1805 Burr Not Guilty of Treason


After Burr's disgrace, he became involved in a scheme to cede western lands to Great Britain. Word of Burr's western activities reached President Jefferson, and he ordered treason charges be brought against Burr. Chief Justice Marshall, who also served as a circuit judge (something Supreme Court justices did for the first 100 year of the Republic's existence), became the presiding judge in the treason trial. Marshall, from the beginning of the trial, made it clear that treason could only be what Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution stated: Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their economies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court." In the course of the proceedings, the lawyers for Burr requested papers in the hands of President Jefferson. Marshall demanded that they be turned over, stating that, unless they endangered national security, they must be turned over. Burr was acquitted of the charges of treason.

After Aaron Burr the Vice President of the United States killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel he was indicted for murder and found guilty by a coroner's jury. Burr escaped to Philadelphia was he entered into negotiations with the British to break off the Louisiana Territory from the United States. Burr then involved General Wilkinson the commander of the American military in the plot. Burr next traveled west and tried to gain support for the plan. Word slowly spread eastward about Burrs activities. Initially Jefferson seemingly as unconcerned and did nothing. Soon however, word of Burrs actions had become too widespread for Jefferson to ignore. He finally ordered the arrest of Burr as well as all others who seemed to be involved with Burr. Burr was arrested.
Jefferson insisted that Burr be prosecuted for treason. The presiding judge was Justice Marshall. He at first dismissed the charge of treason but kept the charge of misdemeanor. The prosecution insisted in prosecuting Burr for treason. The trial went on for five months. Each day hundreds of Burr supporters accompanied him to the courthouse. The defense argued that under US law in order to be guilty of treason there had to be two be two actually witnesses to the act of treason and thus Burr could not be found guilty. Marshall agreed with the argument thus demolishing the case of high treason against Burr. Burr was also tried for misdemeanor treason where he was also found not guilty. The government would not give up and soon Burr was indicted for attempted to organize an army against a foreign nation-Spain. Burr fled before he could be tried again and lived many years in Europe until returning to the United States towards the end of his life.