The United States of Burr

By Keli Holt

When most people think of Aaron Burr, they remember him as the killer of Alexander Hamilton during a duel in 1804. What is often forgotten about Thomas Jefferson’s infamous vice president is his attempt to carve an independent country out of the western United States – including parts of New Mexico. No doubt he intended to accomplish this with himself as either president or king.

Some background: The earlier French and Indian War, from 1756-1763, cemented Britain’s role as the premier imperial power in North America. In the postwar treaty, France ceded control of Canada to Britain and gave its ally, Spain, control of the vast Louisiana Territory in return for the Spanish giving Florida to the British. The Louisiana Territory included parts of 14 states stretching from Louisiana to Montana, and including part of northeastern New Mexico. While French influence in America ended with its defeat in 1763, Spain still controlled most of South America, Mexico, and substantial parts of the American Southwest. The Spanish Empire, however, was in decline and unable to exert direct control over these territories. A tantalizing power vacuum opened in the American West. Of course, the European imperial powers gave little thought to the Native tribes already inhabiting this vast area.

The British victories over France and its allies in 1763, however, almost bankrupt its exchequer just as the American West appeared ripe for further British conquest. To defray future defense costs, Britain forbade any colonial migration west of the Appalachian Mountains. The theory went that the less contact its colonists had with the Spanish, the remaining French, or Native Americans, the cheaper Britain could run its empire.

The British government, however, drastically underestimated the determination of its colonists to seek opportunity in the West when the Spanish and French threat had mostly disappeared. Americans simply ignored King George III’s “Proclamation of 1763,” banning the settlement of the American interior.

As defense costs mounted with increased migration, Britain decided it was time for Americans to share in the cost of their own protection. Already upset by the attempt to bottle them up along the Atlantic seaboard, Americans were further incensed at the new taxes, like the Stamp and Tea acts, which Britain dictated they now pay. The colonists did not have any representation in the British Parliament, and thus no colonist had agreed to these new “intolerable” taxes. Feeling like inferior British citizens, Americans declared independence. Men like Hamilton and Burr answered the call to arms and won independence for America. There was now little to slow American westward migration.

In 1783, Britain had lost its 13 colonies but still held onto Canada and Florida. Spain was in no position to take advantage of the British retreat from most of America as it faced demands for independence from Mexico and South America. In 1800, France, now under the control of Napoleon, tried to reconstitute its American Empire by reclaiming the Louisiana Territory from its Spanish ally that had been ceded in 1763. However, Napoleon overreached in America just as he had in Europe, and he was forced to sell the territory to President Jefferson in 1803. For roughly 4 cents an acre, the U.S. almost doubled in size overnight.

By the time Burr murdered Hamilton in 1804, America had already added the states of Tennessee, Ohio, Kentucky, and Vermont to its original 13. It was just a matter of time before even more states were carved out of the Louisiana Territory. Burr had to act quickly.

He crafted a plan that he believed both Spain and Britain would approve. Burr proposed to create an independent state in the American West that would act as a buffer among the British, Spanish, and Americans. Burr gambled that both Spain and Britain would support this state to keep the American republic weak. It was widely believed in Europe that the American experiment in republican government would collapse – as history dictated it would – and the British and Spanish wanted to be positioned to collect the pieces.

Burr sent letters to both Spanish and British contacts to gain international support, and he headed west to try and recruit men and materiel for his new country. Enough rumors reached Washington by 1807 about Burr’s attempt to claim some or all of the Louisiana Territory that he was arrested. Charged with treason, he was tried by the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall. Although his letters to the British authorities were produced at trial, Burr was found not guilty because the Constitution’s Treason Clause specifically dictated the testimony of two witnesses for treason.

The not guilty verdict finally ended the political career of Burr where the duel with Hamilton had not. Yet, the legacy of what could have been endured.

Keli Holt received a Bachelor’s in Classical History from Northwestern University and a Master’s in International Relations from Troy University while living in Japan teaching English. Raised in a small town south of Chicago, Keli has lived in Corrales since 2015 with her husband, three children, and their fur babies.

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