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The Burr conspiracy was a suspected treasonous cabal of planters, politicians, and army officers led by former U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr. According to the accusations against him, Burr’s goal was to create an independent nation in the center of North America and/or the Southwest and parts of Mexicomarker. Burr’s explanation: To take possession of, and farm, 40,000 acres (160 km²) in the Texas Territory leased to him by the Spanishmarker. When the expected war with Spain broke out, he would fight with his armed “farmers,” to seize some lands he could conquer in the war–all illegal by rules of warfare.

Jefferson and others had Burr arrested and indicted for treason with no firm evidence put forward. Burr’s true intentions are still considered ambiguous to some historians, who claim he intended to take parts of Texas and some or all of the Louisiana Purchase for himself. They claim Burr envisioned a new empire in the West over which he would rule. This historically unproven version of a conspiracy by Burr to take American land is still in print in many biographies, encyclopedias, and even history books. Letters written to this version can be found in letters by contemporaries who distrusted Burr, but no solid evidence can be found.

James Wilkinson

General James Wilkinson was one of Burr’s most important co-conspirators. Though it was eventually discovered that his involvement in the conspiracy was most likely an attempt to further his own personal and political goals, he worked closely with Burr to develop a plan for secession. The commanding General of the Army at the time, Wilkinson was known for his corrupt practices, including his attempt to separate Kentucky and Tennessee from the union during the 1780’s. Burr persuaded President Thomas Jefferson to appoint Wilkinson to the position of Governor of the Territory of Louisiana. Wilkinson would later come to betray Burr by revealing his plot to Jefferson and denying all involvement in the conspiracy. William Eaton charged that Wilkinson had attempted to involve him in the conspiracy.

Contacts with the British

While Burr was still Vice President he met with the British Minister to the United States, Anthony Merry, and, as he explained to several of his colleagues, implied that the British might regain power in the Southwest if they contributed guns and money to his expedition. Burr offered to detach Louisiana from the Union in exchange for a half a million dollars and a British fleet in the Gulf of Mexico. Merry wrote, "It is clear Mr. Burr... means to endeavour to be the instrument for effecting such a connection - he has told me that the inhabitants of Louisiana ... prefer having the protection and assistance of Great Britain" "Execution of their design is only delayed by the difficulty of obtaining previously an assurance of protection & assistance from some foreign power"

In November 1805, Burr again met with Merry and asked for two or three ships of the line and money. Merry informed Burr that London had not yet responded to Burr's plans which he had forwarded the previous year. Merry gave him fifteen hundred dollars. Those Merry worked for in London expressed no interest in furthering American secessionism.

In the spring of 1806, Burr had his final meeting with Merry. In this meeting Merry informed Burr that still no response had been received from London. Burr told Merry, "with or without such support it certainly would be made very shortly." Merry was recalled to Britain on June 1, 1806.

Travels in Louisiana

Later Burr conceived plans to emigrate, he always claimed, to take possession of land in the Texas Territories leased to him by the Spanish (the lease was granted, and copies still exist).

In 1805, Burr travelled throughout Louisiana. In the spring, Burr met with Harman Blennerhassett. Blennerhassett proved a valuable tool in helping Burr further his plan. He provided friendship, support, and most importantly access to the island that he owned on the Ohio River, about 2 miles (3 km) below what is now Parkersburg, West Virginiamarker. In 1806, Blennerhassett offered to provide Burr with substantial financial support. Burr and his co-conspirators used this island as a storage space for men and supplies. Burr tried to recruit volunteers to enter Spanish territories. In New Orleansmarker, he met with the Mexican Associates, a group of ’’criollos’’ whose objective was to conquer Mexico. Burr was able to gain the support of New Orleans’ Catholic bishop for his expedition into Mexico.

Reports of Burr's plans first started to appear in newspapers in August where it was insinuated that Burr intended to raise a western army and "to form a separate government".

