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History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson/Second/I:14


Chapter 14: Collapse of the ConspiracyEdit

For several days after Wilkinson's arrival at New Orleans he left the conspirators in doubt of his intentions. No public alarm had yet been given; and while Colonel Gushing hurried the little army forward, Wilkinson, November 30, called on Erick Bollman, and had with him a confidential interview. Not until December 5 did he tell Bollman that he meant to oppose Burr's scheme; and even then Bollman felt some uncertainty. December 6 the General at length confided to the Governor his plan of defence, which was nothing less than that Claiborne should consent to abdicate his office and invest Wilkinson with absolute power by proclaiming martial law.

Considering that this extraordinary man knew himself to be an object of extreme and just suspicion on Claiborne's part, such a demand carried effrontery to the verge of insolence; and the tone in which it was made sounded rather like an order than like advice.

"The dangers," said he,[1] "which impend over this city and menace the laws and government of the United States from an unauthorized and formidable association must be successfully opposed at this point, or the fair fabric of our independence, purchased by the best blood of our country, will be prostrated, and the Goddess of Liberty will take her flight from this globe forever. Under circumstances so imperious, extraordinary measures must be resorted to, and the ordinary forms of our civil institutions must for a short period yield to the strong arm of military law."

Claiborne mildly resisted the pressure, with much good temper refusing to sanction either the impressment of seamen, the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, the declaration of martial law, or the illegal arrest of suspected persons, while he insisted on meeting the emergency with the ordinary legal means at his disposal. Wilkinson was obliged to act in defiance of his advice.

Sunday, December 14, arrests at New Orleans began. Bollman was first to be seized. Swartwout and Ogden had been arrested at Fort Adams. These seizures, together with that of Bollman's companion, Alexander, and Wilkinson's wild talk, spread panic through the city. The courts tried to interpose, and applied for support to Governor Claiborne. The Governor advised Wilkinson to yield to the civil authorities; but Wilkinson refused, thus establishing in the city something equivalent to martial law. He knew, or believed, that both Judge Workman and Judge Prevost were engaged in the conspiracy with Burr, and he was obliged to defy them, or to risk his own success. The only effect of the attempt to enforce the writ of habeas corpus in favor of the prisoners was to draw out what had been hitherto concealed,—Burr's letter of July 29. Not until December 18 did Wilkinson send a written version of that letter to the President.[2] In order to warrant the arrests of Swartwout and Ogden, Wilkinson, December 26, swore to an affidavit which embodied Burr's letter.

This step brought the panic in New Orleans to a climax. Wilkinson's military measures were evidently directed rather against the city than against Burr. His previous complicity in the projects of Burr was evident. His power of life and death was undisputed. Every important man in New Orleans was a silent accomplice of Burr, afraid of denunciation, and at Wilkinson's mercy. He avowed publicly that he would act with the same energy, without regard to standing or station, against all individuals who might be participants in Burr's combination; and it would have been difficult for the best people in New Orleans to prove that they had no knowledge of the plot, or had given it no encouragement. The Creole gentlemen began to regret the mild sway of Claiborne when they saw that their own factiousness had brought them face to face with the chances of a drumhead court-martial.

Wilkinson's violence might have provoked an outbreak from the mere terror it caused, had he not taken care to show that he meant in reality to protect and not to punish the chief men of the city. After the first shock, his arrests were in truth reassuring. The people could afford to look on while he seized only strangers, like Bollman and Alexander; even in Swartwout and Ogden few citizens of New Orleans took much personal interest. Only in case the General had arrested men like Derbigny or Edward Livingston or Bellechasse would the people be likely to resist; and Wilkinson showed that he meant to make no arrests among the residents, and to close his eyes against evidence that could compromise any citizen of the place. "Thank God!" he wrote to Daniel Clark, December 10,[3]"your advice to Bellechasse, if your character was not a sufficient guaranty, would vindicate you against any foul imputation." In another letter, written early in January, he added,[4]

"It is a fact that our fool [Claiborne] has written to his contemptible fabricator [Jefferson], that you had declared if you had children you would teach them to curse the United States as soon as they were able to lisp."

