Southwestern Historical Quarterly
The Burr Conspiracy. By Thomas Perkins Abernethy. New York
(Oxford University Press), 1954. Pp. vii+3ol. $6.oo.
Professor Abernethy of the University of Virginia does not
merely revise McCaleb and earlier accounts of this controversial
episode. He does erect on former foundations a superstructure
of collateral evidence which if it had been presented to the United
States Circuit Court for the District of Virginia, sitting at Rich-
mond in May, 1807, might have proved the consummation of an
overt act. The justification for this additional study is found, the
author says in his preface, in new and unexplored sources, notably
Carter's Territorial Papers.
For the first time, the "conspiracy" is given its proper setting,
a significant episode of a new nation in ferment and a manifesta-
tion of the transmontane territorial problem, which Professor
Abernethy is well qualified to interpret. This singular event, about
which Burr's contemporaries knew less and cared even less than
we, happened among a resourceful and daring breed of men in a
restless land of brooding remoteness and adventure. Residents of
the Mississippi Territory were detached from the "experiment"
in Washington. They could hardly be loyal (or disloyal) to a gov-
ernment which was uninterested or even hostile to their aims and
interests. Unsettled foreign problems related to the Southwest
Territory and machinations of British, French, and Spanish agents
accentuated the dissatisfaction of these forgotten men. It also al-
lowed a clever schemer to tack his course with uncertain winds
of foreign affairs and so to hedge and adapt to any eventuality.
Hence the specific purpose for which Burr collected money,
stockpiled supplies, and assembled troops was not clear; it was
The writer gives the lack of national unity and ideals proper
emphasis. Loyalty to the new nation was not an inherent attribute
of citizenship. Treason or disloyalty were not the heinous crimes
they are today. It is significant that Washington and his colleagues
were simply anti-British, and Daniel Webster's was the first gen-
eration of national patriots. In Burr's day, General James Wilkin-
son combined the highest rank in the army with retainer's fee as
Spanish agent. In Randolph's opinion he was a "grander rascal"
than Burr, but he still had the conscience to be the star govern-
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 59, July 1955 - April, 1956. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101162/. Accessed March 30, 2015.