Front Page Titles (by Subject) COLONEL BURR. - Retrospect of Western Travel, vol. 2
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COLONEL BURR. - Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel, vol. 2 
Retrospect of Western Travel in Three Vols (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838). Vol. 2.
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“His extraordinary plans and expectations for himself might he of such a nature as to depend on other persons for their accomplishment, and might therefore be as extravagant as if other persons alone had been their object.”—Foster's Essays.
The romance of political adventure is generally found to flourish in the regions of despotism; and it seems a matter of course that there can be no room for conspiracy in a democratic republic, where each man is a member of the government, and means are provided for the expression of every kind of political opinion and desire. Yet the United States can exhibit a case of conspiracy, and a political advendurer such as might rejoice the souls of the lovers of romance. Scattered notices of Colonel Aaron Burr and of his supposed schemes are before the English public; but no connected history which might be depended upon appeared during his life. He died last year, and has left no relations; so that no reason now exists why every thing that can be learned about him should not be made known.
In 1795, Aaron Burr had attained to eminence at the New York Bar. He was about the same age as Alexander Hamilton, who was born in 1757, and their professional reputation and practice were about equal. Hamilton was the leader of the federal party. He was in countenance eminently handsome, in manner engaging, in temper amiable and affectionate, in eloquence both persuasive and commanding; and his mind was so comprehensive, and his powers of application and execution so great as to cause him to be considered by the federal party the greatest man their country has produced. Burr was of democratic politics; he had a fiercely ambitious temper, which he hid under a gentle and seductive manner. He was usually so quiet and sedate that he might have been thought indifferent, but for the expression of his piercing black eyes. His face was otherwise plain, and his figure and gait were stooping and ungraceful. He assumed great authority of manner upon occasion. His speaking at the bar was brief and to the purpose. His most remarkable characteristic seems to have been his power of concealment. He not only carried on a conspiracy befor the nation's eyes which they to this day cannot more or less understand; but lived long years with the tremendous secret in his breast, and has gone down to the grave without affording any solution of the mystery. It may be doubted whether, in all the long private conversations he had with individuals, he ever committed himself, otherwise than apparently, to anybody. He seems to have been understood by Hamilton, however, from the begining; and Hamilton never concealed his opinion that Burr was an ambitious and dangerous man.
Jefferson put a generous trust in Burr; and for many years they were intimate correspondents. It is very touching to read, after all that has since happened, such letters as the following,—written shortly after the two men had been rival candidates for the Presidentship, at a time of unexampled party excitement:—
“To Colonel Burr.
“Dear Sir,—It was to be expected that the enemy would endeavour sow tares between us, that they might divide us and our friends. Every consideration satisfies me that you will be on your guard against this, as I assure you I am strongly. I hear of one stratagem so imposing and so base, that it is proper I should notice it to you. Mr. Munford, who is here, says he saw at New York before he left it, an original letter of mine to Judge Breckinridge, in which are sentiments highly injurious to you. He knows my handwriting, and did not doubt that to be genuine. I enclose you a copy taken from a press copy of the only letter I ever wrote to Judge Breckinridge in my life: the press copy itself has been shown to several of our mutual friends here. Of consequence, tho letter seen by Mr. Munford must be a forgery, imd if it contains a sentiment unfriendly or disrespectful to you, I aftirm it solemuly to be a forgery; as also if it varies from the copy enclosed. With the common trash of slander I should not think of troubling you: but the forgery of one's handwriting is too imposing to be neglected. A mutual knowledge of each other furnished us with the best test of the contrivances which will be practised by the enemies of both.
“Accept assurances of my high respect and esteem.
In the Presidential election of 1800, there were four candidates,—Jefferson. Burr, John Adams, and Pinckney. The votes were for Jefferson 73, for Burr 73, for Adams 65, for Pinckney 64. The numbers for Jefferson and Burr being equal, the choice devolved upon the House of Representatives, which voted to attend to no other business till the election was settled, and not to adjourn till the decision was effected. For seven days and nights the balloting went on, every member being present. Some who were ill or infirm were accommodated with beds and couches; and one sick member was allowed to be attended by his wife. Admas was, as President, on the spot, watching his impending political annihilation. Jefferson was at hand, daily presiding in the Senate. Burr was in the State of New York, anxiously expecting tidings, The federal party were in despair at having to choose between two republicans (as the democratic party was at that day called). It is said that Hamilton was consulted by his party; and that his advice was to choose Jefferson rather than Burr:—a piece of counsel which affected the everlasting destinies of the country, and cost the counsellor his life. At the end of the seven days, Jefferson was elected President, and Burr Vice-President; which office Burr hold for a single term,—four years.
