19 February 2011

Aaron Burr arrested

It was on this day, February 19, in 1807, that a former vice president was arrested for treason.

He was arrested, to be specific, at Wakefield, now part of Alabama. This came about because a one-time associate of Burr, General James Wilkinson, Governor of the Louisiana Territory, betrayed him.

It remains unclear just what Burr had been up to in the period between the end of his term as VP and his arrest almost two years later. Did Wilkinson betray him with the truth, or with lies?

From what historians tell us of Wilkinson's character, it could have been either.

At any rate, the arrest led to a spectacular trial presided over by the Chief Justice, John Marshall. Burr was acquitted, though he was never a figure of political importance again -- so in that sense much of Jefferson's purpose in pressing for his arrest and trial had been accomplished.

My point? the whole incident served the young nation well. For Marshall insisted on the significance of the phrase "overt acts" in the constitutional discussion of treason. No one becomes a traitor by virtue of what he says -- there must be some conduct beyond speech -- somnbody has to pick up or load a gun, for example. Treason charges have never subsequently served, in the US, as a way of punishing or limiting dissent. That fact has less to do with the first amendment than we might imagine, and more to do with the "overt act" language in the original constitution, and with Marshall's application of it in this matter.

Just something to remember with some gratitude on this day.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.