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Jefferson and his Colleagues, A Chronicle of the Virginia Dynasty
Chapter VI. An American Cataline
by Johnson, Allen


With the transfer of Louisiana, the United States entered upon its first experience in governing an alien civilized people. At first view there is something incongruous in the attempt of the young Republic, founded upon the consent of the governed, to rule over a people whose land had been annexed without their consent and whose preferences in the matter of government had never been consulted. The incongruity appears the more striking when it is recalled that the author of the Declaration of Independence was now charged with the duty of appointing all officers, civil and military, in the new territory. King George III had never ruled more autocratically over any of his North American colonies than President Jefferson over Louisiana through Governor William Claiborne and General James Wilkinson.

The leaders among the Creoles and better class of Americans counted on a speedy escape from this autocratic government, which was confessedly temporary. The terms of the treaty, indeed, encouraged the hope that Louisiana would be admitted at once as a State. The inhabitants of the ceded territory were to be "incorporated into the Union." But Congress gave a different interpretation to these words and dashed all hopes by the act of 1804, which, while it conceded a legislative council, made its members and all officers appointive, and divided the province. A delegation of Creoles went to Washington to protest against this inconsiderate treatment. They bore a petition which contained many stiletto-like thrusts at the President. What about those elemental rights of representation and election which had figured in the glorious contest for freedom? "Do political axioms on the Atlantic become problems when transferred to the shores of the Mississippi?" To such arguments Congress could not remain wholly indifferent. The outcome was a third act (March 2, 1805) which established the usual form of territorial government, an elective legislature, a delegate in Congress, and a Governor appointed by the President. To a people who had counted on statehood these concessions were small pinchbeck. Their irritation was not allayed, and it continued to focus upon Governor Claiborne, the distrusted agent of a government which they neither liked nor respected.

Strange currents and counter-currents ran through the life of this distant province. Casa Calvo and Morales, the former Spanish officials, continued to reside in the city, like spiders at the center of a web of Spanish intrigue; and the threads of their web extended to West Florida, where Governor Folch watched every movement of Americans up and down the Mississippi, and to Texas, where Salcedo, Captain-General of the Internal Provinces of Mexico, waited for overt aggressions from land-hungry American frontiersmen. All these Spanish agents knew that Monroe had left Madrid empty-handed yet still asserting claims that were ill-disguised threats; but none of them knew whether the impending blow would fall upon West Florida or Texas. Then, too, right under their eyes was the Mexican Association, formed for the avowed purpose of collecting information about Mexico which would be useful if the United States should become involved in war with Spain. In the city, also, were adventurous individuals ready for any daring move upon Mexico, where, according to credible reports, a revolution was imminent. The conquest of Mexico was the day-dream of many an adventurer. In his memoir advising Bonaparte to take and hold Louisiana as an impenetrable barrier to Mexico, Pontalba had said with strong conviction: "It is the surest means of destroying forever the bold schemes with which several individuals in the United States never cease filling the newspapers, by designating Louisiana as the highroad to the conquest of Mexico."

Into this web of intrigue walked the late Vice-President of the United States, leisurely journeying through the Southwest in the summer of 1805.

Aaron Burr is one of the enigmas of American politics. Something of the mystery and romance that shroud the evil-doings of certain Italian despots of the age of the Renaissance envelops him. Despite the researches of historians, the tangled web of Burr's conspiracy has never been unraveled. It remains the most fascinating though, perhaps, the least important episode in Jefferson's administration. Yet Burr himself repays study, for his activities touch many sides of contemporary society and illuminate many dark corners in American politics.

According to the principles of eugenics, Burr was well-born, and by all the laws of this pseudo-science should have left an honorable name behind him. His father was a Presbyterian clergyman, sound in the faith, who presided over the infancy of the College of New Jersey; his maternal grandfather was that massive divine, Jonathan Edwards. After graduating at Princeton, Burr began to study law but threw aside his law books on hearing the news of Lexington. He served with distinction under Arnold before Quebec, under Washington in the battle of Long Island, and later at Monmouth, and retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1779. Before the close of the Revolution he had begun the practice of law in New York, and had married the widow of a British army officer; entering politics, he became in turn a member of the State Assembly, Attorney-General, and United States Senator. But a mere enumeration of such details does not tell the story of Burr's life and character. Interwoven with the strands of his public career is a bewildering succession of intrigues and adventures in which women have a conspicuous part, for Burr was a fascinating man and disarmed distrust by avoiding any false assumption of virtue. His marriage, however, proved happy. He adored his wife and fairly worshiped his strikingly beautiful daughter Theodosia.

