History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson/Second/I:10


Chapter 10: Burr's SchemesEdit

When Burr ceased to be Vice-President of the United States, March 4, 1805, he had already made himself intimate with every element of conspiracy that could be drawn within his reach. The list of his connections might have startled Jefferson, if the President's easy optimism had not been proof to fears. In London, Burr's friend Colonel Williamson confided his plans to Pitt and Lord Melville. At Washington the British minister, Merry, wrote to Lord Mulgrave in support of Williamson's negotiation. The Creole deputies from New Orleans were Burr's friends, and Derbigny was acquainted with "certain projects" he entertained. General Wilkinson, governor of the Louisiana Territory, whose headquarters were at St. Louis, closely attached to Burr almost from childhood, stood ready for any scheme that promised to gratify inordinate ambition. James Brown, Secretary of the Territory, was Burr's creature. Judge Prevost, of the Superior Court at New Orleans, was Burr's stepson. Jonathan Dayton, whose term as senator ended the same day with Burr's vice-presidency, shared and perhaps suggested the "projects." John Smith, the senator from Ohio, was under the influence of Burr and Dayton. John Adair of Kentucky was in Wilkinson's confidence. The Swartwouts in New York, with the "little band" who made Burr their idol, stood ready to follow him wherever he might lead. In South Carolina Joseph Allston, the husband of Theodosia Burr, might be induced to aid his father-in-law; and Allston was supposed to be the richest planter in the South, worth a million of dollars in slaves and plantations. The task of uniting these influences and at a given moment raising the standard of a new empire in the Mississippi Valley seemed to an intriguer of Burr's metal not only feasible, but certain of success.

After the parting interview with Merry in March, 1805, when they arranged terms to be asked of the British government, Burr went to Philadelphia, and in April crossed the mountains to Pittsburg, on his way to New Orleans. Wilkinson was to have joined him; but finding that Wilkinson had been delayed, Burr went on alone. Floating down the Ohio, his ark lashed to that of Matthew Lyon, he first stopped a few hours at an island about two miles below Parkersburg, where an Irish gentleman named Blennerhassett lived, and where he had spent a sum, for that day considerable, in buildings and improvements. The owner was absent; but Mrs. Blennerhassett was at home, and invited Burr to dinner. The acquaintance thus begun proved useful to him. Passing to Cincinnati, he became, May 11, 1805, a guest in the house of Senator Smith. Dayton was already there; but Wilkinson arrived a few days later, after Burr had gone on by land to Nashville. Wilkinson publicly talked much of a canal around the Falls of the Ohio River, to explain the community of interest which seemed to unite himself with Burr, Dayton, and Senator Smith; but privately he wrote, May 28, to John Adair, soon to be Breckenridge's successor as senator from Kentucky: "I was to have introduced my friend Burr to you; but in this I failed by accident. He understands your merits, and reckons on you. Prepare to visit me, and I will tell you all. We must have a peep at the unknown world beyond me."

Meanwhile Burr reached Nashville in Tennessee, where he was received with enthusiastic hospitality. Every one at or near the town seemed to contend for the honor of best treating or serving him.[1] Dinners were given, toasts were drunk; the newspapers were filled with his doings. No one equalled Andrew Jackson in warmth of devotion to Colonel Burr. At all times of his life Jackson felt sympathy with a duellist who had killed his man; but if his support was enlisted for the duellist who had killed Hamilton, his passions were excited in favor of the man who should drive the Spaniards from America; and Burr announced that this was to be the mission of his life. As major-general of the Tennessee militia, Jackson looked forward to sharing this exploit.

After spending a week or more at Nashville, Burr descended in one of General Jackson's boats to the mouth of the Cumberland, where his ark was waiting; and June 6 he joined General Wilkinson at Fort Massac,—a military post on the north shore of the Ohio River, a few miles above its junction with the Mississippi. The two men remained together at Massac four days, and Burr wrote to his daughter, Mrs. Allston: "The General and his officers fitted me out with an elegant barge,—sails, colors, and ten oars,—with a sergeant and ten able, faithful hands. Thus equipped, I left Massac on the 10th June." Wilkinson supplied him also with a letter of introduction to Daniel Clark, the richest and most prominent American in New Orleans. Dated June 9, 1805, it announced that the bearer would carry secrets. "To him I refer you for many things improper to letter, and which he will not say to any other."

