Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History—Aaron Burr
Aaron Burr was a member of the revered founding generation of political leaders, but he suffered an ignominious fall from grace and faced treason charges in court. One biographer described him as a “fallen founder.” The standard narrative portrays Burr’s contemporaries—Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, among others—as virtuous men, geniuses who forged a mighty nation from the backwater lands of the former British colonies south of Canada. No Founder was perfect—some owned slaves, suffered under massive debt, and/or engaged in petty partisan politics—but their public virtues far outweighed their private vices, at least according to conventional wisdom. Burr was the exception that proved the rule. His public career held much promise, according to this perspective, but his avaricious nature and villainous conduct transformed him into a pariah, a man whose vices consumed him. He became a founder without a country, a political leader with little or no constituency. I discuss Aaron Burr’s trials and tribulations in my forthcoming book, Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History.
Burr was always a contrarian, but his major difficulties arose owing to a falling out with Thomas Jefferson, leader of the Democratic-Republican Party. In the election of 1800, Jefferson stood for president and Burr for vice president. The Jefferson-Burr ticket handily defeated the incumbent president, the prickly and perennially unpopular John Adams, but Burr was not satisfied with the vice presidency. He was supposed to discard few electoral votes to ensure that Jefferson was selected as president. When Burr refused to follow the plan, his tie vote with Jefferson forced the election into the United States House of Representative for resolution, as required by the United States Constitution. Although Jefferson won the contest and Burr became his second, the episode left both men embittered.
Banished from the halls of power, Burr lashed out at his enemies, one of whom was former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Burr and Hamilton were ambitious men, and both coveted the highest office in the land. They engaged in an ongoing dispute, each side hurling invectives and working against the other. The feud led these proud, impetuous public figures to demand satisfaction on the field of honor. On July 11, 1804, Burr killed Hamilton with a pistol in a duel in Weehawken, New Jersey. Although Burr was not arrested, he faced a possible criminal indictment, an astonishing turn of events for a sitting vice president who might have become president. The duel essentially ended his political career. His finished his term as vice president before heading west in 1805.
Because the Spanish empire claimed lands adjacent to the Louisiana Purchase, the possibility of a war between Spain and the United States was ever present. Burr contemplated a risky plan where he would lead a private army into Spanish territory to grab as much land as he could. Known as “filibustering,” the endeavor was fraught with peril. Filibustering was a criminal offense when nations peacefully coexisted because the head of a private army did not enjoy his government’s imprimatur. For this plan to work, then, the two nations would have to become belligerents. The prospect of a shooting war was reasonable, but it remained a gamble.
Burr’s plan was not altogether clear. He may have intended to snatch land from Spain or from the United States to form his own private fiefdom. Perhaps he was a garden-variety land speculator and nothing more, or he may have been the traitor that President Jefferson came to believe he was. Observers then and now have found it difficult to reach definitive conclusions. With his motives hidden away, the best that can be done is to trace his movements when he headed west.
A crucial factor complicating the question of motive was Burr’s association with a shady character, United States Army General James Wilkinson—characterized in one source as “an arch intriguer”—who served as a surreptitious Spanish agent. It is possible that Wilkinson and Burr knew each other in earlier times, but they had not been close associates. After Burr became vice president in 1801, Wilkinson sought him out and expressed his fidelity to Burr as well as Burr’s party, the Jeffersonian Republicans. Wilkinson understood how politics worked, and he played the game with passable skill. A lifelong military officer, he had finagled patronage and commissions while serving under two Federalists, George Washington and John Adams, but he was devoted to his own advancement, not to a party or a cause. He cost him nothing to embrace Burr’s party, and it gained him a great deal.
In the meantime, the former vice president attracted attention wherever he traveled in the West. Residents were unaccustomed to meeting luminaries on the frontier. They sometimes asked Burr to stay with them for several days, and he was only too happy to oblige. In one encounter, he enjoyed the company of an Ohio Valley couple, Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett, Irish immigrants who had fled to America to avoid a scandal. They had erected a sanctuary on an island 14 miles from Marietta, Ohio, near modern-day Parkersburg, West Virginia. The Blennerhassetts lacked no resources, and it showed. They built a large, rambling mansion on their 179-acre estate. Fancying themselves natural scientists, they enjoyed discussing philosophy and gardening. Harman could be found gazing through his telescope at the stars.
Residents dismissed the Blennerhassetts as harmless eccentrics, but Burr did not enjoy the luxury of ignoring potential allies. He brought Harman Blennerhassett into his scheme, to the eventual dismay and detriment of both men. When they first met, however, each man saw in the other a dreamer with a thirst for adventure in the untamed lands of the western United States.
After briefly returning to the eastern states, Burr set off for his second western journey. At several stops along the way, he courted acquaintances, offering opportunities to join him in his murky western schemes. He reappeared at Blennerhassett Island, meeting with suppliers and arranging for the construction of 15 boats. Around this time, he sent a coded dispatch to General Wilkinson: “I have at length obtained funds and have actually commenced.”