Claiborne had brought such a charge only a few weeks before, and Wilkinson must have heard it from Claiborne himself, who had already written

to withdraw it on learning Clark's advice to Bellechasse. Nevertheless Wilkinson continued,—
"Cet bête [Claiborne] is at present up to the chin in folly and vanity. He cannot be supported much longer, for Burr or no Burr we shall have a revolt if he is not removed speedily. The moment Bonaparte compromises with Great Britain will be the signal for a general rising of French and Spaniards; and if the Americans do not join, they will not oppose. Take care! Suspicion is abroad; but you have a friend worth having."

Clark's business correspondents in New Orleans delivered to Wilkinson a letter which came to them from Burr without address, but which was intended for Bollman.[5] "For your own sake," said the General, "take that letter away! Destroy, and say nothing of it! "A year later, when the frightened crew of conspirators recovered from their panic and began to turn upon him with ferocity on account of his treason to them and to Burr, Wilkinson wrote to Daniel Clark a last letter, mentioning in semi-threatening language the written evidence in his possession against Clark himself, and adding,[6]

"Much pains were taken by Bollman to induce me to believe you were concerned. Swartwout assured me Ogden had gone to New Orleans with despatches for you from Burr, and that you were to furnish provisions, etc. Many other names were mentioned to me which I have not exposed, nor will I ever expose them unless compelled by self-defence. . . ."

Wilkinson never did expose them, nor did he molest in any serious degree the society of New Orleans.

Had Wilkinson been satisfied to secure the city without magnifying himself, he might perhaps have won its regard and gratitude; but he could do nothing without noise and display. Before many days had passed he put an embargo on the shipping and set the whole city at work on defences. He spread panic-stricken stories of Burr's force and of negro insurrection. He exasperated the judges and the bar, alienated Claiborne, and disgusted the Creoles. Nothing but a bloody convulsion or an assault upon the city from Burr's armed thousands could save Wilkinson from becoming ridiculous.

Jan. 12, 1807, the Legislature met. Probably at no time had Burr's project received much avowed support, even among those persons to whom it had been confided. Men of wealth and character had no fancy for so wild a scheme. The conduct of Daniel Clark was an example of what Burr had to expect from every man of property and standing. The Legislature was under the influence of conservative and somewhat timid men, from whom no serious danger was to be expected, and whose fears were calculated to strengthen rather than to weaken the government; yet it was true that Burr had counted upon this meeting of the Legislature to declare Louisiana independent, and to offer him the government. He was to have waited at Natchez for a delegation to bring him the offer; and he was supposed to be already at Natchez. The city had been kept for a month in a state of continual alarm, distracted by rumors, and expecting some outbreak from day to day, assured by Wilkinson that Burr with seven thousand men might appear at any moment, with a negro insurrection behind him and British ships in the river, when suddenly John Adair rode into town, and descended at the door of Madame Nourage's boarding-house. Judge Prevost, Burr's stepson, was so indiscreet as to announce publicly that General Adair, second in command to Burr, had arrived in town with news that Burr would follow in three days, and that it would soon be seen whether Wilkinson's tyranny would prevail.[7] The same afternoon Lieutenant-Colonel Kingsbury of the First Infantry, at the head of a hundred and twenty men, appeared at the door of the hotel and marched Burr's second in command to prison. Adair afterward claimed that if he had been allowed forty-eight hours no one could have arrested him, for he had more friends in New Orleans than the General had; but even he must have seen that the conspiracy was dead. For a moment his arrest, and a few others made at the same time, caused excitement, and Wilkinson ordered detachments of troops to patrol the city; but thenceforward confidence began to return and soon the crisis passed away, carrying with it forever most of the discontent and danger which had marked the annexation of Louisiana. If New Orleans never became thoroughly American, at least it was never again thoroughly French.