While Burr went down the river to New Orleans, Wilkinson turned northward to St. Louis, where he arrived July 2. He was in high spirits and indiscreet. Two of his subordinate officers, Major Hunt and Major Bruff, afterward told how he sounded them,—and Major Bruff's evidence left no doubt that Wilkinson shared in the ideas of Burr and Dayton; that he looked forward to a period of anarchy and confusion in the Eastern States, as the result of democracy; and that he intended to set up a military empire in Louisiana. Already, June 24, he signed Lieutenant Pike's instructions to explore the headwaters of the Arkansas River. Adair, certainly in the secret, believed the object of this expedition to be the opening of a road to Santa Fé and to the mines of Mexico.[2] Every recorded letter or expression of Wilkinson during the spring and summer of 1805 showed that he was in the confidence of Burr and Dayton; that he gave them active aid in their scheme for severing the Union; and that they in their turn embraced his project of Mexican conquest.

Burr reached New Orleans June 25, 1805, and remained a fortnight, entertained by the enemies of Governor Claiborne and of the Spaniards. Conspiracies were commonly most active and most dangerous when most secret; and the mark of secrecy, almost wholly wanting to this conspiracy in the Northern States, was never removed, by any public inquiry or admission, from its doings at New Orleans. According to the story afterward told by Wilkinson on the evidence of Lieutenant Spence, Burr on his arrival in Louisiana became acquainted with the so-called Mexican Association,—a body of some three hundred men, leagued together for the emancipation of Mexico from Spanish rule.[3] Of this league Daniel Clark afterward declared that he was not a member; but if his safety as a merchant required him to keep aloof, his sympathies were wholly with the Association. After Burr's arrival, and under his influence, the scheme of disunion was made a part of the Mexican plan; and these projects soon became so well known in New Orleans as to reach the ears of the Spanish agents and excite their suspicions, until Clark two months later complained to Wilkinson that Burr's indiscretion was bringing them all into danger.[4] Clark's letter was written as though he were an innocent bystander annoyed at finding himself included in an imaginary conspiracy against the Spanish government. In truth it seemed also to be written as a warning to Burr against trusting a certain "Minor of Natchez":—

"Were I sufficiently intimate with Mr. Burr, and knew where to direct aline to him, I should take the liberty of writing to him. Perhaps, finding Minor in his way, he was endeavoring to extract something from him,—he has amused himself at the blockhead's expense,—and then Minor has retailed the news to his employers. Inquire of Mr. Burr about this and let me know on my return [from Vera Cruz], which will be in three or four months. The tale is a horrid one if well told. Kentucky, Tennessee, the State of Ohio, the four territories on the Mississippi and Ohio, with part of Georgia and Carolina, are to be bribed with the plunder of the Spanish countries west of us to separate from the Union."

This letter, written by Clark, Sept. 7, 1805, showed that Burr's plans were notorious at New Orleans, and that his indiscretion greatly annoyed his friends. Two years afterward, Wilkinson reminded Clark of the letter.[5]

"You will recollect," wrote Wilkinson, "you desired me to write Burr on the subject, which I did, and also gave his brother-in-law. Dr. Brown, an extract of your letter to transmit him."

Burr's reply has been preserved:—

"Your letter of November," he wrote to Wilkinson,[6] Jan. 6, 1806, "which came, I believe, through J. Smith, has been received and answered. Your friend [Clark] suspects without reason the person [Minor] named in his letter to you. I love the society of that person; but surely I could never be guilty of the folly of confiding to one of his levity anything which I wished not to be repeated. Pray do not disturb yourself with such nonsense."

