Today, 1807: US Vice President Arrested for Treason

I’m not sure Hollywood could trump the political and judicial drama that took place in a Richmond Virginia courthouse in 1807. According to one source’s summary:

“The trial of Aaron Burr for treason in 1807 has few rivals in American history for dramatic appeal and for its colorful cast of characters. The accused traitor had been Vice President during the first administration of Thomas Jefferson. In the summer of 1804, Burr killed his rival Alexander Hamilton in a duel, an event that effectively ended Burr’s career in national politics. Three years later, he was on trial, charged with the capital crime of treason by the government headed by Jefferson, his former partner in political office. Presiding over the trial was John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States, the President’s distant cousin and political foe. Finally, there was James Wilkinson, general of the army, once Burr’s associate and at trial his chief accuser. With these principal players, the trial in the U.S. Circuit Court at Richmond was as much high political and personal drama as it was a judicial proceeding.”

Perhaps the foundation of what led up to Burr’s arrest started with the 1800 presidential election. Thomas Jefferson ran against John Adams in a hotly contested battle. Both of them warned the public and Congress that the other would destroy the newly found nation. Jefferson’s running mate was Aaron Burr and since the ballots were not separate, Jefferson and Burr both tied with the most electoral votes. The tie forced the House to make the decision of who would be president and who would be vice president. Instead of every representative having a vote, it was restricted to only one vote per state. At one point, the Federalists in the House who supported Burr seemed like they were close to making Aaron Burr the next president. However, Alexander Hamilton became heavily involved and finally brought the tide over to Jefferson who won with the votes of 10 states to Burr’s 4 with two states not chose.

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During the next four years of Jefferson’s term, his relationship with Vice President Aaron Burr deteriorated to the point that Jefferson would not agree to having Burr serve with him for a second term. Burr was wooed by the Federalists, who opposed Jefferson. Burr’s move to the opposite party led Hamilton to refer Burr as a very dangerous man who should never be trusted with the reins of government.

Bitterness between Burr and Hamilton continued to the point that they agreed to meet in Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11, 1804 for a duel. Hamilton, whose son was killed in a duel three years earlier had no intention of shooting Burr and fired his pistol into the sky. Burr on the other hand was still filled with anger and aimed to kill when he fired at Hamilton, who was mortally wounded and died later in New York City. When word of the duel and Hamilton’s firing into the air became public, it spelled the end of Burr’s political career.

In 1805, Burr joined a group who planned to form a separate confederacy with the help of the British and Spanish, consisting of several western states and territories. He and his comrades spent the next year recruiting gullible young men, largely from the interior of the country to join their cause. In the fall of 1806, Burr made plans to take an armed group to New Orleans with the intent on capturing it.

One of Burr’s co-conspirators was General James Wilkinson who later turned out to be an agent that worked with the Spanish. In October 1806, Wilkinson had second thoughts and sent Jefferson a deciphered copy of a letter supposedly written by Burr detailing plans to take a 7,000-man army to New Orleans. He followed that up with additional evidence against Burr.

Aaron Burr was subsequently arrested in Alabama on charges of treason on February 19, 1807. His trial was held in the US Circuit Courthouse in Richmond, Virginia. The US Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice John Marshall, a cousin of Thomas Jefferson, heard the case against Burr.

On June 13, 1807, President Thomas Jefferson was subpoenaed to testify at Burr’s trial. The subpoena came from Burr who asked Jefferson for documents that would help vindicate Burr from the charges. Since Burr had become a political pariah, Jefferson refused to appear at the trial. Like so many presidents since, Jefferson only released a few of the documents that Burr requested, citing protection of public rights in refusing to produce the rest of them. Many feel that Jefferson’s move was made to help convict Burr, but if that were so, it failed.

Chief Justice Marshall, who did not share some of the same political views as his cousin the president, issued a ruling on August 31, 1807. He used complicated legal jargon to juggle issues around, eventually ruled that the actions of Burr did not meet the clear terms of treason according to the US Constitution. In Marshall’s acquittal, it was determined that he never actually carried out an act of war or aggression against the United States and therefore could not be found guilty on that technicality.

Burr was not free yet as he was subsequently charged with a misdemeanor of raging war against Spain. Again Burr was acquitted basically for the same reason he was acquitted in his trial for treason. Then the government prosecutor filed a motion to commit or send Burr to the either the federal court in Ohio or Kentucky where he could then be tried for treason and misdemeanor charges. Marshall refused to commit Burr to the state courts on the grounds of treason, he was indicted on the misdemeanor charges by the US Circuit Court for the District of Ohio, but then the government made the decision not to prosecute Burr any further.

After his legal ordeal, Burr left for Europe where he spent four years trying to help the cause of Mexican independence from Spain. Having little to no success, he returned to the US in 1812. He was financially broke and attempted to resurrect his legal practice with limited success. In 1833, at the age of 77, Burr married a wealthy widow in hopes of living the rest of his life in luxury, but the marriage soon failed and Burr ended up divorced. Not long after the divorce, Burr suffered a series of strokes that left him partially paralyzed.

On September 14, 1836, Arron Burr died at the age of 80. In Port Richmond on Staten Island, New York.

Like I said, everything about this part of Aaron Burr’s life matches any political thriller that Hollywood can come up with, yet it was real and part of America’s history.

Information presented above is an amalgamation of the following sources: This Day in History: Feb 19 – Aaron Burr Arrested for Treason; This Day in History – Thomas Jefferson subpoenaed in Aaron Burr’s Treason Trial; This Day in History – Aaron Burr Acquitted; Federal Judicial Center – The Aaron Burr Treason Trial; US History – The Election of 1800; Biography – Aaron Burr and Burr versus Jefferson versus Marshall.

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