of the Cumberland, they are met by a skiff with a letter. Colonel Burr is anchored a couple of miles upstream and requests five hundred dollars in paper and fifty in silver. Next day the whole flotilla pushes off downstream.
For Burr it is just in time. A certain Colonel Hardin of South Carolina is already on his way down the Cumberland with the announced intention of shooting him on sight. The President’s proclamation has thrown Nashville into a fury. The citizens have hardly read it before they get ready to burn Burr in effigy. General Jackson musters his militia. He almost breaks down with patriotic emotion when the elderly veterans of the Revolutionary War, who have formed a corps known as the Invincibles, ride up to tender their lives in defense of the Union. Days before, Jackson’s man John Coffee has returned to Colonel Burr $1,725.62, which represents the unfinished boats that Burr had to abandon in his haste to depart. Accounts are closed between them, except for a note for $500 that Jackson unwisely put his name to, which eventually was to come back protested.
Unopposed except by cold rain and high winds and an occasional floating log, Burr’s flotilla, amounting now to thirteen boats manned by some sixty men, drifts down the Ohio to Fort Massac. The lieutenant in command there, who has not heard of the proclamation or of orders to apprehend Burr, exchanges civilities with the little colonel, and, believing Burr to be leading a group of settlers to the Bastrop lands, gives one of his sergeants a furlough to go along as guide.
New Year’s Day, 1807, finds the flotilla comfortably beached at New Madrid, on the Mississippi, in Louisiana Territory. According to one account, forty new recruits join Burr’s party. Other witnesses were to speak of cannon, and of two gunboats building there. Some were to accuse Blennerhassett of trying to buy arms and ammunition from the army post. Next morning they push off. Still keeping ahead of the hue and cry, they are borne swiftly southward on the current of the enormous brown river. As they glide along, Blanny and Burr follow their boats’ progress on their maps. Blanny is later to declare that it is when the boats sweep past what seems to him the logical landing from which they should have proceeded overland to the Bastrop lands that he first suspects an imposture.
Burr for his part seems to have forgotten all about the Bastrop settlement. His talk now is of Baton Rouge. This outpost of Spanish West Florida is supposedly so ill-defended that even the peaceable Governor Claiborne of Orleans Territory is said to have suggested jokingly over the wine after dinner that he and his guests drive up the levee in their carriages some evening and take it.
The weather has cleared. The little colonel is in high spirits. He appoints officers and noncoms. Muskets are brought out of a packing case, and he puts some of the boys through the manual of arms on one of the big flatboats as they drift down the river. At his friend Judge Peter Bruin’s plantation some thirty miles above Natchez he is confidently expecting news from General Wilkinson, whom he believes to be waiting in New Orleans for the word.
Burr is so anxious to reach Judge Bruin that he has himself rowed ahead of the flotilla in a keelboat. He reaches Bayou Pierre the morning of January 10. Judge Bruin has the reputation of being a hard drinker. Burr finds him in a state. Burr is shown the President’s proclamation. He is told that Acting Governor Cowles Mead of Mississippi has called out the militia with orders to arrest him. He is handed an issue of the Mississippi Messenger containing a transcription of his cipher message. For the first time Burr learns that Wilkinson has betrayed him.
He slips back into the role of injured innocence. Skillfully he fences for terms with Cowles Mead. Mead later declared that Burr’s statements were so strange he doubted his sanity. After surrendering on terms to the civil authority, Burr lets himself be taken to Natchez. Friends stand bail.
Again Burr finds himself the toast of Federalist dinners. The ladies ply him with dainties. In Natchez he has a host of defenders. Another grand jury refuses to find him guilty of an indictable offense and furthermore issues a presentment against General Wilkinson’s illegal arrests of suspected persons in New Orleans.
The presiding judge, Thomas Rodney, an administration supporter, has a different view. His son Caesar Augustus has just been appointed Attorney General of the United States. Judge Rodney refuses to lift Burr’s bond.
News comes of the apprehension of Bollman and Swartwout. General Wilkinson has offered five thousand dollars for Burr’s capture, living or dead. Burr knows the General well enough to be sure that, with all he knows, Wilkinson would much prefer to have him dead. Panic seizes the usually imperturbable conspirator. Nothing for it but to jump his bail and vanish into the wilderness.
From hiding, Burr tries to send a last message to his men. It is a note stitched into the Colonel’s old overcoat worn by a slave boy. “If you are yet together keep together and I will join you tomorrow night—in the mean time put all your arms in perfect order. Ask the bearer no questions but tell him all you may think I wish to know.—He does not know this is from me, nor where I am.”