Burr throve in the atmosphere of intrigue. New York politics afforded his proper milieu. How he ingratiated himself with politicians of high and low degree; how he unlocked the doors to political preferment; how he became one of the first bosses of the city of New York; how he combined public service with private interest; how he organized the voters--no documents disclose. Only now and then the enveloping fog lifts, as, for example, during the memorable election of 1800, when the ignorant voters of the seventh ward, duly drilled and marshaled, carried the city for the Republicans, and not even Colonel Hamilton, riding on his white horse from precinct to precinct, could stay the rout. That election carried New York for Jefferson and made Burr the logical candidate of the party for Vice-President.

These political strokes betoken a brilliant if not always a steady and reliable mind. Burr, it must be said, was not trusted even by his political associates. It is significant that Washington, a keen judge of men, refused to appoint Burr as Minister to France to succeed Morris because he was not convinced of his integrity. And Jefferson shared these misgivings, though the exigencies of politics made him dissemble his feelings. It is significant, also, that Burr was always surrounded by men of more than doubtful intentions--place-hunters and self-seeking politicians, who had the gambler's instinct.

As Vice-President, Burr could not hope to exert much influence upon the Administration, since the office in itself conferred little power and did not even, according to custom, make him a member of the Cabinet; but as Republican boss of New York who had done more than any one man to secure the election of the ticket in 1800, he might reasonably expect Jefferson and his Virginia associates to treat him with consideration in the distribution of patronage. To his intense chagrin, he was ignored; not only ignored but discredited, for Jefferson deliberately allied himself with the Clintons and the Livingstons, the rival factions in New York which were bent upon driving Burr from the party. This treatment filled Burr's heart with malice; but he nursed his wounds in secret and bided his time.

Realizing that he was politically bankrupt, Burr made a hazard of new fortunes in 1804 by offering himself as candidate for Governor of New York, an office then held by George Clinton. Early in the year he had a remarkable interview with Jefferson in which he observed that it was for the interest of the party for him to retire, but that his retirement under existing circumstances would be thought discreditable. He asked "some mark of favor from me," Jefferson wrote in his journal, "which would declare to the world that he retired with my confidence"--an executive appointment, in short. This was tantamount to an offer of peace or war. Jefferson declined to gratify him, and Burr then began an intrigue with the Federalist leaders of New England.

The rise of a Republican party of challenging strength in New England cast Federalist leaders into the deepest gloom. Already troubled by the annexation of Louisiana, which seemed to them to imperil the ascendancy of New England in the Union, they now saw their own ascendancy in New England imperiled. Under the depression of impending disaster, men like Senator Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts and Roger Griswold of Connecticut broached to their New England friends the possibility of a withdrawal from the Union and the formation of a Northern Confederacy. As the confederacy shaped itself in Pickering's imagination, it would of necessity include New York; and the chaotic conditions in New York politics at this time invited intrigue. When, therefore, a group of Burr's friends in the Legislature named him as their candidate for Governor, Pickering and Griswold seized the moment to approach him with their treasonable plans. They gave him to understand that as Governor of New York he would naturally hold a strategic position and could, if he would, take the lead in the secession of the Northern States. Federalist support could be given to him in the approaching election. They would be glad to know his views. But the shifty Burr would not commit himself further than to promise a satisfactory administration. Though the Federalist intriguers would have been glad of more explicit assurances they counted on his vengeful temper and hatred of the Virginia domination at Washington to make him a pliable tool. They were willing to commit the party openly to Burr and trust to events to bind him to their cause.

Against this mad intrigue one clear-headed individual resolutely set himself--not wholly from disinterested motives. Alexander Hamilton had good reason to know Burr. He declared in private conversation, and the remark speedily became public property, that he looked upon Burr as a dangerous man who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government. He pleaded with New York Federalists not to commit the fatal blunder of endorsing Burr in caucus, and he finally won his point; but he could not prevent his partisans from supporting Burr at the polls.

