On this day in 1807, former Vice President Aaron Burr is arrested for treason. Less than three years earlier, he had killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel.
Perhaps the guy just couldn’t stay out of trouble?!
At the time, many thought Burr was trying to conquer land in the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase, separating it from the United States in order to establish a new Western confederacy. Certainly, he was looking for a way to reestablish himself. His political career had crashed following the duel with Hamilton. But was he trying for land in the Louisiana Purchase? Or was he trying to take part of Texas or Florida, then held by the Spanish?
The latter action would have been a violation of federal law, but not treason.
The Burr Conspiracy, historian Thomas Fleming explains, “took almost two years to unfold and in its course developed so many variants, no one has ever successfully untangled its web of lies, half-truths, and aspirations.”
Whatever the plan was, Burr concocted it with the help of General James Wilkinson and Harman Blennerhassett. The latter gentleman had offered his island in the middle of the Ohio River. It would serve both as a meeting place and a storage facility. Burr went so far as to raise a privately funded army and to attempt negotiations with Great Britain. He wanted English protection for his new country.
In the end, Wilkinson got cold feet. He told Jefferson what was going on and offered a letter, written in cipher, as proof of the plot. He wasn’t the only one. Burr had also tried to enlist the help of the legendary Daniel Morgan, but Morgan was shocked and promptly reported the conversation to Jefferson.
Unsurprisingly, Burr was arrested on February 19 in modern-day Alabama. He was then accompanied back to Richmond, Virginia, by a nine-man military guard. The trip was 1,000 miles on horseback.
It had to have been an awkward trip.
The ensuing trial was interesting partly because of the cast of characters: The defendant was a former Vice President who had killed the first Secretary of the Treasury. The judge was Chief Justice John Marshall. The person pushing the prosecution was President Thomas Jefferson. The district attorney prosecuting the case would be the son-in-law of a future President. The defense attorneys had been delegates to the Constitutional Convention.
It was as much a soap opera as a trial.
At one point, Marshall even authorized the issuance of a subpoena to the President of the United States! Jefferson refused to comply with the demand. Having no recourse, Marshall let the matter drop.
The trial served at least one important purpose, despite all the melodrama: It laid the groundwork for treason cases in the new country. The charges against Burr rested on Article III, section 3, of the Constitution: “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.”
Marshall’s construction of the Clause was narrow, and his narrow reading of the Clause eventually led to Burr’s acquittal. Jefferson was furious.
Burr was free, but he would live the rest of his life in disgrace.
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
Charles F. Hobson, The Aaron Burr Treason Trial (Federal Judicial Center: Federal Judicial History Office; 2006)
Douglas O. Linder, Famous Trials: The Aaron Burr Trial, 1807 (University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) School of Law website)
James E. Lewis, The Burr Conspiracy: Uncovering the Story of an Early American Crisis (2017)
Thomas Fleming, Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, And The Future Of America (1999)