Aaron Burr treason trial Essay

This essay has a total of 3167 words and 15 pages.


Aaron Burr treason trial




The early 1800’s were an unusual time in the history of the United States. A country in
its infancy, growing, turbulent, and filled with intrigue where political and economic
fortunes were made and lost overnight. While the country was founded on noble ideas---and
no doubt these powerful ideas were taken seriously---how such ideas were to be put into
practice created fertile ground for personal ambition and interest to be a stronger
motivator than the “common good”. In fact, at times it appears that the ideas were
little more than vehicles for the personal ambitions---and in the case of this story---the
personal vendettas of powerful personalities.

Aaron Burr, brilliant, ambitious, and a great orator, was certainly larger than life. And
his battles with Thomas Jefferson---no less a dramatic figure---lead finally to his trial
for treason against the United States. This trial was the culmination of a personal
political battle between two great figures where Jefferson would stop at nothing to
destroy Burr…even if it meant abusing the principles that he himself help enshrine as the
basis for the United States. This trial, and the preceding events, are the subject of
this paper. Reviewing the facts illustrates that the trial was really more about a
vendetta between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr than the law.


Aaron Burr was born in 1756 and was one of the rising stars of the new republic. A
rising star many felt was sure to be the President of the young country and to be a
distinguished one at that. Burr’s conflict with Jefferson began when they tied for the
presidential election of 1800. The election then went to the House of Representatives
where Burr rejected Federalist overtures for a coalition, but did not publicly support
giving the Presidency to Jefferson. Burr felt that an election should not be won through
coalitions and he was especially bitter about the idea of working with the Federalists.
Burr, arrogant, confident and trusting in the ‘rightness’ of his position, made no effort
to persuade congress to his side. On the other hand, Jefferson quickly established deals
with many of the Federalist congressmen to insure their votes and consequently won the
presidency. During several depositions following the election it became very clear to the
public that Jefferson had worked with the Federalists in order to secure the election. A
founder and the leader of the Republicans had, in the end, sided with the opposition in
order to insure his own presidential victory. This political maneuvering to ensure his
election made Jefferson look opportunistic and self-serving, and left an enduring black
spot on his reputation that was never removed. Jefferson directly blamed Burr, and he
would distrust and despise Burr for the rest of his life. A close friend of Jefferson even
declared, “that this fixed the destiny of Colonel Burr… Mr. Jefferson’s malignity toward
Colonel Burr never ceased but with his last breathe.”

In the end, the election concluded with Jefferson as President and Burr as Vice President.
Their personal enmity only grew worse while they were forced to work together in the
White House. Jefferson finally ousted Burr from the Republican ticket during his
reelection. After this Burr would attempt to run for the governorship of New York, but
through clever planning by Alexander Hamilton he would lose this election. This would
result in the infamous dual of honor between Burr and Hamilton, in which Hamilton was
fatally shot by Burr. Wanted for murder in two states, Burr would then be forced to flee
to the west. Thus began the final chapter of his ambitious career.

Burr was almost fifty when he arrived in the West for the first time. He was amazed by
the amount of untamed land and openness of the western plains, but was most impressed by
the incredible isolation . His natural charm and great oratorical skill would serve him
well in this untamed land. His uncanny ability to sway small and large groups alike--in
an land where outsized ideas and ambitions seemed the order of the day--would aid him on
the road ahead.

Burr came west with no clear idea what to do. He thought he might simply rebuild his
legal career, speculate in land, and seek public office. Or possibly construct a canal
around the Falls of the Ohio. But such ideas didn’t quite fit with a man who had been so
close to the Presidency of the Republic. It is not known exactly where the idea for a
conspiracy came from, but on April 29, 1805 Burr unveiled his plan to lead a revolution in
Mexico (still a colony of Spain) over dinner with Herman Blennerhassett. Blennerhassett
was a rich landowner who lived on a 300-acre island on the Ohio River and Burr realized
that for this plan to succeed it would require a great deal of money, men and other
resources .

But Blennerhassett wasn’t much for grand foreign adventures and Burr eventually settled on
a strategy of swindling Britain and Spain into giving him the money and the troops he
needed to revolutionize Mexico. This was difficult from the start, especially since the
Spaniards controlled Mexico at the time.

Burr’s plan was to lie to both Britain and Spain, telling them he was trying to tear the
United States in half, east from west. But instead of breaking up the country he intended
instead to use the money and troops from Spain and Britain to invade Mexico. He outlined
the first part of his strategy in a letter to Anthony Merry, the British minister to the
US, and Don Carlos Yrujo, the Spanish minister to the US on January 1st, 1806. This
letter eventually ended up in the hands of president Jefferson, and would become an
important part of the prosecution’s case against Burr in his trial for treason. Burr
maintained that he never had any intention of committing treason—it was simply a ruse
against two countries that were not particularly popular in the US at that time. Since
it was well known at that time that to commit treason you had to actually commit an overt
act of treason, not only plan one, Burr claimed (later) that his strategy was a reasonable
one.