The defeat of Burr dashed the hopes of the Federalists of New England; the bubble of a Northern Confederacy vanished. It dashed also Burr's personal ambitions: he could no longer hope for political rehabilitation in New York. And the man who a second time had crossed his path and thwarted his purposes was his old rival, Alexander Hamilton. It is said that Burr was not naturally vindictive: perhaps no man is naturally vindictive. Certain it is that bitter disappointment had now made Burr what Hamilton had called him--"a dangerous man." He took the common course of men of honor at this time; he demanded prompt and unqualified acknowledgment or denial of the expression. Well aware of what lay behind this demand, Hamilton replied deliberately with half-conciliatory words, but he ended with the usual words of those prepared to accept a challenge, "I can only regret the circumstance, and must abide the consequences." A challenge followed. We are told that Hamilton accepted to save his political leadership and influence--strange illusion in one so gifted! Yet public opinion had not yet condemned dueling, and men must be judged against the background of their times.

On a summer morning (July 11, 1804) Burr and Hamilton crossed the Hudson to Weehawken and there faced each other for the last time. Hamilton withheld his fire; Burr aimed with murderous intent, and Hamilton fell mortally wounded. The shot from Burr's pistol long reverberated. It woke public conscience to the horror and uselessness of dueling, and left Burr an outlaw from respectable society, stunned by the recoil, and under indictment for murder. Only in the South and West did men treat the incident lightly as an affair of honor.

The political career of Burr was now closed. When he again met the Senate face to face, he had been dropped by his own party in favor of George Clinton, to whom he surrendered the Vice-Presidency on March 5, 1805. His farewell address is described as one of the most affecting ever spoken in the Senate. Describing the scene to his daughter, Burr said that tears flowed abundantly, but Burr must have described what he wished to see. American politicians are not Homeric heroes, who weep on slight provocation; and any inclination to pity Burr must have been inhibited by the knowledge that he had made himself the rallying-point of every dubious intrigue at the capital.

The list of Burr's intimates included Jonathan Dayton, whose term as Senator had just ended, and who, like Burr, sought means of promoting his fortunes, John Smith, Senator from Ohio, the notorious Swartwouts of New York who were attached to Burr as gangsters to their chief, and General James Wilkinson, governor of the northern territory carved out of Louisiana and commander of the western army with headquarters at St. Louis.

Wilkinson had a long record of duplicity, which was suspected but never proved by his contemporaries. There was hardly a dubious episode from the Revolution to this date with which he had not been connected. He was implicated in the Conway cabal against Washington; he was active in the separatist movement in Kentucky during the Confederation; he entered into an irregular commercial agreement with the Spanish authorities at New Orleans; he was suspected--and rightly, as documents recently unearthed in Spain prove--of having taken an oath of allegiance to Spain and of being in the pay of Spain; he was also suspected--and justly--of using his influence to bring about a separation of the Western States from the Union; yet in 1791 he was given a lieutenant-colonel's commission in the regular army and served under St. Clair in the Northwest, and again as a brigadier-general under Wayne. Even here the atmosphere of intrigue enveloped him, and he was accused of inciting discontent among the Kentucky troops and of trying to supplant Wayne. When commissioners were trying to run the Southern boundary in accordance with the treaty of 1795 with Spain, Wilkinson--still a pensioner of Spain, as documents prove--attempted to delay the survey. In the light of these revelations, Wilkinson appears as an unscrupulous adventurer whose thirst for lucre made him willing to betray either master--the Spaniard who pensioned him or the American who gave him his command.

In the spring of 1805 Burr made a leisurely journey across the mountains, by way of Pittsburgh, to New Orleans, where he had friends and personal followers. The secretary of the territory was one of his henchmen; a justice of the superior court was his stepson; the Creole petitionists who had come to Washington to secure self-government had been cordially received by Burr and had a lively sense of gratitude. On his way down the Ohio, Burr landed at Blennerhassett's Island, where an eccentric Irishman of that name owned an estate. Harman Blennerhassett was to rue the day that he entertained this fascinating guest. At Cincinnati he was the guest of Senator Smith, and there he also met Dayton. At Nashville he visited General Andrew Jackson, who was thrilled with the prospect of war with Spain; at Fort Massac he spent four days in close conference with General Wilkinson; and at New Orleans he consorted with Daniel Clark, a rich merchant and the most uncompromising opponent of Governor Claiborne, and with members of the Mexican Association and every would-be adventurer and filibuster. In November, Burr was again in Washington. What was the purpose of this journey and what did it accomplish?

