A Vice President of the United States is allowed to remain in office for 8 months with two state murder indictments against him... He then devises a plan, while in office, to form an army and conquer Mexico and all the territories west of the United States. After leaving office he sets the plan in motion with the help of high-ranking officers of the U.S. army. President Thomas Jefferson learns of the plot, sends troops to capture the expedition and bring its instigators to trial for treason. These events happened nearly two hundred years ago. The trial was -- The United States versus Aaron Burr. It remains one of the most celebrated trials in American history.
1756 - 1836
Aaron Burr was born in New Jersey in 1756. His parents could be considered to be among the elite of society in the English held colonies. His father was the President of the College of New Jersey in Princeton. Unfortunately for the recently born Aaron he did not experience the happy childhood that being born into such a family usually afforded. When Burr was a mere two years old both his parents died, along with a grandfather, a grandmother and a great-grandfather. Burr and his older sister were orphaned and sent to live with their uncle, under his charge is where Burr would spend the remainder of his young life. When Burr became old enough he attended the College at Princeton, the very College where his father had once been president. When rumblings of the Revolutionary War began to spread through the colonies Burr began to turn the attention of his studies to military strategy and tactics. When war broke out Burr enlisted in the new American army. He served valiantly in the army, (Ironically, given future events, serving under Benedict Arnold in his northern campaign.) rising to the rank of Colonel. It was during this period of his life where the young Burr first became acquainted with a man named James Wilkinson. A man who would later help lead Burr to his ultimate demise in America. Burr served a number of years in the army but because of declining health he eventually resigned. After the war ended Burr moved to New York to establish himself in a law practice. The smart and eloquent Burr quickly rose to prominence in the legal community of the rapidly growing city of New York. In New York Burr's main rival quickly became another young attorney rising to prominence named Alexander Hamilton. Burr quickly became involved in the politics of the newly formed state of New York and at the age of thirty-three he was appointed Attorney General of the State. He was nearing the end of this term when the state legislature appointed Burr to be their new Senator to the United States Senate. This move was particularly upsetting to Burr's rival, who had been counting on his father-in-law being appointed to that position.
In the year 1800 Burr ran for the Presidency, in actuality most people had voted for Burr expecting he would be the Vice-President to Thomas Jefferson. However when the votes were counted Jefferson and Burr ended up tied. This through the election into the House of Representatives where each state was to vote to decide who between the two would be the President. After numerous tie votes Jefferson emerged as the winner. (Rumors persist to this day that some sort of deal was struck between Jefferson and his political rivals.) Burr was now the Vice-President of the United States, he was however distrusted by his President and seen not as an ally but as a potential rival. For this reason when time came for the next election Burr was not even mentioned as a candidate for the Vice-Presidency. Burr next ran an unsuccessful campaign for governor of New York. This loss was evidence to Burr just what had happened to his political career. In 1804 Hamilton made disparaging comments about Burr which were printed in the papers. Burr could not suffer these indignities from his rival and issued a challenge to Hamilton to meet him for a duel. On July 11, 1804 the two met and Burr fatally wounded Hamilton. Burr showed no remorse for the act he had done. Unfortunately an Indictment for Burr was soon issued for the murder of Alexander Hamilton. Considering this and the shambles his political career had become, Burr decided to go West to find his fortune again.
The trial alleged that Burr and his long time friend, James Wilkinson, hatched a conspiracy to invade the Spanish colony of Mexico and combine it with the regions west of the United States to form a new country. The prosecution also claimed that the conspirators planned to foment secession in the states and U.S. territories west of the Applachian Mountains and make them part of the new country. However at this point the scope of the conspiracy becomes called into question by a variety of sources. It is not clear if, as he was later charged at trial, Burr intended to convince the States west of the Appalachian Mountains to break away from the rest of the United States and join with Mexico to form a new country led by Burr. It has never been determined what Burr's intentions were and what Wilkinson's intentions were involving the raising of an army. The undisputed facts are that Burr intended to invade Mexico and he intended to raise and army using as a staging ground the island mansion of Harman Blennerhassett. When these attempts failed Burr was brought to trial but acquitted of treason.
Disgraced in the United States Burr went abroad in an attempt to revive his fortunes. He first tried to find refuge in England. When he was rebuffed there he tried to find a place in the various countries in Europe, with little to no success. He would eventually return to the United States, but he would never again reach the political or financial prominence he had once enjoined. Burr finally ended his long and storied life in the year 1836.
The Events Leading up to the Trial
Wednesday, July 11, 1804, was the end of a love-hate relationship between two rivals, and the beginning of actions that resulted in the trial at hand. That Wednesday morning in Weehawken, New Jersey two men met to settle their differences. On a ledge above the Hudson River stood Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Each man was holding a pistol, and each man knew only one of them was leaving alive. This was a common way of settling differences in the early 1800's. This was a duel.
