Aaron Burr was an ambitious politician who served in the Revolutionary War
under Benedict Arnold, and later became a successful lawyer. By 1800, Burr
controlled the New York legislature and thereby the choice of presidential
electors in a state whose vote was likely to decide the outcome. To assure his
support he was placed on the Republican ticket for vice president. The
Republicans won, but in the electoral college Burr and Thomas Jefferson, the
intended presidential candidate, tied with 73 votes each, throwing the choice
between them into the U.S. House of Representatives. There Federalist votes
kept the election deadlocked until the 36th ballot, when Hamilton's influence
gave the presidency to Jefferson. Under the system at the time, the candidate
receiving the second highest number of votes became vice president, so Burr
became vice president even though he was an opponent to the president.
There is no evidence that Burr intrigued for Federalist support, although
Jefferson believed that he had. Although as vice president Burr was willing to
cooperate with the president, he was rebuffed. He was not consulted on
appointments nor was he invited to join in party councils. He began to look to
the Federalists for his own future. Jefferson's administration was bitterly
opposed in New England, even to the point of separatist thinking. Burr
undoubtedly was sounded out by those who hoped to take the disaffected states
out of the Union. It may well have been with the idea of attaching New York to
a Northern confederacy that Burr sought the governorship of the state in 1804.
He carried New York City, mainly with Federalist votes, but was badly beaten
upstate, in part by Hamilton's opposition.
The Duel and the Conspiracy
In the course of the gubernatorial campaign, Hamilton had made derogatory
remarks about Burr, who responded with a challenge. On July 11, 1804 the two
men engaged in a duel at Weehawken, N.J. Hamilton had the right to fire first,
and chose to aim into the air, but Burr aimed his shot at Hamilton, who was
A fugitive from the law in both New York and New Jersey, Burr fled
toPhiladelphia, where he and Jonathan Dayton, a former U.S. senator from New
Jersey, developed the grandiose scheme that was to prove Burr's downfall. Just
what the plans were and whether they were treasonous are uncertain, for Burr
told different stories to different people. In its most ambitious form the
scheme envisaged a vast empire in the West and South, based on the conquest of
Mexico and the separation of the trans-Appalachian states from the Union. This
much Burr told the British minister, of whom he asked financial and naval aid.
Burr then proceeded to Washington to finish his term as vice president.
Jefferson received him cordially, for Burr as vice president was to preside
over the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, and the
President wanted a conviction. The Chase impeachment failed, but Burr's conduct
of the trial was a model of decorum and impartiality. The trial and the
vice-presidential term concluded, Burr returned to his schemes. He made a
personal reconnaissance of the West in the spring of 1805. It probably was on
this trip that he first met Harman Blennerhassett, an Irish expatriate who
lived in feudal splendor on an island in the Ohio River. He also visited James
Wilkinson, now governor of the Louisiana Territory, and several other
Burr next acquired title to more than a million acres of land in Orleans
Territory, the settlement of which thereafter became his ostensible purpose.
Funds were supplied by his son-in-law, Joseph Alston, and by Blennerhassett.
By the summer of 1806, boats, supplies, and men were being procured, mainly
at Blennerhassett Island. Satisfied, Burr and some 60 followers set out to join
Wilkinson near Natchez, Miss. Coded letters from Burr and Dayton already were
on the way to Wilkinson alerting him to be ready to move on Mexico.
The preparations openly being made seemed too extensive for the avowed
purpose, giving substance to rumors that approached the truth. To protect
himself, Burr demanded an investigation. With young Henry Clay as his attorney,
he twice was cleared of any treasonable intent.
Arrest and Trial
At this point, however, General Wilkinson decided to betray his friend. He
wrote to the president, who issued a proclamation calling for the arrest of the
conspirators. Burr learned of it on Jan. 10, 1807, as he entered Orleans
Territory, then saw a newspaper transcript of his coded letter to Wilkinson. He
surrendered to civil authorities at Natchez, but jumped bail and fled toward
He was intercepted on February 20 and conveyed to Richmond. There he was
arraigned before Chief Justice John Marshall, and on June 24 he was indicted
for treason. Dayton and Blennerhassett also were indicted, while the chief
witness for the government, Wilkinson, barely missed a similar fate. The trial
was anticlimactic. Burr was acquitted September 1, after Marshall ruled that
acts of treason must be attested by two witnesses. Marshall's opinion in U.S. v. Burr, 4 Cranch (8 U.S.) 469, stands
as the definition of the terms used in the constitutional definition of treason
at Art. III Sec. 3 Cl. 1.