In the summer of 1806, America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, received a long and disturbing letter out of Nashville from Andrew Jackson, who would one day be president himself. Jefferson’s mail pouch had been bulging for more than a year with ominous letters warning him about his former Vice President, Aaron Burr. There were rumored plots to create a new empire carved out of the Western territories, including the newly acquired lands of the Louisiana Purchase, with Burr as its emperor. Some of the letters had been signed, and some had been anonymous, but all of them were disturbing. It was the one from Jackson that finally got Jefferson’s full attention.
Aaron Burr had been Jefferson’s first-term vice-president, but it had not been a happy marriage. The presidential election of 1800 had been the first and last Electoral College tie – Burr and Jefferson had gotten exactly the same number of votes. In the earliest days of the United States, presidential candidates picked their vice-presidential running mates, but it was a gentlemen’s agreement, something understood. The actual election was a true popularity contest. Whoever got the most votes was president, and the second place candidate became vice-president, regardless of party affiliations.
Jefferson had run for president on the Democratic-Republican ticket, and had picked Burr to be his vice-presidential running mate. But when the votes were counted, they’d gotten exactly the same amount of electoral votes. Constitutionally, that meant the tie had to be decided by the House of Representatives. The House had to vote and revote until at least one elector changed sides and the tie was broken. Jefferson was furious because Burr knew full well he was meant to be vice-president. If he wanted to be president, let him serve four years as the ‘Veep’ like his predecessors had. But instead of bowing out with a short and gracious speech, Burr kept quiet for weeks, with one deadlocked vote after another. After an incredible 36 ballots, one weary elector finally changed his vote. Jefferson was declared the winner, and Burr’s political career was officially dead – he had little choice but to go get buried. Traditionally, the second-place guy got to pass out his own share of perks and appointments, but Jefferson, scalded to the core, shut him out completely. Not a single plum political office would be Burr’s to give over.
Then came his infamous duel with Alexander Hamilton, leader of the Federalist party, and very nearly George Washington’s surrogate son. As young men, both attorneys in New York, Hamilton and Burr had been very nearly friends. But as the years passed, for a variety of reasons, they became bitter enemies. (For the juicy details, read historian Thomas Fleming’s absolutely riveting book, Duel.) After an exchange of letters that started with a remark of Hamilton’s about Burr to an acquaintance over dinner, the fur started flying, the seconds were drafted, and at dawn on July 11th, 1804, the two men rowed across the Hudson to Weehawken, New Jersey, where dueling was still legal, and shot it out. Both men fired at about the same instant – Hamilton missed, and Burr didn’t. It took Hamilton an agonizing day and night to die, and when he did, the city of New York was overwhelmed with the sort of grief they’d only expressed at the death of George Washington. With dark talk of a murder indictment, Aaron Burr decided to absent himself from the scene.
Meanwhile, Jefferson’s star was rising. In 1803 he had acquired the crown jewel of his administration, the Louisiana Purchase. He had doubled the size of the country overnight, without firing a shot; all he had to do was write a check. Sixteen million is what he paid, or a measly 3 cents an acre for 828,000 square miles, give or take a mile or two. In fact, when Robert Livingston, our man in Paris, expressed confusion over the exact borderlines, the wily Talleyrand, Napoleon’s foreign minister, merely shrugged and said, “You have made a noble bargain, and I assume you will make the most of it.” We did. In the long run, there was no way the weakened Spanish could go on holding the Floridas in the East, as well as Mexico, Texas, etc. in the West, when we had just bought everything in between. And the real jewel in this crown was the rich trading port of New Orleans.
So Jefferson was riding high. The Constitution was amended to get rid of the president/vice-president popularity vote problem in time for the 1804 elections, and Jefferson ran for a second term, this time dumping the disgraced Burr as his running mate. Between the 1800 election fiasco, killing Hamilton, and several other political missteps, the once-prominent Burr had destroyed his political influence in the East. He decided the real golden opportunities were in the West. But he had no intention of starting all over again at the bottom. In fact, what Burr had in mind was to start at the top – all the way at the top. In the spring of 1805, Burr traveled to Pittsburgh, built himself a very comfortable flatboat (2 bedrooms, kitchen with fireplace – like a water-borne Airstream) and headed 2,200 miles down the Ohio and Mississippi to New Orleans, stopping incessantly along the way to check out the land militarily, and to make contacts. Initially he traveled incognito, under the startlingly unsubtle nom de treason Aaron King.
From what historians can gather, Burr had a Plan A, B, C – maybe all the way to Z. England’s King George just about dropped his tea set when he read a little missive in 1804 from his American contacts that the vice-president of the United States had just offered to betray his country if Britain would give him some ready cash and a few frigates to help him steal the West from the U.S. government. This was Plan A, Burr’s favorite, although as time passed, it was clear that Britain’s king either wasn’t real interested, or didn’t trust him. (Gosh, how could you not trust him?)
