Skip to main content

books Was Aaron Burr the Embryo Caesar?

Little is known about the veracity of the so-called Burr Conspiracy, the alleged effort by Aaron Burr to split off the western territories to form a separate nation in the early 1800s. People, the book's author writes, clung to familiar stories; they ‘embraced different certainties’ regardless of new information and revelations. Burr was judged on what was viscerally believed in a politically divided United States, whose easy acceptance of felt truths resembles our own.

.,Princeton University Press

The Burr Conspiracy: Uncovering The Story of an Early American Crisis
By James E. Lewis, Jr.
Princeton University Press, 715 pages
Hardcover:   $35.00
October 24, 2017
ISBN-10: 0691177163  --  ISBN-13: 978-0691177168

The current territorial shape of the 48 contiguous United States has been fixed since 1853. Nearly a century and a half later, the country’s geographic outline – stretching from coast to coast, with Maine, Florida and Texas sticking out at various angles – is instantly recognisable and so ingrained in our imagination as to seem unquestionable. But as the historian Steven Hahn recently pointed out in his provocatively titled book, A Nation without Borders, rather than being preordained, today’s national boundaries are the result of numerous conflicts and contingencies. The country might have ended up looking very different.

Twice, during the American Revolution and the war of 1812, the US invaded Canada, hoping to annex it. Imagine what North America would look like today if Canadians had not promptly evicted the intruders. During the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, which resulted in the acquisition of California and the modern-day Southwest, many Americans advocated the absorption of the entire land area of Mexico. The only problem was the presence of millions of Mexicans, whom red-blooded Anglo-Saxons considered too Catholic, too racially mixed and too effeminate – this was before the current American president called Mexico a nation of rapists – for democratic citizenship. Had the ‘all Mexico’ movement succeeded, Trump’s proposed wall would run along the border between the US and Guatemala. Nor was there anything predetermined about the country reaching from sea to shining sea. Given the primitive state of transportation and communication in the early republic, Thomas Jefferson anticipated that two or more independent nations would eventually come into being, though he hoped they would live in peace, unlike the countries of Europe.

One political leader who apparently tried to act on the idea of establishing a new nation in the heart of North America was Aaron Burr. ‘Apparently’, because the exact scope and intentions of what came to be known as the Burr Conspiracy of 1805-7 remain murky at best. Until recently, Burr was really known for one thing: killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804. Thanks to the musical Hamilton, Burr’s name is now widely recognised, though audiences still learn nothing about what he did after that morning in New Jersey. Actually, Burr enjoyed a long, distinguished career. A headstrong, charismatic figure with a talent for captivating men as well as women, Burr was born in 1756 and entered the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) at the precocious age of 13. (It didn’t hurt that his father had been president of the college.) Burr served with distinction in the revolutionary army, winning a place on George Washington’s staff. Afflicted, like Hamilton, with inordinate ambition, Burr fell out with Washington and seems to have been sympathetic to the Conway Cabal that tried to replace him as military commander with General Horatio Gates during the War of Independence. After leaving the army on grounds of ill health, Burr practised law in New York. In the 1780s he was elected to the state legislature, where he unsuccessfully tried to abolish slavery, and later to the US Senate. As political parties emerged, Burr became a leader of the Republican party (followers of Jefferson), while Hamilton led New York’s Federalists.

Burr is largely responsible for the method by which Americans today elect their president. The founding fathers didn’t anticipate the rise of political parties: indeed, they were anxious to avoid them as divisive and self-interested. The constitution originally provided that voters would choose presidential electors from among their most well-informed neighbours of independent judgment, and that each elector would cast two votes for president, with the second-place finisher becoming vice president. But parties did quickly emerge, producing strange electoral results. The electors in 1796 chose John Adams, a leading Federalist, for president. Jefferson, his Republican rival, came second, becoming vice president. Four years later, when Jefferson again sought the presidency, Burr became his running mate. A few Republican electors were supposed to cast their second ballots for someone other than Burr but apparently forgot, with the result that Jefferson and Burr received the same number of votes, throwing the election into the House of Representatives. There, to complicate matters further, each state, regardless of population, had one vote and states with delegations equally divided between the two parties couldn’t vote at all.

After weeks of indecision, with Burr quietly intriguing for the presidency, Hamilton resolved the crisis by persuading enough Federalist members of Congress to abstain to secure Jefferson’s election. Hamilton despised Jefferson’s politics but felt he was at least prudent and honest, qualities, he said, that were lacked by Burr, an ‘embryo Caesar’. To avoid a future repeat of the electoral impasse, the Twelfth Amendment was added to the constitution, requiring the electors to cast separate votes for president and vice president. In effect, the constitution now recognised the existence of parties, or at least party tickets. Whether the revised system, which survives to this day, is an improvement is open to debate. Electors have long since been nothing but political functionaries whose votes reflect the will of the party. So we end up with Mike Pence as vice president; under the old system, it could well have been Hillary Clinton, which certainly would have made for a livelier relationship with the president. Meanwhile, Jefferson, who resented Burr’s attempt to steal the presidency, excluded him from a significant role in decision-making and dumped him from the ticket in favour of George Clinton, another New Yorker, when he won re-election in 1804. In that year, Burr was defeated in a race for governor of New York. Hamilton’s disparagement of Burr during that campaign led directly to their duel.

