Aaron Burr

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Vice President Aaron Burr
Vice President Aaron Burr
Alternate meaning: Rev. Aaron Burr, Sr.

Aaron Burr, Jr. (February 6, 1756September 14, 1836) was an American politician and adventurer. He was a major formative member of the Democratic-Republican party in New York and a strong supporter of Governor George Clinton. He is remembered not so much for his tenure as the third Vice President, under Thomas Jefferson, as for his duel with Alexander Hamilton and his trial and acquittal on charges of treason.


Early life and family

Burr was born in Newark, New Jersey, to the Rev. Aaron Burr, Sr., who was the second president of the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University; his mother Esther Edwards was the daughter of Jonathan Edwards, the famous Calvinist theologian.

He originally studied theology, but abandoned it two years later and began the study of law in the celebrated law school conducted by his brother-in-law, Tapping Reeve, at Litchfield, Connecticut. His studies were put on hold while he served during the Revolutionary War, under Gens. Benedict Arnold, George Washington, and Israel Putnam.

Military service

During the American Revolutionary War, Burr accompanied Gen. Benedict Arnold's expedition into Canada in 1775, and on arriving before the Battle of Quebec, he disguised himself as a Roman Catholic priest, making a dangerous journey of 120 miles to Montreal through British lines to notify General Richard Montgomery of Arnold's arrival. Burr is said to have carried the fallen Montgomery for a short distance during the retreat from Quebec. Burr's courage earned him a place on George Washington's staff, but the general, reportedly, never quite trusted Major Burr. Nevertheless, Israel Putnam took Burr under his wing, and by his vigilance in the retreat from Long Island, Burr saved an entire brigade from capture. Alexander Hamilton was an officer of this group.

On becoming lieutenant colonel in July 1777, Burr assumed the command of a regiment. During the harsh winter encampment at Valley Forge he guarded the Gulf, a pass commanding the approach to the camp, and necessarily the first point that would be attacked. In the Battle of Monmouth (June 28, 1778), he commanded the Malcolms, a brigade in Lord Stirling's division. The Malcolms were decimated by British artillery, and Burr suffered a stroke in the terrible heat from which he would never quite recover. In January 1779, Burr was assigned to the command of the lines of Westchester County, a region between the British post at Kingsbridge and that of the Americans about 15 miles to the north. In this district there was much turbulence and plundering by the lawless elements of both Whigs and Tories, and by bands of ill-disciplined soldiers from both armies. Burr established a thorough patrol system, rigorously enforced martial law, and quickly restored order. He resigned from the Continental Army in March 1779 on account of ill health, renewing his study of law. Burr did continue to perform occasional intelligence missions for Continental generals such as Arthur St. Clair however, and on July 5, 1779 he rallied a group of Yale students at New Haven along with Capt. James Hillhouse and the Second Connecticut Governors Foot guards in a skirmish with the British at the West River. The British advance was repulsed, having to enter New Haven from Hamden. Despite this brief interlude, Burr was able to finish his studies and was admitted to the bar at Albany in 1782. He began to practice in New York City after its evacuation by the British in the following year.


That same year, Burr married Theodosia Bartow Prevost, the widow of a British army officer who had died in the West Indies during the Revolutionary War. They had two daughters. While their younger daughter, Sarah, died at age three, their older daughter Theodosia Burr, born in 1783, became widely known for her beauty and accomplishments. She married Joseph Alston of South Carolina in 1801, and died either due to piracy or in a shipwreck off the Carolinas in the winter of 1812 or early 1813. Aaron Burr and his first wife were married for twelve years, until her death from cancer.

In 1833, at age 77, Burr married again, this time to Eliza Bowen Jumel, the extremely wealthy widow of Stephen Jumel. When she realized her fortune was dwindling from her husband's land speculation, they separated after only four months. During the month of their first anniversary, she sued for divorce, citing infidelity, and it was granted on the day of his death. Those papers were served to Burr on his deathbed by Alexander Hamilton's elder son, whose father Burr killed in a famous duel, an irony which was surely not lost on the younger Hamilton.

Legal and early political career

Burr's main rival for dominance of the New York bar was Alexander Hamilton. He served in the New York State Assembly from 1784 to 1785, but Burr became seriously involved in politics in 1789, when George Clinton appointed him Attorney General of New York. He was commissioner of Revolutionary War claims in 1791, and that same year he defeated a favored candidate -- Alexander Hamilton's father-in-law, General Philip Schuyler -- for a seat in the United States Senate, and served in the upper house of the US Congress until 1797.

