On one of those summer evenings when the Creoles, in the early years of the century, were wont to seek the river air in domestic and social groups under the willow and china trees of their levee, there glided around the last bend of the Mississippi above New Orleans “an elegant barge,” equipped with sails and colors, and impelled by the stroke of ten picked oarsmen. It came down the harbor, drew in to the bank, and presently set ashore a small, slender, extremely handsome man, its only passenger. He bore letters from General Wilkinson, introducing him in New Orleans, and one, especially, to Daniel Clark, Wilkinson’s agent, stating that “this great and honorable man would communicate to him many timings improper to letter, and which he would not say to any other.”Claiborne wrote to Secretary Madison,” Colonel Burr arrived in this city on this evening.”
The date was June 26, 1805. The distinguished visitor, a day or two later, sat down to a banquet given to him by the unsuspecting Governor. He was now in full downward career. Only a few years before he had failed of the presidency by but one electoral vote. Only a few months had passed since, on completing his term, he had vacated the vice-presidency. In the last year of that term Alexander Hamilton had fallen by his hand. Friends and power, both, were lost. But he yet had strength in the West. Its people were still wild, restless, and eager for adventure. The conquest of “Orleans” was a traditional idea. Its banks were full of specie. Clouds of revolution were gathering all around the Gulf. The regions beyond the Red and the Sabine Rivers invited conquest. The earlier schemes of Adams and Hamilton, to seize Orleans Island and the Floridas for the United States; that of Miranda, to expel the Spanish power from the farther shores of the Gulf; the plottings of Wilkinson, to surrender the West into the hands of Spain–all these abandoned projects seem to have cast their shadows on the mind of Burr and colored his designs.
The stern patriotism of the older States had weighed him in its balances and rejected him. He had turned with a vagueness of plan that waited for clearer definition cut the chances of the future, and, pledged to no principle, had set out in quest of aggrandizement and empire, either of the Mississippi or among the civilizations that encircle the Gulf of Mexico, as the turn of events might decree. In the West, he had met Wilkinson, and was now in correspondence with him.
The Governor who had feasted him moved much in the gay society of the Creoles. It was not giddiness, but anxious thought and care that pushed him into such scenes. Troubles and afflictions marked his footsteps; his wife and child stricken down by yellow fever, her young brother-in-law rashly championing him against the sneers of his enemies, fallen in a duel; but it was necessary to avoid the error-Ulloa’s earlier error-of self-isolation. He wisely, therefore, mingled in the gayeties of the touchy people, even took from among them-after a short year of widowhood–a second wife, bore all things without resentment, and by thus studying the social side of the people, viewed public questions from behind.
The question ever before him-which he was incessantly asking himself, and which he showed an almost morbid wish to be always answering to the beads of departments at Washington-was whether the Creoles over whom he was set to rule were loyal to the government of the nation. It was a vital question. The bonds of the Union, even outside of Louisiana, were as vet slender and frail. The whole Mississippi valley was full of designing adventurers, suspected and unsuspected, ready to reap any advantage whatever of any disaffection of the people. He knew there were such in New Orleans.
The difficulty of answering this question lay in one single, broad difference between Claiborne himself and the civilization which he had been sent to reconstruct into harmony with North American thought and action. With him loyalty to the State meant obedience to its laws. The Creole had never been taught that there was any necessary connection between the two. The Governor’s young Virginian spirit assumed it as self-evident that a man would either keep the laws or overturn them. It was a strange state of society to him, where one could be a patriot and yet ignore, evade, and override the laws of the country he loved. “Occasionally, in conversation with ladies,”–so he writes I have denounced smuggling as dishonest, and very generally a reply, in substance as follows, would be returned: ‘That is impossible, for my grandfather, or my father, or my husband was, under the Spanish Government, a great smuggler, and he was always esteemed an honest man.’” They might have added, “and loyal to the king.”
With some men Claiborne had had no trouble. “A beginning must be made,” said Poydras, a wealthy and benevolent Frenchman; “we must be initiated into the sacred duties of freemen and the practices of liberty.” But the mass, both high and low, saw in the abandonment of smuggling or of the slave-trade only a surrender of existence-an existence to which their own consciences and the ladies at the ball gave there a clean patent. These, by their angry obduracy, harassed their governor with ungrounded fears of sedition.
In fact, the issue before governor and people was one to which the question of fealty to government was quite subordinate. It was the struggle of a North American against a Spanish American civilization. Burr must have seen this; and probably at this date there was nothing, clearly and absolutely fixed in his hind but this, that the former civilization had cast him off, and that he was about to offer himself to the latter. New events were to answer the Governor’s haunting question, and to give a new phase to the struggle between these two civilizations in the Mississippi valley.
Colonel Burr remained in New Orleans ten or twelve days, receiving much social attention, and then left for St. Louis, saying he would return in October. But be did not appear.
During the winter the question of boundaries threatened war with Spain, and the anger of Spain rose high when, in February, 1806, Claiborne expelled her agents, the resplendent Casa-Calvo and the quarrelsome Morales, from the Territory. The Spanish governor of Florida retorted by stopping the transmission of the United States mails through that province. Outside, the Spaniards threatened; inside, certain Americans of influence did hardly less. The Creoles were again supine. Pére Antoine, the beloved pastor of the cathedral, was suspected – unjustly — of sedition; Wilkinson with his forces was unaccountably idle. “All is not right,” wrote Claiborne; “I know not whom to censure; but it seems to me that there is wrong somewhere.”
The strange character of the Creole people perplexed and wearied Claiborne. Unstable and whimsical, public-spirited and sordid by turns, a display of their patriotism caused a certain day to be “among the happiest of his life;” and when autumn passed and toward its close their enthusiasm disappeared in their passion for money-getting, he “began to despair.” But, alike unknown in the Creole town-to money-getters and to patriots–the only real danger had passed. Wilkinson had decided to betray Burr.