It is far easier to tell what Burr did after this mysterious western expedition than what he planned to do. There is danger of reading too great consistency into his designs. At one moment, if we may believe Anthony Merry, the British Minister, who lent an ear to Burr's proposals, he was plotting a revolution which should separate the Western States from the Union. To accomplish this design he needed British funds and a British naval force. Jonathan Dayton revealed to Yrujo much the same plot--which he thought was worth thirty or forty thousand dollars to the Spanish Government. To such urgent necessity for funds were the conspirators driven. But Dayton added further details to the story which may have been intended only to intimidate Yrujo. The revolution effected by British aid, said Dayton gravely, an expedition would be undertaken against Mexico. Subsequently Dayton unfolded a still more remarkable tale. Burr had been disappointed in the expectation of British aid, and he was now bent upon "an almost insane plan," which was nothing less than the seizure of the Government at Washington. With the government funds thus obtained, and with the necessary frigates, the conspirators would sail for New Orleans and proclaim the independence of Louisiana and the Western States.

The kernel of truth in these accounts is not easily separated from the chaff. The supposition that Burr seriously contemplated a separation of the Western States from the Union may be dismissed from consideration. The loyalty of the Mississippi Valley at this time is beyond question; and Burr was too keen an observer not to recognize the temper of the people with whom he sojourned. But there is reason to believe that he and his confederates may have planned an enterprise against Mexico, for such a project was quite to the taste of Westerners who hated Spain as ardently as they loved the Union. Circumstances favored a filibustering expedition. The President's bellicose message of December had prepared the people of the Mississippi Valley for war; the Spanish plotters had been expelled from Louisiana; Spanish forces had crossed the Sabine; American troops had been sent to repel them if need be; the South American revolutionist Miranda had sailed, with vessels fitted out in New York, to start a revolt against Spanish rule in Caracas; every revolutionist in New Orleans was on the qui vive. What better time could there be to launch a filibustering expedition against Mexico? If it succeeded and a republic were established, the American Government might be expected to recognize a fait accompli.

The success of Burr's plans, whatever they may have been, depended on his procuring funds; and it was doubtless the hope of extracting aid from Blennerhassett that drew him to the island in midsummer of 1806. Burr was accompanied by his daughter Theodosia and her husband, Joseph Alston, a wealthy South Carolina planter, who was either the dupe or the accomplice of Burr. Together they persuaded the credulous Irishman to purchase a tract of land on the Washita River in the heart of Louisiana, which would ultimately net him a profit of a million dollars when Louisiana became an independent state with Burr as ruler and England as protector. They even assured Blennerhassett that he should go as minister to England. He was so dazzled at the prospect that he not only made the initial payment for the lands, but advanced all his property for Burr's use on receiving a guaranty from Alston. Having landed his fish, Burr set off down the river to visit General Jackson at Nashville and to procure boats and supplies for his expedition.

Meanwhile, Theodosia--the brilliant, fascinating Theodosia--and her husband played the game at Blennerhassett's Island. Blennerhassett's head was completely turned. He babbled most indiscreetly about the approaching coup d'etat. Colonel Burr would be king of Mexico, he told his gardener, and Mrs. Alston would be queen when Colonel Burr died. Who could resist the charms of this young princess? Blennerhassett and his wife were impatient to exchange their little isle for marble halls in far away Mexico.

But all was not going well with the future Emperor of Mexico. Ugly rumors were afloat. The active preparations at Blennerhassett's Island, the building of boats at various points along the river, the enlistment of recruits, coupled with hints of secession, disturbed such loyal citizens as the District-Attorney at Frankfort, Kentucky. He took it upon himself to warn the President, and then, in open court, charged Burr with violating the laws of the United States by setting on foot a military expedition against Mexico and with inciting citizens to rebellion in the Western States. But at the meeting of the grand jury Burr appeared surrounded by his friends and with young Henry Clay for counsel. The grand jury refused to indict him and he left the court in triumph. Some weeks later the District-Attorney renewed his motion; but again Burr was discharged by the grand jury, amid popular applause. Enthusiastic admirers in Frankfort even gave a ball in his honor.

