It’s early morning on July 11th, 1804 in Weehawken, New Jersey; and a duel is about to begin.
Dr. David Hosack stands on the banks of the Hudson River. From down here, Hosack can’t see what’s happening up on the cliffs above. And that’s the entire point. Dueling is illegal in many parts of the country. So Hosack is here, at the edge of the water, so he can maintain plausible deniability.
The sound of a gunshot pierces the air. Hosack wonders which man shot first, and whether they fired in the air to make peace, or took deadly aim. Neither would surprise him. After all, these two men despise each other. But Dr. Hosack is not here to take sides. He’s here in case someone gets hurt. And he prays his services won’t be needed.
After a second shot, Hosack hears cries of ‘help’ from above.
He rushes up the ledge. And when he arrives at the dueling ground, one of the men has already fled the scene. The other lies in the arms of a friend, bleeding and writhing in pain.
Hosack quickly strips off the man’s shirt and examines his gushing wound. The man isn’t breathing. He barely has a pulse. Hosack and the friend quickly hoist up the wounded man, and carry him to shore.
They put him inside a small rowboat and push out into the open river bound for New York. Hosack hopes the man will make it. But seeing his lifeless face, Hosack worries that the wounded dueller - former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton - will not survive.
The duel between Hamilton and his opponent, Aaron Burr, will go down as one of the most infamous moments in American History. Hamilton and Burr were longtime political rivals. But the disagreement was a matter of honor. Hamilton had used unguarded language about Burr, calling him “dangerous”. Burr eventually responded by challenging Hamilton to a duel. The details of what really happened on that cliff in Weehawken - of who fired first, and who had murderous intent - will be the subject of debate for centuries. But the outcome is clear. Hamilton is dead. And Burr, the Vice President of the United States, is a fugitive of justice. But Burr’s legal woes are just beginning. At the time of the duel, Burr has already planted the seeds of a dubious plan.
After finishing his duties as vice president, Burr will set his sights on the newly forged frontier of the American West. He will raise money and manpower, form alliances, and rally support for a scheme to break away from the United States and start a new nation in the new west. Burr’s allegedly treasonous actions will place him in the sights of the law and thrust him into a legal battle that will come to an end with a controversial verdict on September 1st, 1807.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
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Today is September 1st, 1807: Aaron Burr is Acquitted of Treason.
Act One: The Plot Forms
It’s late at night in May 1804, about two months before the infamous duel.
Vice President Aaron Burr sits at a table in his dimly lit study across from a powerful Army officer: General James Wilkinson.
Wilkinson called this secret meeting because he wants Burr’s patronage as he angles to be the Governor of the newly acquired Louisiana Territory. Burr was more than willing to sit down with his old acquaintance. Because Wilkinson has something Burr needs, too: maps.
Recently, America bought the Louisiana Territory from the French for 15 million dollars; the purchase doubled the size of the country; with the new lands stretch from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border. And nearly all of it is up for grabs.
Vice President Burr knows his future is not in Washington. Burr has long since fallen out of favor with President Jefferson and his political party, the Democratic-Republicans. Back in February, the party’s caucus unanimously voted to make Jefferson the nominee for a second term. They were equally unanimous in their decision to remove Burr from the ticket. Burr’s career in D.C. is over, but the discarded Vice President sees a chance to start over in the West.
But he needs Wilkson’s help. Wilkinson has just come from New Orleans, where he was one of two American officers who officially accepted the Louisiana Territory from the French. Wilkinson has a lot of inside information about the new lands, as well as the best and latest maps. Today, Wilkinson spreads them out on the table. He and Burr discuss their mutual interest in exploiting the newly acquired territory.
And eventually, Burr and Wilkinson come up with the beginnings of a plan, the full details are cloudy, even today; but the end goal is to carve out lands in the new territory and start a new nation.
But Burr doesn’t have the chance to put his plan in motion; not long after his meeting with Wikinson, his life is turned upside down. After getting into a war of words with his longtime foe Alexander Hamilton, Burr demands satisfaction.