In the winter of 1804, Burr was proposed at Albany as a candidate for the office of Governor of the State of New York. Hamilton, at a public meeting of his party, strongly opposed the nomination, declaring that he would never join in supporting such a candidate. About this time, Dr. Chas. D. Cooper wrote a letter in which he said “General Hamilton and —— have declared in substance, that they looked upon Mr. Burr as a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government.” “I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.” This letter was published; and on the 18th of June, 1804, Buri sent a copy of it to Hamilton, with a demand that the expressions it contained should be acknowledged or denied. The correspondence which ensued is discreditable to both parties. To use the expression of a great man,” Hamilton went into it like a capuchin. “He knew that it was Burr's determination to fix a deadly quarrel upon him; he knew that Burr was an unworthy adversary; he disapproved of the practice of dueling, but he feared the imputation of want of courage if he refused to meet his foe. He therefore explained and corresponded with an amplitude and indecision which expose his reputation to more danger from harsh judges than a refusal to fight would have done. As for Burr, he was savage in his pursuit of his enemy. He enlarged his accusations demands, as he saw the irresolution of his victim: and I believe there is no doubt that, though he was a good shot before, he employed the interval of twenty days which elapsed before the duel took place in firing at a mark, making no secret of the purpose of his practising.
This interval was occasioned by Hamilton's refusal to go out till the Circuit Court, in the business of which he was engaged, should have closed its sittings. The Court rose on Friday, the 6th of July, and Burr received notice that General Hamilton would be ready at any time after the following Sunday.
On Wednesday morning, the 11th, the parties crossed the Hudson to the Jersey shore, arriving on the ground at seven o'clock, Burr was attended by Mr. Van Ness and a surgeon; Hamilton by Mr. Pendleton and Dr. Hosack. It was Hamilton's intention not to fire; but when his adversary's ball struck him on the right side, he raised himself involuntarilv on his toes, and turned a little to the left, his pistol going off with the movement. He observed to his physician. “This is a mortal wound, Doctor,” and then became insensible. He revived; however, in the boat, in the course of removal home: and cautioned his attendants about the pistol, which he was not aware of having discharged. He lived, in great agony, till two o'clock of the following day.
He left a paper which contained his statement of reasons for meeting; Burr, notwithstanding his conscientious disapproval of the practice of dueling, and his particular desire to avoid an encounter with such an adversary, and in such a cause as the present. In this paper, he declares his resolution to reserve and throw away his first fire, and perhaps his second. His reasons for fighting are now, I believe, generally agreed to be unsatisfactory. As to the effect of his determination to spare his adversary,—I never could learn that Colonel Burr expressed the slightest regret for the pertinacity with which he hunted such an enemy.—merely a political foe.—to death. Neither did he appear to feel the execration with which he was regarded in the region of which Hamilton had been the pride and ornament.
To avoid the legal consequences of his deed, he wandered into the West, and remained so long in retreat, that some passing wonder was excited as to what he could be doing there. He was ensuaring more victims.
In the Ohio river, a few miles below Marietta, there is a beautiful island, tinely wooded, but now presenting a dismal picture of ruin. This island was purchased, about thirty-five years ago, by an Irish gentleman, named Herman Blannerhassett, whose name the island has since borne. This gentleman took his beautiful and attached wife to his new property, and their united tastes made it such an abode as was never before, and has never since been seen in the United States. Shrubberies, conservatories and gardens ornamented the island; and within doors, there was a fine library, philosophical apparatus, and music-room. Burr seems to have been introduced to this family by some mutual friends at the East, and to have been received as a common acquaintance at first. The intimacy grew: and the oftener he went to Blannerhassett's Island, and the longer he staid. The deeper was the gloom which overspread the unfortunate family. Blannerhassett himself seems to have withdrawn his interest from his children, his books, his pursuits, as Burr obtained influence over his mind, and poisoned it with some dishonest ambition. The wife's countenance grew sad, and her manners constrained. It is not known how far she was made acquainted with what was passing between her husband and Burr.
