Aaron Burr and America's First Attempted Coup

As the 19th century dawned over an American that thanks to the Louisiana Purchase was about to become an continental power to be reckoned with, Jefferson’s Vice President Aaron Burr embarked upon an mission to the Mississippi Valley. What motivations lay behind his mission was never made manifest by the wily old lawyer and murderer of Alexander Hamilton, but there is plenty of evidence to speculate that Burr’s intention involved

nothing less than invading Mexico, organizing a secession of various states and the colonization of others and, perhaps, using this as a base from which to launch an attack against the United States. At least, that’s what the official story tells us.

Aaron Burr and Dick Cheney are the only two Vice Presidents in history to shoot a man while in office. There are only two differences: Burr hadn’t been drinking and he killed the man he shot. If Aaron Burr is known by most Americans for anything other than killing Alexander Hamilton, it is probably as the title character of Gore Vidal’s historical novel. Vidal’s Burr comes off much better than the Burr of history books. For this reason, I tend to believe Vidal.

Aaron Burr, like Dick Cheney, also became Vice President as the result of a disputed election. And, like Cheney, there were some disputed ballots in a southern state, in this case Georgia. Unlike Cheney, Burr received electoral votes for the top spot himself. In fact, from the very beginning almost, the Electoral College proved disastrous. Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr received exactly 73 electoral votes apiece. As a result the election was decided by the House of Representatives with Jefferson winning the game of political infighting.

If Burr wasn’t politically dead before he killed Alexander Hamilton, he was certainly dead meat afterwards. Burr fled to Philadelphia to escape arrest and trial for the duel and while there he met up with Charles Williamson, a British spy. Burr told Williamson of his plans for the western territories, and Williamson furthered them to the man who was acting as British Ambassador to the U.S, Anthony Merry. Merry wrote back to England about Burr’s ideas, but was met with an odd lack of interest. Even more bizarre, Aaron Burr returned to Washington to take up his responsibilities as Vice President even as he faced a murder indictment.

In 1805, Burr again hooked up with Merry with a plan to detach Louisiana Purchase area from the United States. He would charge Britain half a million dollars and requested the British navy show a presence in the Gulf of Mexico. Merry was again met with no support from his superiors. In April, Aaron Burr left for Mississippi Valley areas in search of help with his plans. Along the way he met with a wealthy Irishman named Blennerhassett who agreed to back him, as well as Andrew Jackson who signed on for the part of Burr’s plans involving the takeover of lands owned by Spain. He was also welcomed by Bishop of New Orleans.

Aaron Burr returned to Washington, D.C. in late 1805 where he failed to convince the Spanish Ambassador to the U.S. to take part in his plans to tear apart the country and create a newly independent nation made up of western areas. Burr did successfully collect nearly half a million acres in northwestern Louisiana, however. He instantly began signing up volunteers for his planned expedition. On November 4th, Aaron Burr faced a grand jury in Kentucky on charges of preparing an invasion of Mexico, but was found not guilty. At the same time, his wealthy benefactor Blennerhassett was turning an island in the Ohio River into a weapons and supply headquarters.

Upon learning of this, Ohio’s governor ordered the island and its assets to be seized. Burr met up with Andrew Jackson in Tennessee and was able to secure some much needed boats. On December 29th, Burr showed up with sixty men at Fort Massac, claiming he was only trying to settle his Louisiana land holdings.

Pres. Jefferson received word of Burr’s alleged plans to take over the U.S. and he responded by ordering the arrest of anyone found to be conspiring to invade territories under Spanish control. Aaron Burr made an attempt to flee to Spanish Florida, but was arrested in Mobile, Alabama and transported back to Richmond, Virginia where was arrested for treason.

Chief Justice John Marshall was forced to dismiss the charge of treason due to both lack of evidence and his interpretation that what Burr may have been attempting wasn’t really treason anyway. Marshall’s decision was an instrumental one in that it has been cited as a precedent that merely voicing opposition to the American government is not a crime. After the trial, Aaron Burr traveled to Europe, still trying to secure funding for his grandiose plans to invade Mexico. Upon his return to the U.S. he resumed his law practice in New York.