The infamous duel in Weehawken ends in death for Hamilton, and infamy for Burr. He is charged with murder in New York and New Jersey, though the charges against him are eventually dropped. Improbably, he will finish out his duties as Vice President before heading west to advance his scheme.
In the spring of 1805, Former Vice President Aaron Burr sits down with a Kentucky Congressman named Matthew Lyons. Burr knows why Lyons has asked for this meeting: he wants Burr to make a run for Congress; perhaps in nearby Tennessee.
But while Lyon makes his pitch, Burr shakes his head no. He’s done with United States politics, and his political party is done with him, and is President Jefferson; especially after the duel. But Lyons is insistent. He says western voters have no love for Alexander Hamilton. If anything, in a place like Tennessee, the duel will be a badge of honor.
Burr is flattered, but he’s just not interested. He does have plans out west, he adds, but his aims are much higher than Congress. Curious, Lyons asks Burr what he means. And in response, Burr simply smiles.
Since leaving office, Burr’s been focused on getting his western scheme off the ground. He’s explored all manner of possibilities. He's reached out to a British official and offered to help Britain peel off Western territory from the US. In exchange, Burr asked for money and ships to carry out the conquest. He hasn’t received a reply.
Still, Burr has no intention of waiting around. He’s already begun working on another option; a plan he can pull off without the help of a foreign government. Raising an army himself and launching an invasion into Spanish territory.
Soon, Burr embarks on his Western expedition. He secures a barge, travels up and down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers taking meetings and advancing his scheme. Over the next year, Burr is constantly on the move, raising supplies, money, and men, until finally, he is ready.
In the summer of 1806, he writes a letter in cipher to his chief co-conspirator, General Wilkinson, informing him that he’s “commenced the enterprise''. He lets Wilkinson know that in a matter of months, men “from different points and under different pretenses will rendezvous at a discreet location on the Ohio River.” Burr is expecting thousands of men to join him on his mission to glory and fortune. And Burr is confident his plan will succeed; in no small part because he has a General on his side.
But Burr will soon discover that Wilkinson is not who he appears to be. In addition to being an army officer and the Governor of the Louisiana Territory, Wilkinson is a spy on the payroll of the Spanish Empire. But Wilkinson’s true loyalty is not to Spain, or Burr; but rather to himself. Word of Burr’s plot has been getting around. Fearing the consequences if things go wrong, Wilkinson breaks faith, abandons the scheme, and betrays Burr to the US Government.
Act Two: Burr is caught
It’s November 25th, 1806 at the White House.
President Thomas Jefferson sits at his desk, his face flush with anger. In his clenched hands, he holds a letter from General James Wilkinson accusing Aaron Burr of treason.
Jefferson has heard all sorts of whispers about his former Vice President. Some say Burr is trying to convince western states to break away from the Union. Others say he has designs to invade Mexico. Others still say he has plans to march on Washington. Jefferson has no love for Burr, but he always assumed these rumors were nothing but baseless political attacks. But now, he learns the truth.
Jefferson grips the letter tightly in his hand as he reads Wilkinson’s warning. The general writes, “this is indeed a deep, dark, and widespread conspiracy.” In the letter, Wilkinson is short on specifics, but broadly, he alleges that Burr is planning to invade Spanish territory.
Jefferson is furious. Two days later, he issues a proclamation to the nation, warning of a nefarious conspiracy; an unlawful military enterprise against Spain. Jefferson makes it clear that he will not allow the conspiracy to move forward. He encourages law enforcement at all levels to do what they have to do to bring it to an end.
One month later, on December 28th, Aaron Burr stands on the banks of the Ohio River.
He silently inspects the assembled force standing before him. These men traveled here from all parts of the West. They came here, largely by boat. Some for money. Some for glory. Some were drawn by the legend of the Burr name, the first Vice President to travel this far west, and the man who killed Alexander Hamilton.
