UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Burr's Empire

It is still a mystery what Burr really intended. Napoleon's career had fired the imagination of men of a military and romantic turn all over the world. It is quite as reasonable an explanation of Burr's scheme as any other that he was reserving all his chances, and meant to do much or little, according to the turn of events, and that he did not himself define to himself what he was aiming at. Thomas Jefferson told Latrobe that Burr's empire was an impregnable valley surrounded by ramparts of mountain (Jefferson's view of the Ozarks was a trifle emphatic).

Alarmists sought to create the impression that certain sections of the country are antagonistic to one another, and the possibility of the formation of a trans-Mississippi republic had been suggested as not improbable owing to the lack of homogeneity of Eastern and Western ideas. The hatred in the west of all eastern interests, the harsh criticism in the east of men and measures west of the Mississippi, the realignment of political forces in both sections, was evidence of the entering wedge of a new sectional division which should create the deepest apprehension and concern.

Jefferson, even after he fully realized the importance of the Louisiana purchase, regarded it as extremely doubtful whether it would be possible to maintain one government over so great an extent of country, and spoke rather cheerfully of the contingency of an Atlantic and a Mississippi republic in friendly rivalry. But when the civil war was fought, the two most powerful sections of the country, the north and the west, combined to crush the secession of the weakest section in material resources. Aaron Burr, was born at Newark, NJ, 06 February 1756, a son of Rev. Aaron Burr, President of the College of New Jersey, and of a daughter of the eminent theologian, Jonathan Edwards. When nineteen years of age, he entered the Continental army, at Cambridge, as a private soldier, and as such accompanied Arnold in his expedition to Quebec.

Burr distinguished himself in the battle of Monmouth in 1778, where he commanded a brigade in Stirling's division. During the winter of 1778–79 he was stationed in Westchester county, N. Y. For a short time he was in command of the post at West Point, but, on account of illhealth, he left the army in March, 1779. Burr was a born intriguer, and was maturally drawn towards Lee and Gates, and became a partisan in their schemes for injuring the reputation of Washington, and ever afterwards he affected to despise the military character of Washington.

A member of the United States Senate from 1791 till 1797, Burr was a conspicuous Democratic leader in that body; and in the Presidential election in 1800 he and Thomas Jefferson had an equal number of votes in the electoral college. The House of Representatives decided the choice in favor of Jefferson on the thirty-sixth ballot, and Burr became Vice-President. In July, 1804, he killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel; and the next year he undertook his mad and mysterious enterprise in the West, which resulted in his trial for treason.

In March, 1805, Burr's term of office as Vice-President ended, and he descended to private life an utterly ruined man. But his ambition and his love of intrigue were as strong as ever, and he conceived schemes for personal aggrandizement and pecuniary gain. It was the general belief, at that time, in the United States, that the Spanish inhabitants of Louisiana would not quietly submit to American government. Taking advantage of this belief, and the restlessness of many of the inhabitants of the valley of the Mississippi, Burr conceived some daring schemes (none fully developed) of military operations in that region, which he attempted to carry out immediately after he left office.

With several nominal objects in view, Burr started for the Mississippi Valley in company with General Wilkinson, who went to take possession of his office of governor of the Louisiana Territory, to which he had been appointed. At Pittsburg Burr started in a vessel called an “ark,” in which were fitted up conveniences for a long voyage. Wilkinson was not ready, and the impatient Burr proceeded without him.

Burr made his way through the Indian Territory to St. Louis, where he again met Wilkinson, that being the seat of government of the Louisiana Territory. Then, for the first time, he threw out hints to Wilkinson of his splendid scheme of conquest in the Southwest, which he spoke of as being favored by the United States government. At the same time he complained of the government as imbecile, and the people of the West as ready for revolt. He made no explanation to Wilkinson of the nature of his scheme, and that officer, suspicious of Burr's designs, wrote to his friend Robert Smith, Secretary of the Navy, advising the government to keep a watch upon his movements.

Among the elements which entered into the situation are such as the disheartening of France in her efforts at American colonization; Napoleon’s financial embarrassment; his fear of entanglements with England; his just previous and surprising deal with Spain; the adventurous spirit of the Americans who had crossed the Mississippi and the fear of government officials that these would establish a trans-Mississippi Republic.

