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"His extraordinary plans and expectations for himself might be of such a nature as to depend on other persons for their accomplishment, and might, therefore, be as extravagant as if other persons alone had been their object."-FOSTER's Essays.
THE romance of political adventure is generally found to flourish in the regions of despotism; and it seems a matter of course that there can be no room for conspiracy in a democratic republic, where each man is a member of the gov ernment, and means are provided for the expression of every kind of political opinion and desire. Yet the United States can exhibit a case of conspiracy and a political adventurer such as might rejoice the souls of the lovers of romance. Scattered notices of Colonel Aaron Burr and of his supposed schemes are before the English public, but no connected history which might be depended upon appeared during his life. He died last year, and has left no relations; so that no reason now exists why everything that can be learned about him should not be made known.
In 1795, Aaron Burr had attained to eminence at the NewYork Bar. He was about the same age as Alexander Hamilton, who was born in 1757, and their professional reputation and practice were about equal. Hamilton was the leader of the federal party. He was, in countenance, eminently handsome, in manner engaging, in temper amiable and affectionate, in eloquence both persuasive and commanding; and his mind was so comprehensive, and his powers of application and execution so great, as to cause him to be considered by the federal party the greatest man their country has produced. Burr was of democratic politics; he had a fiercely ambitious temper, which he hid under a gentle and seductive manner. He was usually so quiet and sedate that he might have been thought indifferent but for the expression of his piercing black eyes. His face was otherwise plain, and his figure and gait were stooping and ungraceful. He assumed great authority of manner upon occasion. His speaking at the bar was brief and to the purpose. His most remarkable characteristic seems to have been his power of concealment. He not only carried on a conspiracy before the nation's eyes
which they to this day cannot more or less understand, but lived long years with the tremendous secret in his breast, and has gone down to the grave without affording any solution of the mystery. It may be doubted whether, in all the long private conversations he had with individuals, he ever committed himself, otherwise than apparently, to anybody. He seems to have been understood by Hamilton, however, from the beginning, and Hamilton never concealed his opinion that Burr was an ambitious and dangerous man.
Jefferson put a generous trust in Burr, and for many years they were intimate correspondents. It is very touching to read, after all that has since happened, such letters as the following, written shortly after the two men had been rival candidates for the presidentship, at a time of unexampled party excitement ::
"TO COLONEL Burr.
Washington, February 1, 1801. "Dear Sir-It was to be expected that the enemy would endeavour to sow tares between us, that they might divide us and our friends. Every consideration satisfies me that you will be on your guard against this, as I assure you I am strongly. I hear of one stratagem so imposing and so base, that it is proper I should notice it to you. Mr. Munford, who is here, says he saw at New-York before he left it an original letter of mine to Judge Breckinridge, in which are sentiments highly injurious to you. He knows my handwriting, and did not doubt that to be genuine. I enclose you a copy, taken from a press copy of the only letter I ever wrote to Judge Breckinridge in my life: the press copy itself has been shown to several of our mutual friends here. Of consequence, the letter seen by Mr. Munford must be a forgery; and, if it contains a sentiment unfriendly or disrespectful to you, I affirm it solemnly to be a forgery, as also if it varies from the copy enclosed. With the common trash of slander I should not think of troubling you; but the forgery of one's handwriting is too imposing to be neglected. A mutual knowledge of each other furnishes us with the best test of the contrivances which will be practised by the enemies of both.
"Accept assurances of my high respect and esteem.
In the presidential election of 1800 there were four candidates, Jefferson, Burr, John Adams, and Pinckney. The votes were for Jefferson 73, for Burr 73, for Adams 65, for Pinckney 64. The numbers for Jefferson and Burr being equal, the choice devolved upon the House of Representatives, which voted to attend to no other business till the election was settled, and not to adjourn till the decision was effected. For seven days and nights the ballotting went on, every member being present. Some who were ill or infirm were accommodated with beds and couches, and one sick member was allowed to be attended by his wife. Adams was, as president, on the spot, watching his impending political annihilation. Jefferson was at hand, daily presiding in the Senate. Burr was in the State of New-York, anxiously expecting tidings. The federal party were in despair at having to choose between two republicans (as the democratic party was at that day called). It is said that Hamilton was consulted by his party, and that his advice was to choose Jefferson rather than Burr: a piece of counsel which affected the everlasting destinies of the country, and cost the counsellor his life. At the end of the seven days Jefferson was elected president and Burr vice-president, which office Burr held for a single term, four years.
