“Who is Blennerhassett?” asked William Wirt, at the trial of Aaron Burr for treason, and many a schoolboy since has echoed the question, as many a schoolboy will hereafter, while impassioned oratory is music to the ear and witchery to the breast. The eloquent lawyer went on to answer himself, and painted in glowing colors a character which history sees in a colder light. But though Blennerhassett was not the ideal that Wirt imagined, he was the generous victim of a cold and selfish man’s ambition, and the ruin of his happy home and gentle hope is none the less pathetic because his own folly was partly to blame for it.
We must go back of the events which we have been following to an earlier date, if we wish to find Harman Blennerhassett dwelling with his beautiful wife on their fairy island in the Ohio. Their earthly paradise lay in the larger stream at the mouth of the Kanawha, not far from the present town of Belpre, and there in the first year of the century, Blennerhassett built a mansion which became the wonder of the West. The West was not then very well able to judge of the magnificence which it celebrated, but there seems no reason to doubt that Blennerhassett’s mansion was fine, and of a grandeur unexampled in that new country where most men lived in log cabins, and where any framed house was a marvel. He was of English birth, but of Irish parentage, and to the ardor of his race he added the refinement of an educated taste. He was a Trinity College man, and one of his classmates at Dublin was the Irish patriot, Emmet, who afterwards suffered death for his country. But it does not appear that Blennerhassett came to America for political reasons, and he seems to have made his home in the West from the impulse of a poetic nature, with the wealth and the leisure to realize the fancies of his dream. “A shrubbery that Shenstone might have envied,” says Wirt, “blooms around him. Music that might have charmed Calypso and her nymphs, is his. An extensive library spreads its treasures before him. A philosophical apparatus offers him all the secrets and mysteries of nature. Peace, tranquillity, and innocence shed their mingled delights around him. And to crown the enchantment of the scene, a wife, who is said to be lovely even beyond her sex, and graced with every accomplishment that can render it irresistible, had blessed him with her love.”
Whatever may be the facts concerning the home of the Blennerhassetts, the memories of those who knew its mistress bear witness to the truth of these glowing words. They testify that she was not only brilliant, accomplished, exquisite in manner, but good to every one, kind to the poor, and devoted to her husband and children. She was a faultless housewife, as well as a fearless horsewoman, and she was strong in body as she was active in mind. “She could leap a five-rail fence, walk ten miles at a stretch, and ride with the boldest dragoon. Robed in scarlet broadcloth, with a white beaver hat, on a spirited horse, she might be seen dashing through the dark woods, reminding one of the flight and gay plumage of a tropical bird.”
To this home and its inmates came Aaron Burr, as bad, brave, and brilliant a man as ever figured in our public life. He had been a gallant officer in the Revolution, he had been Vice President of the United States, he had come within a vote of being President. But he had killed Alexander Hamilton in the duel which he forced upon him, and all his knowledge of the world and men had taught him to worship power and despise virtue. It has not yet been clearly shown what Burr meant or hoped to do, and possibly he could not have very well said himself; but it is certain that in a general way he was trying to separate the West from the East, and to commit the warlike people of the backwoods to a fine scheme for conquering Mexico from Spain, and setting up an imperial throne there for him to sit upon. He was always willing to sell out his fine scheme to France, to England, to any power that would buy, even to Spain herself; and in the mean time he came and went in the West and Southwest and built up a party in his favor, which fell to pieces at the first touch of real adversity. General Wilkinson, of the United States army, who had been plotting and scheming with Burr, arrested him; he was tried for treason, and those who had cast their fortunes with him were carried down in his fall. The most picturesque of the sufferers was Blennerhassett, who was one of the most innocent. Burr had found other Ohio people too plodding, as he said, but the Blennerhassetts took him seriously, and when Burr in his repeated visits tempted the husband, and flattered the wife, who was ambitious only for her husband, he easily beguiled them into a belief in his glorious destiny.