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Story Archives: What was Aaron Burr up to in Natchez? New book solves mysteries
|What was Aaron Burr up to in Natchez? New book solves mysteries|
In the fall of 1806, a border confrontation in the vicinity of the Sabine River between the U.S. and Spain required the attention of U.S. Gen. James Wilkinson, who was in command of American troops and encamped at Natchitoches, La. This and other disputes between the two nations suggested that war might be at hand.
There at Natchitoches, a curious thing happened. Wilkinson received a ciphered letter from former vice-president Aaron Burr, who informed the general that he would soon be departing for Natchez, adding: "The gods invite us to glory and fortune." In a note from another man, Wilkinson read these words: "Are your numerous associates ready? Wealth and glory, Louisiana and Mexico!"
Two months later on January 10, 1807, Burr was jolted by bad news. Forty miles above Natchez in the Bruinsburg home of Judge Peter Bryan Bruin, who had served in the Continental Army with Burr, the vice-president learned he was wanted by the American government and faced arrest for conspiracy. Even more troubling, Burr found out that he had been betrayed by one of his conspiring partners, Gen. Wilkinson, a hard-drinking, well-paid spy for the Spanish government and not at all trusted in Mississippi Territory.
In the frigid winter air, Burr's flotilla of 100 men, most armed with rifles, shivered in temperatures that dipped as low as 11 degrees. Rumors for weeks had circulated that Burr was out to dismember the western states of the Union and that he intended to invade Spanish lands. When word arrived that the President wanted Burr's flotilla stopped there was a general alarm among the populace. To counter the alarm, the vice-president quickly pointed out to Mississippi authorities that his goal was not war but agriculture. He said he and his men intended to settle along the Ouachita River.
"Standing at Bruin's riverside home," writes author David O. Stewart, "Burr knew the game was up, his hopes destroyed. There was no war with Spain. Wilkinson had abandoned him. The government was opposing him...The Floridas, Mexico, New Orleans -- all were receding from his grasp. But there was more than bitter disappointment and rage; now there was a risk of arrest or even attack by other Americans."
So how had this man -- the third vice-president of the United States -- who had seven years earlier come within one vote of the presidency, find himself in such a tight spot?
That's what Stewart unravels in a terrific new book released last week: "American Emperor: Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America," (410 pages, Simon & Schuster). What Stewart has achieved is remarkable: He's the first historian to explain in clear and convincing detail Burr's motives, methods and mistakes surrounding that ill-fated expedition down the Mississippi two centuries ago.
Stewart's investigation resolves the old questions about Burr and reveals that the political landscape of 1807 America was remarkably similar to the fractured and mean politics of 2011. A gifted writer, Stewart's fast-paced narrative keeps in step with the fast-moving events of Burr's life, and his portrait of the loving relationship between the widowed Burr and his daughter, Theodosia, is moving.
A trial lawyer for more than 25 years, Stewart, who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell, is also the author of two highly regarded books: "The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution," and "Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy."
I met Stewart two years ago in the home of Joan McLemore in Natchez when he was researching "American Emperor." This book has two fascinating local angles: Burr's capture, arrest and escape from Natchez and his cover for the expedition -- settlement along the Ouachita River in northeastern Louisiana.
"The most valuable part of visiting the Natchez area," Stewart told the Sentinel, "was understanding the physical realities -- what Natchez looks like; that Bruinsburg was really rather far from Natchez; how far between Washington (Miss.) and Natchez; and how close Baton Rouge (Spanish Territory) was. An added bonus was finding a microfilm version of the 'Mississippi Messenger' issues from 1807 (about Burr's time in Natchez) in the library of the Copiah-Lincoln Community College; even the Library of Congress in Washington doesn't have those!"
During that winter of 1807, Burr spent 26 days in Natchez after being arrested for conspiracy and brought before a Mississippi Territory Grand Jury, which found him guilty of nothing and complained that he and his men had been unfairly treated by local authorities, who were acting by and large on orders of Jefferson. Stewart writes that just seven years earlier Burr "was on every short list of men who could become president of the United States."
Burr served admirably as a lieutenant-colonel in the Continental Army and for a time was an aide to Gen. George Washington. A lawyer, he served as attorney general of New York State, was elected to the U.S. Senate and like all politicians, made enemies. One was Jefferson, who Burr had served as vice-president following the controversial election of 1800.
"Though Burr was chosen as Jefferson's running mate that year, a flaw in the constitution voting procedure resulted in a tie in the electoral vote totals of the two men," Stewart writes. "The tie was resolved in Jefferson's favor after thirty-six ballots in the House of Representatives. Jefferson never forgave Burr for not stepping aside more emphatically and dropped him from the Republican ticket in 1804."
Burr had also been vilified politically after killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel despite the fact that by all accounts it was a fair fight and Burr followed the decorum of the era in challenging Hamilton.
"I toyed with the idea of writing a book about Burr's Western expedition for several years before taking it on," Stewart said. "I kept feeling frustrated when good books would refer to Burr's Western expedition and add with a bemused shrug something like, 'whatever he was up to out there.' This man was the third vice president of the United States and was tried for treason for that expedition! There had to be some way to figure out what he was really up to."
Stewart said that "central riddle - which has vexed writers for two centuries - lies at the core of the book and drove me to write it. There is, in fact, a good deal of ambiguity about what Burr was really intending to accomplish. The witnesses closest to Burr had big credibility problems: either they had a track record of telling lies, or they had powerful incentives to lie to save their own skins (a motive Burr shared).