As Burr sizes up his men, he’s deeply frustrated. Burr was expecting thousands to show up. But now, after countless months of tireless recruitment, this ragtag band of less than 100 men is all he has to show for his efforts.
Burr knows that these men have come here on faith alone. They don’t know much about Burr’s intentions. They’ve been told they will be making a journey south into Spanish territory. Many assume they will be launching raids and laying claim to lands. But no one is entirely sure what they’re doing, or what the plan is. That’s fine by Burr. He has to be careful what he says. He doesn’t know these men. Which means he doesn’t trust them.
Soon, Burr steps forward and breaks his silence. He thanks the men for coming. He tells them that soon enough, he will reveal the details of the plan. But he assures them that it is a noble cause, one they will be proud to be a part of.
Burr takes time to get to know the men, and once he’s confident they are a trustworthy lot, he does his best to inspire their confidence, winning them over with his famous charm. His efforts pay off. The men pledge their loyalty to Burr, and they promise to follow him wherever he leads. He tells them he will be leading them south, though he doesn’t specify where they’re going.
Burr’s plan hasn’t changed. He intends to march his army to New Orleans where General Wilkinson is waiting with his troops. There, the two men will combine forces and commence the invasion into the Spanish territory of Mexico. But even Burr and his men journey south down the Ohio and onto the Mississippi River, Burr's plans are falling apart.
In anticipation of Burr’s arrival in New Orleans, General Wilkinson will declare martial law. He will order the arrest of several of Burr’s conspirators and reach out to the Spanish military to alert them to Burr’s plans.
And soon, the authorities will close in. A heavily armed militia will catch up to Burr and his band of men. And under threat of force, Burr will be forced to surrender and face trial in a court of law on charges of treason.
Act Three: The Trial
It’s September 1st, 1807 at the capitol building in Richmond, Virginia.
The large meeting hall is packed to the brim with spectators who’ve come to see the end of the treason trial of the former Vice President of the United States.
Aaron Burr sits at the defendant’s table waiting to hear the jury’s verdict. But Burr isn’t nervous. He’s confident he’ll be acquitted; in no small part because Burr represented himself at trial. In addition to being an accomplished soldier and statesman, Burr is also a skilled lawyer. He assembled a team to help him, but Burr crafted and led his own defense. And now that the trial is nearly over, Burr likes his chances.
Burr knows that Article 3, Section 3, of the Constitution, reads: “no person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act…”
Throughout the trial, the prosecution presented plenty of evidence, but they could not produce “two witnesses” to any “overt act” of treason.
So now as the jury foreman stands to deliver the verdict, Burr grips the arms of his chair tightly and takes a deep breath. He closes his eyes and listens as the foreman says aloud: “not guilty.”
Burr exhales with relief as the crowd of onlookers erupts in cheers, sneers, and guffaws. Burr and his team of lawyers leap to their feet in celebration as the judge bangs the gavel calling for order. Burr has survived the legal challenge against him, but his trials and tribulations are still ongoing.
In the aftermath of his trial, he is again scorned in the press. His likeness is burned in effigy across the country. And he continues to face the threat of more legal troubles. So Burr flees the United States for Europe. He remains in exile for years, before returning to America to practice law. He settles in the same place his career began: New York, and lives there in relative obscurity till he passes away in September of 1836.
At the height of his career, Aaron Burr was considered by some to be the future of American politics. He was a brave soldier, a brilliant lawyer, and an accomplished statesman. In his time, many believed Burr had all of the necessary bonafides to one day be president of the United States. But his reputation was ruined when he shot Alexander Hamilton on the banks of the Hudson River and further darkened by the conspiracy he led which had him arrested and tried for treason, but acquitted on this day, September 1st, 1807.
Next onHistory Daily.September 2nd, 1666. The Great Fire of London begins in a bakery sparking an inferno that consumes the city.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Steven Walters.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.