His project had an unmistakable kinship with the old plans for setting up a Republic of the Mississippi, with its capital at New Orleans. For that, however, he was ten years too late. If he had intended to go on a filibustering expedition against the Spaniards in Mexico, he would have obtained secret aid and sympathy in Kentucky and Tennessee, and the aid which he did get was given under that belief. If his scheme was aimed in any manner against the United States he could not find any aid for it. Since the purchase of Louisiana, and the accession to power in the Union of the party to which the great majority of the Western people belonged, there was no feeling for Burr to work on.

Thence Burr went eastward, stopping at Cincinnati, Chillicothe, and Marietta, everywhere conversing with leading men, to whom he gave only attractive hints of a brilliant scheme in hand. He spent that winter and the following spring and summer in Philadelphia and Washington, engaged in his mysterious projects. There he more clearly developed his scheme, which seemed to have a twofold character—the conquest of Mexico from the Spaniards and the establishment of an independent monarchy, and the revolutionizing the Mississippi Valley, separating that region from the rest of the Union, and forming an independent republic, with its seat of government at New Orleans. If the first-mentioned scheme should be carried out, Burr aspired to be king; if the latter, he was to be president of his new republic.

Towards the end of summer (August, 1806) Burr departed on a second Western tour. For a year a vague suspicion prevailed throughout the country that Burr was engaged in a scheme for revolutionizing Mexico—an idea agreeable to the Western people because of the existing difficulties with Spain. It was believed, too (for so Burr had continually hinted), that such a scheme was secretly favored by the government. Under this impression Bürr's project received the countenance of several leading men in the Western country. The plan was to move detachments of volunteers rapidly from Louisville in November, meet Wilkinson at Natchez in December, and then to determine whether to seize Baton Rouge (then in possession of the Spaniards as a part of west Florida) or pass on. It was said that said Burr was supported by a numerous and powerful association, extending from New York to New Orleans; that several thousand men were prepared for an expedition against the Mexican provinces; that the Territory of Orleans would be revolutionized—for which the inhabitants were quite ready; that he supposed some “seizing” would be necessary at New Orleans, and a forced “transfer " of the bank; that an expedition was to land at Vera Cruz and march thence to the Mexican capital; that naval protection would be furnished by Great Britain; and that Truxton and other officers of the navy, disgusted with the conduct of the government, would join in the enterprise. It was claimed that a plan to revolutionize the Western country was about to explode; and that Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Orleans Territory had combined to declare themselves independent on 15 November 1806.

Andrew Jackson — who had favored Burr's schemes so long as they looked only towards a seizure of Spanish provinces — alarmed by evidences that he had wicked designs against the Union, wrote to Governor Claiborne (with the impression that Wilkinson was associated with Burr), warning him to beware of the designs of that officer and the ex-Vice-President. “I hate the Dons,” Jackson wrote (Nov. 12, 1806); “I would delight to see Mexico reduced; but I would die in the last ditch before I would see the Union disunited.”

Burr was summoned before a grand jury (Nov. 25), but, the attorney failing to get such witnesses as he desired, the jury not only failed to find a bill, but declared their belief that Burr intended nothing against the integrity of the Union. This triumph for Burr was celebrated by a ball at Frankfort.

Meanwhile the President of the United States had commissioned Graham, secretary of the Orleans Territory, to investigate the reports about Burr, and, if well founded, to take steps to cut short his career. On Nov. 27 the President issued a proclamation that he had been informed of an unlawful scheme set on foot for invading the Spanish dominions; warning citizens of the United States not to engage in it; and directing all in authority to endeavor to suppress it.

A reward was offered for the capture of Burr, and he was, arrested (Feb. 19, 1807) by the Register of the Landoffice, assisted by Lieut. (afterwards Maj.-Gen.) Edmund P. Gaines, near Fort Stoddart, on the Tombigbee River, in eastern Mississippi. An indictment for high treason was found against Burr by a grand jury for the District of Virginia. He was charged with levying war, by the collection of armed men at Blennerhassett's Island, within the dominion of Virginia. He was also charged with concocting a scheme for the overthrow of the national authority in the Western States and Territories. On these charges he was tried and acquitted.

After his acquittal Burr went to England and sought to engage that or some other European government in his project for revolutionizing Mexico. Pressed by his creditors, he lived a miserable life, in poverty, in London and Paris. Finally, after long solicitations, he obtained leave to return, and appeared in New York in 1812, where he resumed the practice of law; but he lived in comparative poverty and obscurity until 1834, when, at the age of seventyeight, he married Madame Jumel, a wealthy woman in New York, with whom he lived only a short time, when they were separated.

Burr was small in stature, of great ability, and fascinating in manners. He died on Staten Island, Sept. 14, 1836.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list