When Aaron Burr resigned the vice-presidency a few days before his term expired in 1805, he was facing murder charges in two states for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel.
He was a pariah in the East, hated as much by his own Democratic-Republican Party as by federalists.
But he still had some support in the West, where people remembered his support for their interests in 1790.
Burr moved up and down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers telling people he was preparing a “grand expedition,” and was accused of trying to separate the Western states and territories from the Union, or plotting an invasion of Mexico.
Henry Clay, then 29, the most gifted state Legislator, lawyer, public speaker, and deal maker in Kentucky, He was already viewed by rich and poor as a good man who was “going places.” and he had a Westerner’s admiration for Burr.
Burr chose “rising star” Clay to defend him in the two treason trials that were held in Kentucky. The third was in Richmond, Va. He was found acquiited each time.
Political Trials, Circumstantial Evidence
The charges were politically motivated, and the evidence was all circumstantial. It either fell apart at the trial or was recanted later. Historians now question the validity of a letter President Thomas Jefferson considered positive proof of Burr’s guilt.
The Kentucky Federalists
Jon Grinspan writes in American Heritage Magazine, 2007, that Burr enlisted the support of Andrew Jackson, the British ambassador, and the military governor of Louisiana for his secession scheme.
The British ambassador told London Burr requested funding to help him separate the West from the U.S., and asked the Royal Navy to take over New Orleans during the takeover, Grinspan writes.
But Nancy Isenberg, in her 2007 biography of Burr, Fallen Founder, the Life of Aaron Burr, said Burr was merely trying to take land in Mexico, which was only a misdemeanor then. And being a lying scoundrel, which Burr almost certainly was, is not a crime.
The Politics of Burr’s Trials
Grinspan, the Heidlers, and Isenberg agree that “Burr fever” swept the West during his excursions in 1806. Newspapers and anonymous sources accused him of plotting to invade Washington D.C., raise a Native American militia, and buy weapons from a corrupt U.S. Army fort.
President Jefferson publicly called Burr a traitor before the third of Burr’s three treason trials.
The Kentucky Federalists
Federalists in Kentucky were a small, but active, well-connected minority, the Heidlers say. Newspaper owner Humphrey Marshall and U.S. Attorney Joseph “Jo” Daviess were both married to sisters of U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall.
Humphrey Marshall’s newspaper accused Burr of starting conspiracies in Kentucky, and Daviess sent a letter to President Jefferson saying Burr was assembling a conspiracy to detach the western states, and invade Mexico.
The Heidlers say the list of conspirators included almost every prominent Republican in Kentucky: U.S. Attorney General John Breckinridge and Clay himself among others.
Marshall’s newspaper printed stories of men assembling, boat construction, food stockpiles, and weapons purchases. Daviess traveled to Louisville to see for himself, and asked Judge Innes to arrest Burr for plotting to invade Spanish Mexico, the Heidlers say.
The Two Kentucky Trials
When the grand jury met, Daviess asked for a postponement because his star witness could not get there. At the second grand jury, Daviess asked for another postponement. Clay said another delay would persecute Burr, not prosecute him.
The newspaper editors admitted under oath they had no evidence of wrongdoing by Burr, the Seidlers say.
At first, Clay declined to represent Burr at the second grand jury. The Legislature had just elected him to fill an unexpired term in the U.S. Senate, and he was anxious to get there.
Burr offered to pay Clay extra, and signed an oath saying he had never planned anything against the United States. Clay’s friends convinced him it would be dishonorable to abandon Burr, the Heidlers say.
Clay Re-Assesses Burr
As Clay traveled east to take his Senate seat, he saw that Eastern Republicans, even President Jefferson, hated Burr as much as Federalists did. He began to wonder if Burr was innocent.
In Washington, President Jefferson showed Clay a letter he said was “positive proof” of Burr’s treason. The Seidlers say many historians now doubt Burr had anything to do with the letter, but Clay was convinced Burr was guilty, and never forgave Burr for lying to him.
They did not see each other again until a chance meeting in 1815. Clay refused to shake his hand or schedule a private meeting.
The trials were Clay’s first appearances on the national political stage, and Burr’s last. Defending Burr did not hurt Clay’s career.
Seidler, David S. and Jeanne T., Henry Clay: The Essential American, Random House, 593 pages, 2010