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Aaron Burr Arrested for Treason

Thomas Jefferson's former vice-president was held on February 19th, 1807.

Portrait of Aaron Burr, 1802
Portrait of Aaron Burr, 1802

The third vice-president of the United States was involved in two of the most sensational episodes in the America of his day. In a duel in 1804, when he was 48, he killed Alexander Hamilton, one of the country’s founding fathers, and three years later after complicated legal proceedings he was questionably acquitted of treason.

Aaron Burr came from a prominent family of clerics and scholars, but he always had a wild streak. Orphaned as a baby, he was brought up by an uncle who would find instilling discipline into his charming, self-willed nephew a challenge. The young Burr fought with distinction in the War of Independence and started on an almost lifelong pursuit of women.

He became a prosperous lawyer in New York City and went into politics, both of which created a poisonous rivalry with Alexander Hamilton. In the 1790s Burr was a United States senator and from 1800 he was vice-president to President Jefferson, but he was not picked to run again with Jeffferson in 1804. The animosity with Hamilton reached a point at which Burr challenged him to a duel. Each man fired one shot. Hamilton missed, but Burr did not. Hamilton fell, mortally wounded, with a pistol ball lodged in his spine, and died the following day.

Many Americans considered Burr no better than a murderer. He was now turning his mind to starting a colony in the newly acquired Louisiana Territory, personally invading Mexico, which was still a  Spanish colony, and – according to rival interpretations of his intentions – either expanding the United States or founding a whole new nation of his own. At one point he sounded the British ambassador out about the possibility of bringing the British fleet and British money to assist in separating the Louisiana Territory from the Union. In 1805 he made a journey south to New Orleans to test the water.

As rumours about Burr’s intentions spread, the administration became increasingly suspicious and President Jefferson was informed by a treacherous associate of Burr’s, a certain General Wilkinson, that there was ‘a deep, dark, wicked and widespread conspiracy’ afoot. Wilkinson turned out to be in the pay of the Spanish government, but then so, confusingly enough, was Burr.

Late in 1806 Burr led a force of sixty followers in boats down the Mississippi, apparently heading for New Orleans. Near Natchez he was held and then released, but when he reached what is now Alabama, he was arrested and sent under guard to Richmond, Virginia. There he came up in the United States Circuit Court before Chief Justice John Marshall, who happened not to be an ardent admirer of President Jefferson. In those days the justices of the Supreme Court also presided individually in the federal district courts.

The proceedings took months. Burr was accused of high misdemeanour for planning to attack the dominions of the King of Spain and of treason for trying to seize New Orleans and convert American territory into an empire of his own. If he was found guilty of treason, the penalty would be death. The prosecution lawyers were overshadowed from the start by the galaxy of legal talent Burr had found to defend him, headed by Edmund Randolph, a former governor of Virginia, federal Attorney General and Secretary of State to George Washington. Burr’s team spent three days arguing that to be guilty of treason for ‘levying war’ under the Constitution, the accused must have committed an overt act in a war, testified to by two witnesses and committed in the district of the trial. Chief Justice Marshall upheld this argument and in the end, despite the evident misgivings of the jury, Burr had to be acquitted.

Burr was generally believed guilty all the same and in Baltimore a mob hanged him in effigy. He took refuge in Europe, where he tried to interest the British and French governments in creating a new nation in the American Southwest. He returned to the United States in 1812 and spent the rest of a long life in law practice in New York, a disappointed man. He was eighty when he died at Port Richmond on Staten Island in 1836.

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