Daniel Clark and Wilkinson were therefore assured, not that the tale was untrue, but that Burr had not confided to Minor, or "to one of his levity" anything which Burr "wished not to be repeated." Nevertheless Clark, whose abilities were far greater than those of Burr, and whose motives for secrecy were stronger, knew that Burr must have talked with extreme indiscretion, for his plans had already come to the ears of the Spanish agents in Louisiana. Many residents of New Orleans knew of the scheme,—"many absurd and wild reports are circulated here," wrote Clark; and whether they shared it or not, they certainly did not denounce it.

No plea of ignorance could avail any of Burr's friends. His schemes were no secret. As early as Aug. 4, 1805, more than a month before Daniel Clark sent his warning to General Wilkinson, the British minister was so much alarmed at the publicity already given to the plot that he wrote to Lord Mulgrave a panic-stricken letter, evidently supposing that the scheme was ruined by Burr's indiscretion:[7]

"He or some of his agents have either been indiscreet in their communications, or have been betrayed by some person in whom they considered that they had reason to confide; for the object of his journey has now begun to be noticed in the public prints, where it is said that a convention is to be called immediately from the States bordering on the Ohio and Mississippi for the purpose of forming a separate government. It is, however, possible that the business may be so far advanced as, from the nature of it, to render any further secrecy impossible."

The French minister was hardly less well informed. Feb. 13, 1806, Turreau wrote to his government,[8] mentioning Miranda's departure, and adding,—

"The project of effecting a separation between the Western and Atlantic States marches abreast with this one. Burr, though displeased at first by the arrival of Miranda, who might reduce him to a secondary rôle, has set off again for the South, after having had several conferences with the British minister. It seems to me that the Government does not penetrate Burr's views, and that the difficult circumstances in which it finds itself, and where it has placed itself, force it to dissimulate. This division of the confederated States appears to me inevitable, and perhaps less remote than is commonly supposed; but would this event, which England seems to favor, be really contrary to the interests of France? And, assuming it to take place, should we not have a better chance to withdraw, if not both confederations, at least one of them, from the yoke of England?"

That Burr should have concealed from his principal allies—the Creoles of New Orleans—plans which he communicated so freely elsewhere, was not to be imagined. Burr remained only about a fortnight at New Orleans; then returned on horseback through Natchez to Nashville, where he became again the guest of Andrew Jackson. He passed the month of August in Tennessee and Kentucky; then struck into the wilderness across the Indiana Territory to St. Louis in order to pass a week more with General Wilkinson and Secretary Brown. He found Wilkinson discouraged by the rebuffs he had met in attempting to seduce his subordinate officers and the people of the territory into the scheme. Although Wilkinson afterward swore solemnly that he had no part or parcel in Burr's disunion project, his own evidence proved that the subject had been discussed between them, and that his fears of failure had at the time of their meeting at St. Louis checked his enthusiasm:[9]

"Mr. Burr, speaking of the imbecility of the government, said it would moulder to pieces, die a natural death,—or words to that effect; adding that the people of the "Western country were ready to revolt. To this I recollect replying that if he had not profited more by his journey in other respects, he had better have remained at Washington or Philadelphia; for 'surely,' said I, 'my friend, no person was ever more mistaken. The Western people disaffected to the government! They are bigoted to Jefferson and democracy.'"

Wilkinson afterward claimed to have written at that time a letter to the Secretary of the Navy warning him against Burr; but the letter never reached its supposed address. He certainly gave to Burr a letter of introduction to Governor Harrison, of the Indiana Territory, which suggested decline of sympathy with the conspiracy; for it urged Harrison to return the bearer as the Territorial delegate to Congress,—a boon on which the Union "may much depend."[10]

Burr reached St. Louis Sept. 11, 1805; he left it September 19, for Vincennes and the East. Two months afterward he arrived at Washington and hurried to the British legation. His friend Dayton, who had been detained by a long illness in the West, arrived and made his report to Merry only two days before.