The boy is apprehended, the note discovered. Immediately Acting Governor Mead encircles Burr’s camp with militia and arrests every man he can lay hands on.
Burr, with Major Robert Ashley for a guide, is already riding desperately off through the forest toward the Spanish border—and to capture at Carson’s Ferry.
Theodosia had hurried back to South Carolina with her husband and little Gampillo as soon as it became clear that her father’s castle in the air had collapsed. On March 27 Burr wrote her from Richmond: “My military escort having arrived at Fredericksburg on our way to Washington, there met a special messenger, with orders to convey me to this place. … I am to be surrendered to the civil authority tomorrow, when the question of bail is to be determined. In the mean time I remain at the Eagle Tavern.”
While all Richmond buzzed with the excitement of his arrival, Burr was busy with a tailor rigging him more suitable apparel than the boatman’s trousers and floppy felt hat that were already notorious. The consummate actor was preparing to play his greatest role. He managed somehow to secure funds and to get in touch with well-wishers willing to stand bail. Around noon on March 30, in a private room of the Eagle Tavern, he was brought before Chief Justice John Marshall for pre-trial examination.∗
∗ Until 1891, Justices of the Supreme Court, including the Chief Justice, regularly heard cases in the federal circuit courts as well.
The government’s case was in the hands of an ardent Republican, George Hay, United States District Attorney for Virginia, since Blennerhassett’s island on the Ohio, the chief scene of the alleged crimes, was within the confines of that enormous commonwealth.
On behalf of Burr appeared two of the most esteemed members of the Richmond bar: portly Edmund Randolph, one-time governor of Virginia, and John Wickham, a Long Island man, accused by the Republicans of Tory antecedents.
George Hay presented a copy of the evidence on which the Attorney General had based his charges against Bollman and Swartwout when they appeared in Washington, shipped north under armed escort by General Wilkinson. Nicholas Perkins told a plain tale of Burr’s arrest. Hay moved forthwith that the prisoner be committed on the charge of high misdemeanor in preparing a military expedition against the dominions of the king of Spain. Further, he contended that the prisoner had committed acts of treason in gathering a force of armed men with the intention of seizing the city of New Orleans, fomenting a revolt in the Orleans Territory, and separating the western states from the Union. Hay referred to the interpretation of treason promulgated by the Supreme Court in the Chief Justice’s own words only a month before, when Bollman and Swartwout were freed on a writ of habeas corpus. This decision seemed to describe the assembling of armed men for a treasonable purpose as treason. Since argument by counsel would be necessary on this motion, all parties agreed to move the proceedings up the hill to the courtroom in the state’s new Ionic capitol, designed by Thomas Jefferson.
Next morning the Chief Justice appeared betimes on the bench. William Wirt, who was himself soon to join the prosecution, had described John Marshall a couple of years before as “in person tall, meagre and emaciated. His head and face are small in proportion to his height, his complexion swarthy, the muscles of his face relaxed … his countenance has a faithful expression of great good humor and hilarity; while his black eyes … possess an irradiating spirit which proclaims the imperial powers of his mind. … His voice is hard and dry; his attitude … often extremely awkward; as it was not unusual for him to stand with his left foot in advance, while all his gesture proceeded from his right arm. … His eloquence consists in the apparently deep selfconviction, and emphatic earnestness of his manner.”
Attorney General Rodney was waiting to address the court before leaving for Washington. Burr’s lawyers were eager to begin the defense. The crowded courtroom waited, breathless. Colonel Burr appeared half an hour late, announcing with a debonair smile that he had mistaken the hour.
Since the stairways and lobbies were packed with Richmonders trying to get in, proceedings were adjourned to the hall of the House of Delegates. Burr’s lawyers launched into their argument: intent was no basis for a charge of treason; according to the Constitution the crime of treason had to be an overt act, sworn to by two witnesses. Colonel Burr rose and in his most courtly manner pointed out that he had already been acquitted of all these charges in Kentucky and Mississippi; that in each case he himself had sought an investigation; that he had not forfeited his bond by fleeing the jurisdiction of any court, but had merely retired to avoid the illegal seizure of his person and property by a military force.