Plan B was a plot to get cozy with the Spanish, and set up some sort of alliance with them, where he’d get to be emperor over a new kingdom carved out of the Mississippi Valley, in exchange for being their solid ally against the constant encroachments of the new American nation into remaining Spanish holdings.
Plan C also involved holding hands with the Spanish, but no kissing, by enlisting their aid before he betrayed them and led his hardy band of frontiersmen into either Florida or the West to carve out a new empire for himself. He had lots of other plots, but these were the major ones, including Plan Q, which involved a scheme to cheat his greengrocer on the bill.
During his first two visits to Nashville, (Nashville was a popular jumping-off point from land to river traffic) Burr had thoroughly charmed Andrew Jackson, Tennessee’s most important figure, courting him like a prospective bride. He’d also hit on Jackson’s Achilles’ heel, because he knew that Jackson wanted the British, the Spanish, the French, the Indians, and everyone else out of the West; it belonged to us. So Burr’s talk of making war on Spanish occupiers found an interested pair of ears. Everything he said fell on interested ears. Burr was doing what all overthrowers of nations do, right out of the Machiavelli playbook – he was rambling around looking for men with money and power, particularly if they had a bone to pick with the present administration. And though they would stand up in federal court and lie their heads off, the documentary evidence proves that Burr had succeeded in gathering about himself a corps of such men, all ready to move upon receiving his coded signal.
Burr was very good at sizing up his intended victim and saying what they needed to hear in order to end up on his side. Everyone who wrote about their encounters with the man spoke of his eyes, shining eyes so dark they appeared to be black, and so intense that they seemed to draw people in against their will. But he had the smooth tongue of a lawyer, as well. Many times, for example, he implied that he had a sort of unofficial official blessing for his plans to drive Spain out of either Florida or the West, or both. Well, after all, he was the vice-president, or had been until a few months before. Why wouldn’t you believe him? And they did, for a time, anyway.
But as Burr faced various setbacks, his talk grew more daring and ever more treasonous. To several prospective shills he spoke airily of taking over the West, as if it were a done deal, and then of turning his army about to invade and take Washington, D.C.; he even spoke of assassinating Thomas Jefferson. Which brings us back to Andrew Jackson’s letter to the president. Jackson brilliantly outlined in great detail what he thought Burr’s scheme was. He also mentioned a “certain general,” never by name, as being Burr’s vital henchman in the plot. Probably he used no name because he had only rumor and surmise to go on, with no direct evidence. But everyone knew the general he was talking about.
James Wilkinson had been an American officer during the Revolutionary War. So was the courageous and glory-hungry Aaron Burr. Strangely enough, both young men had fought in the Quebec campaign under America’s most notorious traitor, Benedict Arnold. Maybe it was something in the water. Anyway, in 1787 Wilkinson was out of the army, and planning on becoming a merchant as well as freelance adventurer. In that year he left Kentucky with a flatboat full of hams and tobacco, headed for New Orleans. During this brief period, before Napoleon got it back, New Orleans and the Louisiana Territory belonged to the Spanish. When Spanish officials refused him a passport, a tactic they’d been using lately to strangle American trade, Wilkinson brazenly left without one, bribing his way downriver.
When he finally arrived in New Orleans, the purpose of his trip became clear. He went straight to the Spanish territorial governor and said the people of Kentucky were sick of being denied access to the river, and sick of the Federalists in New England who didn’t care, so long as their Atlantic merchant ties with Europe were safe. He said that the West was ripe to do what the 13 colonies had done before them – declare themselves a separate nation. Wilkinson then offered himself up with all the subtlety of a five-dollar hooker to be a Spanish agent in Kentucky, working toward a rebellion perhaps, but a rebellion that would be allied with Spain. He was promptly put on Spain’s payroll, and given the name in government correspondence of “Agent Number 13.” How James Bond-y can you get?
Some people are just born plotters, and this was something Wilkinson and Burr recognized in one another almost at once. As for this scheme in the West, they’d been plotting it literally for years, sending long coded letters to one another, meeting in the dark of night, etc. That kind of thing is bound to get out, even if people don’t know just what it is you’re plotting. Personalities aside, it was an element of fate that, within ten years’ time of selling himself to Spain, Wilkinson would find himself not only back in the army, but the commanding general over all of America’s land forces. Ironically, in 1804 he was even promoted to the territorial governorship of the northern Louisiana Territory that he intended stealing.
