Aaron Burr, the man who tried to create a new country in the early 19th century with parts of the US and Spain

History is full of characters who risked it by carrying out very ambitious bets; As usually happens in such cases, success or failure is what determines that its protagonists go down to posterity with letters of gold or as outlandish figures, and the American Aaron Burr is part of that second group. It is not for less, since it crashed into a plan that was as unprecedented as it was difficult at the beginning of the 19th century: to break off the southwestern United States and part of what was then still the Viceroyalty of New Spain to found a new independent country.

The son of a Presbyterian reverend and grandson of a famous Calvinist theologian, Burr seemed predestined for the religious office and therefore entered Princeton University to study Theology. However, he abandoned that career for Law, which he took a long time to finish because the outbreak of the War of Independence led him to place himself under the orders of General Benedict Arnold. During the conflict, he participated in the Canadian campaign of 1775, from which he returned promoted to captain and made a hero, which caused George Washington to incorporate him into his staff.

He did not get along with the future president and preferred to return to the front, obtaining the position of lieutenant colonel two years later. But in 1779 a heart attack forced him to lay down his arms and resume his law books, beginning to practice as a lawyer in New York in 1782, just after the departure of the British. That same year he married the widow of a Royal Navy officer, with whom he had a daughter. The marriage lasted twelve years, until the woman died of cancer.

Meanwhile Burr began a political career by being elected Attorney General of New York and senator for the Democratic-Republican Party. Even Jefferson proposed him for the vice presidency but in the end the candidacy of John Adams prevailed. However, Burr would get the position in 1799 by collaborating decisively in Jefferson’s electoral triumph. Of course, the new president distrusted his ambition and managed to gradually remove him from the decisions; This led to a confrontation between Burr and Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, creator of the first political party of the newborn United States (the Federal) and cause of the so-called Whiskey Rebellion, which ended with the former killing him in a pistol duel.

The duel between Burr and Hamilton/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

In what was the first of many affairs he would have with the law, Burr had to flee to South Carolina accused of murder, although the case did not prosper and he was able to return to Washington. Of course, his political career faltered and he also began to have financial difficulties. Perhaps these circumstances influenced what would be the beginning of the great adventure of his biography and one of the most unique episodes in US history: the conspiracy, which today bears his name, to create a new country with the secession of territories from USA and the Viceroyalty of New Spain.

The matter is not very clear and not all historians believe that there was such a plan. It began in 1804 when Burr allegedly suggested to the British ambassador Anthony Merry the possibility of recovering part of his American colonies in exchange for the supply of arms, help from the Royal Navy, and funds (half a million dollars) for an expedition he planned with in order to separate Louisiana from the Union. London delayed his response and in 1806 Merry was ordered to return to his country, but not before Burr warned him that the operation would be carried out with or without Great Britain.

The previous year he had traveled through the territory in question, contacting followers such as Harman Blennerhassett, a landowner who provided significant financial assistance. On an island owned by him, weapons and supplies were stored while volunteers were recruited to attack the Spanish viceroyalty, which at that time was beginning to suffer the first outbreaks of independence, for which there was a group of Creoles willing to support the expedition.

It must be borne in mind that, at that time, approximately half of what is now the US belonged to Spain, after the US had just finished off the Louisiana Purchase; It was an immense governorate (two million and a quarter square kilometers west of the Mississippi River) ceded to Charles III by the Treaty of Paris (1763) to compensate for the loss of Florida, but later (1803) it was returned to France by the Treaty of San Ildefonso. Said return was made in 1803 and Napoleon sold it to Jefferson that same year for fifteen million dollars.

The fact is that Aaron Burr had leased some one hundred and sixty square kilometers of Texas from the Spanish crown to dedicate them to cultivation and also contacted the ambassador Carlos Martínez de Irujo y Tacón to expose his plan to dismember the United States, which was beginning to be seen as a country of great potential. Irujo collaborated financially, although without permission from Madrid. However, Burr’s activities did not go unnoticed by the Governor of Ohio, who, considering them suspicious, ordered the state militia to storm the island that served as his base.

The ringleaders managed to escape and contact General James Wilkinson, then Governor of Louisiana, who also joined Burr’s plan and promised to send them troops, since the imminence of an insurrection in the viceroyalty floated in the air and an attempt had to be made. to benefit. However Wilkinson was a very ambiguous character who in 1780 had already tried the secession of Kentucky and Tennessee; Upon learning of some armed incidents with Spanish forces, he feared the dimensions that all this could reach and his responsibility (later it was learned that he was also in the pay of Spain), ending up denouncing his associates.

At first Jefferson did not give credibility to the accusation, mainly because he did not compromise the Democratic-Republican Party. But Kentucky Attorney General Joseph Hamilton Daveiss filed charges against the former vice president. With a jury rejecting a trial for lack of evidence, Wilkinson was compromised, so he turned over correspondence he had had with Burr, some of which was encrypted; it seems that he also manipulated some texts.

The fact is that they implied that, in addition to trying to provoke a war with Spain, Burr was conspiring against the United States. Jefferson then ordered the arrest of those involved, who at that time were moving up the Mississippi with his army. In Bayou Pierre, near New Orleans, they found out everything and decided to turn themselves in; although Burr attempted an escape in 1807 he was recaptured and sent to Richmond, Virginia, for trial.

Surprisingly, he was acquitted of treason, since conspiring did not imply that charge and he also insisted on denying everything. On the other hand, the accusation of leading a military expedition against Spain without the authorization of Congress and violating the Neutrality Act it was also dissolved because Jefferson had delivered blank permits and this implied that neither Burr had full responsibility nor the campaign had to be against Spain (apart from the fact that, in general, a war against it was welcomed by the entire country). To make matters worse, it turned out that the troops barely numbered eighty men with hunting rifles and that on the island of Blennerhassett not as much material was found as had been said.

Treatise on Adam-Onís/Image: Wikimedia Commons

Wilkinson, whose letter was shown to have been partially forged, would end up before a court-martial four years later and, after being pardoned and participating in a new campaign against Canada, retired, dying in 1825; in the newborn Mexico, paradoxically. Harman Blennerhassett, who was in prison during the trial, eventually moved to Montreal to practice law before going to the English island of Guernsey, where he died in 1831. The border between the US and Spain remained unchanged and was established by the Treaty of Adam-Onís between 1819 and 1821, by which Spanish sovereignty over Texas was ratified in exchange for the cession of Florida.

As for Aaron Burr, once all the mess was over, his political life ended for good, of course. The accumulated debts made him leave the US in 1808; he went first to England, from where he was expelled for insisting on seeking support for his failed enterprise, and then to France, to unsuccessfully ask Napoleon for the same. That tour, in which he also visited Scotland, Denmark and Sweden, ended up completely ruining him and he was not able to return to his country until 1811.

To avoid his creditors, he changed his last name (he adopted Edwards) and remarried a wealthy woman, although she left him after four months when she saw the rate at which his capital began to decline. The following year he lost his daughter in a shipwreck and resumed the legal profession in New York. His death reached eighty years of age, on September 14, 1836, so he had time to see the independence of Texas; as he said himself “What to me was treason thirty years ago is now patriotism.”


Sources

Aaron Burr. Conspiracy to Treason (Buckner F. Melton)/duel. Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the future of America (Thomas Fleming)/Fallen founder. The life of Aaron Burr (Nancy Isenberg)/Cipher/Code of dishonour. Aaron Burr, an American Enigma (Alan J. Clark)/The treasure trial of Aaron Burr. Law, politics and the character wars of the new nation (R. Kent Newmyer)/Wikipedia / The Life of Aaron Burr (Samuel L. Knapp).