Burr had failed as a revolutionist, but he remained matchless as a courtroom lawyer. As the proceedings advanced, he regained all his aplomb. This was a world he knew how to deal with. Attack was the best defense. His safety depended on turning the case into a political wrangle between Federalists and Republicans. President Jefferson was personally directing the prosecution from Washington. The leading Federalists were rushing to Burr’s defense. The prosecution’s case must rest on Wilkinson. Burr now felt that the ranting Commanding General, whom a few weeks back he had relied on as his partner in high adventure, would be the easiest man in the world to discredit. Burr knew that the Chief Justice hated Jefferson as hard as he himself did. If he could attack Jefferson through Wilkinson, he could not help winning John Marshall’s sympathy. On the whole, in the crucial game that was about to be played, Burr held a good hand of cards.
The Chief Justice declared he preferred at this point not to commit Burr for treason, but that he felt the evidence sufficient to commit him for high misdemeanor. In explaining his decision, John Marshall pointed out what was to be the nub of the defense: As he interpreted the wording of the cipher letter, admitting that that document should turn out to be genuine, it pointed to an attack against the Spanish dominions instead of to a treasonable enterprise against New Orleans. Therefore, until the government presented more evidence he would hold Colonel Burr for misdemeanor only. Treason had to be proved by two witnesses. As to the proof of treason: “More than five weeks have elapsed since the opinion of the supreme court has declared the necessity of proving the fact if it exists. Why is it not proved?”
Treason would not have been a bailable charge, but misdemeanor was. Bail was set at ten thousand dollars, and later in the afternoon Colonel Burr presented five securities, entered into recognizance for that sum to appear before the circuit court on May 22, and walked out a free man.
Aaron Burr emerged from this first phase of his trial the hero of all the Federalist mansions scattered along the hilltops of Richmond, where detestation of Jefferson was becoming the password to social acceptance. Invitations poured in. The afternoon he dined with John Wickham in celebration of the initial victories of the defense, John Marshall was of the party. Wickham and the Chief Justice were warm and confidential friends. Wickham had been thoughtful enough to warn Marshall that the dinner was for Aaron Burr. Marshall, who loved a good dinner, said he’d come anyway. According to his friends he did sit at the other end of the table, had no direct communication with the accused man, and left early. But this incident did not pass unnoticed by the Republican press, which denounced the Chief Justice’s conduct as “grossly indecent.”
Jefferson was anxiously studying every letter and newspaper that came in from Richmond. He could see right away that George Hay was no match for Burr’s Federalist lawyers. Besides Randolph and Wickham, the little colonel had engaged two of the brightest of the younger Virginia attorneys, Benjamin Botts and John Baker. The President had heard too that Luther Martin, one of his bitter personal enemies, was on his way from Annapolis to join the defense counsel. The ablest lawyers, it seemed, tended to be Federalists. The President had to make do with what Republicans he could collect. He arranged to have Alexander McRae, a gruff Scot who was lieutenant governor of Virginia, assist in the prosecution, and got off an express to William Wirt, who was trying a case in Williamsburg, engaging him for the government. Young Wirt was generally thought of as a coming man.
Jefferson was exasperated by the difficulties the Chief Justice was putting in the way of the prosecution. From Monticello he wrote William B. Giles, the administration leader in the Senate, commenting testily on “the newborn zeal for the liberties of those whom we would not permit to overthrow the liberties of their country.” Against Burr personally, he added, “I never had one hostile sentiment. I never indeed thought him an honest, frank-dealing man, but considered him as a crooked gun, or other perverted machine, whose aim or shot you could never be sure of.”
Burr, on his side, was taking high ground in his letters to Theodosia: “Was there in Greece or Rome a man of virtue and independence, and supposed to possess great talents, who was not the object of vindictive and unrelenting persecution?”
Burr complained that the panel from which a grand jury was to be selected was composed of twenty Republicans and only four Federalists. A few days later William Wirt, still stoutly maintaining that John Marshall was a fair-minded man, was facing the fact that by insistence on a technicality the court had limited the number of grand jurors to sixteen, “and consequently the chance of the concurrence of 12 in finding a Bill was reduced to a minimum,” as he explained when he got time to write an account of the trial to his foster brother Ninian Edwards in Kentucky. “Burr and his counsel were filled with triumph at the prospect that there would be no Bill found—they displayed their triumph very injudiciously.”
After all challenges were exhausted, the list of grand jurors selected turned out to be a roster of some of the ablest men in Virginia. When the Chief Justice chose John Randolph of Roanoke as foreman, the Federalist dinner tables rocked with satisfaction. Nobody could accuse Marshall of bias; he had chosen a Republican; but of all Republicans, John Randolph was the least friendly to Jefferson. The erstwhile administration leader in the House was now making a career of opposition to the man he was coming to jeer at as “St. Thomas of Cantingbury.”