The conspiracy counted on the aid of Great Britain, which was to be the pivot of the scheme; but Burr's hopes were blasted by learning from Merry that no answer had been received from the British government in reply to the request for money and ships. Merry explained that an accident had happened to the packet-boat, but both had reason to know that hope of aid from the British government had vanished.

"These disappointments gave him, he [Burr] said,[11] the deepest concern, because his journey through the Western country and Louisiana as far as New Orleans, as well as through a part of West Florida, had been attended with so much more success than he had even looked for, that everything was in fact completely prepared in every quarter for the execution of his plan; and because he had therefore been induced to enter into an engagement with his associates and friends to return to them in the month of March next, in order to commence the operations. He had been encouraged, he said, to go such lengths by the communications he had received from Colonel Williamson, which gave him some room to hope and expect that his Majesty's government were disposed to afford him their assistance. . . . He was sensible that no complete understanding on the subject could well take place without verbal communication; but he flattered himself that enough might be explained in this way to give a commencement to the business, and that any ulterior arrangements might safely be left till the personal interviews he should have with the persons properly authorized for the purpose, whom he recommended to be sent with the ships of war, which it was necessary should cruise off the mouth of the Mississippi at the latest by the 10th of April next, and to continue there until the commanding officer should receive information from him or from Mr. Daniel Clark of the country having declared itself independent. He wished the naval force in question to consist of two or three ships of the line, the same number of frigates, and a proportionable number of smaller vessels."

The British minister was curious to know precisely the result of the Western tour; but on this subject Burr talked vaguely, and, contrary to his usual custom, mentioned few names.

"Throughout the Western country persons of the greatest property and influence had engaged themselves to contribute very largely toward the expense of the enterprise; at New Orleans he represented the inhabitants to be so firmly resolved upon separating themselves from their union with the United States, and every way to be so completely prepared, that he was sure the revolution there would be accomplished without a drop of blood being shed, the American force in that country (should it not, as he had good reason to believe, enlist with him) not being sufficiently strong to make any opposition. It was accordingly there that the revolution would commence, at the end of April or the beginning of May, provided his Majesty's government should consent to lend their assistance toward it, and the answer, together with the pecuniary aid which would be wanted, arrived in time to enable him to set out the beginning of March."

From Pitt, besides the naval force. Burr wanted a credit for one hundred and ten thousand pounds, to be given in the names of John Barclay of Philadelphia, and Daniel Clark of New Orleans. In his report to Merry on the results of the Western tour he said no more than he had a right to say, without violent exaggeration. He barely hinted at complicity on the part of Wilkinson, Smith, Adair, and Andrew Jackson. He gave Merry clearly to understand that the heart of his plot was not in the Ohio Valley, but at New Orleans. He laid little weight on the action of Kentucky or Tennessee; with him, the point of control was among the creoles.

"Mr. Burr stated to me—what I have reason to believe to be true from the information I have received from other quarters—that when he reached Louisiana he found the inhabitants so impatient under the American government that they had actually prepared a representation of their grievances, and that it was in agitation to send deputies with it to Paris. The hope, however, of becoming completely independent, and of forming a much more beneficial connection with Great Britain, having been pointed out to them, and this having already prevailed among many of the principal people who are become his associates, they had found means to obtain a suspension of the plan of having recourse to France."

Burr impressed Merry with the idea that West Florida was also to be taken within the scope of his scheme. "The overture which had been made to him at New Orleans from a person of the greatest influence in East and West Florida, and the information he had otherwise acquired respecting the state of those countries," were among the reasons which he pressed upon the British government as motives for aiding the conspiracy with a naval force. England was then at war with Spain.

One more argument was pressed by Burr, for no one knew better than he the use to which New England might be put.

"He observed—what I readily conceive may happen— that when once Louisiana and the Western country became independent, the Eastern States will separate themselves immediately from the Southern; and that thus the immense power which is now risen up with so much rapidity in the western hemisphere will, by such a division, be rendered at once informidable."