Unfortunately for Wilkinson's hopes of figuring in the character of savior to his country, Burr's expedition met with an inglorious and somewhat ridiculous end before it came within sight of Wilkinson or his command. After leaving Fort Massac, the little flotilla entered the Mississippi, and in a few days reached Chickasaw Bluffs, where a small military post of nineteen men was stationed, commanded by a second lieutenant of artillery, who had received no more instructions than had been received by Captain Bissell. So far from stopping the flotilla, Lieutenant Jackson was nearly persuaded to join it, and actually accepted money from Burr to raise a company in his service.[8] January 6, leaving Chickasaw Bluffs, the flotilla again descended the river until, January 10, it reached the mouth of Bayou Pierre, about thirty miles above Natchez. There Burr went ashore, and at the house of a certain Judge Bruin he saw a newspaper containing the letter which he had himself written in cipher to Wilkinson July 29, and which Wilkinson had published December 26.

From the moment Burr saw himself denounced by Wilkinson, his only hope was to escape. The President's proclamation had reached the Mississippi Territory; Cowles Meade, the acting-governor, had called out the militia. If Burr went on he would fall into the hands of Wilkinson, who had every motive to order him to be court-martialled and shot; if he stayed where he was, Cowles Meade would arrest and send him to Washington. Moving his flotilla across the river, Burr gave way to despair. Some ideas of resistance were entertained by Blennerhassett and the other leaders of the party; but they were surprised to find their "emperor" glad to abdicate and submit. January 17 Burr met Acting-Governor Cowles Meade and surrendered at discretion. His conversation at that moment was such that Meade thought him insane.[9] January 21 he caused his cases of muskets, which had been at first secreted in the brush, to be sunk in the river. After his surrender he was taken to Washington, the capital of the Territory, about seven miles from Natchez. A grand-jury was summoned, and the attorney-general, Poindexter, attempted to obtain an indictment. The grand-jury not only threw out the bill, but presented the seizure of Burr and his accomplices as a grievance. The very militia who stopped him were half inclined to join his expedition. Except for a score of United States officials, civil and military, he might have reached New Orleans without a check.

Fortunately neither the civil nor the military authorities of the national government were disposed to be made a jest. The grand-jury could grant but a respite, and Burr had still to decide between evils. If he fell into Wilkinson's hands he risked a fate of which he openly expressed fear. During the delay his men on the flotilla had become disorganized and insubordinate; his drafts on New York had been returned protested; he knew that the military authorities at Fort Adams were determined to do what the civil authorities had failed in doing; and his courage failed him when he realized that he must either be delivered to President Jefferson, whom he had defied, or to General Wilkinson, whom he had tried to deceive.

Feb. 1, 1807, after sending to his friends on the flotilla a note to assure them of his immediate return,[10] Burr turned his back on them, and left them to the ruin for which he alone was responsible. Disguised in the coarse suit of a Mississippi boatman, with a soiled white-felt hat, he disappeared into the woods, and for nearly a month was lost from sight. Toward the end of February he was recognized in a cabin near the Spanish frontier, about fifty miles above Mobile; and his presence was announced to Lieutenant Gaines, commanding at Fort Stoddert, near by. Gaines arrested him. After about three weeks of confinement at Fort Stoddert he was sent to Richmond in Virginia. In passing through the town of Chester, in South Carolina, he flung himself from his horse and cried for a rescue; but the officer commanding the escort seized him, threw him back like a child into the saddle, and marched on. Like many another man in American history, Burr felt at last the physical strength of the patient and long-suffering government which he had so persistently insulted, outraged, and betrayed.