As May wore on, Richmond filled to overflowing with curious visitors. The Burr trial was the greatest show in the history of the commonwealth. Every bed in every inn was taken. Every house was stuffed with guests sleeping on truckle beds in the attics. Every stable and shed had its complement of horses and gigs. Coaches and carriages encumbered the inn yards. Families of country people came in covered wagons and camped in the open lots. The streets were brilliant with uniforms of the Army and Navy and of various militia organizations. The ladies all wore their best.
Though many Republicans were wagering that Colonel Burr would jump his bail again, on the morning of May 22 the little colonel was seen flitting among his lawyers, cool as a cucumber, wearing a neat suit of black silk, with his hair carefully powdered and tied in a queue. Judge Cyrus Griffin, George Washington’s appointee to the Virginia district court, joined the Chief Justice on the bench.
From day to day the crowds were disappointed. The trial marked time. The Chief Justice would not allow the grand jury to start examining witnesses until General Wilkinson arrived. Aaron Burr’s friends scoffed loudly as May passed into June. The General would never dare show his face. While the grand jurors sat idly deploring their wasted days, counsel for both sides entertained the courtroom with rambling arguments over the nature of treason and the amount of the prisoner’s bail.
On May 28 the session was enlivened by the appearance of Luther Martin on behalf of Colonel Burr. Martin had been carrying on a vendetta with Thomas Jefferson for years. A great wassailer and brandy-drinker, fast drifting into helpless alcoholism, Luther Martin was a prey to violent hatreds and affections. But he was also the leading lawyer of his native Maryland, and he had taken a fancy to Aaron Burr.
When Burr, who never let an opportunity pass of playing up to the Chief Justice, did the handsome thing to end the dispute over bail by offering to raise his security to twenty thousand dollars “so that the court should not be embarrassed,” Luther Martin stood up and offered himself as one of the sureties.
On June 13, a Saturday, the news spread that General Wilkinson with a suite of witnesses had disembarked from a U.S. Navy schooner and was on his way to Richmond. George Hay reported to the court that only the fatigue of the journey prevented the General from presenting himself that very day.
The General in Chief had every reason to be fatigued. For three months Wilkinson had been charging about New Orleans in a state of frenzy. To clear his own skirts he had blown up such a bogey out of Burr’s schemes that he ended by frightening himself. He kept the city under martial law. He set his troops to digging earthworks and building palisades. He sent out squads to arrest Burr’s associates. Though Burr himself had slipped through his fingers, Wilkinson pounced on an old friend, John Adair, in town by pre-arrangement with the conspirators, and marched him off from his dinner table at the inn to the city prison. Wilkinson could not rest easy until every man jack who knew of his complicity in Burr’s conspiracy was behind bars.
In February the General’s wife died at the house of a hospitable Creole planter who was serving as the General’s aide. Shattered with grief, Wilkinson lingered on in New Orleans in spite of insistent requests from Washington that he come north immediately to testify in Burr’s trial. Meanwhile he tried to distract the administration from the clamor against his arbitrary acts by thundering letters about the torrent of Burrites that was about to descend on him.
Finally, with his son James for an aide and in company with a large band of witnesses under subpoena, he embarked May 20,1807, for Hampton Roads.
As soon as the news of General Wilkinson’s safe arrival was confirmed, the court began to swear witnesses for the grand jury. Two veterans of the naval war with France, Commodore Truxtun and Captain Decatur, led the way, along with Benjamin Stoddert, who had been John Adams’ Secretary of the Navy. When Erich Bollman’s turn came, George Hay tried rather clumsily to hand him the presidential pardon he had so eagerly sought in return for the information he gave during an interview with Jefferson and Madison back in Washington. But Bollman had changed his mind. He had been feted by the Richmond Federalists as a minor hero of Burr’s odyssey. Emboldened by the atmosphere of success in Burr’s camp, he now refused to accept any pardon. Luther Martin hastily explained that Bollman preferred to rely on the constitutional guarantee that no man would be forced to testify against himself. The court sent him in to the grand jury anyway.
On Monday, June 15, the halls and lobbies of the capitol were jammed with people. General Wilkinson was on his way up the hill. Crowds stumbled panting after him. Men and boys hung from the window ledges and climbed the great trees on the eroded slope, craning their necks for a glimpse of the actors in the grand confrontation.
