Among those whose lives were totally disrupted by the Burr-Wilkinson plot to form a “kingdom” in the Louisiana Purchase territories was an all but forgotten figure in American history: Harman Blennerhassett. I frankly am less interested in Harman—a kindly but naïve man, easily led by his ambitious wife and the smooth-talking Burr—than I am in said wife: Margaret Agnew Blennerhassett, who was among other things an accomplished poet with two published volumes to her credit.
Harman Blennerhassett was the easygoing son of Irish aristocrats. In his native land, he got involved in plots to overthrow the hated British, largely by being easily persuadable. In 1794, when he was somewhere around the age of thirty, his family sent him into revolutionary France to rescue his young niece, Margaret Agnew, who had been studying there. Margaret was a highly intelligent, gracious, accomplished young woman, not yet out of her teens, and Harman Blennerhassett, despite their kinship way within the forbidden degrees, fell in love with her. They were married that same year, and promptly ostracized by both families.
In 1796, Blennerhassett’s father died, leaving Harman in possession of one hundred thousand pounds fortune and several highly profitable Irish properties. The following year, disheartened by the families’ continued refusal to recognize their incestuous marriage and fearing that the British were about to arrest Harman for his revolutionary activities in Ireland, the pair sold up his Irish holdings and left for the United States.
After spending some months in New York City, the couple traveled by keelboat to the Ohio River Valley. (It never fails to amuse me to be reminded that, in those days, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee were considered the frontier, and have a better claim to the title “Old West” than states across the Mississippi.) They ultimately purchased part of Backus Island in the Ohio River south of what is now Parkersburg, West Virginia, and built a showplace of a house on the island.
They were set to be arbiters of taste, culture and refinement in the wild Ohio Valley—and then, in 1805, Aaron Burr came calling.
Word had spread of this wealthy, agreeable Irishman and his brilliant, beautiful wife, and Burr, chronically short of cash but ambitious as Lucifer, determined to try to persuade Blennerhassett into bankrolling his western venture. It turned out he didn’t need to do much persuading; Margaret was as impressed with Burr as he was enamored of her husband’s money. Margaret, moreover, was convinced that her husband was, far from being a goodnatured naif, a man of considerable talents who had never had scope to use them. The Burr plot, she reasoned, would give Harman room to show what an organizer he was.
Thus, Blennerhassett was persuaded to pay for and obtain keelboats, provisions, arms, ammunition, and whiskey for an army of five hundred, which Burr thought he could raise among the disaffected in the western territories.
In the event, the war to establish a western empire, with Burr as its titular head, never happened. The plot was uncovered by agents of the Jefferson government, and Burr’s partner in treason, Gen. James Wilkinson, gave up the whole folly to save his own hide. Burr and Blennerhassett were arrested; Margaret, who had been away during the fallout, returned to the island to find that the Ohio militia, seeking evidence of the plot, had all but destroyed her beautiful Palladian mansion. (What was left of it burned in 1811, long after she and Harman, released for lack of direct evidence of any treasonable activity but financially and—more tellingly—psychologically ruined, left to try to recoup their fortune on a Mississippi cotton plantation.)
That venture failed as well, and eventually Harman Blennerhassett and his niece/wife were forced to return to Ireland and live off the charity of relatives. Harman, a broken man, died in 1831 and lies in an unmarked grave on the Isle of Guernsey, his final home.
It was during their long years of ruin that Margaret, partly for financial reasons and, I suspect, partly to try to deal with her own pain and disillusionment, turned to writing poetry, ultimately publishing two collections: The Deserted Isle and Other Poems, by A Lady (1822) and The Widow of the Rocks and Other Poems, by A Lady (1824). It was not the fashion at the time for women to publish under their own names, so many hid behind such a patronizing and anonymous designation. Even allowing for the style of her day, her poems are quite moving:
Oh! Why, dear isle, art thou not still my own?
Thy charms could then for all my griefs atone.
The stranger that descends Ohio’s stream,
Charmed with the beauteous prospects that arise,
Mark the soft isles that, ‘neath the glittering beam,
Dance with the wave and mingle with the skies;
Sees, also, one that now in rein lies.
Which erst like fairy queen, towered o’er the rest,
In every native charm, by culture dressed.
There rose the seat, where once in pride of life,
My eye could mark the queenly river’s flow,
In summer’s calmness, or in winter’s strife,
Swollen with rains, or battling with the snow.
Never again my heart such joy shall know—
Havoc and ruin, rampant war, have passed
Over that isle, with their destroying blast. (“The Deserted Isle”)
Unlike her husband, Margaret still had fight left in her. She returned to the US in 1840 with the expressed purpose of petitioning Congress for redress; she wanted reimbursement for the destruction of her Ohio home. She got support from, among others, the great Kentucky senator Henry Clay, and Congress did, eventually, decide to pay her for the loss. By then, it was too late; in failing health during the whole process, Margaret Agnew Blennerhassett died in a poorhouse in New York City in 1842. She was in her early sixties.
Blennerhassett Island, as it is now called, is the site of a rebuilt Palladian mansion and is a historic/tourist attraction. Margaret’s body was exhumed from its New York grave in 1996 and returned to her beloved island.
A sad story, no doubt—as sad as those of other, far better known women poets; but poetic fashions change, as do our tastes in sad stories. Margaret Agnew Blennerhassett deserves, I think, to be remembered for herself, not as a footnote to the Burr plot.