Not until the end of March, 1807, did Burr reach Richmond; and in the mean while a whole session of Congress had passed, revolution after revolution had taken place in Europe, and a new series of political trials had begun for President Jefferson's troubled Administration. The conspiracy of Burr was a mere episode, which had little direct connection with foreign or domestic politics, and no active popular support in any quarter. The affairs of the country at large felt hardly a perceptible tremor in the midst of the excitement which convulsed New Orleans; and the general public obstinately refused to care what Burr was doing, or to believe that he was so insane as to expect a dissolution of the Union. In spite of the President's proclamation of Nov. 27, 1806, no special interest was roused, and even the Congress which met a few days later, Dec. 1, 1806, at first showed indifference to Burr and his affairs.

If this was a matter for blame, the fault certainly lay with the President, who had hitherto refused to whisper a suspicion either of Burr's loyalty or of the patriotism which Jefferson believed to characterize Louisiana, the Mississippi Territory, and Tennessee. Even the proclamation had treated Burr's enterprise as one directed wholly against Spain. The Annual Message, read December 2, showed still more strongly a wish to ignore Burr's true objects. Not only did it allude to the proclamation with an air of apology, as rendered necessary by "the criminal attempts of private individuals to decide for their country the question of peace or war," but it praised in defiance of evidence the conduct of the militia of Louisiana and Mississippi in supporting Claiborne and Wilkinson against the Spaniards:—

"I inform you with great pleasure of the promptitude with which the inhabitants of those Territories have tendered their services in defence of their country. It has done honor to themselves, entitled them to the confidence of their fellow-citizens in every part of the Union, and must strengthen the general determination to protect them efficaciously under all circumstances which may occur."

On some subjects Jefferson was determined to shut his eyes. He officially asserted that the Orleans militia had done honor to themselves and won the confidence of their fellow-citizens at a moment when he was receiving from Governor Claiborne almost daily warnings that the Orleans militia could not be trusted, and would certainly not fight against Spain.

By this course of conduct Jefferson entangled himself in a new labyrinth of contradictions and inconsistencies. Until that moment, his apparent interests and wishes led him to ignore or to belittle Burr's conspiracy; but after the moment had passed, his interests and convictions obliged him to take the views and share the responsibilities of General Wilkinson. Thus John Randolph found fresh opportunities to annoy the President, while the President lost his temper, and challenged another contest with Luther Martin and Chief-Justice Marshall.

After shutting his ears to the reiterated warnings of Eaton, Truxton, Morgan, Daveiss, and even to the hints of Wilkinson himself; after neglecting to take precautions against Burr, Wilkinson, or the city of New Orleans, and after throwing upon the Western people the responsibility for doing what the government had been instituted to do; after issuing a proclamation which treated Burr's armament as a filibustering venture like that of Miranda; and after sending to Congress an Annual Message which excused the proclamation on the ground that it was an act of good faith toward Spain, although Spain took no such view of it,—Jefferson could not reasonably expect the opposition in Congress to accept without a protest sudden legislation resting on the theory that the Constitution and the Union were in danger.

The month of December, 1806, passed at Washington without producing a public display of uneasiness on the President's part; the Government was waiting to hear from Kentucky and Ohio. Outwardly Jefferson continued to rely on the patriotism of the people of Louisiana, but inwardly he was troubled with fears. December 22 Robert Smith, anxious to save himself from possible calamity, wrote to him a letter

of remonstrance.
"In the course of our various communications," said Smith,[11] "in relation to the movements of Colonel Burr in the Western country, I have from time to time expressed the opinions which, as they were not at all countenanced by any of the other gentlemen, I did not deem it expedient to press upon your attention. . . . If, as was proposed on the 24th of October, the sloops-of-war and the gunboats stationed at Washington, New York, Norfolk, and Charleston had been sent to New Orleans under the command of Commodore Preble, with Captain Decatur second in command, we would at this time have nothing to apprehend from the military expedition of Colonel Burr. Such a naval force joined to the ketches and gunboats now on the Mississippi, would beyond a doubt have been sufficient to suppress such an enterprise. But this step, momentous as it was, the Executive could not take consistently with the limitations of existing statutes and with the spirit manifested by the House of Representatives at their last session. The approaching crisis will, I fear, be a melancholy proof of the want of forecast in so circumscribing the Executive within such narrow limits."