Men’s accounts of the scene in the Hall of Delegates varied according to their political persuasions. Washington Irving, who reported the trial for a Burrite newspaper in New York, said Wilkinson “strutted into court … swelling like a turkey cock.” David Robertson, the stenographer, described the General’s countenance as “calm, dignified and commanding while that of Colonel Burr was marked by a haughty contempt.”
Wirt’s description in his letter to Ninian Edwards was possibly more discerning. “In the midst of all this hurly-burly came Wilkinson and his suite, like Pope’s fame ‘unlooked for’ at least by Burr’s partisans. It was curious to mark the interview between Burr and Wilkinson. There was no nature in it—they had anticipated the meeting and resolved on the countenance which they would wear—Wilkinson had been some time within the bar before Burr would look towards him affecting not to know he was there until Hay introduced him by saying to the court: ‘It is my wish that General Wilkinson, who is now before the court, should be qualified and sent up to the Grand Jury.’ At the words ‘who is now before the court,’ Burr started in his chair, turned quickly and fastened a look of scorn and contempt on Wilkinson—Wilkinson bowing to the court on his introduction did not receive Burr’s first glance; but his bow finished, he turned his face down on Burr and looked with all the sullenness and protervity of a big black bull—Burr withdrew his eyes composedly and that was the end of it.”
Wilkinson himself described the scene in a letter to President Jefferson in his own inimitable style. “I saluted the Bench & in spite of myself my eyes darted a flash of indignation at the little Traitor on whom they continued fixed until I was called to the Book—The Lyon hearted Eagle Eyed Hero, sinking under the weight of conscious guilt, with haggard Eye, made an Effort to meet the indignant salutation of outraged Honor, but it was in vain, his audacity failed Him, He averted his face, grew pale & affected passion to conceal his perturbation.”
As soon as Wilkinson had taken the oath, he was sent to the grand jury. He had dressed in his best in the commanding general’s uniform of his own devising. His enormous gold epaulets glittered in the light pouring through the tall windows. He wore his famous gold spurs, and his heavily encrusted sword trailed on the ground. John Randolph, the foreman, immediately piped up that the marshal must take that man out and disarm him.
It was soon clear that the jurymen were set to give the General a hard time. John Randolph had discovered that the copies of Burr’s and Dayton’s cipher messages which had been in the General’s hands had been tampered with. Phrases had been erased, words written in. The grand jurors kept asking the General why, since he claimed he’d first learned of Burr’s plot from Swartwout in October, he had let a whole month go by before warning Governor Claiborne that an attack on New Orleans was imminent? In fact, wasn’t Wilkinson guilty too? And when the grand jury came to vote its indictments, a motion to add Wilkinson’s name to the list of defendants was just barely lost, seven to nine.
John Randolph was furious: “But the mammoth of iniquity escaped,” he wrote a friend; “not that any man pretended to think him innocent , but upon certain wire-drawn distinctions that I will not pester you with. W—n is the only man that I ever saw who was from the bark to the very core a villain.”
While the grand jury was closeted day after day in one part of the capitol, at the public sessions in the Hall of Delegates Burr and his lawyers hammered on a similar theme—that the true traitor of the piece was Wilkinson; instead of being a witness for the prosecution he should be in the prisoners’ dock.
On Wednesday, June 24, Burr’s attorneys brought in a motion for the attachment of the person of General Wilkinson. While this motion was being argued, word went around that the grand jury was about to bring in an indictment. Every man who could puffed up the hill to the capitol. At two o’clock that afternoon, as one of Burr’s lawyers was arguing for the attachment of General Wilkinson (who, since he had emerged from his ordeal, was sitting brazen with self-righteousness among the government lawyers), John Randolph led his sober-faced jurors into court and laid several indictments on the clerk’s table.
The clerk read out the endorsements: True bills against Burr and Blennerhassett for treason and misdemeanor.
In his letter to Ninian Edwards, Wirt described with relish the consternation in the camp of the defense: “When the grand-jury came down with the Bills against Burr and Blennerhassett, I never saw such a group of shocked faces. The chief justice, who is a very dark man, shrunk back with horror upon his seat and turned black. He kept his eyes fixed on Burr with an expression of sympathy so agonizing and horror so deep & overwhelming that he seemed for two or three seconds to have forgotten where & who he was. I observed him & saw him start from his reverie under the consciousness that he was giving away too much of his feelings and look around upon the multitude to see if he had been noticed. …”
The Chief Justice had no choice but to order Burr to the public jail, although he was moved the following day to a comfortable guarded room in a private house where Luther Martin lodged. Meanwhile the grand jury was deliberating further indictments, and John Randolph asked the court’s assistance in obtaining a copy of a letter postmarked May 13, 1806, written by James Wilkinson, to which Burr’s cipher letter was thought to be an answer. The members of the grand jury were aware that they could not ask the accused to present material which might incriminate him but hoped he would facilitate their inquiry into the facts. John Randolph was hinting that the letter might incriminate Wilkinson.
