Thursday, October 8, 2015

Breaking with Burr

Harman Blennerhassett, an Anglo-Irish aristocrat who emigrated to the US and got caught up in a 19th century land-grabbing conspiracy led by Aaron Burr, a former US vice-president, was born 150 years ago today. The plot was hatched with Blennerhassett’s money and while Blurr was staying at his estate on the Ohio river. President Thomas Jefferson ordered the conspirators to be arrested, and though eventually cleared of charges, Blennerhassett lost everything. From the first day of his arrest, he kept a journal, in which he detailed every twist and turn of the case, and his daily struggle to comprehend the enigmatic schemer, Burr.

Blennerhassett was born on 8 October 1765 in Hampshire, England, but, aged two, he returned to the family home, a large estate in County Kerry, Ireland. Later, he studied in London at Westminster School and Trinity College, Dublin, before reading law at the King’s Inns. He went on a grand tour of Europe, and then began to practice at the Irish bar. However, he preferred to cultivate his interests in science and literature. He also dabbled in politics, by joining the secret Society of United Irishmen, which aimed at securing independence from British control. After the death of his father, though, he wanted to escape the forthcoming rebellion against the British, so he divested the estate, amassing more than £100,000, and removed to London. Somewhat scandalously, he married his niece, Margaret Agnew, and, in 1796, they escaped to the United States.

Although planning to explore as far as Kentucky and Tennessee, Blennerhassett found himself much taken with an area along the Ohio river, where he spent time visiting families and exploring. The following spring, he bought 170 acres of an island in the river, downstream from what is now Parkersburg, West Virginia. There he built, with no expense spared, a European-style estate with a large mansion and landscaped lawns and gardens. For a period, it is said, the Blennerhassetts’ home became famous as the largest, most beautiful private residence in the American West, and was the scene of lavish parties. Blennerhassett continued his scientific, literary and music interests, but was also fond of hunting. Into this Eden, the Early America website says, there soon came a serpent!

During three sojourns at the estate, Aaron Burr, a former US vice president, planned a land-grabbing expedition to the southwest - possibly to separate the American west from the union, and to conquer Spanish Texas. The expedition, partly financed by Blennerhassett, was identified as a treasonous plot by Burr’s enemy, President Thomas Jefferson, who issued an arrest warrant for Burr, Blennerhassett and scores of other followers. In late 1806, the mansion and island were ransacked by local Virginia militia, and Blennerhassett fled. However, he was soon arrested, and then imprisoned in the Virginia state penitentiary. Only after a long trial and Burr’s acquittal was he released. Although he returned to the island, he could not afford to repair the damage; and the house was further ruined by a fire in 1811.

The Blennerhassetts settled on a cotton plantation near Port Gibson, Mississippi, but lost whatever had been left of their money. Thereafter, they moved to Montreal, Canada, where Blennerhassett tried to practice law, but, eventually, they returned to England, to live with family at Bath, before moving to the Channel Islands. There, Harman Blennerhassett died in 1831. Margaret returned to the US, to petition the government for compensation, and Congress decided to redress the grievance, but it was too late for she died at a New York City home for the poor. In the 1980s, the state of West Virginia undertook to restore the mansion, which opened to the public in 1991. ‘Today,’ the Early America website states, ‘the Blennerhassetts have reach an almost cult status in the Ohio River Valley. Plays and pageants remember and honor this couple that defied convention and for one shining moment established Eden.’ Further biographical information is also available at Wikipedia, and the Blennerhassett family tree website.

On the day Blennerhassett was taken into custody (at Lexington, Kentucky), 14 July 1807, he began to keep a detailed diary. He wrote in three notebooks 
(all now held by the Library of Congress), though the diary comes to an abrupt end in the third book with blank pages left. Most of the text was published in 1864, in William H. Safford’s The Blennerhassett Papers. This is freely available at Internet Archive. More recently, in 1988, the Blennerhassett’s diary was given a more thorough treatment in Raymond E. Fitch’s punningly-but-aptly titled Breaking with Burr - Harman Blennerhassett’s Journal 1807, published by Ohio University Press. According to Fitch, the edition by William H Safford in 1864 ‘does not accurately convey either the texture or the content of the original’ and he ‘suppressed passages of the journal which he evidently thought were distastefully personal or irrelevant to the objective progress of “historical” events.’

‘Blennerhassett’s journal, which records for his wife and a few friends the events and aftermath of the Burr trials, is an intimate yet often eloquent account,’ Ohio Univeristy Press says, ‘not only of the arguments, intrigues, and personalities involved, but also of the American social scene of the early nineteenth century. Included are striking vignettes and dramatic moments drawn from the diarist’s visits to Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. But the recurrent theme of the journal, and its chief interest, is the interior trial it recounts: the chronicle of Blennerhassett’s growing disillusionment with Burr, his almost daily struggle to comprehend the enigmatic schemer, and his frustrating attempts to make Burr recognize and reimburse his losses.’

Here are several extracts from Blennerhassett’s diary, the first (28 September) from the earlier (Safford) edition, and the rest (all in November) from the more recent (Fitch) edition.

