The conspiracy of Burr now flamed suddenly in the sky like some comet, wholly unexpected, whose coming seems the presage of destruction. But when seen it had ceased to be dangerous. The bearing of this enterprise upon our internal politics was very slight, except to strengthen public confidence in the energy of the Executive, and cement to the Union, as was needful, the loyalty of the immense Mississippi country. For the rest we may regard it as a phenomenal exhibition of hazy native imperialism, quite unfit for modern America.
The panorama of the great west is at length fairly unrolled, and in the adventurous, self-confident sons of the valley, heedless of international restraints, but in heart true to the republic, despising diplomacy, and ready to take the short cut, we perceive a fresh and distinctive type of the American citizen. Over this section Burr's spell was momentary, and his magic failed when the sinister bend of his plans was discovered.
The late Vice-President, bankrupt in fortune and political standing, is seen knitting together the broken threads of his ambition, and weaving out a strange fabric. His restless fancy made him a Napoleon in Mexico, and founder of an American dynasty; conjoined with which design was that of plundering New Orleans for the immediate necessities of his enterprise, but ultimately occupying it, and by force and adroit policy detaching the Western States from the Union. His contempt of mankind gave him a low estimate of popular government and of those representing it; with a handful of troops at Washington he believed himself able to turn Congress out of doors, assassinate the President, and declare himself Protector; and his own brain and nerve he relied upon with sanguine confidence. He drew Dayton and other kinsfolk into his scheme, besides some young New York partizans stranded in politics like himself. He thought himself assured, too, of prominent support at the West; from Daniel Clark, for instance, a leading spirit in New Orleans, and a man of large fortune, and above all, from General Wilkinson, Burr's former military comrade, whose familiar acquaintance with Louisiana and the Spanish dominions and his military rank made him the most influential personage at the southwest. That all of these encouraged Burr's expedition is certain; but how far some of them did so, understanding it to be a purely foreign.diversion which would be undertaken against Spain, and possibly under the secret auspices of our government, can never be determined. . . .
Wilkinson turned against Burr at the critical moment, and by his energetic preparation at New Orleans crusht the enterprise in which he had been promised the second place of command. Perhaps, on deciphering the mysterious letters of Burr and Dayton addrest to him, which furnish the clearest evidence of the conspiracy, a vainglorious but valiant officer, high in the confidence of his government, realized for the first time that a predatory excursion involved treason, and on his own part the basest treachery. Perhaps he realized the change of external circumstances better than Burr, and saw that the latter either lied or was over-sanguine. Perhaps, after feeding his own imagination with hopes of glory and fortune, he shrunk, as others have, when it came to action. To a high commander, who weighed well his chances, Jefferson's confidence and public gratitude must have appeared at this moment the safer investment. Wilkinson had no tenderness of conscience; he was self-indulgent, fond of display, boastful, one who performed a good action upon considerations of strategy. The ambition of leading a revolution as "the Washington of the West"" might have tempted him had he been displaced from authority like Burr; but in the plenitude of influence duty and interest alike impelled him to preserve his country. The meditation of a single night fixt him in that resolve.
While Wilkinson placed New Orleans in a posture of defense, and proclaimed martial law at the mouth of the Mississippi, the lines were closing about the conspirators far up the river. Burr, by his own unguarded language in one or two quarters, had excited suspicions, which were communicated to the President. A government spy was dispatched to Blennerhassett's Island, on the Ohio, where preparations for the expedition had been progressing, and at his instance Governor Tiffin, of Ohio, sent a body of militia to the scene and gave the first blow to the enterprise. Wilkinson's messenger arriving meantime at Washington with startling intelligence from the southwest, the President's proclamation was issued, and it became a hare and hound chase for the fugitives.