The Chief Justice replied dryly that the jurors were quite right in their opinion that the accused could not be required to incriminate himself.
Colonel Burr rose and in his most disarming manner declared that it would be impossible for him “to expose any letter which had been communicated to him confidentially.” He added, with that suggestion of the steel claw under the velvet glove of which he was a master, that he was not then prepared to decide “how far the extremity of circumstances might impel him to such action.”
Mr. McRae of the prosecution interposed that General Wilkinson had informed him that he wished to have the whole of the correspondence between Colonel Burr and himself exhibited before the court. Wilkinson was referring to other letters in his possession even more damaging to Burr.
Burr replied sarcastically that the General was “welcome to all the éclat which he may expect to derive from his challenge,” but that the letter postmarked May 13 would not be produced. “The letter is not at this time in my possession and General Wilkinson knows it.”
Even in their deadly grapple a curious intimacy persisted between the two men. Each knew how the other’s mind worked. Each was telegraphing to the other that he held in his possession the evidence needed to convict him. Whoever produced any more damaging correspondence would do so at his own risk.
The grand jury promptly returned with a new set of indictments presenting ex-Senator Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey and Senator John Smith of Ohio, along with Comfort Tyler, Israel Smith, and Davis Floyd, who had been Burr’s agents in organizing the expedition, as guilty of treason and of levying war against the United States on Blennerhassett’s island in Wood County, Virginia, on December 13, 1806.
A few days later Burr was removed to the penitentiary which Benjamin Latrobe, the architect of the south wing of the U.S. Capitol, had designed and recently completed for the commonwealth of Virginia.
Burr seems to have been happy under the cool, vaulted ceilings of his new quarters. It was at least a protection from his creditors, who were getting ready to place Colonel Burr in debtors’ prison whenever they could lay hands on him.
“I have three rooms in the third story of the penitentiary,” Burr wrote Theodosia, “making an extent of a hundred feet. My jailer is quite a polite and civil man—altogether unlike the idea one would form of a jailer. You would have laughed to have heard our compliments last evening.”
The jailer apologized for having to keep the door locked after dark. Burr replied that he would prefer it, to keep out intruders. When the jailer told him lights would have to be extinguished at nine, Colonel Burr said that was quite impossible because he never went to bed before midnight. “As you please, Sir,” said the jailer.
Under the plea that travelling back and forth between the penitentiary and the capitol would be too great a tax on the accused and his lawyers during the sessions of the trial, Burr, accompanied by his seven guards, was again removed in the first days of August to a private house. His suite at the prison was promptly occupied by the chief victim of his impostures, Harman Blennerhassett.
Poor Blanny had been taken into custody by the federal marshal in Kentucky, where he had already fallen into the clutches of Burr’s creditors, bent on attaching his person and property. He called in Henry Clay as his counsel and with Clay’s help held off the bailiffs by producing a letter from Joseph Alston which promised to assume at least part of the indebtedness. Mrs. Blennerhassett meanwhile was struggling to exist with their two boys in Natchez.
When the Alstons arrived they took over Burr’s old quarters in Luther Martin’s house. “I want an independent and discerning witness to my conduct and to that of the government,” Burr had written Theodosia. “… I should never invite anyone, much less those so dear to me, to witness my disgrace. I may be immured in dungeons, chained, murdered in legal form, but I cannot be humiliated or disgraced. If absent you will suffer much solicitude. In my presence you will feel none, whatever be the malice or the power of my enemies. …”
People were beginning to lose interest in Burr’s machinations. It was the prospect of a war with England that worried them now. Late in June the British frigate Leopard had made an unprovoked attack on the American frigate Chesapeake off Cape Henry, and indignation was sweeping the country. The government witnesses had scattered to the hills.
The trial proper began on August 3. When Chief Justice Marshall appeared on the bench at noon, George Hay for the prosecution was forced shamefacedly to confess that he had not the witnesses on hand he needed to present his case. Again court was adjourned. It was not till the following Monday that enough government witnesses assembled to justify impanelling a jury. A number of jurors were rejected because they admitted having formed an opinion, like a certain Mr. Bucky, that whether treason were proved or not, Colonel Burr ought to be hung.
