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Tuesday, July 20, 2021

July 20, 2021: Expanding Histories: United States v. Burr

[July 17th marks the 200th anniversary of the transfer of Florida from Spain to the U.S. The history of that addition is much more complex than that one date suggests, however—an idea which could be applied much more broadly as well. So this week I’ll highlight a handful of texts that can help us engage more accurately with the fraught, multi-layered histories of U.S. expansion, leading up to a weekend tribute to one of the best scholarly resources for doing so!]

On two dark sides to expansion that an infamous trial helps us better remember.

In the summer of 1807, former Vice President of the United States Aaron Burr was tried for treason and high misdemeanor in a Virginia federal court, one presided over by none other than Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. While Burr has become much better known over the last few years due to his central role in the life and (especially) death of Alexander Hamilton, and while he lived a long and influential American life that included prominent roles in the Revolution and Founding, this trial focused on by far the most striking and controversial part of Burr’s story, what came to be known as the Burr Conspiracy: his 1805-06 efforts (begun while he was still VP, natch) to raise an independent military force in the Western United States and either use it to establish a separate nation with himself as the leader or to invade Mexico (possibly to enact the same purpose of carving out a distinct territory that he could rule). The uncertainties revealed by even that brief summary, however, along with other factors like the lack of reliable witnesses (other than one shady co-conspirator, James Wilkinson), led to an acquittal on both charges (despite President Thomas Jefferson’s ardent and possibly unconstitutional attempts to influence the outcome).

The histories around Burr’s conspiracy and trial, like all those in his incredibly complicated and compelling life, deserve their own specific attention and analysis. But this unique moment nonetheless also reflects a couple broader and quite dark realities of expansion, both in that early 19th century period and throughout our history. For one thing, we often frame expansion (at least in how it is presented in our educational texts and conversations) through the official mechanisms by which territory was added, whether treaties like the one that began this week’s posts or financial transactions like the 1803 Louisiana Purchase through which the Jefferson Administration (with Burr as VP) acquired these Western territories from France. Yet while such measures did formally add new lands to the expanding nation, the actual expansion of Americans (individually and collectively) into those territories was far, far more messy and bloody. I’ve long argued that the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889, in which US settlers invaded that future state while it was still all Indian Territory, was a striking and illegal historical moment—yet one could just as easily see it as emblematic of the chaotic and brutal way that US expansion always took place on the ground.

Moreover, the seeming dichotomy between (yet clear interconnections of) Founding Father and Vice President Burr and treasonous conspirator Burr is also emblematic of the unsavory (or at the very least far from idealized) roles performed by countless prominent Americans in the expansion process. Davy Crockett is a particularly good example, a folk hero who had his own Walt Disney TV show yet one who made his name in wars against Native Americans and then a pre-Civil War rebellion in defense of slavery (all of which were also in service of eventual US expansions, whether into the Southeast or Texas). But another example is none other than George Washington, whose first military service (which led directly to all his future military and political roles) was in the French and Indian War, a conflict precipitated by (if not at all limited to) the expansion of English settlements into new territories. Hell, many of the Civil War US Colored Troops (one of my favorite American communities) went on to serve with the post-war Buffalo Soldiers, regiments of all-Black cavalry that fought Native Americans throughout the late 19th century “Indian Wars.” When it comes to expansion, to quote my favorite line from my favorite depiction of that USCT community, “ain’t nobody clean.”

Next expanded history tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Expansion texts or contexts you’d highlight?

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