The object of Burr's conspiracy remains as much a mystery as over, while there is no doubt whatever of its existence. Some suppose that he intended to possess himself of Mexico; an enterprise less absurd than at first sight it appears. There was great hatred towards the Mexicans at that period,—the period of agitation the acquisition of Louisiana: thousands of citizens were ready to march down upon Mexico on any pretence; and it is certain that Burr was so amply provided with funds from some unknown quarter, that he had active adherents carrying on his business, from the borders of Maine all down the course of the great Western rivers. Another supposition is that he designed the plunder of New Orleans, in the event of a war with Spain. A more probable one is that he proposed to found a great Western Empire, with the aid of Spain, making himself its Emperor, and drawing off the allegiance of all the countries west of the Alleghanies: and finally that, as a cover to, and final substitute for other designs, he meant to effect the colonization of the banks of the river Washita. Such are the various objects assigned as the end of Burr's movements: but all that is known is that he engaged a number of men in his service,—supposed to be not loss than a thousand,—under an assurance that the service required of them was one approved by the government: that he endeavoured to persuade Latrobe, the architect, to engage five hundred more labourers on pretext of their working on the Ohio canal, in which it turned out that he had no interest: that a guard was mounted round Blannerhassett's Island: that boats, manned and furnished with arms, set forth from the island on the night of the 10th of December, 1806: that they were joined by Burr, with a reinforcement, at the mouth of the Cumberland; and that they all proceeded down the Mississippi together.
The government had become aware of secret meetings between Burr, the Spanish Yruyo, and Dr. Bollman, one of the liberators of Lafayette; and the proper time was seized for putting forth proclamations which undeceived the people with regard to Burr's movements, and caused them to rise against him wherever he had been acting. Orders to capture him and his party, and if necessary, to destroy his boats, were eagerly received. Burr did not venture to New Orleans. He caused himself to be put ashore in the territory of Mississippi, and thence found his way, attended by only one person, to the banks of the Tombigbee, which he reached on the 19th of February, 1807. At eleven at night, the wanderers passed a settlement called Washington Court Mouse: Burr preceded his companion by some yards, and passed on quietly: but his companion enquired of a man standing at the door of a public-house, about the dwelling of a Major Hinson; and, on receiving his answer, joined Burr. The person enquired of went to Hinson's with the sheriff, and had his suspicions so confirmed that he proceeded to Fort Stoddart, and brought back an officer and four soldiers, who took Burr into custody. He was lodged, a prisoner, at Richmond, Virginia, by the end of March.
Burr had previously been brought to trial in Kentucky, on an accusation of illegal secret practices in that State. He was defended and brought off by Mr. Clay and Colonel Allen, who were persuaded of his innocence, and refused a fee. Mr. Clay was for long after his advocate, in public and in private, and asked him, for friendly purposes, for a full declaration that he was innocent, which Burr gave unhesitatingly and explicitly: and the note is now among Jefferson's papers. When, some time subsequently, a letter of Burr's in cipher came to light, Mr. Clay found how he had been deceived; but his advocacy was, for the time, of great benefit to Burr.
On the 17th of August, Burr was brought to trial at Richmond, before Chief Justice Marshall. He was charged with having excited insurrection, rebellion, and war on the 10th of December, 1806, at Blannerhassett's Island, in Virginia, Secondly, the same charge was repeated, with the addition of a traitorous intention of taking possession of the city of New Orleans with force and arms. The evidence established every thing but the precise charge. The presence of Burr in the island was proved: and his levies of men and provisions on the banks of the Ohio. The presence of armed men in the island, and the expedition of the 10th of December were also proved: but not any meeting of these men with Burr. The proof of the overt act completely failed. He was then tried at the same court on the indictment for misdemeanour, and acquitted. He was then ordered to be committed to answer an indictment in the State of Ohio. He was admitted to bail, and it does not appear that the State of Ohio meddled with him at all.
Bollman was one of the witnesses on the side of the prosecution. His certificate of pardon was offered to him in court by the counsel for the prosecution. He refused to accept it, but was sworn, and his evidence received.
