Aaron Burr Trial: 1807

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Aaron Burr Trial: 1807

Defendant: Former Vice President Aaron Burr
Crime Charged: "Treason" within the meaning of Article Ill, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution
Chief Defense Lawyers: Benjamin Botts, Luther Martin, Edmund Randolph, and John Wickham.
Chief Prosecutors: George Hay, Gordon MacRae, and William Wirt
Judges: Cyrus Griffin and John Marshall
Place: Richmond, Virginia
Dates of Trial: August 3-September 1, 1807
Verdict: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: The Aaron Burr treason trial was the only time in American history that a court tried such a high-level official of the United States for treason. Although Burr was acquitted, his political career was destroyed.

With the exception of scholars of American history, most people are oblivious to how unstable the political situation in the United States was in the early decades of the 1800s. In the years immediately following the Revolutionary War, the country suffered under the disastrous Articles of Confederation of 1781 until the states adopted the Constitution in 1789. However, even after the Constitutional Convention, there were serious differences among the political elite. The two main political camps were the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, and they had fundamentally different notions over what direction the new United States should take in its foreign policy.

The Federalists believed that, since the United States had been shaped by the cultural and economic influence of Great Britain, the Revolutionary War should not prevent the reestablishment of ties with the "Mother Country." The Democratic-Republicans believed that the United States should ally itself with France instead. Not only had France provided critical assistance to the colonies during the Revolutionary War, but the French Revolution had installed a government in France that professed belief in democratic ideals. Further, an alliance with France, a European great power, represented the only viable opportunity for the fledgling United States to oppose the might of the British Empire. Aaron Burr's political career put him squarely in the center of this schism.

Aaron Burr's Roller-Coaster Career

Burr's impeccable credentials as an American patriot made him an unlikely candidate to be charged with treason. Born in Newark, New Jersey, and educated at what became Princeton University, he was commissioned as an officer in the American army during the Revolutionary War. Burr distinguished himself in combat, and by the end of the war had risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel. After the war, Burr turned his energies to the legal profession. He did not graduate from a law school but instead studied law under an attorney's supervision, a practice which today is permitted by only one state (Virginia) but was then common. Burr was successful in his studies, and in 1782 was admitted to the New York state bar.

Burr capitalized on his successful career and entered into politics. He joined the pro-French Democratic-Republicans and became their candidate for vice president in the elections of 1800. At the time, members of the electoral college cast two votes each: one for the presidential candidate and one for the vice presidential candidate. Each Democratic-Republican elector had cast a vote for Burr and a vote for the party's presidential candidate, Thomas Jefferson. The result was a tie, and it fell to the House of Representatives to decide the outcome of the election. After a bitter battle and 36 ballots, the House voted for Jefferson, and Burr became vice president. Understandably, Jefferson suspected Burr of disloyalty and in 1804 managed to arrange his rejection by the Democratic-Republicans for a second vice presidential nomination.

Burr and Alexander Hamilton, one of the principal Federalists, became intense adversaries and quarreled at every opportunity. In 1804, with Burr seeking the governorship of New York, Hamilton publicly denounced him and expressed his opinion that Burr was unfit for public office. Furious, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Hamilton accepted. On July 11, 1804, at Weehawken, New Jersey, Burr shot Hamilton in the chest. Hamilton died soon thereafter.

Although he won the duel, Burr lost in the ensuing political uproar. State authorities in both New York and New Jersey sought to prosecute Burr for Hamilton's death, and Hamilton's supporters made Burr a political outcast in Washington.

In March 1805, Burr left the increasingly hostile capital for the frontier lands of the recently acquired Louisiana Purchase. Burr abandoned his allegiance to the Democratic-Republicans, and concocted a grandiose plan to lead a revolt with British assistance in these western lands. Burr hoped to establish a "Western Empire" with himself as ruler.

Burr's imperial ambitions were supported by Anthony Merry, the British envoy to the United States. Burr had other powerful allies for his scheme. Senator Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey and a wealthy Ohioan named Harman Blennerhassett joined Burr and extended financial support for the planned revolt. Finally, Burr had the support of General-in-Chief of the Army James Wilkinson, who was also one of the joint commissioners for the Territory of Louisiana.

The conspirators' procrastination, however, proved to be their undoing. By the fall of 1806, still they had not moved. Great Britain's new foreign minister, Charles James Fox, recalled Anthony Merry and terminated British support for Burr's plan. Wilkinson grew nervous, and went to President Jefferson with the details of Burr's conspiracy. When Burr finally decided to act in November 1806, he used Blennerhassett's Ohio estates and private island as the base of operations for the revolt. Jefferson arranged for Ohio Governor Edward Tiffin to send in the local militia and the conspiracy was crushed. Burr went into hiding but was arrested within a few months.

