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WILLIAM WIRT (1772-1834)
THE DEFENDER OF BLENNERHASSETT
ARON BURR, a skillful political leader of the early years of the A American Union, whose shrewdness had made him Vice-President during Jefferson's first term, afterwards ruined his reputation by his intrigues, and won the detestation of the public by killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel. His political career in the East ended, he devised new schemes for the West, organizing an expedition whose supposed purpose was to wrest Texas from Mexico and form an independent nation, with New Orleans for its capital and himself as the arbiter of its destinies. Whatever may have been his actual design, the project failed, and he was arrested on a charge of high treason. Put on trial in Richmond for this offence, lack of evidence led to his acquittal, though there remained a strong popular conviction of his guilt.
In this celebrated trial the highest legal talent of the land was enlisted, alike in the prosecution and the defence. Among those engaged on the side of the Government was William Wirt, a lawyer of distinguished ability and an orator of the finest powers. The learning and eloquence displayed by him in the trial made his reputation as an orator, his arguments were read with delight, and his name was enrolled among those of America's ablest men. Of the speeches made at this trial, that of Wirt alone survives as a brilliant example of eloquence.
Mr. Wirt had long been famous as a lawyer; his reputation increased after this famous trial until, in 1817, he was made Attorney-General of the United States. This position he held during the eight years of Monroe's administration, and was reappointed in 1825 by President Adams, who had been his associate in Monroe's
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Cabinet. In 1832 he was nominated for the Presidency by the AntiMason party, but carried only one State. He won reputation as a writer also ; especially by his “Life of Patrick Henry,” which many consider a piece of biographical writing of unrivalled merit.
BURR AND BLENNERHASSETT
[In Wirt's arraignment of Burr, the most famous passage is his word picture of the earthly paradise of Blennerhassett's dwelling, on an island in the Ohio, into which Burr entered as the serpent of temptation. Though a highly exaggerated picture, it is a most engaging one. The counsel for the defendant had advanced the theory that Blennerhassett was the originator of the scheme and Burr a victim of his treasonable designs. Wirt effectually disposed of this theory in the following burst of eloquence.]
Will any man say that Blennerhassett was the principal, and Burr but an accessory 2 Who will believe that Burr, the author and projector of the plot, who raised the forces, who enlisted the men, and who procured the funds for carrying it into execution, was made a cat's-paw of 2 Will any man believe that Burr, who is a soldier, bold, ardent, restless and aspiring, the great actor whose brain conceived, and whose hand brought the plot into operation, that he should sink down into an accessory, and that Blennerhassett should be elevated into a principal 2 He would startle at once at the thought. Aaron Burr, the contriver of the whole conspiracy, to every body concerned in it was as the sun to the planets which surround him. Did he not bind them in their respective orbits and give them their light, their heat and their motion ? Yet he is to be considered an accessory, and Blennerhassett is to be considered the principal
Let us put the case between Burr and Blennerhassett. Let us compare the two men and settle this question of precedence between them. It may save a good deal of troublesome ceremony hereafter.
