After two centuries, the Burr Conspiracy (1804–1807) remains among the most mysterious events in American history. Other than Aaron Burr and, perhaps, a few of his closest friends, no one at the time could determine precisely what Burr intended, and no one since has definitively established his thinking.
Burr had been a leader of the Democratic Republican Party in the 1790s and played a crucial role in its victory in the election of 1800. But his behavior during the final stage of that election—as the House of Representatives worked to break the electoral deadlock between him and Thomas Jefferson—had badly damaged his standing in the party and with the new president. By the fall of 1804, Vice President Burr seemed to have little political future. That year he had failed in his bid to become governor of New York and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, for which he was indicted for murder in New York and New Jersey.
As his vice presidential term came to an end early in 1805, Burr apparently began shaping a plan to revive his fortunes in the West, probably in association with James Wilkinson—an ally from the Revolution, a leading figure in Kentucky's famed Spanish Conspiracy, a paid Spanish spy, and the highest-ranking general in the U.S. Army. If Burr had a single plan, he enveloped it in secrecy and mystery by telling different people different things. To some, he suggested that the ultimate goal was a division of the American Union at the Appalachian Mountains and the erection of a new, and more energetic, nation on both sides of the Mississippi Valley. To others, he revealed a plan to invade Spanish Mexico, liberate its colonists, and establish a new empire. Usually, he told potential supporters that this plan depended upon a war between the United States and Spain, occasionally even hinting that men high in the administration approved of his preparations. At other times, he insisted that the government knew nothing of his plans.
Before leaving Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1805, Burr used his remaining influence to have Wilkinson appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory. That summer and fall he traveled throughout the West, lining up supporters. The following winter he returned to the East and unfolded different versions of his plan in secret meetings with the British and Spanish ministers, hoping to secure financial and perhaps even military assistance. Over the summer of 1806, Burr's agents began recruiting men and procuring supplies and boats in preparation for his return to the West. A series of perfectly legal projects provided cover for his activities: winning election to Congress from a western state or territory, constructing a canal around the falls of the Ohio River at Louisville, and settling an immense tract of land in the Orleans Territory (the modern state of Louisiana).
Over the summer of 1806, relations between the United States and Spain verged toward war. Jefferson sent Wilkinson and the army to the disputed border between Louisiana and Texas and Burr decided to set his plans in motion, apparently trusting in events to decide which part of his plan to pursue. In October 1806, Wilkinson found himself forced to decide between his conflicting loyalties to Spain, the United States, and Burr. He apparently decided that Burr's "conspiracy" could not succeed and betrayed it to Jefferson, disguising his involvement as well as he could. As Wilkinson's letter raced to Washington, Burr's preparations crumbled in the face of hostile public opinion and various legal challenges. By late December, when his supporters converged at the mouth of the Cumberland River, Burr had just ten boats and less than one hundred men. On 10 January 1807 he learned of Wilkinson's treachery and Jefferson's call for his arrest when he came ashore above Natchez. He surrendered himself for a trial in the Mississippi Territory. After it proved abortive, Burr was taken to Richmond, Virginia, where he was tried for treason and for the misdemeanor of organizing an expedition against Spanish Mexico. The trial played out over seven months. Favorable rulings by Chief Justice John Marshall on evidentiary matters secured Burr's acquittal on both charges in September 1807.
Whether it existed or not, and whether it involved treason or not, the Burr Conspiracy was made to serve various political purposes. It was used by Republicans—in the administration, the major newspapers, and the West—to show the intensity of western loyalty, to demonstrate the energy of republican (and Republican) government, and to blast the patriotism of most Federalists. Federalists, in turn, presented Burr and his friends as victims of Jeffersonian persecution.
Abernethy, Thomas Perkins. The Burr Conspiracy. Nueva York: Oxford University Press, 1954.
Lomask, Milton. Aaron Burr. 2 vols. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1979, 1982.
Melton, Buckner F., Jr. Aaron Burr: Conspiracy to Treason. Nueva York: Wiley, 2000.
James E. Lewis Jr.