But in the late autumn of 1806, the traitorous General Wilkinson had reached the point of no return. He’d given his fealty to the United States government, to the King of Spain, and to Aaron Burr. And there he sat, upriver from New Orleans, facing a force of Spanish soldiers on the eastern side of the Sabine River, the side that supposedly belonged to America. They were obviously getting ready for a showdown over the border, perhaps even an attempt to take back territory that we’d bought in the Louisiana Purchase. Wilkinson was ordered from Washington to stop them by force if they tried, this Spanish army whose possessions in America he’d sworn to protect. Wilkinson was also supposed to wait where he was for Aaron Burr’s forces, gathering on Blennerhassett Island in Virginia to make their trip down the Ohio and Mississippi to meet up with him. Then they would cross the lines to meet the Spanish officers with whom Wilkinson had remained chummy, and together they would invade New Orleans, cutting the heart out of the Louisiana Purchase, and betraying Jefferson. Well, it might work.
Yet, Burr’s constant delays, for lack of funds, had given Wilkinson too much time to get cold feet. When Burr’s letter came, proclaiming that the attack was not some far distant dream date, but now, Wilkinson decided to re-think the matter. If he betrayed Aaron Burr and gave him up to the president, he would have the government’s eternal thanks. And if he made out to the Spanish that Burr had been planning to double-cross them, that Burr had been their real enemy all along, but on-the-ball Wilkinson had been there to stop him from stealing Spanish territory, he’d be a hero with his Spanish paymasters, as well. He decided this would be a better plan all around, and betrayed the man who’d been his close friend and brother-in-arms since the revolution. Nice guy.
So, Wilkinson wrote to Jefferson to tell him all about it. Of course, he had to be a little vague, since if he wrote too much, someone might have the common sense to ask, “Hey, how do you know so much about it?” He gave over just enough information about the “widespread conspiracy” of which he’d been a part to finally propel Jefferson to take action. The president sent the Virginia militia to go downriver and arrest Burr and his men. Being the dead of winter, and being short on funds, Burr hadn’t been able to raise quite the force he’d wanted, but they’d all met and set out for the grand adventure, unaware that the feds were in hot pursuit. They finally caught up with him in Natchez, Mississippi, tantalizingly close to New Orleans. Burr toyed with the idea of defiance, until he discovered that Wilkinson had betrayed him. At that point, he hid his weapons, claimed to be leading an innocent party of settlers to land he’d purchased in Louisiana, then gave himself over to the territorial governor of Mississippi without a fight.
Burr’s trial took place that summer in Richmond, Virginia. By another simple twist of fate, Aaron Burr ended up with the most subtle legal mind of the century sitting the bench in his case – Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall. In those days, federal judges were expected to “ride the circuit,” handling federal cases all over a particular jurisdiction, in the same way that other magistrates did. Although Richmond was Marshall’s home, he was the circuit judge to whom the case happened to fall. This would take the trial beyond merely interesting. Marshall was a first cousin to President Jefferson, as well as being his mortal political enemy. Of course, this didn’t mean Burr was automatically going to walk. First of all, Justice Marshall was too honorable for that. And second, Burr happened to be the murderer of Marshall’s close political ally and friend, Alexander Hamilton. This one was going to get weird.
And it did get weird, with a dream team for both the prosecution and the defense who spent days on end arguing legal points, with famous lawyers drafted onto the jury who interrupted to ask questions of their own, and a crowd so large that the trial had to be moved to the House of Delegates in the Capital building; the crowds still spilled onto the steps and the street, standing on anything handy to get a peek through the windows. It was your basic, O.J. Simpson-style three-ring circus. But unlike Judge Ito, John Marshall, always calm and controlled, did not let any of the sideshow throw him. His instructions to the jury interpreting the Constitution stated that he saw no evidence of an “overt act” of treason, nor had the state produced the necessary two witnesses to such an act. Therefore, he did not see that Burr could be convicted of “levying war” against the United States, as the law was written. The jury agreed, but delivered a somewhat queer verdict – they said they found that the charge had not been proven, and so had no choice but to declare the defendant “Not Guilty.” This harked back to British common law, in which a middle-road verdict of “Not Proven” is sometimes permissible. But Burr and his attorneys were not happy, asking that the addendum to the “Not Guilty” verdict be stricken from the official record. It was. Burr was a free man.
Jefferson, of course, was livid, but he had his share of satisfaction. Burr would never again hold public office, and for the rest of his life would be marked a traitor. He spent the next two decades before his death quietly practicing law in New York. But if Burr got off in court, he paid in other coin. He was a widower with no son, although a ladies man to the end, but his closest relationship was with his daughter Theodosia, a girl he’d raised from the cradle to think like a man. She was his official hostess and closest confidant. The two were inseparable, and historians have often pondered just how close their relationship was. But within a few years of the trial, his beloved grandson Aaron, the heir apparent, died of a fever. On the heels of that tragedy, his treasure, Theodosia, would be lost at sea, attempting to travel home to New York because she was so fearful over her father’s grief about the loss of her son. Burr was alone, and would remain so until his death in 1836 at the age of 81.