Aaron Burr was an ex-senator from New York and the Vice President of the United States under Thomas Jefferson. Alexander Hamilton was the first Secretary of the Treasury and was the author of The Federalist Papers. Aaron Burr challenged Hamilton to the duel based on remarks made by Hamilton about Burr some five months earlier that Burr did not appreciate. However, there had been a long running rivalry between the two that contributed to such a drastic way of settling their differences. Not only were they political rivals who hardly ever agreed on how things should be done or the direction this young country should head, they also fought over the same women. At one point in time both were having affairs with the same mistress (who Burr, some twenty-seven years after the duel, took as his second wife). Burr had several reasons brewing inside him to challenge Hamilton to a duel, and Hamilton had similar reasons that caused him so much hatred towards Burr to accept the challenge. The remarks made by Hamilton about Burr was just the straw that broke the camels back.
The challenge had been made and accepted. Two men, equally armed, set to duel. Within seconds of the start of the duel there had been two shots fired. Aaron Burr was unharmed. Alexander Hamilton was fatally wounded and would die soon after. Alexander Hamilton had lost his life, but Aaron Burr had lost his political career. Not long after the reports of Hamilton's death were released Burr had been indicted in both New York and New Jersey for murder. This was just the beginning of Burr's problems and was probably the catalyst that led to his actions causing him to be tried for conspiracy.
A month had not passed since Burr shot Hamilton before he was contemplating actions that the United States government would not view as appropriate. On August 6, 1804, word had reached Britain that Burr wanted to separate the western portion of the United States and was willing to serve Great Britain in any way possible. Burr's plan was to get Great Britain's help in case of a war between Spain and the United States. He would raise an army that would liberate Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, and the western parts of the country from Spanish control. Once this was accomplished Burr then planned on taking over Mexico and freeing it from Spanish Rule.
Burr recruited several men to join his army, and to support it financially. While doing this he ran into James Wilkinson who was appointed by Burr as the ranking general of his army. It was said that Burr and Wilkinson attempted to recruit thousands of men to join their army. The army was to float down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and move south and west taking over the land from the Spanish. Once the army had successfully completed Burr's plan a new nation would be created with Burr as its leader.
Burr's plan was based on the fact that Spain and the U.S. would go to war, which backfired when both countries became peaceful with each other while Burr was recruiting his army. At about the same time the two nations made peace Thomas Jefferson, who was President at the time, learned of Burr's plan. Worried that Burr might continue his quest eventually causing war between U.S. and Spain ruining the peace that was made Jefferson sent a proclamation to the American people warning them of Burr's plan and asked that they be found and brought to punishment.
Thomas Jefferson's actions were all done with the help of James Wilkinson. Wilkinson had turned against Burr, probably in order to save his own behind, and had become an informer to the government. Wilkinson had turned in a letter that he allegedly had received from Burr. The letter stated Burr's plan to attack on November 1, 1806. Burr's army of a thousand men were to head down the river meeting up with British and U.S. naval ships taking over several cities along the way and settling things in the matter of weeks. That letter is now believed to have come from someone else, and that Burr had nothing to do with it.
However, several of Burr's actions followed along with the descriptions in the letter. He met at the home of Harman Blennerhasett on an island in the Ohio River just as was stated in the letter. Blennerhasett was a very wealthy man who had loaned Burr's expedition large sums of money. Harman owned a mansion on the island big enough to hold several men, which was a perfect place to start his movement down the river. After a small battle on the island in which Blennerhasett's mansion was destroyed Burr and his men moved down river. They set up camp on the Mississippi River across from Natchez in the Mississippi Territory. This move was also detailed in the letter.
Meanwhile, Jefferson sent a copy of the letter to congress hoping for some action. Upon learning of the arrival of Burr the Governor in the Mississippi Territory had already ordered Burr to appear before the Mississippi Supreme Court in response to Jefferson's first proclamation. Upon Burr's response that he was willing to appear before the court the Governor had several men search Burr's camp to locate any boats, weapons, supplies, and soldiers that Burr would use to complete his plan. During the search the Governor's men discovered less than a hundred men, and only a handful of weapons that could not even supply the group with an adequate hunting arsenal let alone a military siege.
After Burr's appearance in front of the Mississippi Supreme Court he appeared as a defendant in seven more trials. In every appearance he was found either not guilty, or there was a lack of evidence for a conviction. Aaron Burr was then arrested and tried for treason. On August 5, 1807, in Richmond, Virginia the trial of Aaron Burr began in front of Chief Justice John Marshall.
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