"So solving the central riddle was a fascinating exercise in ferreting out the evidence and sifting it. I concluded that Burr fostered much of the confusion about his goals both to protect himself if the plan went awry (as it did) and so he could adjust the plan in mid-flight as opportunities shifted. In short, he was hoping to do as much, or as little, as he could get away with. If it involved creating a new American empire, then so be it."
The cover for Burr's expedition was one of settlement. He maintained that he was leading young men to the Ouachita River to property claimed by a Dutchman known as Baron de Bastrop. In exchange for land, Bastrop had made a deal with the Spanish in the late 1700s to settle 500 families on a million acres that included present day Morehouse Parish in northeastern Louisiana. Stewart described the property as "largely virgin meadow and forest between the present cities of El Dorado, Arkansas, and Bastrop, Louisiana," anchored on the east bank of the Ouachita River.
In November of 1804, William Dunbar of Natchez arrived on Bastrop's plantation settlement above Fort Miro (Monroe). Dunbar had heard stories about the great prospects for settlement on Bastrop's property but the reality was much different.
He found three merchants who overcharged the few settlers in the region for their supplies and underpaid them for their peltries. The little village included only two small planters and a couple of tradesmen and their families. While a few farmers made a decent living, most of the settlers were "extremely poor," Dunbar wrote in his journal. On his return to Natchez, he shared the news.
Stewart reports that in 1806 Burr acquired 350,000 acres of the Bastrop tract for $35,000 (10 cents per acre), putting down $5,000 in cash and going into debt for the rest. Stewart writes that although the baron's project failed and he never obtained legal title, that didn't stop "the smooth-talking Bastrop" from initiating "a series of transactions that illuminate the slack ethical standards of frontier land deals. Speculators often swapped rights to far-off lands that neither party had seen."
But, Stewart reports, Burr could have cared less. The Bastrop tract was a cover for a grander scheme, one that Burr would develop as opportunity and circumstances dictated. Even Supreme Court Judge John Marshall, who presided over Burr's treason trial in Virginia, found that Burr did not consider "the Ouachita as his real ultimate object" when he journeyed down the Mississippi in 1806-07.
"The Southwest was key to Burr's hopes and plans," Stewart told the Sentinel. "The planters of Natchez were particularly receptive to his ideas about invading West Florida and Mexico (both Spanish possessions), and they were open to the possibility of secession. The Natchez and Ouachita areas were very far from the center of the United States, and the people felt that distance in their daily lives.
"The people on the frontier tended to be hardy folks who were open to adventures of the sort that Burr was proposing. Burr's connection to these frontier people reflected the complexity of his own character. He always lived in urban settings and had a cosmopolitan outlook, yet was equal to rugged outdoor living. He accomplished several multi-week journeys through the wilderness of the Southwest -- and during the Revolutionary War, through the Maine and Canadian woods in winter -- that would have finished off men like Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton."
At Bruinsburg, Burr learned that Wilkinson had turned on him and was denying any involvement in the conspiracy. Believing that Burr would make it as far down river as New Orleans, where there was support for war against Spain, Wilkinson raced into the city and used his military authority to arrest and jail alleged co-conspirators -- judges, lawyers and a newspaper editor. He confiscated mail from the post office and created a "police state," Stewart writes.
In Natchez, Burr stayed with a former Continental Army officer named Benijah Osman, who posted half of Burr's bond after his arrest. While here, the 50-year-old widower was honored with parties and even courted a young woman named Madeline Price. Although a territory grand jury failed to indict him, he fled Natchez in fear that Wilkinson's men would arrest or assassinate him. Wilkinson so wanted Burr in his hands, Stewart writes, that the general offered a federal Indian agent $5,000 to apprehend Burr, a sum Stewart writes would equal $200,000 today.
Yet "Burr was his own worst enemy," Stewart says. "His penchant for secrecy and air of mystery made his actions and ideas seem more objectionable than they might have if he had discussed them openly. Burr saw nothing wrong with states seceding from the Union. After all, the American colonies had (in effect) seceded from the British Empire.
"Strikingly, even Thomas Jefferson thought the Western states might secede from the union, and proclaimed himself untroubled by the prospect. It's important to remember that Burr always saw himself as a morally upright person. He was a determined nonpartisan in political matters; indeed, his political fortunes were injured by his willingness to form friendships and alliances with those in the Federalist Party...He almost entirely refrained from making negative comments about his adversaries -- something that (Alexander) Hamilton did several times before he got out of bed in the morning."
One unique thing about Burr throughout his life, says Stewart, was that he "held the strong belief that women were the equals of men and should have equal rights and opportunities. He was dismayed by the poor education given to young women and made sure that his daughter (Theodosia) was the best-educated woman in America. He kept a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft, the English advocate of women's rights, over his fireplace."
Yet Burr was so "unrelentingly ambitious" that his ambition "could not be concealed," says Stewart. "When combined with his air of mystery, that obvious ambition ended up limiting him."
Despite Jefferson's meddling in Burr's trial, the vice-president was found guilty of nothing due primarily to Judge Marshall's desire to insure that Burr's rights as an individual were protected. Yet Burr was left financially and politically ruined and in many circles, despised.
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