Blennerhassett, a giddy, romantic Irish gentleman, whom Burr had bewitched with his projects, hastened down the Ohio with a handful of recruits, the chief bateaux having been seized, and at the mouth of the Cumberland met Burr, who, unaware of his danger, had been scouring Kentucky and Tennessee for assistance. The whole flotilla did not muster more than thirteen boats, and from eighty to one hundred men, who, for the most part, were ignorant of their destination. Descending the Mississippi to the vicinity of Natchez Burr learned, for the first time, that Wilkinson, so far from cooperating, had betrayed his designs, and was ready at New Orleans to apprehend him for treason. This situation disclosed, the expedition was disbanded, the leader having first sunk his chests of arms in the river, and supprest all token of criminal intent.
Burr now plunged into the Mississippi wilderness, endeavoring in disguise to reach the Gulf; but in a village on the Tombigbee he was recognized, taken prisoner, and sent by land under a military guard to Richmond jail. Blennerhassett was captured in Kentucky some months later. Dayton and others were indicted. Arbitrary arrests had been made by Wilkinson in New Orleans.
It only remained for the Federal courts to deal with the offenders as they deserved, all other trials being postponed to that of the chief conspirator. But here the law shielded the prisoners. No conviction of treason was possible under our Constitution unless some overt act could be proved on the testimony of two witnesses. Burr's trial at Richmond collapsed upon a ruling of Marshall, the Chief Justice, to the effect that the enlistment and assembling of men at Blennerhassett's Island showed no overt act of treason; that even if it did, Burr's agency did not appear; and that the overt act must be first established before testimony of Burr's conduct or declarations elsewhere was admissable. Burr's second trial for misdemeanor failed upon a point of jurisdiction; and tho Burr and Blennerhassett were afterward held for trial in the district of Ohio upon this less heinous charge, the government abandoned their cause, and the other indictments were dismissed. The chief recollection of this famous prosecution is the forensic triumph achieved by one of the counsel on the government side, the eloquent Wirt, whose fervid description of Blennerhassett's island home2&@151;the ideal of a literary retreat, such as through life haunted his own imaginationstill retains a place in our literature.
To Blennerhassett Burr was indeed the serpent invading Eden. A charming home was ruined, a lovely family scattered. Soldiers committed pillage; creditors attached the estate; the dwelling, a quaint wooden house, with curved wings and a running piazza, was burned to the ground. Unfortunate in speculations by which he hoped to repair his fortune, the outcast vainly sought public office in Canada, and afterward in Ireland, and died at last on his native soil penniless and heartbroken. To thousands of travelers floating down the Ohio River past Marietta and this island, the deserted rendezvous of treason, has the pathetic tale of poor Blennerhassett been made familiar.
Nor, tho released from legal durance, did the chief offender himself escape the Nemesis of public condemnation. Less an object of compassion than Blennerhassett, Burr wandered abroad a few years, living upon scanty remittances from personal friends; but in 1812 returned stealthily to New York City, confirmed in sensual and impecunious habits. None of his former high acquaintances either molesting or greeting him, he slunk back into professional practise, confined for the rest of his life, with all his astuteness, to the grade of a pettifogger. His only child, to whom he had promised a diadem, the beloved Theodosia, lost at sea, and his line extinct, Burr was left without an endearing tie in the world; yet a stoic still, through all the vicissitudes of life, he lived to the age of fourscore, the obscurity of his Bohemian existence varied only by the scandal of a marriage at seventy-eight to a rich widow,3 who soon after separated from him. Over the fair sex Burr's fascination was retained to the last; one woman, strange to his illustrious kindred, nursed him in last sickness, and another placed a simple block of marble to mark his unhonored grave.
1 From Schouler's "History of the United States." By permission of Mr. Schouler, owner of the copyright, and of his publishers, Dodd, Mead & Co.Copyright 1880, 1891.
2 A reference to the familiar passage in Wirt's speech, beginning "And who was Blennerhassett?"
3Madame Jumel, widow of Stephen Jumel. The marriage took place in the Jumel house, near High Bridge, New York City, which had been Washington's headquarters during his stay on Manhattan Island in the Revolution. The house is still standing; it was built by Roger Morrie, an English army officer, as the home of himself and his wife, Mary Philipse.