- The Burr Conspiracy: An Early American Crisis of the Truth
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- Between the Lines: The Burr Conspiracy
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The Burr Conspiracy: An Early American Crisis of the Truth
The Burr Conspiracy offers a panoramic and multifaceted portrait of the United States at a time when it was far from clear to its people how long it would last. James E. He lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Listen to an extract from the audio book. Many of our ebooks are available through library electronic resources including these platforms:.
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The Burr Conspiracy: An Early American Crisis of the Truth - Smithsonian Associates
He warned Jefferson that Burr was "meditating the overthrow of [his] administration" and "conspiring against the State. Convinced of Burr's guilt, Jefferson ordered his arrest. Burr continued his excursion down the Mississippi with Blennerhassett and the small army of men which they had recruited in Ohio.
They intended to reach New Orleans, but in Bayou Pierre, 30 miles north of Natchez , they learned that a bounty was out for Burr's capture. Burr and his men surrendered at Bayou Pierre, and Burr was taken into custody. Charges were brought against him in the Mississippi Territory, but Burr escaped into the wilderness. He was recaptured on February 19, , and was taken back to Virginia to stand trial. Burr was charged with treason because of the alleged conspiracy and stood trial in Richmond , Virginia. He was acquitted due to lack of evidence of treason, as Chief Justice Marshall did not consider conspiracy without actions sufficient for conviction.
A Revolutionary War hero, U. 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. Attorney , compiled a list of over witnesses, one of whom was Andrew Jackson.
To encourage witnesses to cooperate with the prosecution, Thomas Jefferson gave Hay blank pardons containing Jefferson's signature and the discretion to issue them to all but "the grossest offenders"; Jefferson later amended these instructions to include even those the prosecution believed to be most culpable, if that meant the difference in convicting Burr.
Between the Lines: The Burr Conspiracy
The case was controversial from the beginning. The high misdemeanor charge was dropped when the government was unable to prove that the expedition had been military in nature or directed toward Spanish territory. Burr's trial brought into question the ideas of executive privilege , state secrets 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 present their case accurately.
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Jefferson proclaimed that as President, he was " 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 decided 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. Marshall had to consider the definition of treason and whether intent was sufficient for conviction, rather than action. Marshall ruled that because Burr had not committed an act of war, he could not be found guilty see Ex parte Bollman ; the First Amendment guaranteed Burr the right to voice opposition to the government.
To merely suggest war or to engage in a conspiracy was not enough. 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 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.
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As a result, the jury acquitted the defendant. Witness testimony was inconsistent, and one of the few witnesses to testify to an "overt act of treason," Jacob Allbright, perjured himself in the process. The historians Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein write that Burr "was not guilty of treason, nor was he ever convicted, because there was no evidence, not one credible piece of testimony, and the star witness for the prosecution had to admit that he had doctored a letter implicating Burr.
Stewart concludes that Burr's intention included "acts that constituted the crime of treason, but that in the context of , "the moral verdict is less clear. Immediately following the acquittal, straw effigies of Burr, Blennerhassett, Martin, and Marshall were hanged and burned by angry mobs. Burr, with his prospects for a political career quashed, left the United States for a self-imposed exile in Europe until He first travelled to England in in an attempt to gain support for a revolution in Mexico.
He was ordered out of the country, so he travelled to France to ask for the support of Napoleon. He was denied and found himself too poor to pay his way home. Finally, in , he was able to sail back to the United States on a French ship. Upon returning to the United States, he assumed the surname of "Edwards" and returned to New York to resume his law practice. He remarried Eliza Jumel , the wealthy socialite widow of Stephen Jumel, but she left him after four months due to his land speculations reducing her finances. Burr died on September 14, , the same day that his divorce from his wife was granted.
Following his involvement with Burr, James Wilkinson was twice investigated by Congress on issues related to the West. Following an unsuccessful court-martial ordered by President James Madison in , he was allowed to return to his military command in New Orleans.