It is impossible to suppose any bias on the part of the Court in favour of the prisoner. His acquittal seems to have arisen from unskilfulness in deducing the charges from the evidence; and to the trial having taken place before all the requisite evidence could be gathered from distant regions.
Blannerhassett and others were tried on the same charges as Burr; but what became of them I do not remember, further than that Blannerhassett was utterly ruined and disgraced.
Burr repaired to England. His connexion with Bentham appears wholly unaccountable. The story is, that he was in a bookseller's shop one day, when Bentham entered and fixed his observation: that he wrote a letter to Bentham, as soon as he was gone, expressive of his high admiration of his works: that Bentham admitted him to an interview, invited him to stay with him, and urged the prolongation of his visit from time to time, till it ended in being a sojourn of two years. It is difficult to conceive how an agreeable intercourse could be kept up for so long a time between the single-minded philosopher and the crafty yet boastful, the vindictive yet smooth political adventurer.
In October, 1808, Jefferson wrote to a friend.
“Burr is in London, and is giving out to his friends that that government offers him two millions of dollars, the moment he can raise an ensign of rebellion as big as a handkerchief. Some of his partisans will believe this because they wish it. But those who know him best will not believe it the more because he says it.”* He returned to America in 1812, being sent away from England on account of his too frequent, and very suspicious political correspondence with France.
He settled quietly at New York, and resumed practice at the bar, which he continued as long as his health permitted. He owed such practice as he had to his high legal ability, and not to any improved opinion of his character. When Mr. Clay arrived in New York, from his English mission, he went the round of the public institutions, attended by the principal inhabitants. In one of the courts he met Burr, and, of course, after the affair of the cipher letter, cut him. Burr made his way to him, declared himself anxious to clear up every misapprehension which had alienated the regard of his benefactor, and requested to be allowed half an hour's private conservation. Mr. Clay readily agreed to this and the hour was named. Burr failed to keep his appointment, and never afterwards appeared in Mr. Clay's presence.
One pure light, one healthy affection, illumined and partially redeemed the life of the adventurer. He had an only child, a daughter, whom he loved with all the love of which he was capable, and which she fully deserved. She was carly married to a Mr. Alston, and lived at Charleston. I believe she was about five-and-twenty when she fell into ill health, and the strong soul of her father was shaken with the terror of losing her. He spared no pains or expense to obtain the best opinions on her case from Europe; and the earnestness of his appeals to the physicians, to whom he wrote full statements of her case, are very moving. While awaiting a decision as to what measures should be taken for her restoration, it was decided that she must leave Charleston before the summer heats; and he summoned her to his home at New York. To avoid fatigue, she went by sea with her child and the nurse. Her father had notice of her departure, and watched hour after hour for her arrival. The hours wore away, and days, and weeks, and years. The vessel never arrived, nor any tidings of her. She must have foundered, or, far worse, fallen into the hands of pirates. A pang went through the heart of every one for many years, as often as the thought recurred that Mrs. Alston and her child might be living in slavery to pirates in some place inaccessible to the inquities of even her wretched father. When all had been done that could be devised, and every one had ceased to hope, Burr closed his lips upon the subject. No one of the few who were about him ever heard him mention his daughter.
While I was in America, a foreign sailor died in an hospital; my memory fails me as to where it was. When near death, he made a confession which was believed to be true by all whom I heard speak on the subject. He confessed himself to have been a pirate, and to have served on board the vessel which captured that which was conveying Mrs. Alston. He declared that she was shut up below while the captain and crew were being murdered on deck. She was then brought up, and was present at the decision that it would not be safe to spare her life. She was ordered to walk the plank, with her child in her arms; and, finding all quiet remonstrance vain, she did it, without hesitation or visible tremor. The recollection of it was too much for the pirate in his dying moments.
About a year before his death, Colonel Burr sanctioned the publication of a so-called life of himself; a panegyric which leaves in the reader's mind the strongest conviction of the reality of his western adventures, and of the justice of every important charge against him. He died last year; and it will probably be soon known with exactness whether he took care that his secrets should be buried with him, or whether he made arrangements for some light being at length thrown on his eventful and mysterious history.
end of vol. ii.
Printed by William Clowes and Sons, Stamford Street.
Jefferson's Correspondence, vol. iv. p. 115.