What the funds would be used for and what mission had commenced were not clear, but Burr was on his way. While he moved further west, however, unfavorable news coverage, much of it based on unverified stories, rumor, and innuendo, followed in his wake. Letters also poured into the Executive Mansion about Burr’s questionable activities. Always alert to Burr’s nefarious schemes, Jefferson convened a cabinet meeting on October 22, 1806, to mull over what should be done. The president believed that Burr intended to separate the western lands from the United States and establish a wholly independent confederacy. Although this conclusion was based on dubious sources, Jefferson insisted that Burr was up to no good.
The president told his cabinet that he would send letters to state governors and attorneys general to keep an eye on Burr and discern, if possible, his plans. Burr, on “committing any overt act unequivocally,” must be “arrested and tried for treason, misdemeanor, or whatever other offence the act may amount to.” This statement was extraordinary. A sitting United States president was prepared to order the arrest of his former vice president on vague, unsubstantiated, confusing facts, charging the man with treason, a capital offense.
Unbeknownst to Burr, his confederate Wilkinson was having second thoughts about joining the hazy quasi-conspiracy. By October, he had received Burr’s coded message. Perhaps realizing that the scheme could never succeed, the general abandoned the plot. Writing to President Jefferson, Wilkinson, never a man known for his loyalty, betrayed Burr, warning of a “deep, dark and widespread conspiracy.” Wilkinson pledged to restore law and order if the president declared martial law. For his part, Jefferson issued a proclamation urging the citizenry to reject any attempts to foment insurrection, although Burr’s name was conspicuously absent.
Jefferson understood that Wilkinson was not an honest broker. The man’s reputation preceded him. Nonetheless, despite his flaws, Wilkinson was telling Jefferson exactly what the president wanted to hear. In a second letter, the general was over the top, describing Burr’s imminent assault on New Orleans. Although it was clear that Wilkinson was fond of hyperbole, the message was unavoidable: The former vice president was up to no good, and he must be stopped.
On January 22, 1807, Jefferson sent his evidence to Congress, publicly accusing Burr of heading a conspiracy to separate the western lands from the United States. Although forced to confess that his sources were hardly unimpeachable, the president insisted that Burr was guilty. The precise details of the plot remained elusive, but Jefferson was confident that he knew enough about Burr’s scheme to have the man arrested and tried for treason against his country.
Events occurred quickly, or as quickly as they could in the west. At the direction of Jefferson’s federal agent, the Ohio militia seized several of Burr’s boats in Marietta. In Cincinnati, federal agents procured cannons to use against Burr’s soldiers, if necessary. Burr did not have the rumored soldiers under his command, but no matter. It was best to be prepared. Harman Blennerhassett learned that the Wood County militia of Virginia was on its way. He fled Blennerhassett Island ahead of the militia, which plundered his estate and acted as a mob rather than soldiers preventing civil unrest.
Burr had spent the fall of 1806 recruiting men to join his operation. It was only in January 1807 that he recognized the full extent of his former partner’s duplicity. The filibuster would not happen, and any efforts to raise money and train men to serve under his command would fail. If he were not careful, he would be arrested. Only two years after leaving the vice presidency, Aaron Burr was a fugitive from justice.
When he saw that he could not escape, Burr resolved to negotiate his surrender. He negotiated with the acting governor of Mississippi, Cowles Mead, preferring to deal with a civil authority rather than place himself under the mercy of James Wilkinson’s martial law. A grand jury refused to indict him, but he was not free to leave the state. Living in legal limbo, Burr worried that Wilkinson’s men would snatch him off the street and whisk him down to New Orleans. Before that could happen, he fled.
His escape was short-lived. On February 18, 1807, a federal land registrar, Nicholas Perkins, spotted Burr near Wakefield, a small village in the Alabama Territory. It was late at night and Burr was on horseback, accompanied by another rider. Traveling at night on a dark, dangerous path, the duo appeared strange to Perkins, who alerted the local military authority, Lieutenant Edward Gaines. When Gaines found Burr, he asked questions, and the former vice president did not conceal his identity. Gaines promptly arrested him.
It took three weeks to transport the prisoner back to Washington, D.C., for trial. During the arduous journey, Burr did not attempt to flee. He was a model prisoner. Newspapers reported on his progress, including unflattering portrayals of Burr’s dress and condition. He had been known as a dapper gentleman, always adorned in expensive, expertly tailored clothes. His appearance after months in the wilderness was far different than it had been when he was a man about town. Now he wore homespun, shabby rags, outwardly demonstrating how far he had fallen from his lofty perch as the second in command of the federal executive branch.
The trial of a leading public figure on charges of treason was unprecedented, and it generated intense public interest. Unrepentant and unbowed, the defendant appeared before Chief Justice John Marshall in Richmond, Virginia, on March 30, 1807. In that era, Supreme Court justices heard not only appellate cases, but they served as trial judges in their designated circuit courts. Thus, Marshall appeared in his capacity as a trial judge.
