While of course it isn’t true that “only the good die young,” the fact that Aaron Burr was 80 years old before he finally died lends the saying a certain plausibility. Burr has been described with many adjectives, including “intelligent, resourceful and clever,” but not, usually, “good.”
Burr, born in 1756, entered the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) at age 13, received his degree in 1772, and had begun to study law when the revolution began. He joined the army, taking part in Benedict Arnold’s daring attempt to capture Quebec, and the following year saved a brigade from capture in the retreat from Manhattan to Harlem. By 1777 he was a lieutenant colonel. He resigned in 1779, due to ill health, but even after that, General Washington assigned him to perform occasional intelligence missions. So, a good war.
Burr passed the bar in 1782, began to practice in New York City, and built up a reputation as a brilliant trial lawyer. He served in the New York State legislature, was appointed state Attorney General, served a term as United States Senator, then ran with Jefferson in 1800. He tried unsuccessfully to wangle an electoral fluke into the presidency (as we shall see), and did become Jefferson’s Vice President, but of course after that Jefferson never trusted him, and shut him out of party matters. In 1804, he was dropped from the national ticket. Instead, he ran for Governor of New York, but he lost by the largest margin recorded up to that date. That same year, Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel.
At the time it was thought that he killed him deliberately, but maybe not. There was no profit for Burr in killing Hamilton, except perhaps some personal satisfaction, and there was plenty of downside, and a calculator like Burr would have known it. In any case, Burr, 45 years old, was politically washed up.
So he went west. Depending on who you believe, either Burr intended to invade Mexico (then still part of Spain) and perhaps obtain a crown, or he intended to effect the separation of the states west of the Appalachians and create another country centered on New Orleans, relying upon British protection from the government in Washington.
He met with Anthony Merry, the British Minister to the United States, and offered to detach Louisiana from the Union in exchange for a half a million dollars and a British fleet in the Gulf of Mexico. Merry wrote his superiors, “It is clear Mr. Burr… means to endeavour to be the instrument for effecting such a connection – he has told me that the inhabitants of Louisiana … prefer having the protection and assistance of Great Britain.” The following year, he asked for two or three ships of the line and money. Merry told him that London had not yet responded. But gave him fifteen hundred dollars. In early 1806, Burr told Merry that the attempt would be made with or without British support.
Burr left Washington for Pittsburgh, planning to meet his longtime friend General James Wilkinson, the new Governor of the just-organized Louisiana Territory. Wilkinson being delayed, Burr set off down the Ohio River, and in May enlisted the help of a rich man named Harman Blennerhassett. In Cincinnati, he met his friend, former Ohio Senator Jonathan Dayton, then Burr traveled overland to Nashville, and stayed as the guest of General Andrew Jackson. We may be sure that he was careful that Old Hickory got no hint of what he was up to! When he and Wilkinson finally met, the general provided him with a barge, a sergeant and ten men, and a letter of introduction to friends in New Orleans.
The beginning of the end for Burr came when in western Pennsylvania, he told a Colonel Morgan of his plans, and Morgan wrote President Jefferson, who sent a confidential agent to investigate. That agent uncovered important details of Burr’s plans, went to Chillicothe, which was Ohio’s capital city at the time, and convinced the governor to order out the militia to seize the boats Burr had ordered for his expedition. (Burr had contracted to purchase fifteen boats capable of carrying 500 men, and a large keel boat for transporting provisions, and had ordered large quantities of pork, corn meal, flour, and whiskey.) The boats were seized the day before they were to be delivered to Blennerhassett.
Meanwhile, Wilkinson had decided to abandon the Conspiracy. He later claimed that it was in July, 1805, that he first began to suspect Burr of treasonous intentions. (However, Wilkinson can’t be trusted. All during the time he was an American official, he was secretly on the Spanish payroll as an informant!) He ordered troops in New Orleans to be on alert for an attack, and sent Jefferson the ciphered letter from Burr’s (which he decoded), which detailed the plot, including (fanciful) assurances of British Naval assistance. He also sent a letter from co-conspirator Senator Dayton.
The conspiracy collapsed. Burr was arrested and was transported to Richmond to be tried for treason. However, luckily for Burr, the trial judge was the ex-Federalist politician John Marshall, now Chief Justice of the United States. (At this remove, with Jefferson’s greatness so firmly established, the degree of fear and hatred the federalists felt toward him is startling. None more so than Marshall.)
Despite disinterested testimony such as Morgan’s (“He said that with two hundred men he could drive congress, with the president at its head, into the river Potomac,”) Marshall refused to try him for treason, instead scheduling Burr for trial on a charge of high misdemeanor. Marshall construed the issue as narrowly as possible, but, on hearing Wilkinson’s testimony, the grand jury indicted Burr for treason and high misdemeanor. But, despite testimony, Marshall ruled that he could not be found to have committed treason based on the events at Blennerhassett’s Island, and stated that he would exclude testimony “relative to the conduct or declarations of the prisoner elsewhere and subsequent to the transaction on Blennerhassett’s Island.”
The jury’s verdict made it plain enough what they thought: “We of the jury say that Aaron Burr is not proved to be guilty under this indictment by any evidence submitted to us. We therefore find him not guilty.” In other words, given Marshall’s stage-managing of the case, they were obliged to find Burr not guilty, but they thought otherwise. Jefferson considered asking Congress to impeach the Chief Justice, and perhaps it is unfortunate that he didn’t.
Like most people, Burr was a mixture of qualities, and he inspired different reactions from different people. Quite a few historians have assumed, for reasons of their own, that Jefferson must have been at fault. But George Washington knew Burr from the time of the revolution, and he didn’t trust him. He trusted Hamilton, who was at least Burr’s equal at intrigue, and he trusted Jefferson and Madison, whose political thought was in some ways closer to Burr’s than to his own – but he didn’t trust Burr. This wasn’t because of Burr’s intrigue over the presidency, or his duel with Hamilton, or that he was accused of treason. Washington died in 1799, before any of that. In 1798, turning down Burr’s application for a commission, Washington wrote, “By all that I have known and heard, Colonel Burr is a brave and able officer, but the question is whether he has not equal talents at intrigue.” He did, and it might have cost the country dear.