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The Treason Trial of Aaron Burr, Former VP

Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION ?American history in VOA Special English.

Aaron Burr was vice president of the United States. His term came to an end in eighteen hundred and five. He was heavily in debt and his political future did not look promising.

Burr was not without plans, however. For some time, he had been considering an idea. He wanted to seize Mexico from Spain. Burr made secret deals with a number of people. He told them different things to get their help or their money for his plan.


What was Aaron Burr's real goal? Was it to seize Mexico? Or was it to create a country of his own out of some of America's western lands? The facts are not clear.

This week in our series, Shirley Griffith and Steve Ember tell about Burr's secret activities, and the trial that ended them.
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Burr traveled west in the spring of eighteen-oh-five. His trip would take him down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to the port city of New Orleans. In that city, he talked with a number of rich, powerful men. He explained his plan. And he found support among those who wished to end Spanish control of Mexico.

Burr was then ready to return east and put his plan into action.

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On the way back, Burr stopped in Saint Louis to see General James Wilkinson, governor of the Louisiana Territory. Wilkinson was plotting with Burr.

At the same time, however, Wilkinson was spying for Spain. He did not want to lose the money Spain paid him for information. So he began to think about how he could pull out of Burr's plan.

He advised Burr that it might be best to forget Mexico, that perhaps the time was not right. He offered to help Burr get back into politics as a congressman from Indiana.

Burr rejected Wilkinson's offer. He was not yet ready to give up his dream about Mexico.
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Burr had hoped to begin his move against Mexico in the spring of eighteen-oh-six. Without money, however, he could do nothing.

He tried to get money from people who might be interested in sharing the riches of Mexico. But he was not successful. Nor did he get the money and ships he had asked earlier from Britain.

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War between the United States and Spain was an important part of Burr's plan. Should there be such a war, Burr was sure the men of the western lands would join him against the Spanish in Mexico. Without war, the campaign might fail.

Burr received bad news after he returned to Washington.

He met with President Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson made clear that there would be no war with Spain.

After his meeting with Jefferson, Burr began to make new plans. He would forget the idea of invading Mexico -- at least temporarily. Instead, he said he would build a settlement in Louisiana and wait for a better time.
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While Aaron Burr had been traveling in the west, stories began to spread about his activities. Newspaper reports came close to accusing him of plotting to split the Union. People seemed willing to believe the reports. This was the situation General Wilkinson would use to pull out of Burr's plan.

Wilkinson wrote a letter to President Jefferson. He claimed that a force of ten thousand men was moving toward New Orleans. He said it was part of a campaign against Mexico. He gave details of the campaign, but claimed he did not know who was leading it. He warned the president that the force might try to seize Louisiana as well as Mexico.

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It was not the first letter Jefferson received about Burr's Mexican campaign. Nor was it the first to say that Burr was, in fact, planning to split some western states from the Union. But, unlike the other letters, Jefferson accepted Wilkinson's as firm evidence against Burr.

The president called a cabinet meeting to discuss what should be done. The result of the meeting was this: all American military commanders were ordered to stop Burr.

President Jefferson then made a public declaration. He said a private military campaign was about to begin against the Spanish, and that anyone involved should leave it immediately. The declaration did not speak of Aaron Burr by name.

VOICE TWO:

Jefferson also spoke of the private military campaign in his yearly State of the Union message to Congress. Congress asked for more information. In a special message, the president said Burr had several plans. One was to split the western states from the Union. Another was to seize Mexico. He said Burr wanted to make people believe he was building a settlement in Louisiana. But, he said, that was just a trick.

The president said Burr had discovered that the people of the western states would not support any attempt to take them out of the Union. So, the president said, Burr had decided to capture New Orleans. Jefferson said there was no question that Burr was guilty.
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