Aaron Burr Revised: Conspiracy, Treason and Justice

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Aaron Burr by John Vanderlyn in 1809. Courtesy of New-York Historical SocietyWho remembers Aaron Burr as anything more than Quick Draw McGraw shooting down the near-sighted Alexander Hamilton at dawn in 1804? But there is much more to the man, as Gore Vidal revealed in his intriguing 1973 historical novel, and other subsequent scholarship.

Two aspects of Burr’s varied career stand out in today’s world. First, his treason trial that closely examined issues of what counts as an act of war against one’s own government. And second, his relationships with a series of highly intelligent and accomplished women, reflecting his high opinion of the female sex and its potential.

Burr became Vice-President after a bitter contested fight over the presidency when he tied with Jefferson in the election of 1800. When Jefferson who disliked his rival booted him as VP for the 1804 run, Burr thought he would be a natural for the governorship of New York. But his political enemies from both sides of the emerging party system of Federalists (Hamilton et al.) and Republicans (Jefferson et al.) joined to deny him that post, too, as they had earlier in the 1792 race. It was political gossip connected to the gubernatorial contest that led to the duel with Hamilton.

The story we now know, due to the uncovering of diplomatic documents then unavailable lets us know that Burr did indeed become an adventurer. After fleeing from the Northeast to escape indictment for the death of Hamilton, Burr hatched other grand plans to achieve the power constantly eluding him in US politics. He was scheming with US General James Wilkinson to annex southwestern territories and conquer Mexico, and possibly Florida. The two men were negotiating with both the British and Spanish. Wilkinson, although an US Army officer, had been a paid Spanish spy for years. Wilkinson, who avoided damage to his reputation and kept his army post, was actual the more treasonous of the two, betraying both the Americans and the Spanish in a complicated double game. So, the Burr-Wilkinson conspiracy was real, the plans were real, but the whole scheme took place over such an extended period and far-flung territory around and about the new Louisiana Purchase, that it was revealed in bits and pieces, long before any military action occurred.

Although history has enshrined Burr as the great traitor, Chief Justice John Marshall did not convict him, despite enormous pressure from President Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s Vendetta: The Pursuit of Aaron Burr and the Judiciary help to explain why. Author Joseph Wheelan writes, “that Marshall was “troubled by Jefferson’s obsessive pursuit of Burr and alarmed at how easily treason law could be forged into a weapon of repression.” And thus Marshall “defended individual rights but balanced them with society’s welfare.” Burr was accused of levying war against the United States. But he was not present on the island where the military force was assembled, it was unclear if such a force was assembled, there were no witnesses to acts of war, and it could not be established that there were any acts of war. And when the Ohio militia came, since the island in the Ohio River actually lay within Virginia’s territory, the Ohio militia had no legal authority to act anyway.

What’s fascinating about the case, is that the Supreme Court under Marshall was so closely in touch with the intentions of the founders who worried about making laws that criminalized even thinking about waging war on the King, rather than sticking to overt acts of war. Keeping the distinction between treasonous thoughts and treasonous acts in mind, Marshall felt he could not find anything in the many witnesses’ testimony that could satisfy this distinction. So the Chief Justice instructed the jury to pay attention to those very facts. It helped that Burr one of the finest litigators in the country, had an extraordinary legal team to make his case. And in today’s climate of the endless war on terror with proliferating court cases focused on defining ever more subtle versions of treason, it is fascinating to watch the earliest Supreme Court celebrity treason trial argue the issues.

The other feature of Burr’s career that somehow did not seem to matter in the customary assessments of the founding years was his interest in women’s rights. He, like Jefferson and Hamilton, was a prodigious reader, a quick study and a precocious student. To the end of his life he could not stop buying books. And part of his intellectual armature included the latest modern thinking about women’s potential, the need for equal education, and the glaring disparities and legal disabilities that afflicted the “fair sex.”

Burr read Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” and hung her portrait in his mansion. He had his daughter learn to ride, fence and shoot a pistol. Although part of the Burr legacy has been to paint him as a womanizer, a closer look at whom he chose to love reveals more than a salivating wolf.

Illustration: Aaron Burr by John Vanderlyn in 1809. Courtesy of New-York Historical Society.

2 thoughts on “Aaron Burr Revised: Conspiracy, Treason and Justice

  1. Patricia Matteson

    Dear Kathleen,
    Thank you for the most interesting piece about Aaron Burr. I’ve read Vidal’s novel Burr but your piece added much to my understanding.
    Patty Matteson

  2. M. Lewnes

    It was my understanding that he came twice to Blennerhassett Island on the Ohio River. The 2nd time he brought 50 men with him to help transport armament for his endeavors with Wilkinson. He hoped to float it down the Ohio River headed eventually toward New Orleans.
    He felt the Spanish/Mexico had a large gold treasury which he needed to found his “new nation”.


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