In early 1806, Burr contacted the Spanish minister Carlos Martínez de Irujo y Tacón whom Burr told that his plan was not just western succession, but the capture of Washington, D.C.. Yrujo wrote to his masters in Madrid about the coming "dismemberment of the colossal power which was growing at the very gates" of New Spain. Yrujo gave Burr a few thousand dollars to get things started. The Spanish government in Madrid took no action.

Following the events in Kentucky, Burr went back west later into 1806 with the hope of recruiting more volunteers for a military expedition down the Mississippi River. Here he recruited Blennerhassett and began using his island, Blennerhasset Islandmarker, to store men and supplies. The Governor of Ohio grew suspicious of the activity on the island, and ordered the state militia to raid the island and seize all supplies. Blennerhasset managed to escape with one boat, and he met up with Burr at the operation’s Headquarters on the Cumberland River. With a significantly smaller force, the two headed down the Ohio River to the Mississippi River and New Orleans. Wilkinson had vowed to supply troops at New Orleans; however, he had come to the conclusion that the conspiracy was bound to fail, and rather than providing these troops, Wilkinson revealed Burr’s plan to President Jefferson.


Charges were brought against Burr in Kentuckymarker by Joseph Hamilton Daviess, the federal District Attorney for Kentucky, claiming that Burr wished to make war with Mexicomarker. Yet with the help of his adroit young attorney, Henry Clay, Burr was able to have the case dismissed. In December, President Thomas Jefferson was anonymously informed that Burr "is meditating the overthrow of your administration".

In February and March, 1806, Jo Daviess, United States District Attorney for Kentucky wrote Jefferson several letters warning him of possible conspiratorial activities by Burr. Daveiss’ July 14 letter to Jefferson stated flatly that Burr planned to provoke a rebellion in Spanish-held parts of the West to join them to areas in the Southwest to form an independent nation under his rule. Similar accusations were appearing against local Democratic-Republicans in a Frankfort, Kentuckymarker newspaper, Western World, and Jefferson dismissed Daveiss’s accusations against Burr, a Democratic-Republican, as politically motivated.

Rumors of political instability in the West finally forced themselves upon Jefferson and his cabinet, with their suspicions being confirmed when Wilkinson sent him correspondence received from Burr. In an attempt to preserve his innocence and career, Wilkinson edited these correspondences. The letters had been sent to Wilkinson in cypher, however he altered the letter to prove both his "innocence" and Burr's guilt. He warned Jefferson that Burr was “meditating the overthrow of [his] administration” and “conspiring against the State.” Jefferson alerted Congress of the plan, and ordered the arrest of anyone who conspired to attack Spanish territory.[204835] He warned authorities in the West to be aware of suspicious activities. Convinced of Burr’s guilt, Jefferson ordered his arrest. Burr fled to the Mississippi Territory, where he was apprehended. He managed his escape from the searchers and was recaptured in February, 1807 and confined at Fort Stoddertmarker. While in transport to Washington D.C.marker he again attempted escape in South Carolinamarker, but failed.


He stood trial in Richmondmarker, Virginiamarker for treason because of the alleged conspiracy but was acquitted due to lack of evidence. A Revolutionary War hero, U.S. Senator, New York State Attorney General and Assemblyman, and finally Vice President under Jefferson, Burr adamantly denied and vehemently resented all charges against his honor, his character or his patriotism.

Burr was charged with treason for assembling an armed force to take New Orleans and separate the Western from the Atlantic states. He was also charged with high misdemeanor for sending a military expedition against territories belonging to Spain. George Hay, the prosecuting U.S. Attorney, complied a list of over 140 witnesses, one of whom was Andrew Jackson. To encourage witness participation, it is said that Thomas Jefferson gave Hay sheets of blank pardons.

The case met opposition from the beginning, with the high misdemeanor charge being dropped when the government was unable to prove that the expedition had been military in nature or directed towards Spanish territory.