Who Aaron Burr is, we have seen in part already. I will add that, beginning his operations in New York, he associates with him men whose wealth is to supply the necessary funds. Possessed of the mainspring, his personal labor contrives all the machinery. Pervading the continent from New York to New Orleans, he draws into his plan, by every allurement which he can contrive, men of all ranks and descriptions. To youthful ardor he presents danger and glory; to ambition, rank and titles and honors; to avarice, the mines of Mexico. To each person whom he addresses he presents the object adapted to his taste. His recruiting officers are appointed. Men are engaged throughout the continent. Civil life is indeed quiet upon its surface, but in its bosom this man has contrived to deposit the materials which, with the slightest touch of his match, produce an explosion to shake the continent. All this his restless ambition has
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contrived; and in the autumn of 1806 he goes forth for the last time to apply this match, On this occasion he meets with Blennerhassett. Who is Blennerhassett P A native of Ireland, a man of letters, who fled from the storms of his own country to find quiet in ours. His history shows that war is not the natural element of his mind. If it had been, he never would have exchanged Ireland for America. So far is an army from furnishing the society natural and proper to Mr. Blennerhassett's character, that on his arrival in America he retired even from the population of the Atlantic States, and sought quiet and solitude in the bosom of our western forests. But he carried with him taste and science and wealth ; and lo, the desert smiled ! Possessing himself of a beautiful island in the Ohio, he rears upon it a palace, and decorates it with every romantic embellishment of fancy. A shrubbery that Shenstone might have envied blooms around him. Music that might have charmed Calypso and her nymphs is his. An extensive library spreads its treasures before him. A philosophical apparatus offers to him all the secrets and mysteries of nature. Peace, tranquillity and innocence shed their mingled delights around him. And, to crown the enchantment of the scene, a wife, who is said to be lovely even beyond her sex, and graced with every accomplishment that can render it irresistible, had blessed him with her love, and made him the father of several children. The evidence would convince you that this is but a faint picture of the real life. In the midst of all this peace, this innocent simplicity and this tranquillity, this feast of the mind, this pure banquet of the heart, the destroyer comes; he comes to change this paradise into a hell. Yet the flowers do not wither at his approach. No monitory shuddering through the bosom of their unfortunate possessor warns him of the ruin that is coming upon him. A stranger presents himself. Introduced to their civilities by the high rank which he had lately held in his country, he soon finds his way to their hearts by the dignity and elegance of his demeanor, the light and beauty of his conversation, and the seductive and fascinating power of his address. The conquest was not difficult. Innocence is ever simple and credulous. Conscious of no design itself, it suspects none in others. It wears no guard before its breast. Every door, and portal, and avenue of the heart is thrown open, and all who choose it enter. Such was the state of Eden when the serpent entered its bowers. The prisoner, in a more engaging form, winding himself into the open and unpracticed heart of the unfortunate Blennerhassett, found but little difficulty in changing the native character of that heart and the objects of its affection. By degrees he infuses into it the poison of his own ambition. He breathes into it the
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fire of his own courage; a daring and desperate thirst for glory; an ardor panting for great enterprises, for all the storm and bustle and hurricane of life. In a short time the whole man is changed, and every object of his former delight is relinquished. No more he enjoys the tranquil scene; it has become flat and insipid to his taste. His books are abandoned. His retort and crucible are thrown aside. His shrubbery blooms and breathes its fragrance upon the air in vain; he likes it not. His ear no longer drinks the rich melody of music ; it longs for the trumpet's clangor and the cannon's roar. Even the prattle of his babes, once so sweet, no longer affects him; and the angel smile of his wife, which hitherto touched his bosom with ecstasy so unspeakable, is now unseen and unfelt. Greater objects have taken possession of his soul. His imagination has been dazzled by visions of diadems, of stars, and garters, and titles of nobility. He has been taught to burn with restless emulation at the names of great heroes and conquerors. His enchanted island is destined soon to relapse into a wilderness; and in a few months we find the beautiful and tender partner of his bosom, whom he lately “permitted not the winds of '' summer “to visit too roughly,” we find her shivering at midnight on the wintry banks of the Ohio, and mingling her tears with the torrents that froze as they fell. Yet this unfortunate man, thus deluded from his interest and his happiness, thus seduced from the paths of innocence and peace, thus confounded in the toils that were deliberately spread for him, and overwhelmed by the mastering spirit and genius of another—this man, thus ruined and undone, and made to play a subordinate part in this grand drama of guilt and treason, this man is to be called the principal offender; while he, by whom he was thus plunged in misery, is comparatively innocent, a mere accessory ! Is this reason 2 Is it law 2 Is it humanity? Sir, neither the human heart nor the human understanding will bear a perversion so monstrous and absurd so shocking to the soul so revolting to reason | Let Aaron Burr, then, not shrink from the high destination which he has courted, and having already ruined Blennerhassett in fortune, character and happiness for ever, let him not attempt to finish the tragedy by thrusting that ill-fated man between himself and punishment.