Van Buren and the William P. Van Ness Trial

William P. Van Ness

Many historians have asserted that Martin Van Buren represented William P. Van Ness in the murder trial stemming from the Burr-Hamilton duel. After spending many months digging into this subject, I’m fairly confident that this is a myth. It was probably an old canard that found its way into some 19th-century history books and has been repeated by quite a few (though certainly not all) scholars who’ve covered this period ever since.

The Burr-Hamilton duel hardly needs retelling here (just go plop a few thousand and see the Broadway show), but Van Buren was more closely connected to this infamous event than many know. From 1802 to 1803, legal apprentice Van Buren lived in Manhattan and clerked for the attorney William P. Van Ness, one of Aaron Burr’s closest disciples. Van Buren received an invaluable political education from Burr and Van Ness, but he grew disenchanted with the vice president and sided with the Clinton-Livingston faction of the Republican Party. (It also didn’t help that Jefferson and Burr were at odds, and Van Buren worshiped Jefferson.) Van Buren endorsed Morgan Lewis in the 1804 gubernatorial election over Burr, and the Van Nesses were livid and disowned their former protege. Two months after his humiliating loss to Lewis, Burr killed Hamilton in Weehawken. His second in the duel was William P. Van Ness.

What happened next gets a bit complicated and probably has led to some of the confusion with historians.

By the time of the duel, Van Buren was a credited attorney and was practicing in Kinderhook with his half brother James Van Alen. William Van Ness was in Kinderhook too; he had fled the authorities who had issued warrants for his arrest. When he got to Kinderhook, he wanted to speak to Martin, with whom he had some friendly relations (other family members dropped him entirely). Van Buren was happy to help. He headed right over to the Van Ness house (which would one day become Van Buren’s own house, Lindenwald). When he got there, the head of the family, Columbia County’s “First Judge,” Peter Van Ness, was still so angry with Van Buren he wouldn’t acknowledge him at the door, even though Van Ness was sitting in the entranceway reading a newspaper with the door open. (Van Buren memorably writes about the scene in his autobiography.) William Van Ness and Van Buren went to a local creek to talk. Van Ness knew he would soon be arrested. It was at this moment, a few careless and highly imaginative historians (I’ll be charitable) have claimed, that Van Buren agreed to represent Van Ness at his upcoming case. The trial was held in Albany in 1806. (Joanne Freeman recounts it well in her book Affairs of Honor.) As no one would admit to witnessing the murder, Van Ness was acquitted. Young Martin Van Buren saved his friend from the gallows.

You can see why a historian would be drawn to this story. What a juicy angle! The apostate Van Buren, vilified by the Van Ness family for following his conscience, now begged to return to help out his old mentor! How generous and magnanimous Van Buren was! It is juicy. I relished telling it in my book. Then I began to do some research and I found nothing to back it up other than secondary sources. I found nothing in Van Buren’s letters. I found nothing in the Van Ness letters. I went through the court transcript at the New-York Historical Society and saw no mention of Martin Van Buren’s representing Van Ness. I located an excellent dissertation written in the 1970s about the Van Ness family and … bupkis. I went back to the Autobiography and noticed that Van Buren never said he was Van Ness’s lawyer. He said he only advised him on what his bail options were. Again, the only books where I saw anything claiming that Van Buren was Van Ness’s lawyer were in highly unreliable campaign biographies and newspaper articles. Sadly, quite a few later historians—very good ones, in fact—repeated this myth and it became accepted fact.

Quite apart from the absence of any reliable primary source material, there are other sound reasons to doubt this tale. Van Buren was very young at the time (22) and had little, if any, background in criminal law. Would the Van Nesses really hire such a novice for a capital case? Very unlikely. The Van Nesses also had money, and there was no shortage of good lawyers in Columbia County. Add all this up, and the evidence seems overwhelming. Van Buren had nothing to do with William P. Van Ness’s murder trial. (But: Van Buren did help out his old friend a few years later. In 1807, he got the new governor, Daniel D. Tompkins, to pardon Van Ness. By this time, Van Buren was Columbia County’s surrogate, his brother was a congressman in Washington, and he carried much more pull.)

I’m not alone in this assessment. I contacted John L. Brooke, author of the brilliant Columbia Rising, and asked him if he thought Van Buren was Van Alen’s counsel in the murder trial. John response’s was succinct: “TOTAL CRAP.” Emphasis his.