Burr's trial brought into question the ideas of executive privilege and the independence of the executive. Burr’s lawyers, including John Wickham, asked Chief Justice John Marshall to subpoena Jefferson, claiming that they needed documents from Jefferson to accurately present their case. Jefferson proclaimed that as President, he reserved the right to decide “what papers coming to him as President, the public interests permit to be communicated [and] to whom.” He insisted that all relevant papers had been made available, and that he was not subject to this writ because he held executive privilege. He also argued that he should not be subject to the commands of the judiciary, because the constitution guaranteed the executive branch’s independence from the judicial branch. Marshall sided with Burr, deciding that the subpoena could be issued despite Jefferson’s position of presidency. Though Marshall vowed to consider Jefferson’s office and avoid “vexatious and unnecessary subpoenas,” his ruling was significant because it suggested that like all citizens, the President was subject to the law.

Burr’s case required Marshall to consider the definition of treason. It raised the question of whether or not intent was enough to convict someone of treason. Marshall ruled that because Burr had not committed an act of war, he could not be found guilty. Because the First Amendment guaranteed Burr the right to voice opposition to the government, “merely suggesting war or engaging in a conspiracy was not enough to require a conviction.” To be convicted of treason, Marshall ruled, an overt act of participation must be proven with evidence. Intention to divide the union was not an overt act: “There must be an actual assembling of men for the treasonable purpose, to constitute a levying of war.” Marshall further supported his decision by indicating that the Constitution stated that two witnesses must see the same overt act against the country. Marshall, however, narrowly construed the definition of treason provided in Article III of the Constitution; he noted that the prosecution had failed to prove that Burr had committed an "overt act," as the Constitution required. As a result, the jury acquitted the defendant, leading to increased animosity between the President and the Chief Justice.


Aaron Burr, his prospects for a political career squashed, left the United States for a self-imposed exile in Europe until 1812. Burr spent most of his time in Englandmarker but is known to have visited Scotlandmarker, Denmarkmarker, Swedenmarker. Germanymarker, and Francemarker. Upon returning to the United States, he assumed the surname of "Edwards". His self-imposed exile and using a different surname is generally attributed to his attempt to escape from his creditors as he was deeply in debt. Burr died on September 14, 1836.

Following this incident, James Wilkinson was twice investigated by Congress. Following an unsuccessful court-martial, ordered by President James Madison in 1811, he returned to his military command in New Orleans. During the War of 1812, he was posted to Canada where his only major offensive , a campaign against Montrealmarker, was unsuccessful. He was discharged from active service. Wilkinson died in Mexicomarker on December 28, 1825.

When the conspiracy was uncovered, Harman Blennerhassett's mansion and islandmarker were occupied and allegedly plundered by members of the Virginia Militia. He fled with his family and was twice arrested. The second time he remained imprisoned until Burr was acquitted. He went to Mississippimarker and became a cotton planter and later moved to Montrealmarker where he practiced law. Blennerhassett returned to his native Irelandmarker where he died on February 2, 1831.

See also


  1. Melton, p.66
  2. Melton, p.96
  3. Melton, p. 92


  • Melton, Buckner, Aaron Burr, Conspiracy to Treason, 2002, ISBN 047139209X

Further reading

  • Thomas Jefferson Papers at Library of Congress
  • “Aaron Burr and the Definition of Treason (1783-1815).” American Eras. 8 vols. Gale Research, 1997-1998. Student Resource Center. Thomson Gale. 24 October 2005.
  • “The Aaron Burr Conspiracy (1800-1860).” American Eras. 8 vols. Gale Research, 1997-1998. Student Resource Center. Thomson Gale. 24 October 2005.
  • American State Papers, 9th Congress, 2nd Session
    • Miscellaneous: Volume 1, Page 468, No. 217. Burr’s Conspiracy.
    • Miscellaneous: Volume 1, Page 478, No. 223. Burr’s Conspiracy—his arrest.
  • “Burr’s Conspiracy, 1805-1807.” DISCovering U.S. History. Online Edition. Gale, 2003. Student Resource Center. Thomson Gale. 24 October 2005.
  • McCaleb, Walter Flavius. Aaron Burr Conspiracy: A History from Original and Hitherto Unused Sources. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1903.
  • Philbrick, Francis S. The Rise of the West, 1754-1830. Ed. 1. New York: Harper &Row, 1965.

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