Notwithstanding these warnings of conspiracy, President Jefferson exhibited a singular indifference and composure. To all alarmists he made the same reply. The people of the West were loyal and could be trusted. It was not until disquieting and ambiguous messages from Wilkinson reached Washington-disquieting because ambiguous--that the President was persuaded to act. On the 27th of November, he issued a proclamation warning all good citizens that sundry persons were conspiring against Spain and enjoining all Federal officers to apprehend those engaged in the unlawful enterprise. The appearance of this proclamation at Nashville should have led to Burr's arrest, for he was still detained there; but mysterious influences seemed to paralyze the arm of the Government. On the 22d of December, Burr set off, with two boats which Jackson had built and some supplies, down the Cumberland. At the mouth of the river, he joined forces with Blennerhassett, who had left his island in haste just as the Ohio militia was about to descend upon him. The combined strength of the flotilla was nine bateaux carrying less than sixty men. There was still time to intercept the expedition at Fort Massac, but again delays that have never been explained prevented the President's proclamation from arriving in time; and Burr's little fleet floated peacefully by down stream.

The scene now shifts to the lower Mississippi, and the heavy villain of the melodrama appears on the stage in the uniform of a United States military officer--General James Wilkinson. He had been under orders since May 6, 1806, to repair to the Territory of Orleans with as little delay as possible and to repel any invasion east of the River Sabine; but it was now September and he had only just reached Natchitoches, where the American volunteers and militiamen from Louisiana and Mississippi were concentrating. Much water had flowed under the bridge since Aaron Burr visited New Orleans.

After President Jefferson's bellicose message of the previous December, war with Spain seemed inevitable. And when Spanish troops crossed the Sabine in July and took up their post only seventeen miles from Natchitoches, Western Americans awaited only the word to begin hostilities. The Orleans Gazette declared that the time to repel Spanish aggression had come. The enemy must be driven beyond the Sabine. "The route from Natchitoches to Mexico is clear, plain, and open." The occasion was at hand "for conferring on our oppressed Spanish brethren in Mexico those inestimable blessings of freedom which we ourselves enjoy." "Gallant Louisianians! Now is the time to distinguish yourselves . . . . Should the generous efforts of our Government to establish a free, independent Republican Empire in Mexico be successful, how fortunate, how enviable would be the situation in New Orleans!" The editor who sounded this clarion call was a coadjutor of Burr. On the flood tide of a popular war against Spain, they proposed to float their own expedition. Much depended on General Wilkinson; but he had already written privately of subverting the Spanish Government in Mexico, and carrying "our conquests to California and the Isthmus of Darien."

With much swagger and braggadocio, Wilkinson advanced to the center of the stage. He would drive the Spaniards over the Sabine, though they outnumbered him three to one. "I believe, my friend," he wrote, "I shall be obliged to fight and to flog them." Magnificent stage thunder. But to Wilkinson's chagrin the Spaniards withdrew of their own accord. Not a Spaniard remained to contest his advance to the border. Yet, oddly enough, he remained idle in camp. Why?

Some two weeks later, an emissary appeared at Natchitoches with a letter from Burr dated the 29th of July, in cipher. What this letter may have originally contained will probably never be known, for only Wilkinson's version survives, and that underwent frequent revision.[*] It is quite as remarkable for its omissions as for anything that it contains. In it there is no mention of a western uprising nor of a revolution in New Orleans; but only the intimation that an attack is to be made upon Spanish possessions, presumably Mexico, with possibly Baton Rouge as the immediate objective. Whether or no this letter changed Wilkinson's plan, we can only conjecture. Certain it is, however, that about this time Wilkinson determined to denounce Burr and his associates and to play a double game, posing on the one hand as the savior of his country and on the other as a secret friend to Spain. After some hesitation he wrote to President Jefferson warning him in general terms of an expedition preparing against Vera Cruz but omitting all mention of Burr. Subsequently he wrote a confidential letter about this "deep, dark, and widespread conspiracy" which enmeshed all classes and conditions in New Orleans and might bring seven thousand men from the Ohio. The contents of Burr's mysterious letter were to be communicated orally to the President by the messenger who bore this precious warning. It was on the strength of these communications that the President issued his proclamation of the 27th of November.

