Aaron Burr Treason Trial

.. pt Wilkinson was the only real traitor in this story .. but he hadn’t made Thomas Jefferson his personal enemy. Wilkinson’s role in Burr’s plan was to lead Burr’s army of mercenaries against Mexico. In exchange, Burr would help Wilkinson become governor of the Louisiana territory (which he did) and compensate him with lands gained from Mexico.

When Burr’s plan was uncovered, and Wilkinson learned that President Jefferson had heard of the plot, he quickly wrote Jefferson a letter admitting everything hoping to gain indemnity in exchange for testifying against Burr. Jefferson first heard about Burr’s plan on December 1st, 1805. But for a full year he did nothing. This has led many historians to believe that Jefferson may have been involved in a plot to actually frame Burr. It wasn’t until Jefferson received a letter from the postmaster general on October 16th, 1806, (stating that Burr’s plan was to split the country) that Jefferson made the announcement warning people to distance themselves from the conspiracy. Jefferson hoped that in making a moderate proclamation, and that by not mentioning Burr directly, that he could trap Burr in a more overt act of treason that could be better prosecuted.

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However by January 22nd, 1807, Jefferson felt that he had gathered suitable evidence to convict Burr and he delivered his message to congress accusing Burr of being the ‘arch-conspirator’ in a Western plot. John Randolph, a congressman, was outraged after hearing Jefferson’s proclamation against Burr and ordered Jefferson to provide evidence for his serious accusations. Jefferson provided several letters that he claimed were all written by General Wilkinson (although, in fact, some weren’t). The letters mentioned both a plot to split the West from the East and Burr’s intentions to invade Mexico. Congress was convinced.

Three months later on March 30th, 1807, Burr was arrested in Richmond, Virginia, on several charges. The first charge was the misdemeanor of having set forth on an expedition against the dominions of the King of Spain. The second charge was treason for having assembled an armed force for the purpose of seizing the city of New Orleans, revolutionizing Orleans Territory, and separating the Western from the Atlantic states. The warrant for his arrest was written and delivered by Chief Justice John Marshall, who was also a leading citizen of Richmond. Burr went peacefully into custody and awaited the beginning of his trial. Since he was arrested in the jurisdiction of the Chief Justice it was decided that Marshall would preside over the case.

This would have a profound effect on the case. Prosecuting Burr was U.S. Attorney George Hay, a decent lawyer but nothing compared to the brilliant legal minds of the defense. Luckily for Hay however, he received daily letters from Jefferson ( a brilliant lawyer) offering legal advice. Eventually, Jefferson began to dictate the legal strategies of the defense (certainly a questionable action from the Chief Executive). The prosecution planned to convict Burr by using a precedent established in a previous trial.

That precedent established that if a treasonous act is in fact committed all persons involved, no matter how small their involvement, are guilty of treason. They planned to show that a group of fifty or so men assembled on Blennerhassett island for a treasonable purpose, and that although Burr wasn’t present at the time, his involvement in the scheme made him guilty of treason. The prosecution was aided by the patently illegal actions of President Jefferson, who at this point was sending blank pardons to Hay and authorizing him to pardon anyone involved in the conspiracy if they would testify against Burr. The defense was made up of Burr himself, Edmund Randolph, John Wickham, and Luther Martin. These men were four of the best lawyers in the country and were all united in one thing, their hatred of President Jefferson.

Their legal strategy was to depict Burr as the victim of a Presidential administration that had pursued him relentlessly and that had repeatedly violated his civil rights. Burr also made a request for a subpoena to require Jefferson to deliver several documents, including Jefferson’s correspondence with Wilkinson. The court supported Burr’s request and this created a power clash between the judicial and executive branches. How should the independence of the president be balanced against the rights of an accused to obtain evidence? In the end, however, Jefferson submitted the documents, although he made it very clear that he was only doing so because he deemed the documents did not compromise national security. The trial finally began after a Grand jury indicted Burr on both charges.

It took ninety-six prospective jurors before twelve suitable ones could be found. This was because most admitted to a bias against the defendant. The prosecution had indicated they intended to call a large number of witnesses. However, few were actually allowed to testify in court because of objections by the defense or rulings by judge Marshall. For instance, testimony from William Eaton was never allowed because the defense forced him to admit that the government had recently settled a long standing claim for $10,000 which the government only agreed to pay when Eaton agreed to testify. Others were disallowed because of the pardons given to them by Jefferson. Certainly the zeal of the prosecution, driven directly by the President, didn’t help their case.

Burr and his colleagues argued two major points. First, no act of treason had ever occurred. Since the definition of treason in the constitution requires an overt act of war against the country and since no act of war was committed then no act of treason existed. Second, arguing against the earlier precedent, since Burr was not even present when the supposed act of treason took place, he clearly could not be guilty. Several days later on Monday, August 31, 1807, Marshall carefully and meticulously delivered a three-hour decision.

He ruled that contrary to a previous opinion, actual presence at the island was essential for proof of an overt act; “To advise or procure treason .. is not treason in itself.” The next day the case went to the jury, which ruled ” 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.” Jefferson was so outraged by the ruling that he threatened to impeach Marshall, and even took it to congress, but congress never brought the impeachment to a vote. History has made its assessment. Jefferson’s personal hatred of Burr defiantly drove him to inappropriately pursue, and even illegally conspire to convict, a political opponent.

Normally a brilliant and capable lawyer, based on the same facts he never would have brought a case of treason against an unknown man. Moreover, had he not known Burr he would never have let himself get as involved, preferring to let justice take its course. Under the influence of his patriotism, Jefferson may have believed that writing a letter planning treason was treason but more likely he simply wanted to destroy Burr. Clearly, Jefferson let his own bias and vindictiveness drive his behavior and in so doing violated the very thing he tried so hard to protect, the Constitution. While he didn’t succeed in getting Burr convicted he did accomplish the driving objective. After the trial Burr was so hated by the public that he was almost lynched in the streets and was forced to flee America in a disguise to Europe where he stayed for four years in complete poverty. When he finally returned to United States his daughter and young grandson died at sea.

On his deathbed in 1836 a friend asked Burr if he had ever intended to separate the West from the Union. Burr responded, “NO! I would as soon have thought of taking possession of the moon and informing my friends that I intended to divide it among them.” Still, as an example of how politicians use speech filled with noble sentiments to pursue the basest of political aims, the trial of Aaron Burr remains relevant. Those shocked by the self serving behavior during our last presidential election—lamenting the passing of more dignified times—may, by studying history, find that things really haven’t changed that much at all. History.