Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 61 Trial for Treason

AS though Jefferson did not have enough to bedevil him in his foreign relations, the treason trial of Aaron Burr ran like a scarlet thread through the entire year of 1807 and exacerbated his personal emotions to an extent that perhaps exceeded his preoccupation even with the Chesapeake affair and its ominous consequences. Just as Hamilton had been the bête noire of his earlier career, so Burr now became the lightning rod on whom he discharged his wrath and frustrations.

It is obvious that at no time had Jefferson considered the alleged "conspiracy," even as magnified by rumor, as a serious threat to the stability of the Union; while there is evidence that he knew more of Burr's real purposes with respect to Mexico and elsewhere than he later pretended. Nor was Burr any longer the political threat to his continued grasp of the Republican-or, as it was now gradually beginning to be called, the Democratic party-that he might have been in the first days of his administration. Nevertheless, Jefferson was determined to Crush him and even, if one must judge only from his outer utterances, to hang him. What may well have intensified his current hatred of the man who had helped elect him President was the sudden interest that the Federalists showed in the case, and his fear that the old combination of Burr and New England might still give him serious trouble. And, as Chief Justice Marshall gradually became enmeshed in the proceedings, a new possibility rose to haunt him-that the judiciary he hated might emerge with more sweeping powers than before powers that must bring the nation back to that monocratic form he saw lurking in every corner.

The true reason for the vindictiveness with which he pursued the fallen man may be found in his comment to Cabell: "This insurrection [ Burr's] will probably show that the fault in our constitution is not that the Executive has too little power, but that the Judiciary either has too much, or holds it under too little responsibility."1 What started out, indeed, as a personal contest between Jefferson and Burr shortly broadened into the more significant contest between Jefferson and the Judiciary, as exemplified in the person of John Marshall.

When he first heard that Burr was being carried a prisoner to Richmond, he gave vent to two inconsistent observations. In one he declared that " Burr has indeed made a most inglorious exhibition of his much overrated talents. He is now on his way to Richmond for trial."2 The following day he wrote in different vein: " Burr is now on his way to Richmond for

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