What does an ambitious politician do when he has managed to alienate both political parties and his career appears to be at an end? Find another arena for his thirst for power. Only a few weeks after leaving office in 1805, Burr embarked on a tour of the region beyond the Appalachian mountains, beginning in Kentucky and eventually reaching as far south as New Orleans. He met with local officials and prominent residents and began to enlist men and gather arms and supplies. He also purchased an interest in a huge land grant in Texas, then part of Spain’s North American empire. His activities were hardly secret; indeed they became the subject of much speculation in the press. Was Burr planning to detach part of the trans-Appalachian West from the US and create a new nation in the Mississippi Valley? The gathering point for his men was Blennerhassett Island in the Ohio River. This was the site of a mansion built by Harmann Blennerhassett, a wealthy immigrant from Ireland who had published newspaper articles urging the West to separate from the US. Or did Burr plan to invade Texas and create a new nation there, or annex it to the US? There was already talk of war with Spain because of a boundary dispute after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Some suggested that Burr’s aim was entirely peaceful – simply to use the land he had purchased to establish a settlement in the West.

Burr’s activities produced considerable public anxiety, especially in New Orleans, whose location near the mouth of the Mississippi River made its possession by the US essential to the free flow of goods from western farms to markets in the East and Europe. The Louisiana Purchase had begun as an attempt by Jefferson’s administration to acquire the city from France. But the American hold on New Orleans seemed anything but secure. ‘All [was] doubt, uncertainty, rumour, conjecture and surmise,’ one contemporary wrote as news of Burr’s activities circulated in the city. There were only 1100 American troops in the area, and one newspaper declared that Burr commanded 12,000 armed men (an early instance of fake news). Others claimed that General James Wilkinson, the governor of the Louisiana Territory, was in league with Burr. (The duplicitous Wilkinson was later discovered to have been in the pay of Spain while plotting his own invasion of Spanish territory.) The French and Spanish residents of New Orleans were not enthusiastic about joining up with an aggressively Protestant nation. Nor was the city’s large free black population thrilled to become part of a nation where slavery was growing rapidly. Alarmingly to whites, Burr had enlisted black men in his armed band.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

Whatever Burr’s plans, before he could do much the conspiracy unravelled. The governor of Ohio sent militia to seize the boats and supplies at Blennerhassett Island, and much wanton destruction of property followed, including the despoiling of an extensive wine cellar. The island was technically part of Virginia, a slave state, and some of Blennerhassett’s slaves took the opportunity to escape to Ohio, where slavery was prohibited. Meanwhile, Joseph Daveiss, the federal district attorney in Kentucky, warned Jefferson that ‘traitors’ aided by Spain were plotting to detach western territory from the country. Daveiss summoned a grand jury, but it refused to indict Burr, since no criminal activity appeared to have taken place. Soon afterwards, however, Burr and some of his men were arrested in modern-day Alabama and transported to Virginia, where a grand jury indicted Burr and several others for treason and allied crimes.

Burr’s trial in 1807, James Lewis writes in The Burr Conspiracy, was ‘the nation’s first great legal spectacle’. It was avidly covered by the press, and attorneys on both sides directed their speeches to the public as much as to the court. Burr raised money to support a short-lived newspaper that presented his side of the story. Chief Justice John Marshall presided, and while Burr hired prominent attorneys he also ably defended himself in court. Eventually, Marshall dismissed the charges of treason and conspiracy on the grounds that preparations with no action did not qualify as a crime and that in any event, Burr had not been present at a meeting on Blennerhassett Island where disunion, according to the prosecution, was plotted. None of the other indicted men was tried. The acquittal did not restore Burr’s reputation. Two weeks after the trial ended, a crowd in Baltimore, where Burr was staying on his way to New York, burned effigies of Burr, Marshall, Blennerhassett and Burr’s attorney, Luther Martin. Burr went back to practising law in New York. Shortly before his death in 1836 he had a writer prepare his memoirs, which added almost nothing to the history of the conspiracy.

Those seeking a clear narrative of these complicated events and a definitive conclusion about what Burr was up to will not find it in The Burr Conspiracy. Lewis says at the outset that he is interested not so much in the conspiracy itself but in Americans’ ‘efforts to make sense of it’: how people of various social classes and geographical regions learned about Burr’s activities and how they interpreted them. The historical record, Lewis tells us, is ‘incomplete and unreliable’. Governor Wilkinson of Louisiana, for example, wrote numerous less than candid letters, to be signed by his supporters and dispatched to newspapers across the country, in an attempt to shape public sentiment in his favour. He rewrote official documents so as to deflect suspicion from himself. Wilkinson forwarded to Jefferson a letter written in code that Burr had supposedly sent to him (many scholars today doubt that Burr was the author). But he altered the ‘cipher letter’ before dispatching it. In 1816, his reputation in tatters, Wilkinson published a three-volume memoir – a massive effort at self-justification that weighed in at over two thousand pages but failed to clarify his relationship with Burr.

