Friday, May 29, 2009

Aaron Burr’s Dreams of Western Empire

Aaron Burr was a revolutionary hero, New York politician, and western adventurer. He had many political connections in New York and served terms as the states’ Attorney General and as a Senator. He ran for the presidency of the United States in 1800 as a Democratic-Republican. He tied Thomas Jefferson in electoral votes but lost to him when the vote fell to the United States House of Representatives. He served as Jefferson’s Vice President from 1801-1805. After his famous duel in which he killed Alexander Hamilton, Burr began to formulate plans about the West, including Mexico, and perhaps the new lands of the Louisiana Purchase.

Burr was an outsider to the Jefferson administration but because of the way in which Presidents and Vice Presidents were elected at the time he became the Vice President with the second most number of votes. Jefferson however barred him from his inner circle and excluded him from important decisions and administration matters. Jefferson planned on picking his own man to run with him in his second presidential election campaign.

When he realized he would not serve as Jefferson’s Vice President in the second term, Burr poured his energy into getting elected as the governor of New York. Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington and the writer of the majority of The Federalist Papers did not like Burr and he feared that Burr would use his connections in New York to weaken the Federalist Party in that state. He spoke out about Burr during his election for governor. Burr lost the election soundly but he blamed his lost on the smear campaign headed by Alexander Hamilton.

In return, Hamilton called Burr “despicable” in a newspaper article. Burr tried to get him to apologize but he refused. This was the origin of the most famous duel in American history. Burr challenged Hamilton for his honor and the two met on the dueling grounds in Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11, 1804. Hamilton fired first and missed. Then, Burr fired his weapon. Hamilton was mortally wounded and Burr was charged with murder. After the duel, Burr was still popular in the South and West as a man who had rightfully defended his honor but his political fortunes in the East were destroyed. However, he was able to have most charges against him dropped and he enjoyed immunity from prosecution in Washington, D.C. Burr stayed in Washington to complete his term as Jefferson’s Vice President.

After completing his term as Vice President, Burr headed West. From 1805 to 1807 he travelled up and down the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers calling for a “grand expedition.” It is unclear what Burr really wanted. He called on the liberation of Mexico from Spain and some have argued that is all he wanted. But others have gone further and thought that he was author of a conspiracy to separate the lands beyond the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers from the United States. His enemies charged he wanted to do both. Burr owned lands in Texas which was then part of Mexico. He believed that there was a war coming between the United States and Mexico. He also believed that if he settled in Texas with a group of fellow settlers who could be called on as an army, that once that war came he could use that army to fight and claim land for himself and to set up a new and sovereign nation in the West. Of course, war did not come to Mexico until 1836 when Texas fought for its independence. But Burr persisted from 1805 to 1807 to accomplish his plans. Burr worked to cultivate relationships with military and financial powers in the Mississippi Valley and Ohio River region that could help him to succeed.

He called on Harman Blennerhassett, a wealthy Irishman to provide financial support and on a small island in the Ohio River, where Blennerhassett lived, he set up a base of operations to store supplies and gather men. He made contact with Anthony Merry who was Great Britain’s minister to America requesting funds for this expedition. In the letter, Merry claimed that he also hinted that he was looking “to effect a separation of the Western part of the United States.” He even requested the use of the British Royal Navy to secure the Mississippi River during the takeover. He also approached General James Wilkinson who was the commander and chief of the United States Army at New Orleans and Governor of the Louisiana Territory asking him for his support. Unfortunately, Wilkinson was also a double agent working for Spain. Ignorant of that, Burr enlisted him in a series of reconnaissance missions of the West. He also sent Wilkinson several cipher letters. In one letter he intimated that he was involved in “things improper to letter.”

After a near incident on a reconnaissance mission with Spanish forces near Natchitoches, Texas, Wilkerson decided he could best protect himself from charges of treason and help himself financially by betraying Burr’s plan to Jefferson and the Spanish authorities who had hired him. It is still very ambiguous what Burr was up to but he was clearly planning some type of filibusting expedition against Mexico and possibly seeking to grab even more lands, perhaps some from the new Louisiana Purchase.

1803 Map of the United States, Library of Congress

Jefferson had been given reports on Burr’s activities but at first he did not act. More and more complaints however reached his ears as did Wilkinson’s charge. Finally, Thomas Jefferson had enough. He ordered Burr arrested without an indictment declaring him a traitor to the United States. Soon, afterward in early 1807, Burr was arrested in the Louisiana Territory. He was to be tried in the United States Circuit Court in Richmond Virginia. The trail was to be proceeded over by the Chief Justice of the United States, John Marshall.

Burr was marched east toward Richmond. As he was being transported through Chester, South Carolina, Burr saw an opportunity to make an appeal to the citizens of Chester. Burr was popular in the South and in South Carolina. His daughter, Theodosia had married Joseph Alston, governor and prominent planter from South Carolina in 1801. Burr sensing that he might be able to manipulate the large crowd that had gathered at a Tavern in the town square in Chester, jumped off his horse and jumped onto a large stone that sat in the town square. He shouted out, “I am Aaron Burr, under military arrest, and claim the protection of the civil authorities.” But this was to no avail because before anyone could react he was quickly subdued by his captors and marched out of Chester leaving only the Burr rock as evidence of his passing through South Carolina.

Sometime later he found himself in Richmond, Virginia facing the court to answer the charges as to whether he had committed treason against the United States. Jefferson threw the whole weight of his administration against Burr in trying to get a guilty verdict returned on the case. Jefferson’s own dreams of western empire may have influenced his actions against Burr. War with Spain and her ally, Napoleonic France over Mexico was a dangerous proposition. Jefferson, who had worked hard to maintain American neutrality in European affairs did not see fillbusting expeditions like this as helping his cause in doing so. Finally, Jefferson probably felt anxious about his great coup: the Louisiana Purchase. Losing it would all but destroy his hopes of the United States spreading its wings from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Nevertheless, Jefferson’s efforts were rebuffed by Chief Justice John Marshall who worked hard for a fair trial. The lack of physical evidence helped Burr’s defense and in the end, Burr was acquitted of all charges. But the stench of this episode would not go away for Burr. His political future was destroyed and he was left financially broke. He fled to Europe for several years only to return to the United States where he would die in 1836. It is unclear what Burr wanted to accomplish in the West. In the end, whatever it was never materialized. The United States stood alone. There were no other new and rival nations in North America to block American progress in acquiring western lands from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Aaron Burr's dreams for his "grand expedition" became a footnote of history.

Andy Thomas

Some Resources Used to Write this Blog: Website:

Aaron Burr from Wikipedia:

The Duel at the American Experience:

For the incident in Chester, SC see History of Alabama, Thomas M. Owen, 1900, pp. 498-499.

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