Robert Smith, conscious of being the person whom Congress most distrusted, grasped at the idea of freeing himself from restraint, and did not stop to ask whether Burr's impunity were due to want of forecast in Congress or in the Executive. He was alarmed; and the President's reply to his letter showed that

Jefferson was equally uncomfortable.[12]
"What I had myself in contemplation," the President answered, "was to wait till we get news from Louisville of December 15, the day of Burr's proposed general rendezvous. The post comes from thence in twelve days. The mail next expected will be of that date. If we then find that his force has had no effectual opposition at either Marietta or Cincinnati, and will not be stopped at Louisville, then, without depending on the opposition at Fort Adams (though I have more dependence on that than any other), I should propose to lay the whole matter before Congress, ask an immediate appropriation for a naval equipment, and at the same time order twenty thousand militia, or volunteers, from the Western States to proceed down the river to retake New Orleans, presuming our naval equipment would be there before them. In the mean time I would recommend to you to be getting ready and giving orders of preparation to the officers and vessels which we can get speedily ready."

Not a trace of confidence in the people of Louisiana was to be detected in this plan of operations. The duty of the government not only to act, but to act with extreme quickness and vigor, before Burr should come within a long distance of New Orleans, was avowed. The idea of calling out twenty thousand men to retake New Orleans showed a degree of alarm contrasting strongly with the equanimity that preceded it, and with the inertness which had allowed such an emergency to arise. The difference of tone between this letter and the President's public language was extreme. Nevertheless, the Western mail arrived, bringing news that the State of Ohio had seized the greater part of Burr's boats, that six or eight had escaped, and that Burr had gone to Nashville; and in this partly satisfactory report the President saw reason for further silence. Next came, Jan. 2, 1807, Wilkinson's letter of November 12 from Natchez, with its pledge to perish in New Orleans, and with messages, not trusted to writing, but orally imparted to the messenger, about Burr's cipher letters and their contents. Still the President made no sign. For want of some clew his followers were greatly perplexed; and men like John Randolph, who hated the President, and Samuel Smith, who did not love him, began to suspect that at last the Administration was fairly at a standstill. Randolph, with his usual instability, swayed between extremes of scepticism. At one moment he believed that the situation was most serious; at another, that the conspiracy was only a Spanish intrigue. January 2 he wrote to Monroe, in London, a letter full of the conviction that Spain was behind Burr:[13] "I am informed also, through a very direct and respectable channel, that there is a considerable party about Lexington and Frankfort highly propitious to his views, and with strong Spanish prepossessions. Some names which have been mentioned as of the number would astonish you." Jefferson's conduct irritated him more than that of Burr or Yrujo:—

"The state of things here is indeed unexampled. Although the newspapers teem with rumors dangerous to the peace and safety of the Union, and notwithstanding Government give full faith and credit to the existence of a formidable conspiracy, and have given information and instructions to the several State authorities how to act (under which Ohio has done herself much honor), yet not one syllable has been communicated to Congress on the subject. There are some other curious circumstances which I must reserve for oral communication, not caring to trust them by letter. One fact, however, ought not to be omitted. The army (as it is called) is in the most contemptible state, unprovided with everything, and men and officers unacquainted with their duties."

In what state Randolph expected the army to be, after six years of such legislation as his, could not be guessed. Officers and soldiers, distributed by companies, in forts hundreds of miles distant from each other, could hardly become acquainted with any other duties than those of a frontier garrison. General Smith did not, like Randolph, complain of others for the consequences of his own acts. He too wrote at that moment a confidential letter, describing the situation, to his brother-in-law, Wilson Cary Nicholas:[14]

