We asked our friends at some local museums and archives to spotlight interesting pieces in their collections. Here, Meg Hughes, curator of archives at the Valentine, shares correspondence from an intriguing moment in American history.

Aaron Burr trial / invitation to duel

(1807)

As the smash Broadway musical reminds us, early American politician Aaron Burr may be best known for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804. But three years later in Richmond, Burr again made the history books – and was connected to another invitation to duel.

In October 1807, the former U.S. vice president went on federal trial in Richmond. Burr was accused of treason by President Thomas Jefferson. The allegation: that Burr conspired to carve an independent nation out of America’s western territories.

Gen. James Wilkinson, governor of the Louisiana Territory and an alleged co-conspirator, had turned on Burr. Wilkinson claimed to have written proof of Burr’s plans, but he proved to be a weak witness for the government and was roundly discredited. Citing lack of evidence, U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall acquitted Burr.

With his reputation tarnished after trial, Wilkinson lashed out at Richmond attorney John Wickham, a member of Burr’s defense team. Military surgeon Dr. William Upshaw wrote a series of letters on the general’s behalf, expressing outrage that Wickham questioned Wilkinson’s character and challenging him to an “affair of honor” – a duel.

The communication is documented in a handwritten transcription of Wilkinson and Wickham’s correspondence, which recently was added to the Valentine’s collection. This excerpt expresses the general’s concerns:

“The charge which constitute the injuries, of which General Wilkinson complains requires redress, are these:

First: that you charged him in open court with an action of felony.

Secondly: of perjury.

Thirdly: of forgery.

I will not positively state your words; but these charges were made in language too plain to be misunderstood. The General asks redress for these grievous attacks on his character & honor & that redress must be ample to be satisfactory.”

Wickham replies that, in essence, he was simply doing his job:

“… during the trial he (Wickham) never had an idea of enlisting himself as a partisan or engaging in the controversy in any other character than as counsel for Col. Burr. … Toward Genl. Wilkinson he felt no animosity and to be under the necessity of impeaching his integrity was a most unpleasant duty, forced on him by his professional situation ...”

In the end, no duel took place.

But if Wickham had changed his mind, he would have been well-prepared: The Valentine owns a set of pistols thought to have belonged to him.

(thevalentine.org)

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