George Hay’s prosecution never recovered its impetus, even though the people in general agreed with Mr. Bucky. In spite of William Wirt’s flights of oratory, his fanciful description of the beauties of Blennerhassett’s island before Burr arrived like the serpent in Eden, Burr and his lawyers retained the offensive.
President Jefferson could give only half his mind to the Burr trial. Yet the conviction of Burr had become an idea so fixed that it clouded his judgment. At one point he wrote Hay, after reading some particularly intemperate remarks by Luther Martin, that if “Old Brandy Bottle,” as Martin was popularly called, was such a good friend of Burr’s, maybe he should be indicted himself.
The administration was in a dilemma. To make a proper case against Burr they had to inculpate Wilkinson, and yet the President and his two advisers, Secretary of State James Madison and Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin, had decided that the state of affairs in New Orleans demanded that, come what may, they support the General. The prosecution’s case against Burr—though a procession of witnesses from the rank and file of those whom Burr had deceived produced evidence enough to convict him of all sorts of other crimes—depended on John Marshall’s broad definition of treason as the assembling of armed men—the definition advanced by the Chief Justice in the habeas corpus proceedings against Bollman and Swartwout. George Hay made no effort to prove that Aaron Burr was present when the overt acts were committed by his armed forces assembled on Blennerhassett’s island.
But on August 31, John Marshall seemed to shift his ground. Admitting that there were times when the Supreme Court might be called upon to reconsider its judgments, he explained away the phrases in his previous definition of treason which might imply that conspiracy to assemble armed men was sufficient to establish guilt. “The present indictment charges the prisoner with levying war against the United States, and alleges an overt act of levying war. That overt act must be proved, according to the mandates of the constitution and of the act of congress, by two witnesses. It is not proved by a single witness.”
The Chief Justice furthermore ruled that since the overt act had not been proved, “corroborative or confirmatory testimony” was not admissible. This ruling by one scratch of the pen threw out all the testimony as to Burr’s performances on the Mississippi and the Ohio which the prosecution had gone to such pains to collect. As was his wont, the Chief Justice presented his opinion in writing, and at great length.
The court adjourned to give District Attorney Hay time to read it over. Next morning he threw up the case. His swarm of witnesses had been ruled out unheard. He would leave it to the jury.
After twenty-five minutes the jury returned to the hall. The verdict was read by the foreman, this time the muchrespected Colonel Edward Carrington. “We of the jury say that Aaron Burr is not proved to be guilty under this indictment by any evidence submitted to us.”
Burr immediately objected to the form of the verdict. Luther Martin asked if the jury intended to censure the court for suppressing testimony. Members of the jury, as politely as they could, made it clear that that was exactly what they did intend. The Chief Justice, in his offhand manner, ended the imbroglio by suggesting that the verdict stand as written but that “Not guilty” be entered in the record.
The threat of the gallows was lifted, but the sun had not come out for Aaron Burr. He was no sooner freed of the indictment for treason than he found himself attached for debt in a civil suit. Somehow he managed to find surety to the amount of $36,000.
Emboldened by the favorable verdict in Burr’s case, Jonathan Dayton emerged from hiding and appeared in court with an affidavit to the effect that he had not been on Blennerhassett’s island in December, 1806. Hay entered a nolle prosequi. And when Harman Blennerhassett was brought into court the next day, his case was treated in the same way.
There was still the “misdemeanor” charge, the considerable misdemeanor of mounting an expedition against Spanish territories. Burr and the rest were admitted to bail on that. And while they waited, Blanny dogged Burr’s footsteps; he kept writing the little colonel begging for an explanation. He and his family were penniless. Colonel Burr must propose some plan for repaying the money he owed him. Whenever he managed to see Burr, that gentleman was surrounded by friends and remarkably inattentive to talk of a financial settlement. Blennerhassett then sought out Alston. All Alston would talk about was how he himself was fifty thousand dollars in the hole. At last Burr granted Blanny a private interview. Burr wanted to know which influential men Blanny could introduce him to in England.
To his diary Blennerhassett confided his hopes that in exchange for letters to people of rank Burr might be induced to start repaying the money he owed, but when Blanny hinted at this quid pro quo , Burr would talk only of his projects. The new aggressive mood showing itself at the British Foreign Office would provide just the climate he needed for getting backing for his plan of disunion. “He is as gay as usual,” Blanny noted, “and as busy in speculations on reorganizing his projects for action as if he had never suffered the least interruption.”
