Aaron Burr: Traitor Essay, Research Paper
“Some time in the latter part of September I received intimations that designs were in agitation in the Western country unlawful and unfriendly to the peace of the Union, and that the prime mover in these was Aaron Burr” (Commager 195). These words from Thomas Jefferson summarize Burr’s actions in the west. Life began going downhill for Burr when he lost the presidential race to Jefferson by one vote. Burr served as Vice President for the term, but lost the election for a second term. A disagreement with Alexander Hamilton led to a duel in which Burr killed Hamilton. The public wanted Burr hanged for murder, so he moved west of the Appalachians, where he began to cause trouble, or at least plan to do so. Aaron Burr’s actions in the west made him a traitor to the United States.
Both New York and New Jersey had warrants out for Burr’s arrest at the time he went west to try to salvage his political career (Chidsey 29). He went to Blennerhasset Island on the Ohio River, home of Harman Blennerhasset. Burr became friends with the Blennerhasset family, and would later use their island as the headquarters for his actions. Burr continued south, and met General James Wilkinson at Fort Massac. Wilkinson was the commanding officer of the entire US Army, so Burr wanted his support, and got it. As an added bonus that Burr was unaware of, Wilkinson was involved with the Spanish government. Through Wilkinson, Burr got a stylish barge and a personal bodyguard of ten privates and a sergeant. These were the beginnings of the army he planned to use against Spain, and then the United States (Chidsey 36).
Burr secretly continued to gather support in the west. On September 23, 1806, Wilkinson told the Spaniards on the Sabine River that if they did not leave the area immediately, he would march against them. They cooperated and left, giving Burr and Wilkinson their first victory in their personal war against Spain. This was the first step in Burr’s treasonous plan. His plan continues in the following excerpt from a letter to Wilkinson.
“Burr’s plan of operation is to move down rapidly from the Falls, on the fifteenth of November , with the first five hundred or a thousand men, in light boats now constructing for that purpose; to be at Natchez between the fifth and fifteenth of December, there to meet you; there to determine whether it will be expedient in the first instance to seize on or pass by Baton Rouge” (Chidsey 153).
Things appeared to be going smoothly for Burr, but people soon started figuring out what he was doing. In October 1806, President Jefferson had a cabinet meeting in which he wrote a letter warning the Western states to “keep Burr strictly watched” (Chidsey 70). The president sent John Graham to follow Burr and make sure he was not doing anything illegal. Graham interviewed Mr. Blennerhasset, who told him everything he knew about Burr. On October 21, Wilkinson wrote Jefferson a letter saying he discovered a “secret, sinister plot to crush and plunder New Orleans and rip the West away from the East.” President Jefferson told the world by issuing a proclamation on November 27, which said that certain Americans “are conspiring and confederating together to begin and set on foot, provide and prepare the means of a military expedition or enterprise against the dominions of Spain” (Daniels 343). Burr, realizing his hopes of building an empire were gone, surrendered in January 1807. (Chidsey 70-77)
Burr’s case reached the Supreme Court, where his trial began on August 17 (Chidsey 124). Chief Justice Marshall acquitted Burr because his actions did not fit the definition the Constitution gave for treason. Article 3, Section 3 of the Constitution reads, “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort” (Commager 144). Marshall’s reasoning was that, because an official war did not take place, Burr could not have been guilty of levying war or helping an enemy in a war against the United States.
Aaron Burr was extremely lucky to have avoided a sentence. Had Marshall adhered to a loose construction of the constitution, he would have convicted Burr because he tried to start a war. Treason in this situation is similar to murder. If a person is caught trying to murder someone, that person still be convicted of murder, albeit of a lesser degree. Just because Burr never actually attacked anyone does not mean he was not a traitor. The American Heritage Dictionary defines treason as “Violation of allegiance toward one’s country.” Ex-Vice President Aaron Burr was guilty of treason because he built a militia to start war in the United States.
Chidsey, Donald Barr. The Great Conspiracy: Aaron Burr and His Strange Doings in the West. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1967.
Commager, Henry Steele. Ed. Documents of American History. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1948.
Daniels, Jonathan. Ordeal of Ambition: Jefferson, Hamilton, Burr. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970.