The Burr conspiracy – On February 13, 1807 Aaron Burr was captured running from the court bent on convicting him of what became known as the Burr Conspiracy. Although the former Vice-President claimed innocence, there was overwhelming opinion of his guilt. Burr stood accused of trying to separate the Louisiana Territory from the U.S.
With his career failing, Burr traveled to Louisiana hoping to revive it. As Burr traveled Louisiana, claimed by Spain, Burr found the residents considering cessation. Burr realized that with military support, they could enact separation.
General James Wilkinson, former Military Commander-In-Chief during the Revolution, was one of Burr’s closes friends. Wilkinson was now Governor of the Territory thanks to Burr.
The Burr conspiracy theory began when Burr contacted Anthony Merry, the Ambassador to the U.S. from Britain. In this contact, Burr informed Merry that with the support from Britain, cessation from the U.S. was possible.
Burr traveled from town to town in Louisiana looking for supporters. He found a wealthy resident, Harman Blennerhassett, whose home was useful as a military encampment.
In Washington, Burr found the support of former Senator Jonathan Dayton, who wanted annexation of Mexican property surrounding Louisiana. Burr realized that involvement from Britain was not coming. Burr also discovered that the newspapers in the east were full of stories accusing him of treason.
When conflict broke out with Spain, Burr knew that President Jefferson would send military support to Wilkinson. Then a seemingly plain letter was sent to Wilkinson signed by Aaron Burr. The letter was full of numerals. The numerals were a code, each number standing for a particular letter in the alphabet and spelling out a secret message. This letter became known as The Cipher Letter. The secret message outlined a plot to cede the Territory from the U.S.
Wilkinson sent a letter to President Jefferson informing him of a conspiracy in place in Louisiana to secede it from the U.S. The letter outlined the conspiracy plan; however it never once mentioned Burr.
Because of the newspapers, Jefferson was sure that Burr was the culprit of the plot, despite the warning from Wilkinson never once naming Burr. Burr was captured and taken to stand trial. Burr claimed innocence, stating that his actions were not treasonous but were meant to aide the U.S. in its battles with Spain. The Cipher Letter stood as the key piece of evidence against Burr. The prosecution was successful in demonstrating the coded message. However, the defense was successful in throwing enough doubt as to its authorship. The courtroom couldn’t return an indictment. The defense claimed Dayton wrote the Cipher Letter.
Afterward, Burr was ordered to return to the courtroom. Suspecting a set up, Burr fled. Soldiers found Burr running in the wilderness and brought him back. This time, the Cipher Letter became a powerful piece of evidence. Burr faced conviction. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall demanded that the literal definition of treason in The Constitution be adhered to which left Burr a free man. The Constitution restricts treason as attempts “only to levying war against the U.S. and giving aid and comfort to enemies and that no person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.” The fact that no two witnesses stood against Burr saved him.
There was the evidence of the Cipher Letter, Burr’s movements in Louisiana and the newspaper articles. Looking only at the facts, there was a plot to cede Louisiana. Despite the signature of the Cipher Letter, in the Burr conspiracy there is no evidence that Burr actually wrote it.