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The Jeffersonian Era

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Digital History ID 2984



The acquisition of Louisiana terrified many Federalists, who feared that the creation of new western states would further dilute their political influence. In the winter of 1803-1804, a group of Federalist congressmen plotted to establish a "Northern Confederacy" consisting of New Jersey, New York, New England, and Canada, to be established with the support of Britain.

Alexander Hamilton repudiated this scheme, and the conspirators turned to Vice President Aaron Burr. In return for Federalist support in his campaign for the governorship of New York, Burr was to swing New York into the Northern Confederacy. Burr was badly beaten, in part because of Hamilton's opposition. Incensed and irate, Burr challenged Hamilton to the duel in which the former Treasury Secretary was fatally wounded.

Burr was now a ruined politician and a fugitive from the law. In debt, on the edge of bankruptcy, his fortunes at their lowest point, the desperate Burr became involved in a conspiracy for which he would be put on trial for treason.

In the spring of 1805, Burr traveled to the West, where he and an old friend, James Wilkinson, commander of United States forces in the Southwest and military governor of Louisiana, hatched a mysterious scheme. It is still uncertain what the conspirators' goal was, since Burr told different stories to different people. Spain's minister believed that Burr planned to set up an independent nation in the Mississippi Valley. Others reported that he planned to seize Spanish territory in what is now Texas, California, and New Mexico. The British minister was told that for $500,000 and British naval support, Burr would separate the states and territories west of the Appalachians from the rest of the Union and create an empire with himself as its head.

In the fall of 1806, Burr and some 60 schemers traveled down the Ohio River toward New Orleans, perhaps to incite disgruntled French settlers to revolt. Wilkinson, recognizing that the scheme was doomed to failure, sent a letter to President Jefferson betraying Burr.

Burr fled, but was apprehended in Mississippi Territory. He was then taken to the Richmond, Virginia, circuit court, where, in 1807, he was tried for treason. Jefferson, convinced that Burr was a dangerous man, wanted a conviction regardless of the evidence. Chief Justice John Marshall, who presided over the trial, was equally eager to discredit Jefferson.

Ultimately, Burr was acquitted. The reason for the acquittal was the Constitution's strict definition of treason as "levying war against the United States" or "giving ... aid and comfort" to the nation's enemies. In addition, each overt act of treason had to be attested to by two witnesses. The prosecution was unable to meet this strict standard, and as a result of Burr's acquittal, few future cases of treason have ever been tried in the United States.

Was Burr guilty of conspiring to separate the West by force? Probably not. The prosecution's case was extremely weak. It rested largely on the unreliable testimony of co-conspirator James Wilkinson, who was a spy in the way of Spain while serving as a U.S. army commander and governor of Louisiana.

What, then, was the purpose of Burr's scheming? It appears likely that the former vice president was planning a filibuster expedition--an unauthorized military attack on Mexico, which was then controlled by Spain. To the end of his life, Burr denied that he had plotted treason against the United States. Asked by one of his closest friends whether he had sought to separate the West from the rest of the nation, Burr responded with an emphatic "No! I would as soon have thought of taking possession of the moon and informing my friends that I intended to divide it among them."

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