Whatever may have been Merry's sympathies or wishes, he could do no more than report Burr's conversation to Lord Mulgrave with as much approval as he dared give it. Meanwhile Burr was thrown into extreme embarrassment by the silence of Mulgrave. Burr's report showed that the Creoles in New Orleans, with Daniel Clark as their financial ally, were induced to countenance the conspiracy only because they believed it to be supported by England. Without that support, Burr could not depend on Creole assistance. Had he been wise, he would have waited; and perhaps he might in the end have brought the British government to accept his terms. If Pitt intended to plunder American commerce and to kidnap American citizens, he must be prepared to do more; and Burr might calculate on seeing the British Tories placed by their own acts in a position where they could not afford to neglect his offers.

Burr stayed a week in Washington; and although the object of his Western journey was so notorious that even the newspapers talked about it, his reception at the White House and at the departments was as cordial as usual. About Dec. 1, 1805, he returned to Philadelphia, where he began the effort to raise from new sources the money which till then he hoped to provide by drafts on the British treasury. The conspirators were driven to extraordinary shifts. Burr undertook the task of drawing men like Blennerhassett into his toils, and induced Dayton to try an experiment, resembling the plot of a comic opera rather than the seriousness of historical drama.

Dec. 5, 1805, as Miranda was leaving New York to entrap Madison, three days after Burr had returned to Philadelphia from his unsatisfactory interview with Merry, the Marquis of Casa Yrujo, as yet innocent of conspiracy, and even flattering himself upon having restored friendly relations with the Government, received a secret visit at his house in Philadelphia from Jonathan Dayton, whom he had known at Washington as the Federalist senator from New Jersey. Dayton, in a mysterious manner, gave him to understand that the Spanish government would do well to pay thirty or forty thousand dollars for certain secrets; and finding the marquis disposed to listen, Dayton recited a curious tale.

"This secret," said he,[12] "is known at the present moment to only three persons in this country. I am one of them; and I will tell you that toward the end of the last session and near the end of last March Colonel Burr had various very secret conferences with the British minister, to whom he proposed a plan not only for taking the Floridas, but also for effecting the separation and independence of the Western States,—a part of this plan being that the Floridas should be associated in this new federative republic; England to receive as the price of her services a decisive preference in matters of commerce and navigation, and to secure these advantages by means of a treaty to be made as soon as she should recognize this new republic. This plan obtained the approval of the British minister, who sent it and recommended it to his Court. Meanwhile Colonel Burr has been in New Orleans, in the Mississippi Territory, in the States of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio, to sound and prepare their minds for this revolution. In all these States he has found the most favorable disposition, not only for this emancipation, which the Western States evidently desire, but also for making an expedition against the kingdom of Mexico. This is an idea that occurred to us after sending the first plan to London; and having given greater extension to the project, Colonel Burr sent to London a despatch with his new ideas to Colonel Williamson,—an English officer who has been many years in this country, and whose return he expects within a month or six weeks. The first project was very well received by the English Cabinet, and more particularly by Mr. Dundas, or Lord Melville, who was the person charged with this correspondence; but as he had reason to fear dismission from office for causes well known through the debates of Parliament, this plan has suffered some delay; but Mr. Pitt has again turned his attention to it."

On the strength of this information Dayton seriously proposed to terrify Yrujo and Don Carlos IV. into paying the expenses of Burr's expedition. An idea so fantastic could have sprung from no mind except Burr's; but, fantastic as it was, he pursued it obstinately, although by doing so he betrayed to Spain the followers whom he was striving to inveigle into an imaginary assault on Spanish empire. Dayton asserted that the revolution would begin on the appearance of the British squadron off the coast of West Florida in February or March, 1806; that to make this revolution more popular, after the Floridas were taken, the expedition against Mexico would be attempted; that they feared no opposition from a government so weak as the Federal; that the United States troops were all in the West, and that Colonel Burr had caused them to be sounded in regard to the expedition against Mexico; that they were all ready to follow him, and he did not doubt that there existed in them the same disposition to sustain the rights of the Western States, in which they lived, against the impotent forces of the Federal government; that Mexico was to be assailed, in co-operation with the English fleet, by troops to be disembarked at Tampico or thereabout; and that the revolutionized Spanish possessions would be made republics.