"I fear that Burr will go down the river and give us trouble. The proclamation, it seems, in the Western country is very little attended to. They, no doubt, seeing no exertion making, consider that it has originated from false information. The President has not yet given any kind of information to Congress, and gentlemen (Giles among the number) will not believe that there is any kind of danger. . . . Burr's letter to Wilkinson is explicit. (This is secret.) He had passed the Alleghany never, never to return; his object, New Orleans,—open and avowed. And yet not one step taken, except the proclamation! Duane calls on Congress to act. How can Congress act? Would you force from the Executive the information they are unwilling to give? This would be imprudent. I have (with consent of the President) introduced a Resolution proposing an addition to our military establishment. Will it pass? That I can't tell. . . . It is curious that the nation should depend on the unauthorized exertions of a man whose honor and fidelity were doubted by all except a very, very few, not five in the United States, for its preservation and character. Had he not disclosed the conspiracy, the President would have folded his arms and let the storm collect its whole strength. Even now, not an energetic measure has been taken except by him [Wilkinson] and Tiffin."

Another week passed. Then at last, January 16, John Randolph rose in the House and moved a Resolution asking the President what he knew about Burr's affairs, and what he had done or meant to do in the matter. "The United States are not only threatened with external war," Randolph said, "but with conspiracies and treasons, the more alarming from their not being defined; and yet we sit and adjourn, adjourn and sit, take things as schoolboys, do as we are bid, and ask no questions!" His Resolution annoyed the democrats; but his sneers were more convincing than his arguments, and after some contradictory and unorganized resistance, a majority supported him. The Resolution was adopted and sent to the President.

Two days afterward, January 18, Wilkinson's despatches from New Orleans to December 18, embracing his first written version of Burr's cipher despatch reached Washington. The country learned that Wilkinson had arrested Bollman and other accomplices of Burr, and in defiance of their legal rights had shipped them to Washington for trial. Jefferson was obliged to decide whether he should sustain or repudiate Wilkinson; and in the light of Burr's revelations and Wilkinson's quasi confession, he could not deny that a serious conspiracy existed, or affirm that the General had gone beyond the line of duty, even though he had violated the laws. Dearborn's instructions, indeed, had to some extent authorized the arrests. At that moment if the President had repudiated Wilkinson, he would have only diverted public indignation from Burr, and would have condemned the Executive itself, which after so many warnings had left such power in the hands of a man universally distrusted.

Thus at last Jefferson was obliged to raise his voice against Burr's crimes. Thenceforward a sense of having been made almost a party to the conspiracy gave a sting of personal bitterness to the zeal with which he strove to defend Wilkinson and to punish Burr. Anxiety to excuse himself was evident in the Message which he sent to Congress January 22, in response to Randolph's Resolution of January 16.

"Some time in the latter part of September," he said, "I received intimations that designs were in agitation in the Western country, unlawful and unfriendly to the peace of the Union, and that the prime mover in these was Aaron Burr."

He had received such intimations many times, and long before the month of September.

"It was not till the latter part of October that the objects of the conspiracy began to be perceived."

Absolute truth would have required the President to say rather that it was not till the latter part of October that inquiry on his part began to be made.

"In Kentucky a premature attempt to bring Burr to justice, without a sufficient evidence for his conviction, had produced a popular impression in his favor and a general disbelief of his guilt. This gave him an unfortunate opportunity of hastening his equipments."

Complaint of District-Attorney Daveiss was natural; but the reproof was inexact in every particular. The attempt to indict Burr, if any attempt were to be made, was not premature. The impression in his favor did not give Burr an opportunity to hasten his equipments, since Graham appeared at Marietta the same day with the news of Burr's first discharge at Frankfort. Finally, if Daveiss's attempt failed, the fault was chiefly with the Government at Washington, which had taken no measures to direct or to support it, and which was represented on the bench by a judge himself implicated in the charge.

"On the whole," said the Message, "the fugitives from the Ohio, with their associates from Cumberland, or any other place in that quarter, cannot threaten serious danger to the city of New Orleans."