The misdemeanor trial proved to be more of a trial of General Wilkinson than of Aaron Burr. The lawyers for the prosecution had lost heart. Important papers were mislaid. They had only the most perfunctory assistance from the Attorney General, and the result was another series of verdicts of Not Guilty. Other charges in Ohio were never pressed.
Aaron Burr departed for Philadelphia. Already he was trying to recruit young men to form his suite on his projected journey to England. Blennerhassett followed in his trail, still hopeful of a settlement of his claims.
A mob threatening tar and feathers caused them to hurry through Baltimore. In Philadelphia Blanny noted that the Colonel as usual moved in the best circles. Finding himself one of a crowd of creditors whom Burr always managed to avoid, Blanny gave up. Travelling under assumed names and under strange disguises, Aaron Burr managed to shake loose from his creditors long enough to get himself smuggled aboard a packet boat for England. One of his last acts in New York was to borrow a few dollars from his German cook, who, knowing his master, made him leave the deed to a trunkload of personal effects as security.
Burr’s wanderings during his years of exile in Europe were as puzzling as his performances on the western waters. In England he ingratiated himself with Jeremy Bentham, the political economist whose utilitarian theories Burr claimed to find admirable. Bentham put him up and furnished him with funds while the little colonel tried to interest the government in the conquest of Mexico. When Lord Liverpool’s administration turned his proposition down, and sought to expel him from Great Britain, Burr had the effrontery to claim that, having been born under King George, he was a British subject. He ran up so many bills that he had to take it on the run, nevertheless, to escape imprisonment for debt, and retired to Sweden. There he panhandled his way from nobleman’s seat to nobleman’s seat, keeping all the while, expressly for the eyes of Theodosia and little Gampillo, his grandson, one of the most extraordinary journals in the history of the human mind.
Using a curious code compounded of German and English and Swedish and French, he noted, for the edification of the only two people he loved in the world, every single detail of an existence dedicated to a conscienceless depravity without match in confessional literature. He noted every subterfuge he indulged in to cadge a meal or a handout; every time he drank too much; his efforts to ease the vacant spirit with opium; every success with a woman, were she duchess or chambermaid; the price he paid his harlots and whether they were worth it or not. Intermingled were sparkling descriptions of weather and places, shrewd estimates of people, philosophical disquisitions on the meaninglessness of life, but never a word or a phrase that betrayed a moment’s escape from the strait jacket of self-worship.
When he wore out his welcome in Sweden and Germany, he made his way to Paris. There he presented to the Emperor Napoleon’s foreign office a fanciful scheme involving the reconquest of Louisiana and Canada for France. The response of Burr’s old idol was to have him watched by the police.
In the end Burr somehow managed to shake down the French foreign office for his passage home. In June of 1812 he slipped back into New York in disguise and was sheltered by such members of the Little Band as still retained political influence. He even ventured to open a law office on Nassau Street. He had barely settled in practice before a distracted letter reached him from Theodosia. His grandson was dead. He would never see Gampillo again. Desperate with grief, Theodosia could think only of rejoining her father. Too ill to travel by land, she tried to run the British blockade and was lost at sea on the pilot boat Patriot .
Friends remarked how nobly Burr bore his affliction. Stoicism amid total disaster fitted into his philosophy. He managed to make a living at the law, surrounded himself with a new family of outcasts, unfortunate women and foster children, some of whom were reputed to be his own bastards and whose education he supervised with pedantic care. He lived on for years as one of New York’s minor notorieties. Men pointed him out on the street to their sons as the wickedest man alive.
To the end he protested that his strange schemes were never intended to be detrimental to the United States. In 1833, at the age of seventy-seven, he married a woman to whom his name had been linked by gossip forty years before. As Mme. Jumel, the wife of a successful French wine merchant for twenty-eight years, Eliza Bowen had attained a certain respectability. Now she was reputed to be one of the wealthiest widows in New York. They had been married barely a year before Mme. Jumel sued him for divorce on the charge of adultery. Burr had laid his hands on large sums of her money to invest in the Texas land schemes of a beautiful young woman named Jane McManus. The decree was granted, on the testimony of a housemaid, the day Burr died. The end had come, after a series of strokes, at a hotel on the Staten Island shore to which friends had carried him on a stretcher—partly becaues he loved the sea breezes and partly to escape the persecution of clergymen who wanted to take the credit for the deathbed conversion of the wickedest man alive.
In a batch of Burr papers that turned up recently in the possession of the New-York Historical Society appear the court records of a proceeding for perjury brought against the housemaid who testified to his adultery. With Aaron Burr, in small things as in great, one can never be quite sure.