“I began to think that all was not right. He said that with two hundred men he could drive congress, with the president at its head, into the river Potomac, . . .and he said with five hundred men he could take possession of New York….”
Colonel John Morgan, written testimony, 1807, the Burr Conspiracy
In grade school we watched a film titled, “The Man Without A Country.” Taken from a story by Edward Everett Hale, the tale tells of an American soldier named Philip Nolan. Nolan, a fictitious character had been arrested as a conspirator in a scheme to seize a chunk of the Louisiana Purchase and secede from the Union. At his trial an angry Nolan pitched a fit and shouted “Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!”
The presiding judge agreed with Nolan’s outburst and sentenced him to never hear of, nor set foot in the United States again. Serving his time, Nolan spends the rest of his days transferred from one Naval vessel to another, never permitted to see the shoreline again. By the end of this sad tale, Nolan grieves his error, and Hale has him express his regrets, and the majesty of our democracy.
Though just a little kid, that film struck me as a nightmare, a true horror story. (I was a history-geek before I knew I was a history-geek). The sadness remains with me now.
Hale set his patriotic tale against an actual event, the Burr Conspiracy, (1805-1807). Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson’s rival and Vice President had killed Alexander Hamilton in 1804, and resigned as Vice President in 1805. Heading west beyond the Appalachians, Burr allegedly hatched a plot to capture a southern piece of the Louisiana Purchase, and Mexican Texas. It was said Burr planned to install himself as a sovereign of a new nation, with New Orleans as his capital. A co-conspirator, General James Wilkinson, turned on Burr, and spilled the beans to President Jefferson. The outraged President promptly dispatched soldiers to apprehend Colonel Burr.
In a Virginia court Burr was indicted for treason, and soon put on trial in Richmond. The Judge, Chief Justice John Marshall presided.
Burr remained serene throughout the trial, and denied the charges against him. Jefferson, meanwhile breathed fire, demanding Justice Marshall convict. Marshall, a brilliant student of American Law, subpoenaed the President to testify, and that pissed off Jefferson even more.
In a letter to the court Jefferson insisted British Common Law sufficed for conviction. That advice would place Burr in the vicinity of a seditious act, and lead to a quick guilty verdict. Marshall, however, relied on the recent Constitutional definition.
Article III, Section 3, Clause 1,
Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to the Enemies, 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.
At the end of this saga Burr was acquitted, Jefferson’s opinion irrelevant to US Law. Without fear nor favor Marshall abided by the Constitution. Lacking eyewitness testimony to the act, Burr walked. Neither Wilkinson’s nor Colonel Morgan’s letters proved relevant.
This case, complicated, and circumstantial, tested the new Constitution, and the Constitution prevailed. Fictitious Nolan should perhaps have held his temper in check, but then there wouldn’t be a story.
For MAGA insurrectionists, inculpatory evidence is stacking up. We all bore witness to the ransacking of the Capitol, and the rest of the plot is coming to light. Archival documents, emails, phone conversations, sticky notes, fake electoral papers, and incompetent lawyers litter the January 6 landscape.
This time, under the language of Article III, there is no doubt of treason.
As Philip Nolan lay dying aboard a Navy vessel, he tells his comforter “Here, you see, I have a country!” A map of the United States is pinned to a wall at the foot of his bed. Nolan begs his visitor to draw in new states admitted since his long ago trial. A tragic yarn of regret to be sure.
In the end Aaron Burr faded into the fog of time. Due to a certain Broadway musical he has resurfaced. Did Burr engaged in treason? We’ll never know for certain. That he faded is important. America is more resilient than any one of us.
Though Philip Nolan is a character of fiction, and Burr an enduring mystery, the January 6th hoard will not fade. You aided another would-be tyrant, and you failed. Like Pearl Harbor, and 911, your treason will live in infamy, to borrow a phrase.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight. Both titles are available on Kindle. Chumbley has also penned two plays, “Clay,” regarding the life of Senator Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears” a look at American slavery and it beginnings.