Excerpt from the Argument of William Wirt in the Aaron Burr Trial
August 25, 1807
Richmond, Virginia
This motion is a bold and original stroke in the noble science of defence. It marks the genius and hand of a master.  For it gives to the prisoner every possible advantage, while it gives him the full benefit of his legal defence: the sole defence which he would be able to make to the jury, if the evidence were all introduced before them.  It cuts off from the prosecution all that evidence which goes to connect the prisoner with the assemblage on the island, to explain the destination and objects of the assemblage, and to stamp beyond controversy the character of treason upon it.  Connect this motion with that which was made the other day to compel us to begin with the proof of the overt act, in which from their zeal gentlemen were equaily sanguine, and observe what would have been the effect of success in both motions.  We should have been reduced to the single fact, the individual fact, of the assemblage on  the island, without any of the evidence which explains the intention and object  of that assemblage.  Thus gentlemen would have cut off all the evidence which carries up the plot almost to its conception, which at all events describes the  first motion which quickened it into life and follows its progress until it attained such strength and maturity as to throw the whole western country into consternation.  Thus of the world of evidence which we have, we should have been reduced to the speck, the atom which relates to Blennerhassett's Island.  General Eaton's deposition, (hitherto so much and so justly revered as to its subject,) standing by itself, would have been without the powerful fortification derived from the corroborative evidence of Commodore Truxton, and the still stronger and most extraordinary coincidence of the Morgans.  Standing alone, gentlemen would have still proceeded to speak of that affidavit as they have heretofore done; not declaring that
what General Eaton had sworn was not the truth, but that it was a most marvelous story! a most wonderful tale! and thus would they have continued to seek in the bold and wild extravagance of the project itself an argument against its existence, and a refuge from public indignation.  But that refuge is taken away.  General Eaton's narration stands confirmed beyond the possibility of rational doubt.  But I ask what inference is to be drawn from these repeated attempts to stifle the prosecution and smother the evidence?  If the views of the prisoner were, as they have been so often represented by one of his counsel, highly honorable to himself and glorious to his country, why not permit the evidence to disclose these views?  Accused as he is of high treason, he would certainly stand acquitted, not only in reason and justice, but by the maxims of the most squeamish modesty, in showing us by evidence all this honor and this glory which his scheme contained.  No, sir, it is not squeamish modesty; it is no fastidious delicacy that prompts these repeated  efforts to keep back the evidence; it is apprehension; it is alarm; it is fear;  or rather it is the certainty that the evidence, whenever it shall come forward, will fix the charge; and if such shall appear to the court to be the motive of this motion, your honors, I well know, will not be disposed to sacrifice public  justice committed to your charge, by aiding this stratagem to elude the sentence of the law; you will yield to the motion no further than the rigor of legal rules shall imperiously constrain you. 

I shall proceed now to examine the merits of the motion itself, and to answer the argument of the gentleman who opened it.  I will treat that gentleman with candor.  If I misrepresent him it will not be intentionally.  I will not follow the example which he has set me on a very recent occasion.  I will not complain of flowers and graces where none exist.  I will not, like him, in reply to an argument as naked as a sleeping Venus, but certainly not half so  beautiful, complain of the painful necessity I am under, in the weakness and decrepitude of logical vigor, of lifting first this flounce and then that furbelow before I can reach the wished for point of attack. 1 I keep no flounces or  furbelows ready manufactured, or hung up for use in the millinery of my fancy, and if I did I think I should not be so indiscreetly impatient to get  rid of my wares as to put them off on improper occasions.  I cannot promise to interest you by any classical and elegant allusions to the pure pages of Tristram Shandy.  I cannot give you a squib or a rocket in every period.  For my own part, I have always thought these flashes of wit, (if they deserve that name,) I have always thought these meteors of the brain which spring up with such exuberant abundance in the speeches of that gentleman, which play on each side of the path of reason, or, sporting across it with fantastic motion, decoy the mind from the true point in debate, no better evidence of the soundness of the argument with which they are connected, nor, give me leave to add, the vigor of the brain from which they spring, than those vapors which start from our marshes and blaze with a momentary combustion, and which, floating on the undulations of the atmosphere, beguile the traveller into bogs and brambles, are evidences of the firmness and solidity of the earth from which they proceed.  I  will endeavor to meet the gentleman's propositions in their full force, and to answer them fairly.  I will not, as I am advancing towards them with my mind's eye, measure the heighth, breadth, and power of the proposition; if I find it beyond my strength, halve it; if still beyond my strength, quarter it; if still  necessary, subdivide it into eighths; and when, by this process, I have reduced  it to the proper standard, take one of these sections and toss it with an air of elephantine strength and superiority.  If I find myself capable of conducting, by a fair course of reasoning, any one of his propositions to an absurd conclusion, I will not begin by stating that absurd conclusion as the proposition itself which I am going to encounter.... 

[Mr. Wirt then proceeded to discuss, seriatim, the four propositions laid down by the defense, and to reply to his arguments in support of them.  He concurred in some of the defenses general propositions: that the constitution was intended to guard against arbitrary and constructive treasons; that the principles of sound reason and liberty require their exclusion; and that the constitution is to be interpreted by the rules of reason and moral right.] 

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