A Conspiracy Starring Aaron Burr


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Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdey: And I'm Sarah Dowdey.

Katie Lambert: Candace and I did a podcast called Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr about the fateful and fatal duel, so I won't get into much about that here. The upshot about that is that Hamilton is killed, and Vice President Burr did it. He was charged with murder in New York and New Jersey, but it never went to trial. He is the subject of our podcast today. What happened after that duel?

Sarah Dowdey: So his murder charges don't even go to trial. In March, 1805, he has to leave the political sphere. He's just too contentious a figure at this point. His speech actually makes the senate cry, but his career is over. He's also in a whole lot of debt, and he doesn't have a lot of friends left.

Katie Lambert: What he needed was to start over, and in what better place for a new life than the west? To give this all a little context, Thomas Jefferson advocated a policy of expansionism. When Napoleon gave up on French influence on North America and offered the Louisiana Territory for sale, Jefferson was all over it. What that meant was this huge, uncharted space and all the people in it weren't too sure about being part of the rest of America.

Sarah Dowdey: There were a lot of people there already. There were Indians, but Spain still has a hold on a lot of the parts that touch the border, so there are a lot of boundary disputes.

Katie Lambert: Jefferson wanted to buy Florida from Spain and some people though we should just take Spain's land by force, including Mexico. But of course, not everyone was a fan of expansionism, and there was talk of the people in the southwest of succession.

Sarah Dowdey: So we have an opening here, a potential opportunity for somebody to take over and rule amidst all this chaos.

Katie Lambert: Burr has a plan. This plan may have started even before his duel, but the basic idea was that he wanted to wage a private war against Spanish-held territories, possibly also against New Orleans in Mexico, and he would have a southwestern empire that he could rule, this republic independent of the eastern U.S. He'd be an emperor.

Sarah Dowdey: But to put this plan into action, he's got to have help, so how about James Wilkinson, who is the guy who makes a very sketchy appearance in our podcast on Meriwether Lewis.

Katie Lambert: Not a good guy. Implicated in Lewis's death!

Sarah Dowdey: Especially to have this guy as your No. 2, a very unfortunate beginning. So Burr knew Wilkinson from the Quebec campaign. By this point, he was the highest ranking officer in the entire army. In this respect he sounds like a pretty good guy to have on your side, a good No. 2.

Katie Lambert: He also shared Burr's views on why it might be pretty great to separate the east and the west, and he saw an opportunity for himself. He could have a very good life in Burr's empire as No. 2, but there was another side to it. Wilkinson was a Spanish spy, so if things didn't work out with Burr, he would have the chance to turn him in to the U.S. government, and also leak his plans to the Spanish, thus winning their goodwill. It was a win-win for Wilkinson.

Sarah Dowdey: While he's pulling together his dream team, Burr also contacts Andrew Jackson, who is very anti-Spain, and the politician Jonathan Dayton. He also gets in touch with the minister to the U.S. from Britain, Anthony Mary, and proposes a deal of sorts. For ships and money, he'd help them take the west.

Katie Lambert: So he gets word that his intention is to buy a million acres of land in the Louisiana Territory - perhaps as a bit of a cover for the mission he's about to undertake, or perhaps because he wanted a million acres of the Louisiana Territory. He leaves in 1895 and begins his campaign very subtly. He has letters of introduction to very influential people. He attends balls and banquets, and starts winning people over with his charisma before he starts hinting at what he's after, what this mission is.He also slowly begins recruiting young men for his plan, men who were looking to better themselves. Of course, the west at this time is so uncertain; they need to find their way. So he lets them keep thei r independence and is very quiet about what his plans are. Even his followers don't really know what he's up to.

Sarah Dowdey: He amasses hundreds of these young men who are interested in his ideas. He also befriends a rich, Irish immigrant named Harmon Blennerhassett.

Katie Lambert: Pretty good name.

Sarah Dowdey: Definitely a good name. Blennerhassett gives him money and also gets the Mexico Society on his side, which is a pretty self-explanatory organization there. They are a group of people interested in accumulating Mexico.

Katie Lambert: As far as this mission goes, Britain doesn't come through, and people have started to get wind of what Burr is up to, because of course, he's talking to so many people, he's not exactly trying to hid what he's trying to do. Perhaps he thought he would be successful and could gain enough support, that it wouldn't be an issue. Little things start appearing in the press about what he's doing. Luckily, for Burr, Spain comes through in an unlikely way - unlike Britain. They step up their border conflicts with the U.S. This means that Wilkinson, as commander of the army, would end up in Louisiana, and he and Burr could conquer Spanish territory in the name of the United States, but then take it over.

Sarah Dowdey: It brings the No. 1 and the No. 2 in this conspiracy together. Burr's plan begins in earnest in August 1806 when he and his men assembled at Blennerhassett's island in the Ohio River, which is going to be their home base. His messenger says that 7,000 men would be on the way. At this point, his intentions are clearly not a secret. He's talked to so many people, and they in turn have communicated to higher ups.

Katie Lambert: Even though the federal government is aware of what he's doing because he has talked to so many influential politicians, so Jefferson isn't entirely in the dark. Wilkinson soon betrays Burr, and he hands over what's known as the cipher letter in 1896 to Jefferson, and also alerts the Spanish to what's going on in New Orleans. The cipher letter says, in part, "I have obtained funds and have actually commenced the enterprise. Things are starting for real." This was October 1860. In November 1860, Jefferson tells the country in the works and that the conspirators should be caught.

Sarah Dowdey: But he's still not directly calling out Burr. He figures his name is going to come up eventually on its own.

