Aaron Burr

Aaron Burr
Aaron Burr

Since many of the conspirators burned much of the evidence before the Aaron Burr treason trial in 1807, the Burr conspiracy has remained shrouded in mystery. Although it may never be known exactly what Burr was planning, or conspiring, in the West in the early 1800s, sufficient evidence still remains that supports the view that Burr, upset at the current demise of his political career, sought to instigate a rebellion in the newly acquired Louisiana Territory with the aim of setting up a new empire in which he could assume a leadership role.

Burr had a notable family history. His grandfather was Colonial America’s noted Great Awakening preacher, Jonathan Edwards. Burr’s father, Jonathan Edwards the younger, was president of Princeton University. Besides having an impressive lineage, Burr was intelligent, talented, and ambitious. During the American Revolution, he served in the Continental Army.

After the war, he studied law and then later practiced in New York. Entering politics in New York in 1789, he served in a variety of offices, including state assemblyman, state attorney general, and U.S. senator. Having assumed a position of political prominence, he threw his hat in the ring in the presidential election of 1800. The election resulted in a tie, with Burr and Thomas Jefferson winning seventy-three electoral votes each.

At that time, the United States Constitution stated that whoever won the election would become president and the candidate who came in second would become vice-president. After the election was deferred to the House of Representatives, Burr was extremely disappointed, because Thomas Jefferson won the race after Federalist Alexander Hamilton, who felt that Jefferson was the least of the two Republican evils, threw his support behind Jefferson.

Vice-President Burr, well aware that Hamilton’s political bargaining had been the deciding factor in his failed bid for the presidency, developed a deep resentment of Hamilton. In 1804, as Jefferson’s second presidential election was looming, Jefferson rejected Burr as a running mate. Burr, still hoping to stay in the political arena, ran for the governorship of New York.

However, after it became painfully apparent that Hamilton had once again foiled Burr’s political ambitions, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Most accounts say that Hamilton fired into the air while Burr fired directly at his target, fatally wounding Hamilton. Hamilton’s death signaled the end of Burr’s political career, and it also led to indictments for murder in New York and New Jersey.

Burr and Hamilton duel
Burr and Hamilton duel

To Burr, in great debt and wishing to put himself beyond the reach of the authorities, the recently acquired Louisiana Territory seemed like the logical place to run to. Burr was aware that many Federalists held the opinion that the Louisiana Territory had been an illegal purchase by the United States, because Napoleon Bonaparte, who had sold it, had no power to do so. At the time of the transaction, the territory was occupied by Spanish troops.

It was not until months after the sale that French troops briefly took possession of the land. What is more, Napoleon had acquired the land from Spain under an agreement that stated that, in return, he would give Tuscany to the son-in-law of Charles IV. Napoleon had, in fact, never fulfilled his side of the bargain. Furthermore, Charles IV had secured a signed pledge from Napoleon that the territory would never be peacefully handed over to a third nation.

Not only was the purchase on shaky ground according to many, but many Federalists also opposed it, because they feared that the new territory would add southwest agricultural states to the union, which could upset the political balance by diminishing political power in the northeast industrial and commercial states. Consequently, Burr felt that he could secure sufficient support in the United States to support a rebellion and ultimate separation of the Louisiana Territory from the Union.

Upon reaching the West, Burr shared his vision with an old friend, U.S. military commander General James Wilkinson. The meeting spurred Burr on, and he secured a loan from a trusting wealthy Irishman named Harman Blennerhassett, which he used to purchase the Bastrop grant on the Ouachita River in Louisiana, which he intended to use as a base of operations.

Once physical preparations had begun, Burr sought military support for his plan as well. He began by appealing to British agents to send the British Navy to help him blockade the port of New Orleans, but the British were not interested in supporting Burr’s plan. In the meantime, Burr was able to rally together a very well equipped local army of about sixty men. Furthermore, in 1806, Burr traveled through Lexington, Kentucky, recruiting even more soldiers for his army. Having secured a base and a small army, Burr attempted to gain political support in the United States.

As it turned out, Burr’s political connections paid off, and General Wilkinson was appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory. Encouraged by recent events, Burr intensified his appeals for support from Federalists and Republicans. Although many Federalists despised Jefferson’s administration and many Republicans regretted the Louisiana Purchase for political reasons, very few of them felt that treason was justified.

As word of Burr’s requests spread, therefore, some citizens sent letters to Jefferson accusing Burr of treason, but none of these letters caught Jefferson’s attention as much as the one sent by Governor Wilkinson. Wilkinson, a secret agent for Spain, it seems, had realized that Burr’s scheme was doomed, because it lacked enough popular support, and he attempted to turn Burr in as a way of separating himself from the conspiracy. Jefferson wasted no time and ordered Burr’s arrest.

After getting word that Wilkinson had doublecrossed him, Burr began to dabble with the idea of invading Mexico and creating a new republic, which he could rule over as emperor. But Burr was arrested as he attempted to flee to Florida. He was promptly charged with treason by the grand jury, and tried in Richmond, Virginia.

Chief Justice John Marshall, who was decidedly biased in Burr’s favor, served as the presiding judge in the trial. Marshall’s allegiance to Burr was made apparent when he attended a dinner given by the chief defense team at which Burr was present. On the other hand, Jefferson, who was adamantly in favor of Burr’s conviction, promised pardons to coconspirators willing to testify against Burr.

Marshall, in turn, made the conviction difficult by adopting a very rigid interpretation of treason, which required the testimony of two credible first-hand witnesses of Burr’s treasonous activities. In the end, Burr was acquitted of treason, because the prosecution was unable to supply two witnesses to the crime.

After the trial, still being sought for Hamilton’s murder, Burr borrowed some money from friends and sailed to Europe. During the next four years, he traveled through England, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and France seeking support for his new plan to conquer Florida. Unable to find willing partners or investors, Burr returned to New York in 1812 to practice law and remained a private citizen for the rest of his life.