To reveal such a plan was to destroy its chance of success; and in thus presenting himself before the Spanish minister Dayton appeared as a traitor not only to the Union, but also to the conspirators with whom he was engaged. Such a character was not likely to create confidence. Yrujo instantly saw that Burr stood behind Dayton; that England could not have encouraged the conspiracy, for, had she done so, the conspirators would never come to beg a few thousand dollars from Spain; and that the Mexican scheme, if it ever existed, must have been already abandoned, or it would not have been revealed. Dismissing the ex-senator with civility and a promise to talk with him further, Yrujo wrote to his Government a long account of the interview. He pointed at once to Clark as the person through whom Burr drew his information about Mexico. Yrujo was perplexed only by Jefferson's apparent blindness to the doings in the West. The marquis was a Spaniard; and for twenty years the people of the United States had talked of Spaniards with contempt. Even Jefferson freely assumed their faithlessness and paltriness; but surely if Yrujo had cared to concentrate in a few words his opinion of American political character, no American could have wondered if these few words, like a flash of lightning, left no living thing where they struck.

"I am sure," he wrote to Cevallos, "that the Administration will not let itself be deceived by Colonel Burr's wiles; but I know that the President, although penetrating and detesting as well as fearing him, and for this reason, not only invites him to his table, but only about five days ago had a secret conference with him which lasted more than two hours, and in which I am confident there was as little good faith on the one side as there was on the other."

The assertion could not be denied. The White House rarely saw, within a few days' interval, two less creditable guests than Aaron Burr, fresh from confiding his plans to Anthony Merry, and Francesco de Miranda, openly engaged in a military attack from the port of New York upon the dominions of Spain.

Yrujo was at first inclined to distrust Dayton; but Miranda's undertaking, which crossed Burr's plans, gave to the ex-senator the means of proving his good faith. Indeed, in a few days more, Dayton made a clean breast, admitting that England had disappointed Burr's expectations, and that Burr had authorized the offer to sell his services to Spain.

"I have had with him two very long conferences," wrote Yrujo three weeks later,[13] "in which he has told me that Colonel Burr will not treat with Miranda, whom he considers imprudent, and wanting in many qualities necessary for an undertaking of such magnitude as he has on hand. Miranda has returned to New York, much piqued at finding that Colonel Burr was very determined to have nothing to do with him. He also told me that Colonel Williamson, who was sent to London with the plan for the British ministry, not finding Mr. Pitt so warm as Lord Melville for the project of raising the Western States, had turned to plans in that capital, and showed, by the want of exactness in his correspondence, that he was not following up the object with the same zeal as at first he undertook it; that in consequence they were disposed to despatch to London a New York gentleman named Warton, well known for his intimacy with Burr, but that on the verge of his departure another plan suggested itself to Burr, which he seems rather inclined to execute. This plan, excepting the attack on the Floridas, has the same object, which he, as well as his chief friends, hope may be put in execution even without foreign aid. For one who does not know the country, its constitution, and, above all, certain localities, this plan would appear almost insane; but I confess, for my part, that in view of all the circumstances it seems to me easy to execute, although it will irritate the Atlantic States, especially those called central,—that is, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. It is beyond question that there exists in this country an infinite number of adventurers, without property, full of ambition, and ready to unite at once under the standard of a revolution which promises to better their lot. Equally certain is it that Burr and his friends, without discovering their true object, have succeeded in getting the good-will of these men, and inspiring the greatest confidence among them in favor of Burr."