While Burr and Jefferson served during the Washington administration, the Federal Government was resident in Philadelphia. They both roomed for a time at the boarding house of a Mrs. Payne. Her daughter Dolley, an attractive young widow, was being squired by, among others, Hamilton. It is believed that Burr introduced her to James Madison, whom she subseqently married. Whether he did this to thwart Hamilton may never be known.

Although Hamilton and Burr had long been on good personal terms, often dining with one another, Burr's defeat of General Schuyler marks the beginning of their personal quarrel. Nevertheless, their relationship took a decade to reach a status of enmity.

As a U.S. Senator, Burr continued to fall from grace in President George Washington's eyes. He sought to write an official Revolutionary history, but Washington blocked Burr's access to the archives, possibly because the former colonel had been a noted critic of his leadership, and because he regarded Burr as a schemer. Washington also passed over Burr for the ministry to France. After being appointed commanding general of American forces by President John Adams in 1798, Washington turned down Burr's application for a brigadier general's commission during the Quasi-war with France. Washington wrote, "By all that I have known and heard, Colonel Burr is a brave and able officer, but the question is whether he has not equal talents at intrigue?" Burr later told Hamilton that "he despised Washington as a man of no talents and one who could not spell a sentence of common English."

Burr was not reelected to the Senate in 1797, and instead went into the New York state legislature, serving from 1798 through 1801. During John Adams's term as President, national parties became clearly defined. Burr loosely associated himself with the Democratic-Republicans, though he had moderate Federalist allies, such as Sen. Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey. Burr quickly became a key player in New York politics, more powerful in time than Hamilton, largely because of the Tammany Society, later to become the infamous Tammany Hall, which Burr converted from a social club into a political machine.

During the French Revolution, French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, in need of sanctuary to escape the Terror, stayed in Burr's home in New York City. Later, when Burr fled the United States after the Hamilton duel and treason trial, Talleyrand refused him entrance into France. This is because Talleyrand had spend much more time at Hamilton's than he had at Burr's and had been an ardent admirer of Alexander Hamilton. He had even once written: "I consider Napoleon, Fox, and Hamilton, the three greatest men of our epoch, and if I were forced to decide between the three, I would give without hesitation the first place to Hamilton. He had divined Europe."

Vice Presidency

Because of his control of the crucial New York legislature, Burr was placed on the Democratic-Republican presidential ticket in the 1800 election with Jefferson. At the time, state legislatures chose the members of the U.S. Electoral College, and New York was crucial to Jefferson. Though Jefferson did win New York and the election, so did Burr; they tied with 73 electoral votes each.

It was well understood that the party intended that Jefferson should be President and Burr Vice President, but owing to a defect (later remedied) in the U.S. Constitution, the responsibility for the final choice was thrown upon the House of Representatives. The attempts of a powerful faction among the Federalists to secure the election of Burr failed, partly because of the opposition of Alexander Hamilton and partly, it would seem, because Burr himself did little to obtain votes in his own favor. Ultimately, the election devolved to the point where it took three days and thirty-six ballots before James A. Bayard, a Delaware Federalist, submitted a blank vote. Federalist abstentions in the Vermont and Maryland delegations led to Jefferson's election as President, and Burr’s moderate Federalist supporters conceded his defeat.

Upon confirmation of Jefferson’s election, Burr became Vice President of the United States. His fair and judicial manner as president of the Senate, recognized even by his bitterest enemies, fostered traditions in regard to that position. However, Burr's refusal to yield the victory to Jefferson, as he had promised, cost him the trust of his own party and that of Jefferson: for the rest of the administration, Burr remained an outsider.

The duel

Alexander Hamilton fights his fatal duel with Aaron Burr.
Alexander Hamilton fights his fatal duel with Aaron Burr.

When it became clear that Jefferson would drop Burr from his ticket in the 1804 election, the Vice President ran for the governorship of New York instead. Burr lost the election largely due to a personal smear campaign orchestrated by his own party rivals, the Clintons of New York. Hamilton also opposed Burr, due to his belief (still controversial) that Burr had entertained a Federalist secession movement in New York. But Hamilton exceeded himself at one political dinner, where he expressed a "still more despicable opinion" of Burr. Novelist Gore Vidal speculated Hamilton might have accused Burr of having an incestuous relationship with his beautiful daughter Theodosia, but most historians discount this as fiction. After a letter regarding the incident written by Dr. Charles D. Cooper circulated in a local newspaper, Burr sought an explanation from his erstwhile friend.