Burr Tried Before Chief Justice Marshall

On March 26, 1807, Burr was taken by his captors to Richmond, Virginia, for trial before the federal court. Normally, Judge Cyrus Griffin of the District of Virginia would have presided over the trial. At the time, however, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall was present in Richmond to hear appeals from the circuit that encompassed Virginia. Griffin soon found himself playing second fiddle to the eminent Marshall, who took control over the widely publicized trial.

The principal charge against Burr was treason against the United States. The prosecutors also made a related charge of "high misdemeanors" against Burr. George Hay, William Wirt, and Gordon MacRae formed the team of prosecutors for the government. Hay was a prominent attorney, thanks largely to his political connections as James Monroe's son-in-law. Wirt, a tall blond man, had a reputation for having an excellent courtroom presence. MacRae was primarily a politician and, in addition to being a prosecutor, was also Virginia's lieutenant governor.

Burr's defense attorneys were Edmund Randolph, John Wickham, Luther Martin, and Benjamin Botts. The distinguished Randolph was not only a former attorney general, but had served as George Washington's Secretary of State and as Governor of Virginia as well. Wickham, Martin and Botts were also widely respected and prominent attorneys.

Their task was also much easier than that of the prosecution, due to the particular requirements of Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution.

Article III, Section 3 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.

Thus, the prosecution not only had to produce two witnesses, but those witnesses had to have seen some overt act by Burr in "levying war" or leading the planned revolt against the United States. Luckily for Burr, he had not been present in Ohio when Governor Tiffin's militia stormed Blennerhassett's island compound. As Burr himself stated, Jefferson's prompt action based on General Wilkinson's confession led to the destruction of the plot before the procrastinating Burr had taken much action: "Mr. Wilkinson alarmed the President and the President alarmed the people of Ohio."

Marshall's concern over whether the prosecution could bear the heavy burden of proof demanded by the Constitution caused the trial to be delayed until August 3, 1807. In the interim, the prosecution presented a series of witnesses, including General Wilkinson. These witnesses testified as to treasonous statements made by Burr and on the military preparations made on Blennerhassett's island. The evidence presented convinced a grand jury that Burr should be tried on the charges filed against him, and Marshall finally opened the trial.

The prosecution, led by Wirt, argued that Burr's involvement in the conspiracy made him "constructively present" on the island and thus involved in an overt act. Referring to the mercenaries arrested during the Blennerhassett raid, Wirt said:

What must be the guilt of [Burr], to that of the poor ignorant man who was enlisted into his services with some prospect of benefitting himself and family?

Definition of an Overt Act Debated

Burr's defense counsel countered Wirt's impressive oratory by keeping the focus of attention on the prosecution's strained interpretation on what constituted an "overt act." After all, the only act of the revolt remotely "overt" had been the preparations at Blennerhassett's island during which Burr had not been present. Therefore, Botts retorted:

Acts on the island were not acts of war; no war could be found in Mississippi or Kentucky. There was no bloody battle. There was no bloody war. The energy of [the] government prevented that tragical consequence.

On August 31, Marshall made a lengthy ruling on the arguments presented by both sides, later turning the tide in favor of Burr. Marshall held that if the prosecution had proven with two witnesses that Burr had "procured" or caused the men and material to assemble on the island to launch a revolt, then the necessary overt act could be established. The prosecution had not done this, however. All they had presented at trial was testimony that would "confirm" or "corroborate" such eyewitnesses, but not any eyewitnesses themselves. Therefore, the prosecution's evidence was inadmissible and the jury had to ignore it.

Faced with Marshall's ruling, the jury had no choice. On September 1, the jury acquitted Burr when it gave its somewhat left-handed verdict: "We of the jury say that Aaron Burr is not proved to be guilty under this indictment by any evidence submitted to us."

Although he was acquitted, the press and public still considered Burr a traitor, and his political career was ruined. Burr went to Europe for several years, staying one step ahead of money lenders who financed his lifestyle, and finally returned to the United States in 1812. He lived out the rest of his life in obscurity, dying a broken man in 1836.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Burr, Aaron. Reports of the Trials of Colone/Aaron Burr. New York: Da Capo Press., 1969 (repr. of 1808 ed.).

Lomask, Milton. Aaron Burr, Vols. 1 and 2. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979 and 1982.

Nolan, Charles J., Jr. Aaron Burr and the American Literary Imagination. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980.

Parmet, Herbert S. and Marie B. Hecht. Aaron Burr: Portrait of an Ambitions Man. New York: Macmillan Co., 1967.

Wilson, R.J. "The Founding Father." New Republic (June 1983): 25-31.

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