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The First Years of the Union (1797-1809)

The Coalition Begins to Fragment: The Quids and the Burr Conspiracy

Further Exploration and the West Florida Controversy

Fighting for Neutrality: The Embargo Act


In an attempt to capitalize on the tensions between Spain and the US, Napoleon suggested that he could arrange a deal under which the Spanish would sell West Florida and a part of Texas to the US for $10 million. This was exactly the amount which Spain paid to France yearly as a war subsidy, and it was understood that the money would go indirectly to the French. Even so, Jefferson thought the plan would benefit the US. He asked Congress for an advance of $2 million. Many Republicans in the House of Representatives refused to cooperate and held up the appropriations act. They were led by House leader John Randolph, who claimed the entire deal seemed like the second XYZ Affair.

Randolph was so disgusted with Jefferson's behavior that he broke ranks with the Republicans and started a faction called the Tertium Quids, based on the agrarian, states' rights roots of the party. The Quids presented only a minor stumbling block for Jefferson, and the Two Million Act passed in the spring of 1806, granting Jefferson's advance. Incidentally, West Florida was never bought. Rather, it was acquired by revolution when the southern pioneers who had moved there following the Louisiana Purchase rebelled against Spanish rule in 1810. James Madison, president at that time, deployed the army to secure the area and added it to the United States' land holdings.

Meanwhile, espionage continued to play a major role in the Southwest. Spanish agents tried continually to provoke inhabitants of the US Southwest to secede from the Union, often with the aid of paid American agents. The Creole population of Louisiana threatened to secede. This situation needed only a slight push to become a conspiracy. Aaron Burr provided that push. After failing to withdraw from the election of 1800 Burr had lost the trust of the Republican Party. George Clinton replaced him as vice president in 1804, when Jefferson defeated Charles Pinckney for the presidency. Burr ran for governor in New York in 1804, but was stymied by the efforts of Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton. In anger he challenged Hamilton to a duel, which he won, killing Hamilton.

Fleeing New York, he met with General James Wilkinson (Zebulon Pike's commander) and hatched a plan to seize Texas in the confusion of the Spanish- American squabbling. From there, he hoped, they would gauge western satisfaction and attempt to sever the Union and control the land west of the Ohio River. Burr met with British foreign minister Anthony Merry, but Merry was unable to supply funding or military support for the plan. Additionally, Jefferson's decision to purchase West Florida calmed tensions between Spain and the US. Determined nonetheless, in July 1806 Burr sent word to Wilkinson that he was preparing for action, and began stockpiling weapons and recruiting men through an agent who owned an island in the Ohio River.

Jefferson, hearing rumors of a conspiracy, had Burr's hideout raided. Burr was not on the island and escaped down the Mississippi into sure disaster. Wilkinson betrayed Burr upon receiving his July letter, sending it to Jefferson, edited so as not to condemn himself. Jefferson issued a proclamation in late 1806 ordering the arrest of any man conspiring to attack Spanish territory, as Burr planned to do. Burr saw this proclamation in a newspaper in January 1807, and turned himself in to Mississippi Territory authorities. He was released, not having committed any crime in the Territory, and headed toward Florida disguised as a boatman. He was recognized and captured in Alabama.

Burr's case was dropped by government prosecutors after chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the inoperative intention to divide the Union did not constitute treason. Burr fled to Europe, only to return in 1812, father two illegitimate children in his 70s, and be divorced in his 80s for adultery.


Jefferson had been backed into a corner in terms of foreign policy. He fully realized that the US had been manipulated by Napoleon for his own gains. Jefferson was only attempting to make the best of a bad situation in negotiating for the purchase of West Florida. West Florida was valuable to the US in that it was a corridor to the Gulf of Mexico and foreign commerce. The Louisiana Purchase and the subsequent French meddling that turned the US and Spain into antagonistic entities had placed an even higher premium on the territory. In Napoleon's offer, Jefferson saw the opportunity to expand the nation into desired areas peacefully and definitively, without violent conflict. He had almost no choice, unless he wanted to send troops to conquer West Florida, potentially at great financial and human expense.

Though the Quids never effectively split the Republican Party, they were of concern to Jefferson in that they demonstrated the potential for further rifts. John Randolph viewed the plan to purchase West Florida as final evidence that Jefferson had lost his out-of-office ideals and purity. He had earlier become suspicious of Jefferson's influence in Congress. Jefferson entertained Congressmen three or four nights a week at dinner, personally drafted laws, and his cabinet members frequently testified in front of congressional committees. Randolph took all of this to mean that Jefferson had lost touch with his roots in the "country" philosophy of the Republican Party. The plan to buy West Florida was the last straw and he broke with the party. Though many Republicans were skeptical of the plan to purchase Western Florida, few believed Jefferson was steering the party astray, and only about a dozen Republican representatives followed Randolph's lead.

Perhaps even less of a threat to the administration and the nation was the Burr conspiracy, remarkable as one of the most bizarre episodes in American history. While the Burr conspiracy never materialized, it did highlight the existence of subversive elements throughout the Southwest. The Creole population, led by wealthy merchant Daniel Clark, formed the Mexican Association, whose purpose was to plan for the conquest of northern Mexico and to secede from the United States. The Spanish continued to attempt to persuade American citizens to secede, and in fact, James Wilkinson was revealed during the Burr case as a Spanish agent, paid thousands by the Spanish government to encourage secession.

However, Burr could not successfully harness these forces to even make an attempt at secession. Wilkinson readily betrayed him, playing the role of hero to the president and at the same time pleasing his Spanish employers by halting a planned attack on Spanish lands. Other than loyalty from his conspirators, Burr would have needed both foreign aid and an opportunity to seize Texas amidst military interaction between the US and Spain. Neither of these requisites materialized. Though British foreign minister Anthony Merry, a vehement anti-American and anti-Jeffersonian, was in favor of the plan, he could not persuade London to lend its support to the conspiracy. Just as Burr received word that he would not get any aid from Britain, he found out that Jefferson had decided to purchase West Florida, temporarily delaying any military action that might have otherwise been forthcoming. Despite these sure signs of failure, Burr continued his efforts, only to be thwarted before he even had a chance to put his plan into action. Burr remains one of the least well understood political figures in American history.

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