The question before the court was whether Burr should be bound over for trial. The prosecutors in United States vs. Aaron Burr were required to prove an overt act of war to sustain a treason charge. They claimed that Burr intended to assemble a private army on Blennerhassett Island, apparently recruiting soldiers from many ranks, including foreigners.
It was a difficult prosecution. Burr’s intentions were unclear, and his efforts to recruit men for the journey were largely unsuccessful. Whatever happened at Blennerhassett Island immediately before the militia raid could only be tenuously linked to Burr. He was not on the scene when key events in the alleged conspiracy occurred. The government’s case rested predominantly on three crucial pieces of evidence: a so-called “cipher letter” that Wilkinson claimed Burr had written explaining his plot, an affidavit that Wilkinson had provided detailing Burr’s guilt, and an affidavit sworn by General William Eaton demonstrating Burr’s elaborate plans for the western lands.
The initial proceedings ended quickly. On April 1, 1807, Chief Justice Marshall announced his decision. He supported the prosecution’s contention that circumstantial evidence indicated that Burr probably had organized a military expedition against Spain’s territory. Filibustering, Marshall insisted, was inappropriate under these circumstances.
Yet Burr’s activities, as ill-advised as they were, did not amount to treason against the United States. The chief justice strictly interpreted Article III, Section 3, of the United States Constitution, which states, “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.” The prosecution had not proved that an overt act existed. Both Wilkinson and Eaton had stated claims that Burr might have had a treasonable intent, but his activities had to have “ripened into the crime itself by actually levying war.” The only arguably overt act was the activity at Blennerhassett Island, which was far from clear, and Burr had not been present. Marshall left open the possibility that the prosecution could rehabilitate its case, but he allowed Burr to be released on bail pending a second court appearance on May 22.
James Wilkinson appeared in court when the session reconvened and swore that Burr had committed the overt act necessary to sustain a treason charge. Wilkinson was not the most credible witness, but obtaining a criminal indictment is not as difficult as proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. On June 24, 1807, the Virginia federal circuit court indicted Burr, charging him with one count of treason and one count of high misdemeanor for “unlawfully, falsely, maliciously, and traitorously … intending to raise and levy war” against the United States.
Now that he had been indicted, Burr stayed behind bars until his trial commenced. No bail was provided for a man accused of treason. Fortunately, he did not have to wait for long. On August 3, 1807, the trial opened in Richmond. A crowd of spectators flooded the House of Delegates to watch the proceedings. It was the event of the season.
Prosecutors argued that Burr was guilty of constructive treason. Even if he had been absent from Blennerhassett Island when preparations for war were undertaken, he had set events in motion. He was the ringleader, the sine qua non of the conspiracy. Burr, his opponents charged, was a man without scruples who cared for nothing but himself and his cause. That his motives were mysterious and not altogether clear did nothing to obviate his guilt.
General Wilkinson was the make-or-break witness. He had produced the cipher letter showing Burr’s plans. Faced with the letter, Burr vehemently denied he had written it. On closer examination, the letter was not in Burr’s hand, leading to the conclusion that it was forged. Coupled with successful attacks on Wilkinson’s veracity, the case against Burr could not stand. Defense attorney Luther Martin ridiculed the supposed crime. “If I were to name this, I would call it the Will o’ wisp treason,” Martin argued in his summation. “For though it is said to be here and there and everywhere, yet it is nowhere.” Not a single credible witness or piece of evidence tied Burr to a demonstrable crime. The overt act of treason “only exists in the newspapers and in the mouths of the enemies of the gentleman for whom I appear.”
Chief Justice Marshall agreed, dismissing the indictment because the prosecution had failed to prove the overt act necessary to sustain a treason charge. Nonetheless, the jury was left to render a verdict, which it did on September 1, 1807: Not guilty of treason. Eight days later, Burr faced a new trial on the misdemeanor charge. The jury in that case also found him not guilty.
Aaron Burr left the courthouse a free man, but his reputation was in tatters. He lived for almost three decades after his acquittals, but he never again held high office. Recognizing that he was a persona non grata, the former vice president eventually decamped for Europe. Later, he returned to New York and practiced law. He became something of a cult figure in his dotage, as a new generation found his roguish reputation charming. He remained an intriguing, somewhat mysterious figure—the proverbial “bad boy” of the founding period—until the end of his days.
Historians have long debated exactly what Burr was doing in the western lands in 1805 and 1806. He told conflicting stories, as did the figures around him. Perhaps he was merely a land speculator who sought to amass a large tract. He might have been plotting against Spain, Mexico, or the United States. His plans likely changed over time. No one knew what he was up to, then or now. Whatever else that can be said about Aaron Burr and his plans, he remains one of the few prominent Americans—and the only vice president of the United States—to be tried for treason.