The "almost insane" plan which Dayton unfolded to the Spanish minister was nothing less than to introduce by degrees into the city of Washington a certain number of men in disguise, well armed, who, at a signal from Burr, were to seize the President, Vice-President, and the President of the Senate,—the substitute always named at the beginning of each session, in case of the death, illness, or absence of the two first. Having thus secured the heads of government, the conspirators were to seize the public money deposited in the Washington and Georgetown banks, and to take possession of the arsenal on the Eastern Branch. Burr hoped by this blow to delay or paralyze opposition, and perhaps to negotiate with the individual States an arrangement favorable to himself; but in the more probable case that he could not maintain himself at Washington, he would burn all the national vessels at the Navy Yard, except the two or three which were ready for service, and embarking on these with his followers and the treasure, he would sail for New Orleans and proclaim the emancipation of Louisiana and the Western States.

Wild as this scheme was, it occupied Burr's mind for the rest of the winter, and he made many efforts to draw discontented officers of the government into it. He sounded Commodore Truxton, without revealing his whole object; but to William Eaton, the hero of Derne, he opened himself with as much confidence as to Merry and Yrujo. Eaton was at Washington in January and February, 1806, sore at the manner in which his claims were treated by Congress, and extravagant in ideas of his own importance. To him Burr laid open the whole secret, even in regard to the plan for attacking Washington. The story was the same which had been told to Merry and Yrujo.[14] He spoke of Wilkinson as his second in command; of his son-in-law, Allston, as engaged in the enterprise; and of New Orleans as the capital of his Western empire, whence an expedition would be sent for the conquest of Mexico. The line of demarcation was to be the Alleghany Mountains; and although he expressed some doubts about Ohio, he declared himself certain of Kentucky and Tennessee.

"If he could gain over the marine corps and secure to his interests the naval commanders Truxton, Preble, Decatur, and others, he would turn Congress neck and heels out of doors, assassinate the President (or what amounted to that), and declare himself the protector of an energetic government."

The scheme of attacking Washington was merely an episode due to Burr's despair of British or Spanish aid. Burr was reduced to many devices in order to keep his conspiracy alive. December 12, immediately after the disappointing interview with Merry, and Dayton's first advance to Casa Yrujo, Burr wrote to Wilkinson a letter evidently intended to conceal his diplomatic disaster and to deceive his friend. He said that there would be no war with Spain, and foretold the peaceful course of Government.[15] "In case of such warfare, Lee would have been commander-in-chief. Truth, I assure you. He must you know come from Virginia." As to the conspiracy, he reserved it for a few short lines, intelligible enough to those who knew that New Orleans was to declare its independence on the arrival of a British squadron in February, and that the revolutionary government would at once send a delegation to Natchez or St. Louis to make a formal tender of military command to General Wilkinson.

"On the subject of a certain speculation it is not deemed material to write till the whole can be communicated. The circumstance referred to in a letter from Ohio remains in suspense. The auspices, however, are favorable, and it is believed that Wilkinson will give audience to a delegation, composed of Adan and Dayton, in February."

Meanwhile the Government asked no questions. Denunciation of Burr and Wilkinson was dangerous; it was tried again and again with disastrous results. Major Bruff, at St. Louis, who suspected the truth, dared not bring such a charge against his superior officer:[16] but a certain Judge Easton, to whom Burr confided at St. Louis, ventured to write a letter to a senator of the United States charging Wilkinson with being concerned in Miranda's expedition; and was told in reply that the letter was burned, and that the writer should mind his own business, and take care how he meddled with men high in power and office. So thick an atmosphere of intrigue, especially in Spanish matters, was supposed to pervade the White House; men's minds were so befogged with public messages about a Spanish war and secret messages about peace, with private encouragement to Miranda and public punishment of Miranda's friends, with John Randolph's furious charges of duplicity and Madison's helpless silence under these charges,—that until the President himself should say the word, Burr, Wilkinson, Dayton, and their associates were safe, and might hatch treason in the face of all the world.

President Jefferson had already too many feuds on his hands, and Burr had still too many friends, to warrant rousing fresh reprisals at a time when the difficulties of the Administration were extreme. The President continued to countenance Burr in public, alleging in private that the people could be trusted to defeat his schemes. Doubtless the people could be trusted for that purpose, but they had instituted a government in order to provide themselves with proper machinery for such emergencies, and the President alone could set it in action. General Eaton made an attempt to put the President on his guard. He first consulted two leading Federalist Congressmen,—John Cotton Smith and Samuel Dana,—who advised him to hold his tongue, for his solitary word would not avail against the weight of Burr's character.[17] Nevertheless, in March, 1806, he called at the White House and saw the President.

