Between the Lines: The Burr Conspiracy

Feb 16, 2018

Contemporary engraving of the duel in which Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton
Credit Wikimedia Commons

In 1805 and 1806, former vice-president Aaron Burr traveled through the Trans-Appalachian West, gathering support for a mysterious enterprise. It led to his arrest and trial for treason in 1807. Was he guilty? Or was it simply a conspiracy theory? Kalamazoo College history professor James E. Lewis, Jr. introduces readers to Aaron Burr in his new book, The Burr Conspiracy: Uncovering the Story of an Early American Crisis (Princeton University Press, 2017).


“Aaron Burr was a very fascinating figure,” Lewis says. “He came from a prominent, well connected family. The classic person to compare him to is Alexander Hamilton, who he killed in a duel in the summer of 1804. Hamilton’s parentage was very uncertain; his parents weren’t married and he came from the Caribbean. Burr is the exact opposite. He comes from a good family line. His parents die when he is very young but he is left with uncles who are also well connected. He’s prominent in the Revolution. He leads an invasion into Canada in 1775 and he rises to the rank of colonel in the Revolution. Then he’s a lawyer in New York and becomes very active in New York State politics.”

In the election of 1800, Burr became vice-president in the administration of President Thomas Jefferson. Lewis says at that time, the president and vice-president were the two candidates who got the most votes, and weren't necessarily in the same party or shared the same political views.

Credit Princeton University Press

“I called the book The Burr Conspiracy and use the term throughout the book because that’s what everyone has always called it,” Lewis says. “But nobody really knows whether there was a conspiracy then or not. It is clear that Burr was in contact with various men, that he was telling them stories about what he intended to do, that he was expressing these grand plans, and that he had people I think we could safely describe as his agents, meeting other people, buying provisions. Burr was traveling around, having boats built to use on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and he was sending letters, so there is something.”

But even without solid evidence, Jefferson demanded that Burr return to Washington D.C. and be tried for treason but he was eventually acquitted. Lewis says many people during the new Republic's early days expected that the continent would splinter into several countries. Despite has acquittal, feelings against Burr ran high in the nation's capital, and his political career was essentially over.

Other books by James E. Lewis include The Louisiana Purchase: Jefferson’s Noble Bargain? and John Quincy Adams: Policymaker for the Union.

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