[* What is usually accepted as the correct version is printed by McCaleb in his "Aaron Burr Conspiracy," pp. 74 and 75, and by Henry Adams in his "History of the United States," vol. III, pp. 253-4.]

While Wilkinson was inditing these misleading missives to the President, he was preparing the way for his entry at New Orleans. To the perplexed and alarmed Governor he wrote: "You are surrounded by dangers of which you dream not, and the destruction of the American Government is seriously menaced. The storm will probably burst in New Orleans, where I shall meet it, and triumph or perish!" Just five days later he wrote a letter to the Viceroy of Mexico which proves him beyond doubt the most contemptible rascal who ever wore an American uniform. "A storm, a revolutionary tempest, an infernal plot threatens the destruction of the empire," he wrote; the first object of attack would be New Orleans, then Vera Cruz, then Mexico City; scenes of violence and pillage would follow; let His Excellency be on his guard. To ward off these calamities, "I will hurl myself like a Leonidas into the breach." But let His Excellency remember what risks the writer of this letter incurs, "by offering without orders this communication to a foreign power," and let him reimburse the bearer of this letter to the amount of 121,000 pesos which will be spent to shatter the plans of these bandits from the Ohio.

The arrival of Wilkinson in New Orleans was awaited by friends and foes, with bated breath. The conspirators had as yet no intimation of his intentions: Governor Claiborne was torn by suspicion of this would-be savior, for at the very time he was reading Wilkinson's gasconade he received a cryptic letter from Andrew Jackson which ran, "keep a watchful eye on our General and beware of an attack as well from your own country as Spain!" If Claiborne could not trust "our General," whom could he trust!

The stage was now set for the last act in the drama. Wilkinson arrived in the city, deliberately set Claiborne aside, and established a species of martial law, not without opposition. To justify his course Wilkinson swore to an affidavit based on Burr's letter of the 29th of July and proceeded with. his arbitrary arrests. One by one Burr's confederates were taken into custody. The city was kept in a state of alarm; Burr's armed thousands were said to be on the way; the negroes were to be incited to revolt. Only the actual appearance of Burr's expedition or some extraordinary happening could maintain this high pitch of popular excitement and save Wilkinson from becoming the ridiculous victim of his own folly.

On the 10th of January (1807), after an uneventful voyage down the Mississippi, Burr's flotilla reached the mouth of Bayou Pierre, some thirty miles above Natchez. Here at length was the huge armada which was to shatter the Union--nine boats and sixty men! Tension began to give way. People began to recover their sense of humor. Wilkinson was never in greater danger in his life, for he was about to appear ridiculous. It was at Bayou Pierre that Burr going ashore learned that Wilkinson had betrayed him. His first instinct was to flee, for if he should proceed to New Orleans he would fall into Wilkinson's hands and doubtless be court-martialed and shot; but if he tarried, he would be arrested and sent to Washington. Indecision and despair seized him; and while Blennerhassett and other devoted followers waited for their emperor to declare his intention, he found himself facing the acting-governor of the Mississippi Territory with a warrant for his arrest. To the chagrin of his fellow conspirators, Burr surrendered tamely, even pusillanimously.

The end of the drama was near at hand. Burr was brought before a grand jury, and though he once more escaped indictment, he was put under bonds, quite illegally he thought, to appear when summoned. On the 1st of February he abandoned his followers to the tender mercies of the law and fled in disguise into the wilderness. A month later he was arrested near the Spanish border above Mobile by Lieutenant Gaines, in command at Fort Stoddert, and taken to Richmond. The trial that followed did not prove Burr's guilt, but it did prove Thomas Jefferson's credulity and cast grave doubts on James Wilkinson's loyalty.[*] Burr was acquitted of the charge of treason in court, but he remained under popular indictment, and his memory has never been wholly cleared of the suspicion of treason.

[* An account of the trial of Burr will be found in "John Marshall and the Constitution" by Edward S. Corwin, in "The Chronicles of America".]

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