Burr’s grand plan began to fail when he realized he could not obtain the funds he required
without the help of both Yrujo and Merry. Both ministers had, unknown to Burr, discovered
his true intentions. This left Burr desperate for funds and with nowhere else to turn
except the east coast of the United States (where he was still wanted for murder…though
nobody seemed particularly interested in prosecuting him). Shortly after his arrival
rumors began to spread that Burr was trying to split the East from the West. Jefferson,
having received a letter about Burr’s offer to Yrujo and Merry, quickly made a public
announcement declaring that he had learned of a conspiracy to split the country and that
everyone associated with it should distance themselves as soon as possible (though he
never mentioned Burr’s name). Within several days the conspiracy was shattered.

Three months later, on January 22nd, 1806, President Jefferson issued a special message to
congress saying, “Aaron Burr was the ‘arch conspirator’ in a treasonous enterprise to
divide the nation.” Although Jefferson gave no evidence at this time, Burr’s reputation
was ruined and public sentiment would be against him for the rest of his life.

There were several important conspirators who helped Burr with his plan. The most
important, and a key witness later in the trial against Burr, was General James Wilkinson.
General Wilkinson was a corrupt and selfish politician who was always willing to sell
himself to the highest bidder. In 1787 Wilkinson swore allegiance to the Spanish crown
in order to get the exclusive privilege to sell Kentucky produce in the metropolis of
Louisiana. He would later try to separate Kentucky from Virginia, with the idea that upon
achieving statehood Kentucky would not join the United States, but would be left free to
make plans with its Spanish neighbors. This incident is known as the Spanish Conspiracy
and it only becomes more incriminating when it was discovered that Wilkinson was receiving
$2,000 a year from the Spanish government. After this Wilkinson would join the army and
after only eight years, become the ranking general. At this point the Spanish government
was paying him $16,000 for his “services”. It may be that the corrupt Wilkinson was the
only real traitor in this story…but he hadn’t made Thomas Jefferson his personal enemy.

Wilkinson’s role in Burr’s plan was to lead Burr’s army of mercenaries against Mexico. In
exchange, Burr would help Wilkinson become governor of the Louisiana territory (which he
did) and compensate him with lands gained from Mexico. When Burr’s plan was uncovered,
and Wilkinson learned that President Jefferson had heard of the plot, he quickly wrote
Jefferson a letter admitting everything hoping to gain indemnity in exchange for
testifying against Burr.

Jefferson first heard about Burr’s plan on December 1st, 1805. But for a full year he did
nothing. This has led many historians to believe that Jefferson may have been involved in
a plot to actually frame Burr. It wasn’t until Jefferson received a letter from the
postmaster general on October 16th, 1806, (stating that Burr’s plan was to split the
country) that Jefferson made the announcement warning people to distance themselves from
the conspiracy. Jefferson hoped that in making a moderate proclamation, and that by not
mentioning Burr directly, that he could trap Burr in a more overt act of treason that
could be better prosecuted. However by January 22nd, 1807, Jefferson felt that he had
gathered suitable evidence to convict Burr and he delivered his message to congress
accusing Burr of being the ‘arch-conspirator’ in a Western plot.

John Randolph, a congressman, was outraged after hearing Jefferson’s proclamation against
Burr and ordered Jefferson to provide evidence for his serious accusations. Jefferson
provided several letters that he claimed were all written by General Wilkinson (although,
in fact, some weren’t). The letters mentioned both a plot to split the West from the East
and Burr’s intentions to invade Mexico. Congress was convinced.

Three months later on March 30th, 1807, Burr was arrested in Richmond, Virginia, on
several charges. The first charge was the misdemeanor of having set forth on an
expedition against the dominions of the King of Spain. The second charge was treason for
having assembled an armed force for the purpose of seizing the city of New Orleans,
revolutionizing Orleans Territory, and separating the Western from the Atlantic states.
The warrant for his arrest was written and delivered by Chief Justice John Marshall, who
was also a leading citizen of Richmond. Burr went peacefully into custody and awaited
the beginning of his trial. Since he was arrested in the jurisdiction of the Chief Justice
it was decided that Marshall would preside over the case. This would have a profound
effect on the case.

Prosecuting Burr was U.S. Attorney George Hay, a decent lawyer but nothing compared to the
Continues for 8 more pages >>




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