Jefferson’s message to Congress in early 1807 warned of a conspiracy to break up the Union. He criticised the district attorney Daveiss for his ‘premature’ attempt to bring Burr to justice, leading Daveiss to issue a pamphlet that accused the president of ‘insincerity’ and reproduced warnings he had sent to Washington months before Jefferson claimed he had learned of the conspiracy. At a time when every newspaper reflected the views of one or the other political party, the press’s reaction to this part of the story was predictable. Since Daveiss’s argument was irrefutable, the partisan Republican press ignored the substance of his pamphlet and ridiculed its incorrect grammar – ‘the poorest attempt at writing we recollect to have seen’, one editor wrote. Republican newspapers praised Jefferson for effectively addressing the threat posed by Burr. Federalists insisted the message was incoherent. The president warned that a serious crisis existed but also that there was no actual danger.

In a sense this is a book about the indeterminacy of historical evidence rather than history itself. Instead of offering his own narrative of the conspiracy, Lewis reconstructs the ‘stories’ Americans told themselves in order to decide what Burr’s aims were, how he succeeded in winning the support of several hundred men who knew about his plans, and what these events said about the stability of republican government in general and the US in particular. People, Lewis tells us, clung to familiar stories; they ‘embraced different certainties’ regardless of new information and revelations. No one can doubt Lewis’s diligence as a researcher. The project, he tells us, took twenty years to complete, and more than two hundred pages of endnotes and bibliography accompany the 460 pages of text. Too often, however, the chapters are inconclusive, a ‘he said, she said’ account of public sentiment, and after a time, repetition sets in.

Lewis’s reading of the evidence does yield interesting results. Reports of Burr’s arrest in February 1807, for example, were interrogated for insights into his character and social station. Many contemporaries dwelled on the ‘mean’ clothes he was wearing, not appropriate for a man of his status. Was he in disguise – thereby in effect admitting his guilt? Or was he simply dressed for comfort on the frontier, knowing that his bearing and demeanour would convey his status as a gentleman? (For the trial in Richmond, Burr immediately purchased a new wardrobe so that he could appear in court properly attired.) Another disagreement concerned Burr’s followers. Were they persons of substance or riffraff? Burr called them men of talent; Jefferson described them as ‘desperate’ adventurers. Lying behind this discussion was the real question: did danger to the republic originate with the few or the many, from the machinations of an aristocratic demagogue or the inadequacies of ordinary people?

In Common Sense, his great pamphlet advocating American independence, Thomas Paine had warned that without proper constitutional safeguards a new Massanello might arise, who, ‘laying hold of popular disquietudes, may collect together the desperate and the discontented … and may sweep away the liberties of the continent’. Paine was referring to a 17th-century Neapolitan fisherman who had roused the masses to seize control of the local government, an incident totally forgotten today but on the minds of the revolutionary generation.Other historical examples came to mind concerning Burr. Unsympathetic newspapers called him an ‘American Catiline’, after the patrician who plotted to overthrow the Roman republic. Or was he an aspiring Bonaparte, who aimed to crown himself emperor in the West? Federalists claimed that Jefferson himself was a dictator trampling on individual rights, citing the rampage on Blennerhassett Island and the arbitrary indictment of Burr and some of his followers. Others said the danger came not from an aspiring tyrant but from the tendency of ordinary Americans to act on their passions rather than reason.

Having spent two decades on the project, Lewis might be expected to offer his own assessment of the conspiracy. The book’s title certainly suggests that he believes a conspiracy existed. However, Lewis’s very first endnote rather coyly declares: ‘My use of the term “Burr Conspiracy” (without quotes) should not be taken to mean that I think that Burr actually conspired with others to commit treason or a lesser crime.’ So he sits on the fence. Yes, Burr met with British and Spanish officials who reported to their governments that he intended to divide the Union. On the other hand, when arrested, his force consisted of only around one hundred men, and ‘very little had happened.’ In the end, Lewis writes, we are unlikely ever to know Burr’s ‘true’ plans.

American politics and culture have progressed somewhat since the days of Aaron Burr. Gentlemen no longer fight duels with their social equals to avenge slights, or publicly cane social inferiors thought to have insulted them. Like then, however, we are surrounded by hyper-partisanship, alternative facts, widely accepted conspiracy theories, demagogic politics and prominent political figures collaborating with foreign governments. Some things never change.

[Author James E. Lewis Jr. is professor of history at Kalamazoo College. His books include The Louisiana Purchase: Jefferson’s Noble Bargain? and John Quincy Adams: Policymaker for the Union. He lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.]

[Essayist Eric Foner teaches history at Columbia University and is a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books. In 2011, his The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery won the Pulitzer Prize for history.]