The Aaron Burr Conspiracy
The Aaron Burr Conspiracy
Imperial Scheme. Soon after resigning the vice presidency in 1805, Aaron Burr began a journey throughout the West. Following his departure, President Thomas Jefferson received an anonymous warning that Burr was “meditating the overthrow of your Administration,” “conspiring against the State,” and acting as an agent of Great Britain. Other rumors of political instability in the West added to suspicions surrounding Burr’s activities. Reliable sources reported that Burr was actively recruiting men for an army and officers to lead them in an effort to separate the Western territories from the United States. Combined with territories to be taken from Spain, it was alleged that Burr intended to create a new empire in the West.
The Conspiracy. One of Burr’s allies was Gen. James Wilkinson, the governor of Upper Louisiana. Wilkinson was known to be corrupt, but few at the time considered him to be capable of treason. (It was later discovered that he had been a paid agent of the Spanish.) Identified as a suspect early on, Wilkinson became convinced that the plan was doomed. The general betrayed his alleged coconspirator by sending incriminating letters directly to Jefferson. The papers described the planned movements of thousands of armed men through Ohio, Kentucky, and Mississippi, all of whom would be under Burr’s leadership. Attempting to direct suspicion away from himself, Wilkinson claimed ignorance: “I am not only uninformed of the prime mover and ultimate objects of this daring enterprize, but am ignorant of the foundation on which it rests.” He nevertheless speculated that these activities were probably connected to rumors of revolt in the Orleans Territory and part of a plan to invade and seize parts of Mexico.
The Arrest. Jefferson responded by issuing directions to military commanders and civil authorities in the West, ordering them to watch for any evidence of suspicious activities. In January 1807 the president informed the Senate and House of Representatives of what he called “an illegal combination of private individuals against the
peace and safety of the Union, and a military expedition planned by them against the territories of a power [Spain] in amity with the United States.” Jefferson named Burr as the leader and added that his “guilt is … beyond question.” Burr was in the Mississippi Territory when he received word that Wilkinson had betrayed him and that orders had been issued for his arrest. He quickly surrendered to local authorities, but the Territorial Supreme Court was comprised of sympathetic Federalists. The judges decided not to indict Burr, but they divided over the terms of his arrest. During these deliberations Burr fled but was soon captured, arrested, and taken to Richmond, Virginia, where the trial would be heard by John Marshall, chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Jefferson and the Court. While organizing his defense Burr asked the Court to subpoena Jefferson, which would have required the president both to appear in court in person and to provide papers that the defendant insisted were essential to his case. Jefferson replied that, “independent of all other authority,” it was the president’s right to decide “what papers coming to him as President, the public interests permit to be communicated [and] to whom.” The president believed at this point that he had made available all of the papers and correspondence relevant to the case. Jefferson was no obstructionist, but he was deeply concerned with the independence of the executive and sought to uphold it. He would not come to Richmond to testify because it would establish a significant and undesirable precedent and at some future time compel the chief executive to attend trials in Ohio or the Mississippi Territory. Second, Jefferson asked, “Would the Executive be independent of the judiciary, if he were subject to the commands of the latter, and to imprisonment for disobedience?” The president’s main concern was to maintain the Constitution’s rule that guaranteed the executive’s independence from the judicial branch of government.
The Trial. A toast given at the time of the trial represented, in general, the public’s enmity toward Burr: “Aaron Burr—may his treachery to his country exhalt him to the scaffold, and hemp be his escort to the republic of Dust and ashes.” In court the former vice president was tried on two charges: first, treason for allegedly “assemblying an armed force” in order to take New Orleans and “separate the western from the Atlantic states,” and second, “a high misdemeanor” for sending a military expedition against territories belonging to Spain. Burr’s lawyers argued that the defendant had committed no treasonous act. The case turned on whether simple intent—in the absence of overt action—was enough to convict a man of the high crime of treason. The prosecution rested the weight of its case on the part Burr played in organizing a meeting of armed men and alleged traitors in Ohio in 1806. They insisted that although he was not present, Burr was a principle agent in bringing the meeting together and that this should be enough to convict him. The defense countered with a strenuous argument that unless an act of war had been committed—and all agreed that it had not—the prosecution’s case should fail and Burr should go free.
Marshall’s Decision. Marshall’s opinion was delivered on 31 August 1807. It covered forty-four printed pages and took three hours to read. Its length and breadth indicated a purpose that transcended Burr specifically as Marshall sought to define the meaning of treason. Marshall sided with the defense regarding the gathering of alleged conspirators and traitors. He declared that the prosecution had failed to provide an adequate number of witnesses in order to support its case. More significant was the narrow definition that Marshall applied to the charge of treason, a construction that would make prosecution for this crime a difficult task thereafter. Treason did not require the accused to take up arms, but the chief justice insisted that merely suggesting war or engaging in a conspiracy was not enough to require a conviction. Those accused of the crime, Marshall declared, must have committed an overt and provable act of participation. He concluded that the prosecution had failed to provide such proof in the Burr case. The jury deliberated for less than one half-hour and then announced that it had found the defendant not guilty. Jefferson responded angrily to the verdict and suggested that it was “equivalent to a proclamation of impunity to every traitorous combination which may be formed to destroy the Union.” A free man, Burr spent the next five years in Europe. He returned to the United States in 1812, practicing law and engaging in various business schemes until his death in 1836.
Milton Lomask, Aaron Burr, The Conspiracy and Years of Exile, 1805–1836 (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1982);
Herbert S. Parmet and Marie B. Hecht, Aaron Burr: Portrait of an Ambitious Man (New York: Macmillan, 1967).