Katie Lambert: Blind item from Page 6.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. Blind item from Jefferson! In December, Blennerhassett's place is raided by a militia. They also arrest a bunch of men and took their boats and guns. When Burr finally comes to meet his men, the force is greatly diminished, not what he had been expecting at all, but he keeps going. This would have been the point to turn back for sure, but he keeps going. He heads down the Mississippi, and he's planning to meet with Wilkinson in New Orleans, but after that, who knows what he's going to do.

Katie Lambert: But what he didn't know was that at this point, he was wanted for arrest. When he lands in the bayou Pierre in Louisiana in January, 1807, he sees a newspaper and sees that his cipher letter is printed in full in the paper and that he's wanted. He doesn't have any men, and his arrival in Louisiana isn't a surprise, because of course, Wilkinson has told everyone.

Sarah Dowdey: And the newspaper has told everyone.

Katie Lambert: So he turns himself in, but then flees into Alabama.

Sarah Dowdey: On February 19th, 1807, he is arrested on the road to Pensacola, and then taken to Fort Stoddert, but it's kind of weird because, after all, he is a former vice president and a colonel. It still seems like he's working on his plan.

Katie Lambert: He has not entirely given up yet.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. He's talking to locals trying to figure out who hates the Spanish. The local officials get a little concerned about this and decide, "Let's send him back to Washington." On the way back to Washington, he's treated really well despite being under armed guard. He's allowed to keep brandy with him, and he keeps a knife and pistols.

Katie Lambert: This was a bad idea.

Sarah Dowdey: Who lets their prisoner keep pistols? But they get taken away because he does kind of try to escape in South Carolina.

Katie Lambert: When he's caught again, he cries. Things are not looking good for Burr. The group gets a message from Jefferson telling them to go to Richmond instead of Washington, so they take him there. He arrived on March 26th, 1807. In April, he went on trial for high treason and misdemeanors.

Sarah Dowdey: This is the trial of the century.

Katie Lambert: As so many trials are, of course. And they're always, as we noted earlier, they're always in the beginning of the century.

Sarah Dowdey: It's never in the 70s where you're like , "This is the trial of the century." So Chief Justice John Marshall calls it "the most unpleasant case which has ever been brought before a judge in this or perhaps any other country, which affected to be governed by laws."

Katie Lambert: Strong words.

Sarah Dowdey: Another really bold claim. On the side of the defense, we have Edmond Randolph, who is Washington's secretary of state, and lawyer brandy bottle, also known as Luther Martin, whose strategy is to paint Jefferson as somebody who's just blinded by a personal vendetta against Burr.

Katie Lambert: It's actually pretty effective too because Jefferson had basically said there was incontrovertible evidence against Burr, and there's not. So when you take little quotes like that and throw them in front of a jury, it doesn't make Jefferson look great!

Sarah Dowdey: It does start to look a little like a personal problem between two men. So the public's appetite for this trial is insatiable. The papers blare headlines about it every day, but the trial is really odd, understandably, because so many of the people involved are just plain liars, or they're double agents. Their co-conspirator stories don't match up. Even his followers don't know what Burr's plans are.

Katie Lambert: That's probably the big part.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. Nobody has the same story.

Katie Lambert: Did he even have a master plan, or was he sort of flying by the seat of his pants? We don't know because he never told anyone, and a lot of his papers were lost at sea, along with his daughter, Theodosia, in 1813, so it's likely we'll never know.

Sarah Dowdey: There wasn't much evidence either. You mentioned this just a second ago. It does come up looking a little like a personal problem instead of this grand treason case. So Burr is acquitted on September 1st, 1897. Marshall's own opinion on the case took three hours to read.

Katie Lambert: He said that a treason charge required two witnesses to an overt act of force or violence toward the government, which was a very strict reading of the definition of treason in the Constitution. The evidence simply wasn't there, so Burr was off the hook, but he wasn't off the hook with the American public. He was being burned in effigy.

Sarah Dowdey: He's still not a popular guy.

Katie Lambert: No. She he headed off to Europe to become an ex-pat, as people in trouble often do, but his reputation was completely ruined even there. He was kicked out of England and Napoleon wouldn't let him into France, so he returned to the U.S. in 1812. There was no respite even for him here. My favorite quote is from an article by Aaron Wellborn for American Heritage. "His name was besmirched by both Federalists and Republicans, usually for its besmirching effects."

Sarah Dowdey: Touché. There's one career still open to Burr. He becomes a lawyer, and he pretty much stays off the radar and dies at 80 with no descendents. As for Wilkinson, it was during the War of 1812 that people discovered that he was actually a spy, but he was acquitted and not punished too. So he can live on to have sketchy roles in future podcasts.

Katie Lambert: The Aaron Burr conspiracy so fascinates us. We've gotten so many requests for those I can't even tell you, because we know so little about it. We don't even know what this conspiracy really is. There's the debate over whether what he did was treason or just in the spirit of American enterprise. There's the question of whether he had this big plan or was just sort of playing it by ear, and we have this mystery of the man who's defined by only two events in his life: this fatal duel with Alexander Hamilton and a controversial trial. Of course, there's the romantic notion that perhaps our answer lies in a chest at the bottom of the ocean.

Sarah Dowdey: That about wraps it up for Burr, but if you have any more historical conspiracies you'd like us to investigate, you should email them to us at HistoryPodcast@HowStuffWorks.com.

Katie Lambert: We also take suggestions through Twitter at MissedinHistory, and through our Facebook fan page, so be sure to join those. As always, please check out our home page at www.HowStuffWorks.com.

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