Treason Trial of Aaron Burr (2d Essay)
Bill Long 10/18/07
Understanding Burr's Mind in 1805-06
One thing that even non-lawyers have learned in the past decade in American life is that guilt and proof of guilt in a court of law are two different things. In order to secure a guilty verdict at trial the state's lawyer must wade through a thicket of legal and practical problems. There are issues of factual reconstruction, witness memory and reliability, evidence, definitions of crimes and, when you get to trial, jury selection, rulings by the presiding judge and consistency of witness testimony. One friend, a noted trial lawyer, likens being a prosecuting attorney to being a symphony conductor or director of a play--you have to make sure that every part is working "in sync" in order to pull off your "production." It takes massive amounts of energy, coordination, skill and, often, sheer luck.
Aaron Burr's Motivations--in a Nutshell
Thus, as we try to understand this most significant treason trial in our history, we must keep these issues in mind. Prof. Doug Linder (of University of Missouri, Kansas City School of Law) has provided an excellent online "blow by blow" account of the trial, and Buckner F. Melton's study Aaron Burr: Conspiracy to Treason (2002) is the most recent book-length study of the issue. My concern in this essay is to try to understand the motivations and interests of Burr in 1805-06, clearing the ground so that you can easily understand the legal issues of his 1807 case.
Burr's activities immediately after he left the Vice-Presidency on March 4, 1805 were at issue in his 1807 trial. He traveled through Pennsylvania, along the Ohio River, through TN and KY, and to New Orleans in the five months following his term of office. He was interested in making three kinds of connections with people. First, he wanted to renew important military connections. The most important in this regard was with James Wilkinson, senior officer in the US Army, who was stationed in New Orleans after the purchase of the Territory. Wilkinson, described here, was appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory in 1805 but most who have studied his life emphasize that his primary loyalty was to himself and not to his country. Most think, correctly in my judgment, that Burr was "feeling him out" to gain support for a treasonous scheme only gradually taking shape in Burr's mind.*
[*My theory is that Burr felt after the unexpected humiliations of 1804--Jefferson dropped him from his Second Term ticket, Burr lost the NY Governor's race in April and he was roundly criticized and even indicted in absentia in NY and NJ for the duel with Alexander Hamilton in July--that there was no "future" for him in the East, and that he had to head West to discover his future. The elements of his Western scheme unfolded gradually in his mind, but they included the leasing of a huge plot of land in Spanish Texas, the drumming up of some discontent in the "West," the securing of a base of operations for the future in Blennerhassett--an Island in the Ohio River near Marietta, OH, the attempt to get significant figures "on his side" and, then, late in 1806/early in 1807, an attempt to take New Orleans. Along the way I think Burr told different stories of his Western plans to different people based on their possible interest in helping him. That is, to Andrew Jackson in TN he no doubt said that he was interested primarily in an assault on Spanish possessions--especially Spanish Florida; to James Wilkinson in Louisiana he may have been more forthcoming--discussing a possible "coup" in New Orleans, a choking of the Mississippi River and the setting up of a Western kingdom from which point they could launch attacks on Texas and Florida.]
Second, Burr needed to have some kind of international or foreign support for what he intended. Thus, as early as August 1804, the month after his duel with Hamilton, he approached an English minister (they didn't have an ambassador in the US at the time) Anthony Merry with a proposal that Merry relayed to his government. In Merry's words it was the following:
"[Burr wanted] to lend assistance to His Majesty's Government in any manner in which they may think fit to employ him, particularly in endeavoring to effect a separation of the Western part of the United States from that which lies between the Atlantic and the mountains, in its whole extent" (quoted in Melton, 54).
Further communications between Merry and his superiors in London were more precise--in Spring 1805 Burr would make specific demands for help:
"In regard to Military Aid he said, two or three Frigates & the same number of smaller Vessels to be stationed at the mouth of the Mississippi to prevent its being blockaded by such Force as the United States could send...and in respect to Money the Loan of about One Hundred Thousand Pounds" (Id. at 67).
So, Burr wanted British economic and military help. But Burr also needed a third thing: a staging ground to launch his designs (he needed recruits also, but he thought that getting them would be easy. And, he felt that he didn't need a huge army. He once was quoted as saying that a contingent of 500 could take New York City and 200 troops were all that was necessary to push Congress into the Potomac). Thus, he was delighted to find both a perfect place to launch his plans and a naive and wealthy supporter in Irish immigrant Herman Blennarhassett, who owned a 300-acre island named after him with huge mansion and ornate gardens in the middle of the Ohio River near Marietta OH. Burr first visited Blennarhassett in May 1805, securing his loyalty with promises of riches and status in a new kingdom which Burr would lead someplace in the South/West. Blennarhassett Island, actually, was the place where 15 boats were contracted to be delivered early in Dec. 1806 (Burr made these contracts in Aug. 1806) so that they could set sail down the Ohio to the Mississippi and onto New Orleans.
Though the Scripture tells us that a threefold cord cannot quickly be broken, this threefold chain constructed by Burr was not a firm one. It relied on the loyalty of a man whose loyalty to anyone was dubious (Wilkinson); it relied further on a country (England) who had little incentive to team up with a disgruntled ex-Vice President on a hare-brained scheme to "deliver the West" to England. Indeed, I think this is an example of Burr telling people what he thought they wanted to hear (which he did also with Andrew Jackson in TN). He had no intention, in my mind, of living under British authority. Thus, when his house of cards began to collapse in the Fall of 1806, Burr had few options but to surrender to Federal troops north of New Orleans early in 1807.
Let's turn to the legal case against him and how he slithered out of it.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long