Yet a conspiracy against the Union existed; the President communicated Burr's cipher letters; he proclaimed Burr's expectation of seizing upon New Orleans, as well as the panic prevailing there; and he approved Wilkinson's arrest of Bollman and Swartwout. Finally, the Message spoke of the people in New Orleans in a tone of confidence quite different from that of Wilkinson's despatches, communicated with the Message itself.[15]

The Senate interpreted the Message in the sense it was doubtless meant to bear,—as a request from the President for support. Bollman and Swartwout, who would arrive in Washington within a few days or hours, had been illegally arrested, and they, as well as the other conspirators, could not without special legislation be held longer in custody. Giles at once introduced a Bill suspending for three months the writ of habeas corpus with respect to such persons; and the necessity of this measure seemed so obvious to the Senate that the Rules were suspended by unanimous consent, and the Bill was passed on the same day through all its stages. Bayard alone voted against it.[16]

Monday, January 26, the Bill was brought before the House, and Eppes of Virginia, the President's son-in-law, immediately moved its rejection. The debate that followed was curious, not only on account of the constitutional points discussed, but also on account of the division of sentiment among the President's friends, who quoted the Message to prove that there was no danger to public safety such as called for a suspension of habeas corpus, and appealed to the same Message to prove the existence of a more wanton and malignant insurrection than any that had ever before been raised against the Government. John Randolph intimated that the President was again attempting to evade responsibility.

"It appears to my mind," said he, "like an oblique attempt to cover a certain departure from an established law of the land, and a certain violation of the Constitution of the United States, which we are told have been committed in this country. Sir, recollect that Congress met on the first of December; that the President had information of the incipient stage of this conspiracy about the last of September; that the proclamation issued before Congress met; and yet that no suggestion, either from the Executive or from either branch of the Legislature, has transpired touching the propriety of suspending the writ of habeas corpus until this violation has taken place. I will never agree in this side way to cover up such a violation by a proceeding highly dangerous to the liberty of the country, or to agree that this invaluable privilege shall be suspended because it has been already violated,—and suspended, too, after the cause, if any there was for it, has ceased to exist. . . . With whatever epithets gentlemen may dignify this conspiracy, . . . I think it nothing more nor less than an intrigue!"

The Bill was accordingly rejected by the great majority of one hundred and thirteen to nineteen. On the same day the attorney-general applied to Judge Cranch of the District Court for a warrant against Bollman and Swartwout on the charge of treason, filing Wilkinson's affidavit and a statement given under oath by William Eaton in support of the charge. The warrant was issued; Bollman and Swartwout at once applied to the Supreme Court, then in session, for a writ of habeas corpus. February 13 Chief-Justice Marshall granted the writ; February 16 their counsel moved for their discharge; and February 21 the chief-justice decided that sufficient evidence of levying war against the United States had not been produced to justify the commitment of Swartwout, and still less that of Bollman, and therefore that they must be discharged. Adair and Ogden, who had been sent to Baltimore, were liberated by Judge Nicholson.

The friends of the Administration, exasperated at this failure of justice, again talked of impeaching the judges.[17] Giles threatened to move an amendment of the Constitution taking all criminal jurisdiction from the Supreme Court. Meanwhile Randolph and the Federalists assailed Wilkinson, and by implication the President. They brought forward a Resolution declaring the expediency of making further provision by law for securing the privilege of habeas corpus; and in the warm debate raised by this manœuvre John Randolph made himself conspicuous by slurs upon Wilkinson, whom he did not scruple to charge with double treason,—to the Constitution and to Burr. By a close vote of sixty to fifty-eight this Resolution was indefinitely postponed; but the debate showed the settled drift of Randolph's tactics. He meant to attack the President by attacking Wilkinson; and the President could no longer evade responsibility for Wilkinson's acts. To be thwarted by Chief-Justice Marshall and baited by John Randolph; to be made at once the scapegoat of Burr's crimes and of Wilkinson's extravagances,—was a fate peculiarly hard to bear, but was one which Jefferson could not escape.