"After a desultory conversation, in which I aimed to draw his attention to the West, I took the liberty of suggesting to the President that I thought Colonel Burr ought to be removed from the country, because I considered him dangerous in it. The President asked where he should send him. I said to England or Madrid. . . . The President, without any positive expression, in such a matter of delicacy, seemed to think the trust too important, and expressed something like a doubt about the integrity of Mr. Burr. I frankly told the President that perhaps no person had stronger grounds to suspect that integrity than I had; but that I believed his pride of ambition had so predominated over his other passions that when placed on an eminence and put on his honor, a respect to himself would secure his fidelity. I perceived that the subject was disagreeable to the President; and to bring him to my point in the shortest mode, and in a manner which would point to the danger, I said to him, if Colonel Burr was not disposed of, we should in eighteen months have an insurrection, if not a revolution, on the waters of the Mississippi. The President said he had too much confidence in the information, the integrity, and attachment of the people of that country to the Union, to admit any apprehensions of that kind."

If the President had confidence in the people of New Orleans, he had not shown it in framing a form of government for them; and if he admitted no apprehensions in March, 1806, he admitted many before the year closed. In truth, he deceived himself. That he was afraid of Burr and of the sympathy which Burr's career had excited, was the belief of Burr himself, who responded to Jefferson's caution by a contempt so impudent as to seem even then almost incredible. Believing that the President dared not touch him, Burr never cared to throw even a veil over his treason. He used the President's name and the names of his Cabinet officers as freely as though he were President himself; and no one contradicted or disavowed him. So matters remained at Washington down to the close of the session.

"I detailed," said Eaton,[18] "the whole projects of Mr. Burr to certain members of Congress. They believed Colonel Burr capable of anything, and agreed that the fellow ought to be hanged, but thought his projects too chimerical, and his circumstances too desperate, to give the subject the merit of serious consideration."

  1. Deposition of Matthew Lyon; Wilkinson's Memoirs, ii. Appendix, lxviii.
  2. Adair to Wilkinson, Jan. 27, 1806; Wilkinson's Memoirs, ii. Appendix, lxxvii.
  3. Wilkinson's Memoirs, ii. 283.
  4. Daniel Clark to Wilkinson, Sept. 7, 1805; Wilkinson's Memoirs, ii. Appendix, xxxiii.
  5. Wilkinson to Clark, Oct. 12, 1807; Clark's Proofs, p. 154.
  6. Wilkinson's Memoirs, ii. Appendix, lxxxvi.
  7. Merry to Mulgrave, Aug. 4, 1805; MSS British Archives.
  8. Turreau to Talleyrand, Feb. 13, 1806; Archives des Aff. Étr., MSS.
  9. Wilkinson's Evidence, Burr's Trial; Annals of Congress, 1807-1808, p. 611.
  10. Wilkinson's Memoirs, ii. 303.
  11. Merry to Lord Mulgrave, Nov. 25, 1805; MSS. British Archives.
  12. Yrujo to Cevallos, Dec. 5, 1805; MSS. Spanish Archives.
  13. Yrujo to Cevallos, Jan. 1, 1806; MSS. Spanish Archives.
  14. Deposition of General Eaton; Life of William Eaton, p. 396.
  15. Burr to Wilkinson, Dec. 12, 1806; Wilkinson's Memoirs, ii. Appendix, lxxxiv.
  16. Evidence of Major Bruff, Burr's Trial; Annals of Congress, 1807-1808, p. 597.
  17. Evidence of William Eaton, Burr's Trial; Annals of Congress, 1807-1808, pp. 511, 512.
  18. Deposition of Jan. 26, 1807; Life of Eaton, p. 401.