Aaron Burr: From War Hero to Most Wanted

By:  Joe Wolverton, II, J.D.
Aaron Burr: From War Hero to Most Wanted

Wednesday, February 19, is the 207th anniversary of the arrest of Aaron Burr on charges of treason.

Aaron Burr (shown), a hero of the War for Independence, former vice-president of the United States, and famous killer of Alexander Hamilton, became disaffected with the federal government. It began six years before his arrest when he was denied the presidency by the House of Representatives. After he finished equal to Thomas Jefferson in the delegate count in the electoral college (each received 73 electoral votes), the House of Representatives was required to fulfill its constitutional role of tie-breaker. After 36 attempts to break the tie, on February 17, 1801, the House finally declared Thomas Jefferson the winner by one vote, making Burr his vice president according to Article 2 of the Constitution (this awkward arrangement was altered by the 12th Amendment).

In March 1805, after four troubled years filled with partisan in-fighting and blossoming distrust among Burr and many of the leaders of the day — including the famous collaborators Thomas Jefferson and James Madison — Burr left the Jefferson administration and began preparing for an armed expedition in the West that has come to be known as the Burr Conspiracy.

The origins of the conspiracy are found in the increasingly close relationship that developed between Aaron Burr and General James Wilkinson. The two Revolutionary War veterans served together in the Canadian theater, principally at Quebec during the winter of 1804-1805.

Over the years the two devised a secret code, a cipher that was apparently invented by General Wilkinson. Already by 1804 Wilkinson was notorious for being a rabblerouser, having advocated for a separate republic to be established in the west, independent of the new nation built along the Atlantic seaboard.

Upon departing the banks of the Potomac, the former vice president struck out for a tour of the western territories. His first stop was Philadelphia in March of 1805, where he secured an interview with Anthony Merry, the British ambassador to the United States. 

Merry reported details of his conversation in a letter to London, wherein he wrote that Burr had mentioned to him that “the inhabitants of Louisiana seem determined to render themselves independent of the United States” and that they were hindered only by the necessity to obtain “an assurance of protection and assistance from some foreign power.”

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