For fifty-three days in the steamy summer of 1807, Harman Blennerhassett, arrested for his part in Aaron Burr’s conspiracy to sever the United States, was confined in the Richmond Penitentiary awaiting his trial for treason. Breaking with Burr: Harman Blennerhassett’s Journal, 1807 is the first complete publication, newly transcribed from the manuscript, of his private diary of that experience.
Blennerhassett, a rebellious and brilliant Irish aristocrat who had been socially ostracized for marrying his niece, emigrated to American with his bride in 1796. By 1805 the wealthy and adventurous couple had established their own private Eden, renowned for its elegance and hospitality, on an island in the Ohio River.
It was then that Harman Blennerhassett met Aaron Burr and become mesmerized by the former Vice President’s grandiose scheme to launch a flotilla down the Mississippi, with the ultimate objective of taking over the Spanish territories and establishing a western empire with Burr at its head and Blennerhassett in his choice of “diplomatic appointment.”
With the same romantic idealism that led them to build their island paradise on the Ohio, the Blennerhassetts fueled Burr’s Napoleonic dream. They provided money for boats and supplies and let their estate become the expedition’s eastern staging point. But Jefferson’s 1806 proclamation against Burr’s expedition led to the designation of the Blennerhassetts’ island as the locus of treason and reduced the would-be emperor to fugitive. Both Burr and Blennerhassett were eventually arrested and brought to Richmond for one of the most celebrated trials in American judicial history.
Blennerhassett’s journal, which records for his wife and a few friends the events and aftermath of the Burr trials, is an intimate yet often eloquent account, not only of the arguments, intrigues, and personalities involved, but also of the American social scene of the early nineteenth century. Included are striking vignettes and dramatic moments drawn from the diarist’s visits to Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. But the recurrent theme of the journal, and its chief interest, is the interior trial it recounts: the chronicle of Blennerhassett’s growing disillusionment with Burr, his almost daily struggle to comprehend the enigmatic schemer, and his frustrating attempts to make Burr recognize and reimburse his losses. The introduction, notes and textual appendices of this edition will aid general and scholarly readers in appreciating Blennerhassett’s work, which has been long regarded as an essential document on the Burr conspiracy and even, by some, as a minor classic in American Literature.
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