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 corru …