Conspirator-in-Chief: Aaron Burr's Plot Against America
THURSDAY, APRIL 15, 2021 -- My laudatory recent review of David McCullough's The Pioneers intentionally omitted one thing: Chapter Six, "The Burr Conspiracy," which I found revelatory.

As McCullough explores in some depth, the extent of Aaron Burr's plot to literally break up the United States truly blew my mind. It's also chilling in light of the events of January 6, which wasn't in the same seditious league as Burr's elaborate planning and ambitions in the early years of the American nation.

You're not alone if you haven't heard of The Burr Conspiracy, which stretched from 1804 to 1807. Most people's knowledge of Burr is limited to the much-chronicled duel that ended Alexander Hamilton's life in 1804. Burr was never tried or otherwise held accountable for the shocking act. Few imagined that, less than a year after shooting Hamilton and a few months after his vice presidency ended, the disgraced but unrepentant Burr would head West, to Ohio, to launch his scheme to regain power.

It was the beginning of what would become a national scandal. His reputation in tatters, in debt and seeking funding for his next endeavors, Burr nevertheless successfully employed a good measure of both charm and guile to enlist the support of the Ohio settlers chronicled by McCullough.

Some of the patriotic, dedicated settlers speculated on Burr's arrival in Ohio in 1805. Was he looking to "stake a new settlement farther south down the Mississippi?" His intentions were unclear as he "left a number of different impressions wherever he went." An observer noted that there was no human being more "mysterious and inscrutable."

Burr wooed the gullible Harman Blennerhasset, perhaps the wealthiest of the Ohio settlers. On a visit to Blennerhasset Island in the Ohio River, Burr talked of a takeover of Mexico. He would crown himself emperor and appoint Blennerhassett as his ambassador to Great Britain. In 1806, a year after their first meeting, Burr convinced Blennerhassett to pay for building 15 flatboats that could transport about 500 recruits for a mysterious expedition southward down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Blennerhassett even stumped up thousands more for various provisions to be ready by early December.

Burr implied that his expedition was approved by the government. The Ohio settlers were told that "no injury was intended to the United States and that President Jefferson was not only aware of the expedition but approved of it." That was, of course, an outright lie.

Some saw through the seemingly harmless manner Burr had adopted. "How long will it be," asked an editorial in Philadelphia's United States Gazette, "before we hear of Colonel Burr being at the head of a revolutionary party on the western waters?"

Yet many remained uncertain, and unaware, of Burr's true intention: An alleged plot to create a new, independent country in the heart of North America and convince Ohio, which became a state in 1803, to secede from the Union.

Burr's Conspiracy didn't collapse until one of his allies, General James Wilkinson, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Army at New Orleans, and Governor of the Louisiana Territory, blew the whistle on him to President Jefferson. Until that time, Jefferson, who did not like Burr, had delayed taking action against his former vice president despite having anonymous intelligence about his conspiracy for more than a year.

After fleeing in 1807, Burr was captured and arrested in what is now the state of Mississippi. He was tried for treason in Richmond, Virginia, in what some would call the trial of the (19th) century. To the astonishment of many, Burr was found not guilty. But his political career ended once and for all.

Burr headed to Europe, but returned to the United States and resumed the practice of law in New York City. At the age of 77, he married a rich widow named Eliza Jumel, 19 years his junior. The marriage was unsuccessful and Jumel hired Hamilton's son, Alexander Hamilton, Jr., as her lawyer. The divorce was finalized on September 14, 1836, the day Burr died.

As McCullough notes, Hamilton and Jefferson both called Burr the Catiline of America, a reference to the "unprincipled ancient Roman notorious for scheming against the Republic."

But Hamilton and Burr were not always rivals and enemies. They worked together in the sensational 1800 murder trial of Levi Weeks. They were part of the star-studded defense team that also included a future Supreme Court justice. Author Paul Collins explores the trial in depth in Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America's First Sensational Murder Mystery.

Research assistance by Marlene R. Fedin