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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

But knew him for a better man than Burr


But

this was not to take place until the loyalty of the West had first been tried by a strange and sinister temptation.

Aaron Burr had been elected Vice-President coincidently with Jefferson's election as President; but his ambition was far from satisfied. He was determined to make another bid for the higher place, and as a preliminary he put himself forward as candidate for the Governorship of New York State. It was as favourable ground as he could find to try the issue between himself and the President, for New York had been the centre of his activities while he was still an official Democrat, and her favour had given him his original position in the party. But he could not hope to succeed without the backing of those Federalist malcontents who had nearly made him President in 1800. To conciliate them he bent all his energies and talents, and was again on the point of success when Hamilton, who also belonged to New York State, again crossed his path. Hamilton urged all the Federalists whom he could influence to have nothing to do with Burr, and, probably as a result of his active intervention, Burr was defeated.

Burr resolved that Hamilton must be prevented from thwarting him in the future, and he deliberately chose a simple method of removing him. He had the advantage of being a crack shot. He forced a private quarrel on Hamilton, challenged him to a duel, and killed him.

He

can hardly have calculated the effect of his action: it shocked the whole nation, which had not loved Hamilton, but knew him for a better man than Burr. Duelling, indeed, was then customary among gentlemen in the United States, as it is to-day throughout the greater part of the civilized world; but it was very rightly felt that the machinery which was provided for the vindication of outraged honour under extreme provocation was never meant to enable one man, under certain forms, to kill another merely because he found his continued existence personally inconvenient. That was what Burr had done; and morally it was undoubtedly murder. Throughout the whole East Burr became a man marked with the brand of Cain. He soon perceived it, but his audacity would not accept defeat. He turned to the West, and initiated a daring conspiracy which, as he hoped, would make him, if not President of the United States, at least President of something.

What Burr's plan, as his own mind conceived it, really was it is extremely difficult to say; for he gave not only different but directly opposite accounts to the various parties whom he endeavoured to engage in it. To the British Ambassador, whom he approached, he represented it as a plan for the dismemberment of the Republic from which England had everything to gain. Louisiana was to secede, carrying the whole West with her, and the new Confederacy was to become the ally of the Mother Country. For the Spanish Ambassador he had another story. Spain was to recover predominant influence in Louisiana by detaching it from the American Republic, and recognizing it as an independent State. To the French-Americans of Louisiana he promised complete independence of both America and Spain. To the Westerners, whom he tried to seduce, exactly the opposite colour was given to the scheme. It was represented as a design to provoke a war with Spain by the invasion and conquest of Mexico; and only if the Federal Government refused to support the filibusters was the West to secede. Even this hint of hypothetical secession was only whispered to those whom it might attract. To others all thought of disunion was disclaimed; and yet another complexion was put on the plot. The West was merely to make legitimate preparations for the invasion of Mexico and Florida in the event of certain disputes then pending with Spain resulting in war. It was apparently in this form that the design was half disclosed to the most influential citizen and commander of the militia in the newly created State of Tennessee, Andrew Jackson, the same that we saw as a mere school-boy riding and fighting at Hanging Rock.


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