28 September 1807.
‘I had, this morning, a long double letter from my adored wife. Its red seal was as welcome to my eyes as the evening star to the mariner after the agitation of a storm. For I had, last week, suffered no small anxiety from the want of a letter. But the seal, notwithstanding its color, and every curve and turn of the letters in the superscription, had long passed under jealous inspection, to undergo every scrutiny from which I could augur the import of the intelligence within, before I would venture to break it open. But I was assured by the seal there was no mortality, at least on the 25th ult., as by the postmark. I trust, then, the heartfelt offerings of thanksgiving I tried to breathe forth to Heaven were borne to Almighty God, before I consulted the contents of the letter. There I soon saw how industriously my beloved continued to practice the only fraud her pure soul is capable of conceiving - that of endeavoring to hide from me all she feels for me, and has suffered for our dear boys. Her complaint in her chest is mentioned in a way to alarm me, through, the vail of disguise she has attempted to throw over it. But the weekly reports she will not fail to see of the criminal proceedings here, will, I trust, lighten much of the anxiety she labors under, which, I know, so much aggravates the affection in her breast. I next find my boys have, both of them, had fevers; and my dear Harman, who has suffered most, was perhaps at the height of his disease, about the period when I last dreame’d I had lost him. [. . .]

The Court does not sit to-day, on account of Burr’s illness. I find he is much worse than yesterday. He says he will take my medicine to-night, and has rejected bleeding, proposed to him by McClung, in which I fully agreed with him that he should not part with his blood, even at a Joe a drop. I called upon De Pestre, this morning, at Mr. Chevalier’s, where Mr. C. kindly pressed me to dine en famille, which I declined, through a desire to write at home and attend a private quartette-party at the Harmonic Society’s room this evening. The invitation of Chevalier was given in the most friendly manner, with a reprobation of the restriction imposed on the hospitable dispositions of the families of this town by the effects of a system of espionage, which is kept up by Government and its agents to a degree that has generally prevented those attentions we should otherwise receive. This must be the case, as I have not received a visit from any family-man, much less an invitation, since my release from imprisonment, though Mr. Pickett, who lives in the first style here, informed my landlord, Walton, the other day, he means to invite me to his house. So that etiquette seems also to be totally disregarded; and, no doubt, here, as in other countries, a want of better breeding is received by strangers as a proof of inhospitality not merited.’

10 November 1807
‘Soon after breakfast visited Burr and Pollock. Burr has again opened an audience chamber, which is much occupied. Altho’ I found 2 or 3 friends with him at breakfast; he was called out the moment he had breakfasted, and was absent about 1 3/4 hour; during which interval Mr Pollock gave me his company. [. . .] With respect to Burr, whatever may have been the ground of his present intimacy with Mr P. I can venture to affirm, it has already been abused, on the part of the former, altho’ the latter as yet, is evidently unaware of it. Upon B’s return P. withdrew, and I entered upon the objects of my visit. After informing Burr that Martin was resolved to appear for us at Chilicothe, he seemed all surprise and nothing could be more natural than the collision of such generosity with his own ingratitude. For he had fled fr Balt. without waiting even to thank his friend for the long and various services he had rendered him. [. . .]

This business being thus dispatched I next solicited him on the subject of his finances, on which indeed, he had partly anticipated me, by inquiring “what were my prospects thro’ my friends, the Lewises?” I informed him I had no expectations in that quarter, and shd absolutely starve whilst I was possessed of such splendid hopes in Europe if I was not relieved in the mean time. He regretted much the absence fr. town, of 2 persons with whom he expected to do something; but he had he said, negotiations on foot, the success of which he cd not answer for, but shd know in 2 or 3 days. [. . .]

by the bye, it is remarkable that many persons of penetration and intelligence who have indulged an eager interest in investigating every thing during the last year, relating to Burr, within the reach of their own inquiries, should have permitted that irredeemable passage of Alston’s letter imputing Burr a design to deprive his infant grandson of his patrimony.’

15 November 1807
‘I am much mortified by my detention here - thro’ the probably delusive hopes Burr has held out to me of the possible success of his efforts to raise money. I have almost let slip the season for descending the Ohio, for there is much appearance of an early winter: and thus will another item be probably added to the long account of my sufferings by this man.’

17 November 1807
‘Had a note fr. Burr this morning, to dine wth him tomorrow, at 4 o’clock, which invitation I have accepted, in anticipation of mixing probably for the last time with a few of his choice spirits.’

18 November 1807
‘To day however I did a little shopping, before I came home to dress for Burr’s party, which I joined at half past 4 [. . .] The party was as insipid as possible. Burr is evidently dejected, and tho’ he often affected to urge and enliven the conversation it languished - thro’ the stupidity of Randolph, the unconcern of Pollock, the vacant reserve of Cummins, the incapacity of Butler, the nothingness of Biddle and the aversion of myself to keep it up till 8 o’clock - when it expired and I took leave soon after the entrance of a General Nichol who seemed another of Burr’s gaping admirers [. . .] Thus ended the last invitation I shall ever probably receive fr this American Chesterfield, who is fast approaching the limits of that career he has so long run thro’ the absurd confidence of so many dupes and swindlers.’

20 November 1807
‘Having determined last wednesday, I wd not see two days more pass away, without leaving my ultimatum with Burr, I set out this morning for his quarters, resolved to burst the cobweb of duplicity of all his evasions with me upon money-matters. It will be seen every where in these notes, how long and how insidiously he has trifled with my claims upon him, fr. the time, when he assured Barton, I was a bankrupt, and denied to him, my possessing any legal claims upon Alston or himself, whilst at the distance of 1,500 miles he was writing most affectionately to me, ‘till the last interview I have this day, had with him, in which, he treated me, not as a faithful associate ruined by my connection with him, but rather as an importunate creditor invading his leisure or his purse with a questionable account. [The entry continues for another two pages and then breaks off, the rest of the journal being blank pages.]

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