Thenceforward the situation changed. What seemed to be the indictment and trial of Burr became, in a political point of view, the trial of Wilkinson, with John Randolph acting as accuser and President Jefferson as counsel for the defence, while Chief-Justice Marshall presided in judgment. No more unpleasant attitude could be readily imagined for a man of Jefferson's high position and pure character than to plead before his two most formidable and unforgiving enemies as the patron and protector of a client so far beneath respect. Driven by forces which allowed no choice of paths, he stood by the man who had saved him; but in order to understand precisely what he effected in sustaining Wilkinson, Americans must look in the archives of the King of Spain for knowledge of facts disbelieved by the President of the United States.

"According to appearances," wrote Yrujo Jan. 28, 1807,[18] "Spain has saved the United States from the separation of the Union which menaced them. This would have taken place if Wilkinson had entered cordially into the views of Burr,—which was to be expected, because Wilkinson detests this government, and the separation of the Western States has been his favorite plan. The evil has come from the foolish and pertinacious perseverance with which Burr has persisted in carrying out a wild project against Mexico. Wilkinson is entirely devoted to us. He enjoys a considerable pension from the King. With his natural capacity and his local and military knowledge, he anticipated with moral certainty the failure of an expedition of this nature. Doubtless he foresaw from the first that the improbability of success in case of making the attempt would leave him like the dog in the fable with the piece of meat in his mouth; that is, that he would lose the honorable employment he holds and the generous pension he enjoys from the King. These considerations, secret in their nature, he could not explain to Burr; and when the latter persisted in an idea so fatal to Wilkinson's interests, nothing remained remained but to take the course adopted. By this means he assures his pension; and will allege his conduct on this occasion as an extraordinary service, either for getting it increased, or for some generous compensation. On the other hand this proceeding secures his distinguished rank in the military service of the United States, and covers him with a popularity which may perhaps result in pecuniary advantages, and in any case will flatter his vanity. In such an alternative he has acted as was to be expected; that is, he has sacrificed Burr in order to obtain, on the ruins of Burr's reputation, the advantages I have pointed out."

Whether Yrujo was right in his theory of Wilkinson's motives might be doubted, but on one point he could not be mistaken. The general-in-chief of the United States Army was in the employment of Don Carlos IV.; he enjoyed a pension of two thousand dollars a year in consideration of secret services, and for twenty years the services had been rendered and the pension had been paid.[19]


  1. Gayarré's Louisiana, iii. 163.
  2. President's Message of Jan. 22, 1807. Annals of Congress, 1806-1807, p. 43.
  3. Wilkinson to Daniel Clark, Dec. 10, 1806; Clark's Proofs, p. 150.
  4. Clark's Proofs, p. 151.
  5. Wilkinson to Daniel Clark, March 20, 1807; Clark's Proofs, p. 151.
  6. Wilkinson to Daniel Clark, Oct. 5, 1807; Clark's Proofs, p. 154.
  7. Deposition of John Shaw, Burr's Trial; Annals of Congress, 1807-1808, p. 573.
  8. Evidence of Lieutenant Jacob Jackson, Burr's Trial; Annals of Congress, 1807-1808, p. 683.
  9. Blennerhassett Papers, p. 426.
  10. Blennerhassett Papers, p. 206.
  11. Robert Smith to Jefferson, Dec. 22, 1806; Jefferson MSS.
  12. Jefferson's Writings (Ford), viii. 504.
  13. Randolph to Monroe, Jan. 2, 1807; Monroe MSS.
  14. Samuel Smith to W. C. Nicholas, Jan. 9, 1807; Nicholas MSS.
  15. Wilkinson to Jefferson, Dec. 14, 1806; Annals of Congress, 1806-1807, p. 1009.
  16. Diary of J. Q. Adams (Jan. 23, 1807), i. 445.
  17. Diary of J. Q. Adams (Feb. 21, 1807), i. 459.
  18. Yrujo to Cevallos, Jan. 28, 1807; MSS. Spanish Archives.
  19. Clark's Proofs against Wilkinson, 1809.