Treason, Sir?

In April of 1805, a wealthy man and a companion arrive in Pittsburgh. The wealthy man contracts to have a flatboat built to sail the Ohio river into the expanding Northwest Territory, the builders were surprised when the wealthy man wanted the boat to have a bedroom, kitchen and dining area with a fireplace. This was quite odd for the boat builders who were used to building flatboats that were for general transportation, this was a specialty build and quite expensive.

The wealthy man was former Vice-President, Aaron Burr. Burr had left Washington after he lost the faith of the Democratic-Republicans during the election of 1800 and after returning to New York after his term as Vice President and losing in his run for Governor of New York. Burr had completely lost face after his duel with Alexander Hamilton, few people in the eastern part of the country supported dueling, let alone the death of another statesman.

Aaron Burr (Archives – New York Courts)

Why was Burr in Pittsburgh and planning to head down the Ohio River? This has a great deal to do with General James Wilkinson. Prior to the Louisiana Purchase, Wilkinson had made contact with Spanish officials whom he told that he was secretly working for a partition (secession) from the United States. Wilkinson agreed to work as an agent for the Spanish and would become known by the Spanish as ‘Agent 13’. With Wilkinson’s return to New Orleans in 1803, he continued to work with and for the Spanish and for himself. Wilkinson had been sent with 450 Soldiers from Fort Fayette (Pittsburgh) to secure New Orleans to protect the city and port from Spanish takeover after the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson who dispatched Wilkinson to New Orleans, was obviously unaware of Wilkinson’s connections to the Spanish.

Wilkinson and Burr had been friends since the Revolutionary War when they both served under General Benedict Arnold at the Battle of Quebec. During the winter of 1804-1805, Wilkinson was in Washington and would meet with Burr on several occasions prior to Wilkinson’s return to the Western frontier. Wilkinson approached Burr offering him a chance to return to a leadership position in the new territories. Wilkinson and Burr felt that the people living in the frontier areas weren’t happy with the rules made by those in Washington and that they were out of touch with how people on the frontier wanted to live. Burr felt this was a way that he could again hold a seat of power.

Major General James Wilkinson – National Archives

Burr sets out on the Ohio River, stopping at an island near what is now Parkersburg WV, the 174 acre island was the property of Harman Blennerhasset and his wife. Harmon had purchased the property from George Washington in 1797. Burr saw Blennerhasset as a potential funding stream for this plans and the island as a staging area. The island not only held the Blennerhasset mansion, but also a blockhouse where the couple had lived while the mansion was being built. Blennerhasset was very taken by the attention that was being given to him and the possibility of recovering some of the money he had spent building the mansion on the island.

Blennerhasset Mansion – WV Dept. of Parks

On this first meeting with Blennerhasset, Burr only stayed the night leaving at 11:00 a.m.. On May 30, 1805 Burr met with Wilkinson in Nashville and was treated to large dinners and balls in his honor, Burr would stay for four days as a guest of General Andrew Jackson. Burr then set sail for Fort Massac, which was in the Kentucky territory at that time (Now in Illinois) to meet with Wilkinson who was now the Governor of the Kentucky Territory to begin the plan to recruit and prepare forces for their planned separation from the United States.

By early 1806, Blennerhasset was eager to help Burr and Wilkinson with a plan he thought was targeting the Spanish forces, Burr had given him very vague information regarding their plans. Blennerhassett advanced money and wrote newspaper articles that relayed marching on the Spanish in Mexico and hinted of a western separation. In August of 1806, Burr returns to Blennerhasset Island to secure the support of Blennerhasset and the use of his property. Burr had been in communication with the British Minister Merry to obtain British assistance from Jamaica to sail warships to the mouth of the Mississippi River. Wilkinson was continuing his work with the Spanish. On July 29, 1806, Burr sent a ciphered letter to Wilkinson stating:

  • “I have obtained funds, and have actually commenced the enterprise. “
  • Detachments from different points under different pretences will rendezvous on the Ohio, 1st November–everything internal and external favors views–protection of England is secured.
  • Wilkinson shall be second to Burr only–Wilkinson shall dictate the rank and promotion of his officers.
  • Send a list of all persons known to yourself (Wilkinson) west of the mountains, who could be useful, with a note delineating their characters.
  • Burr’s plan of operations is to move rapidly from the falls on the 15th of November, with the first five hundred or one thousand men, in light boats now constructing for that purpose–to be at Natchez between the 5th and 15th of December–then to meet Wilkinson–then to determine whether it will be expedient in the first instance to seize on or pass by Baton Rouge.
  • The people of the country to which we are going are prepared to receive us–their agents now with Burr say that if we will protect their religion, and will not subject them to a foreign power, that in three weeks all will be settled.
Burr – Wikinson Cipher –

Burr felt that with the 4,000 to 5,000 men that he felt he had recruited to the cause, that the local militias would join in. Burr’s assumed that he was a very charismatic leader and people would rally behind him. The conspiracy soon began to fall apart.

Rumors of Burr’s plan had reached the nation’s capital, Jefferson and many others felt that Burr was inciting treason and secession. Wilkinson sent a message to Burr informing him about what was happening in Washington, trying to avoid treason charges himself and suggesting the Burr flee into Spanish territory or to Canada. In late November of 1806, Wilkinson sent a missive to Jefferson via military courier informing him of Burr’s treasonous plans. Wilkinson had double-crossed Burr to save himself. An order of arrest was made for Aaron Burr. Troops were sent to Blennerhasset Island to search for Burr, Burr’s co-conspirators were gone after hearing rumors of militia heading to the island. The Blennerhasset mansion was ransacked Harman Blennerhasset had fled and his wife was away at the time the troops had arrived.

Harmn Blennerhasset – WV Dept. of Parks

Burr did not find out until January 10, 1807 that he had been double-crossed, He scattered the 60 men that he had recruited while he was in New Madrid, Mississippi. Burr attempted to flee into Spanish controlled Western Florida where he was arrested at the border. Burr was sent to Virginia to stand trial because he had made his plans in the Commonwealth of Virginia. In May, 1807 he was indicted for Treason against the United States. (The Indictment).

Chief Justice John Marshal would preside over Burr’s Treason trial. Marshal had been appointed by John Adams, and Marshal was not a fan of Jefferson from their time working together in the Adams administration. During a shake-up in the cabinet in 1800, Adams appointed Marshal as Secretary of State, then as the Federalists saw The Democratic-Republicans push to power at the end of the Adams administration, the Federalists aimed to protect the constitution by stacking the courts with Federalist Judges and when the Chief Justice position opened, Adams appointed Marshal.

Justice John Marshal – Colonial Williamsburg

Burr’s Trial was the highlight of the American Press in it’s time period, Federalist and Republican newspapers took entrenched sides on the issue. Marshal, took a strong view of the constitution and used this in all trials he presided over. At the end of the trial Marshal made this decision. After a lengthy trial Burr was acquitted because Justice Marshal did not feel that Burr’s activity met the level of treason citing Article 3: Section III of the Constitution: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.

The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.” Burr’s plan and words to others did not state that he was going to wage war against the United States, but insinuated that he was building a force to attack a foreign power (Spain). Based on the witness statements and document presented at trial, Burr did not meet the level of Treason. Burr did not really recover after the trial. He soon moved to Britain in hopes of finding some resolve there, but eventually returned to New York City to practice law. Burr died in Staten Island.

In the aftermath, Blennerhasset who had also been arrested and was held in prison until the end of the Burr trial when he was released, Blennerhasset eventually moved to Canada and then to Britain. Wilkinson was Court Martialed for his part in the affair, but later returned to the military during the War of 1812.

The Burr Trial established important precedent in U.S. law and court proceedings, not only in the definition of Treason, but also in the powers of Executive Privilege.


The Man Who Double Crossed the Founders:

Famous Trials: (Multiple links associated)

National Counterintelligence Center:

The Aaron Burr Treason Trial (Federal Judicial Center)

Ohio History Central:

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