Aaron Burr Part II- Would be King of America
After Aaron Burr, dubbed by his contemporaries as the American Catiline, shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, he fled west. Please see this post for more information: http://www.historynaked.com/hamilton-burr-clash-titans/
People in the south western territories were more accepting of matters of honor and were solidly anti-Federalist. The Louisiana Purchase had just gone through, the borders of which were disputed by Spain. Many of the residents of the new territory openly spoke of secession. He traveled to New Orleans to sound out opportunities there, and then made his way north to Tennessee, where he was hailed as a hero. He was handsomely entertained by Andrew Jackson at the Hermitage, where the two found they had much in common. Burr plied Jackson with tales of Spanish perfidy and aggression against American settlers, and got the future president’s blood boiling. Burr urged Jackson, as commander of the Tennessee militia, to prepare for war to defend American honor.
However, he did not alert Jackson to his true purpose, which was not defending the United States but creating his own kingdom. Burr’s co-conspirator was General James Wilkinson, the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Army. Wilkinson and Burr had become friends when they served together in the Revolution. Wilkinson was a duplicitous unscrupulous alcoholic, and was no stranger to secessionist dreams. In the 1780’s, Wilkinson had been part of an attempt to separate Tennessee and Kentucky from the union. Burr had convinced President Jefferson to make Wilkinson the governor of the Louisiana Territory despite these adventures. This put Wilkinson in the perfect position to aid Burr in his quest to carve off a piece of the Louisiana Territory. The plan was to take a southern part of the territory and put it together with land wrested from Mexico and creating their own nation in the southwestern portion of the United States. Wilkinson controlled the troops and Burr traveled the south west drumming up support, hence his visit with Jackson. He also made overtures to British minister to the US, Anthony Merry, to trade territory in the United States for money and ships to support his bid. Merry gave Burr fifteen hundred dollars, but his masters in Britain were not interested in an American secessionist movement, and that was the last of the support Burr saw.
However, rumors were running wild. Jackson got wind of Burr’s plans and sent a warning to Jefferson. Eastern newspapers were printing Burr’s plans, but still he pressed on. He had even been called to testify three times in Kentucky, but through the representation of a young ambitious lawyer named, Henry Clay, he was never convicted.
Events were shaping up nicely. Burr had the support of the Mexico Society, a group of New Orleans businessmen who favored annexation of Mexican territory, as well as former Senator Jonathan Dayton. Tensions between the US and Spain increased and Jefferson ordered Wilkinson to move troops into Louisiana. They conspired to defend the land from the Spanish, then declare Burr the ruler of said land.
One of the supporters Burr had gained was Harman Blennerhassett, a rich immigrant who lived on an island in the Ohio river where he built a beautiful mansion. He was one of Burr’s most loyal followers. On the eve of Wilkinson’s troop movements, Burr sent a coded letter to Wilkinson outlining the plan then retreated to Blennerhassett’s island to organize men and materials he stored there. In December of 1806, the militia raided Blennerhassett’s island and captured boats and supplies, but most of the men fled. Blennerhassett’s mansion was destroyed as collateral damage.
Burr and his men retreated down river, but instead of the army he expected to find, Blennerhassett had only brought him about 100 men. Burr was convinced he would pick up more as they went down the Mississippi, but the troops he was looking for never materialized. About 30 miles from New Orleans at Bayou Pierre, Burr was shown a newspaper with a complete printing of the coded letter he had sent to Wilkinson and an reward for his capture. Wilkinson had flipped on his conspirator and altered the coded letter to prove his innocence then turned it over to Jefferson. Burr turned himself in and relied on his charm to get him out of a treason charge.
A grand jury was called at Bayou Pierre and Burr insisted he and his men were not going to attack US territory, and therefore should not be indicted. The grand jury did not deliver an indictment, but two of the judges insisted Burr return to the courtroom. In fear of being railroaded, Burr fled. They found him a few weeks later a shell of his former self. The charming handsome dandy was in dirty torn clothes with a scraggly beard. Burr was hauled north to Virginia to stand trial.
Burr’s treason trial was the trial of the century. He was charged with treason for taking troops to attack New Orleans and separate the western territory from the United States. He was also charged with high misdemeanors for sending a military expedition against Spain. The prosecuting attorney called 150 witnesses, including Andrew Jackson. The defense team brought executive privilege in to question as they asked to subpoena President Jefferson. The Supreme Court let this subpoena stand despite Jefferson’s office, proving that even the president is subject to the law. However, Chief Justice John Marshall did weigh in on the treason charge. He ruled that intent was not enough for treason, action must have been taken before the charge could stick.
Burr was free, but his reputation was in tatters. He had been burned in effigy and his name was mud with the public. Burr fled again, this time to Europe. He traveled to Britain and tried to stir up support for a revolution in Mexico. When there was no interest, he switched his plots to Napoleonic France. Again, no one was interested, and he returned to America in 1811 and changed his name to Edwards. He never really got back on his feet and ran up many debts. Burr married a rich widow and ran down her fortune. She filed for divorce, and Burr died on the day it was granted. And thus came the end came to the American Cateline, the would be king of America.