In the winter of 1804 Burr was proposed at Albany as a candidate for the office of Governor of the State of NewYork. Hamilton, at a public meeting of his party, strongly opposed the nomination, declaring that he would never join in supporting such a candidate. About this time Dr. Chas. D. Cooper wrote a letter, in which he said "General Hamilton and have declared in substance that they looked upon Mr. Burr as a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government." "I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr." This letter was published; and on the 18th of June, 1804, Burr sent a copy of it to Hamilton, with a demand that the expressions it contained should be acknowledged or denied. The correspondence which ensued is discreditable to both parties. To use the expression of a great man, "Hamilton went into it like a Capuchin." He knew that it was Burr's determination to fix a deadly quarrel upon him; he knew that Burr was an unworthy adversary; he disapproved of the practice of duelling, but he feared the imputation of want of courage
if he refused to meet his foe. He therefore explained and corresponded with an amplitude and indecision which expose his reputation to more danger from harsh judges than a refusal to fight would have done. As for Burr, he was savage in his pursuit of his enemy. He enlarged his accusations and demands as he saw the irresolution of his victim; and I believe there is no doubt that, though he was a good shot before, he employed the interval of twenty days which elapsed before the duel took place in firing at a mark, making no secret of the purpose of his practising.
This interval was occasioned by Hamilton's refusal to go out till the Circuit Court, in the business of which he was engaged, should have closed its sittings. The Court rose on Friday, the 6th of July, and Burr received notice that General Hamilton would be ready at any time after the following Sunday.
On Wednesday morning, the 11th, the parties crossed the Hudson to the Jersey shore, arriving on the ground at seven o'clock. Burr was attended by Mr. Van Ness and a surgeon; Hamilton by Mr. Pendleton and Dr. Hosack. was Hamilton's intention not to fire; but when his adversary's ball struck him on the right side, he raised himself involuntarily on his toes, and turned a little to the left, his pistol going off with the movement. He observed to his physician, "This is a mortal wound, doctor," and then became insensible. He revived, however, in the boat, in the course of removal home, and cautioned his attendants about the pistol, which he was not aware of having discharged. He lived in great agony till two o'clock of the following day.
He left a paper which contained his statement of reasons for meeting Burr, notwithstanding his conscientious disapproval of the practice of duelling, and his particular desire to avoid an encounter with such an adversary, and in such a cause as the present. In this paper he declares his resolution to reserve and throw away his first fire, and perhaps his second. His reasons for fighting are now, I believe, generally agreed to be unsatisfactory. As to the effect of his determination to spare his adversary, I never could learn that Colonel Burr expressed the slightest regret for the pertinacity with which he hunted such an enemy-merely a political foe-to death. Neither did he appear to feel the execration with which he was regarded in the region of which Hamilton had been the pride and ornament.
To avoid the legal consequences of his deed he wandered into the West, and remained so long in retreat that some passing wonder was excited as to what he could be doing there. He was ensnaring more victims.
In the Ohio river, a few miles below Marietta, there is a beautiful island, finely wooded, but now presenting a dismal picture of ruin. This island was purchased, about thirtyfive years ago, by an Irish gentleman, named Herman Blennerhassett, whose name the island has since borne. This gentleman took his beautiful and attached wife to his new property, and their united tastes made it such an abode as was never before and has never since been seen in the United States. Shrubberies, conservatories, and gardens ornamented the island, and within doors there was a fine library, philosophical apparatus, and music-room. Burr seems to have been introduced to this family by some mutual friends at the East, and to have been received as a common acquaintance at first. The intimacy grew; and the oftener he went to Blennerhassett's Island, and the longer he stayed, the deeper was the gloom which overspread the unfortunate family. Blennerhassett himself seems to have withdrawn his interest from his children, his books, his pursuits, as Burr obtained influence over his mind, and poisoned it with some dishonest ambition. The wife's countenance grew sad and her manners constrained. It is not known how far she was made acquainted with what was passing between her husband and Burr.
The object of Burr's conspiracy remains as much a mystery as ever, while there is no doubt whatever of its existence. Some suppose that he intended to possess himself of Mexico, an enterprise less absurd than at first sight it appears. There was great hatred towards the Mexicans at that period, the period of agitation about the acquisition of Louisiana; thousands of citizens were ready to march down upon Mexico on any pretence; and it is certain that Burr was so amply provided with funds from some unknown quarter, that he had active adherents carrying on his business from the borders of Maine all down the course of the great Western rivers. Another supposition is, that he designed the plunder of New-Orleans in the event of a war with Spain. A more probable one is that he proposed to found a great Western Empire, with the aid of Spain, making himself its emperor, and drawing off the allegiance of all