[BURR, Aaron (1756-1836), Vice President]. CLAIBORNE, William (1775-1817), Governor of the Louisiana Territory. Letter signed ("William C.C. Claiborne"), countersigned by General James Wilkinson (1757-1825), to Cowles Mead (1776-1844), Governor of the Mississippi Territory, New Orleans, 21 January 1807. 1 page, 4to (9 5/8 x 7 7/8 in.), integral address leaf, minor repairs, otherwise in very good condition.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE ARREST OF ARRON BURR, THE "ARCH TRAITOR"
A letter giving strongly worded directions for the immediate arrest of former Vice-President Burr, ironically countersigned by Burr's co-conspirator in his plot to create an independent nation in the southwest. After the nearly disastrous election crisis of 1800 (see notes to preceding lot), Burr served as Vice-President during Jefferson's first term. But in 1805, under indictment for murder in the death of Alexander Hamilton in their celebrated duel, Burr travelled into the western territories. There, in one of the most mysterious episodes of American history, he projected a scheme to instigate war with Spain and seize control of frontier lands to found an independent nation, with himself at the head. His grandiose scheme unraveled in 1806 when his fellow conspirator, the ambitious Wilkinson, revealed the plot (but not his role in it) to ingratiate himself with the Federal government.
Here, Governor Claiborne and Wilkinson authorize the Governor of the Mississippi Territory to arrest Burr: "Understanding that Aaron Burr has taken post within the Territory over which you preside, we cannot express our solicitude lest his pretentions to Innocence, and the arts which he may employ to delude and seduce our fellow Citizens from their duty to their Country, may be partially successful; we rely, however, with confidence on your exertions to seize the arch Traitor, and having done so...placing him without delay on board one of our armed vessels in the river with an order to the officer to descend with him to this City; or otherwise, if his followers be as numerous as is represented, it is probable it may not be in your power to bring him to trial." They warn Mead to exercise caution with the Spanish authorities to avoid an international incident: "We...advise you confidentially to keep a strict eye upon the Spaniards! Governor Folch is proceeding to Baton Rouge with four hundred men. His co-operation in repelling Burr and his associates is desirable, but in the uncertain and menacing state of affairs between the US and Spain, it is our duty to be vigilant, and to watch the movements of a foreign force which may lie in our vicinity."
Governor Mead immediately posted a $2000 reward for the capture of Burr, believed to be hiding in the hills of Western Mississippi. Burr, in disguise, stopped at the farmhouse of Nicholas Perkins, a rural attorney, to ask directions. Perkins, though, had read the Governor's proclamation and remembered that Burr's description emphasized that his eyes "sparkled like diamonds" (Lomask, Aaron Burr, the Conspiracy and Years of Exile, p. 222). The lawyer, suspecting that the stranger was, indeed, the fugitive Vice President, informed the local sheriff, who arrested Burr that night. Burr was sent under escort to Richmond to be tried on two charges; high treason and a misdemeanor (mounting a military expedition against the King of Spain). En route, just as Claiborne and Wilkinson feared, he attempted to escape by leaping from his horse and appealing to a crowd at a rural tavern for protection and only remounted his horse at gunpoint.
In Burr's two highly publicized trials, over which Chief Justice John Marshall presided, the jury acquitted Burr of all charges due to the lack of evidence.
Provenance: Paul C. Richards, 1980.