Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division's First 100 Years

Subpoena served on Thomas Jefferson to testify at Aaron Burr's trial for treason, 13 June 1807.
(Aaron Burr Papers)


Although relationships between presidents and their vice-presidents have often been strained or at best perfunctory, the situation between Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and Aaron Burr (1756-1836) was perhaps even more tense than most. Both men had vied for the presidency in 1800 and received an equal number of votes, forcing the election into the House of Representatives, which, on the thirty-sixth ballot, elected Jefferson president and Burr vice-president. Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804), former secretary of the treasury and one of Burr's political rivals, played a key role in Jefferson's victory and later hindered Burr's bid for the New York governorship. While still vice-president, Burr retaliated by challenging Hamilton to a duel. On 11 July 1804, the two met at Weehawken, New Jersey, where Burr mortally shot Hamilton. The vice-president of the United States was indicted for murder in both New York and New Jersey, but the charges were later dropped.

After completing his term and discredited by the duel with Hamilton, Burr sought to regain political power by a filibustering adventure, which led instead to his indictment for treason. He was accused of leading an expedition to create an independent nation along the Mississippi River by separating territories from the United States and Spain. With Chief Justice John Marshall (1755-1835) sitting as circuit judge, Burr was tried for treason in federal court in Richmond, Virginia, in 1807. In the document displayed here, Burr sought to subpoena Jefferson, who was serving his second term as president, to produce documents for Burr's defense, including War Department orders and copies of the letter and other papers sent to Jefferson by Gen. James Wilkinson (1757-1825), Burr's co-conspirator who had betrayed Burr and alerted Jefferson to his former vice-president's scheme. Without directly confronting the judiciary, Jefferson refused to honor either this subpoena or the second one he received later in the summer. Instead he chose to supply only parts of some of the items requested and upheld the presidential right to withhold documents that could jeopardize the public interest. Burr was eventually acquitted for lack of evidence, a verdict many historians attribute to Marshall's jury instructions, which included a narrow interpretation of the Constitution's treason clause.

By mid-1808 Burr had exiled himself to Europe where he engaged in various filibustering schemes to overthrow Jefferson, unite France and Great Britain against the United States, and return Canada to France. In 1812, Burr returned to New York and resumed the practice of law. He died in 1836.

Janice E. Ruth, Manuscript Division

For Additional Information
For additional information on the Aaron Burr Papers, you can leave this site and read a summary catalog record for the collection.

Reproduction Number:
A19 (color slide)

Related Terms:
Arrest | Burr, Aaron (1756-1836) | Elections | Hamilton, Alexander (1757-1804) | Jefferson, Thomas (1743-1826) | Law | Marshall, John (1755-1835) | Presidents | Subpoena | Treason | Trials | Vice-Presidents | Wilkinson, James (1757-1825)

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