Hamilton had written so many letters, and made so many private tirades against Burr, that he could not reliably comment on Cooper's vaguely-worded statement. Burr demanded that Hamilton recant or deny everything he had ever said regarding Burr’s character, but Hamilton, having already been disgraced by the Maria Reynolds scandal, could not afford to make this gesture. Burr responded by challenging Hamilton to personal combat under the code duello, the formalized but largely antiquated rules of dueling. Hamilton accepted, and as the challenged party chose to settle the matter of honor with pistols at ten paces. Both men had been involved in duels in the past, usually on the periphery, but Hamilton had particular qualms because his beloved son, Philip, had rashly entered into a fatal duel in 1802. Hamilton, who deplored dueling but nevertheless felt his honor was at stake, agreed to the challenge. The two would nevertheless use the same pistols owned by Hamilton's brother-in-law, which are now preserved by JPMorgan Chase & Co.

On July 11, 1804, the enemies met outside of Weehawken, New Jersey. When the duel began, Hamilton refused to fire (The American Pageant, David M. Kennedy (historian)) but Burr shot and fatally wounded Hamilton. The bullet entered Hamilton's abdomen above his right hip, peircing Hamilton's liver and spine, and he died the following day. Burr later learned that Hamilton intended to hold his fire during the duel. His response: "Contemptible, if true." Burr was later charged with murder in New York and New Jersey, but was never tried in either jurisdiction. He escaped to South Carolina, where his daughter lived with her family, but soon returned to Washington, D.C. to complete his term of service as Vice President. He presided over the Samuel Chase impeachment trial with the "impartiality of an angel and the rigor of a devil." Burr's heartfelt farewell speech in March 1805 moved some of his harshest critics in the Senate to tears.

Conspiracy and trial

After the expiration of his term as Vice President on March 4, 1805, broken in fortune and virtually an exile from New York and New Jersey, Burr fled to Philadelphia. There he met Jonathan Dayton, with whom he is alleged to have formed a conspiracy, the goal of which is still somewhat unclear. At its grandest, the plan may have been for Burr to make a massive new nation in the west, forged from conquered provinces of Mexico and territory west of the Appalachian Mountains. Burr was to have been the leader of this Southwestern republic. Burr's detractors claim that it was his dream to create a Latin American empire that could control much of the farms and commerce of North America. Had he suceeded, the United States could have fallen into a full-scale civil war.

General James Wilkinson, a conspirator secretly in the pay of the Kingdom of Spain, had his own reasons for aiding the so-called Burr conspiracy. As territorial governor of Louisiana, he could have seized power for himself, as he had attempted in earlier plots in Kentucky. Burr enlisted Wilkinson and others to his plan in a reconnaissance mission to the West in April 1805.

Another member of the Burr conspiracy was the Anglo-Irish aristocrat Harman Blennerhassett. After marrying his niece, Blennerhassett had been forced out of Ireland. He came to live as a quasi-feudal lord, owning an island now bearing his name on the Ohio River. It was there that he met Burr and agreed to help finance the imperial ambitions of Burr's group.

Burr may have anticipated a war with Spain, a distinct possibility had someone other than Wilkinson commanded U.S. troops on the Louisiana border. In case of a war declaration, Andrew Jackson stood ready to help Colonel Burr, who had purchased land shares from the Bastrop Grant in Texas. His expedition of perhaps eighty men carried modest arms for hunting, and no war materiel ever came to light, even when Blennerhassett Island was seized by Ohio militia.

After a near-incident with Spanish forces at Natchitoches, Wilkinson decided he could best serve his conflicting interests by betraying Burr's plans to President Jefferson — and his Spanish paymasters. Jefferson's passivity throughout most of 1806 remains baffling to this day, but he finally issued a proclamation for Burr's arrest. Burr read this in a newspaper in the Orleans Territory on January 10, 1807. He turned himself in to the Federal authorities, but soon jumped bail and fled for Spanish Florida; he was intercepted in Alabama on February 19, 1807.

Burr's secret correspondence with Anthony Merry and the Marquis of Casa Yrujo, the British and Spanish ministers at Washington, was eventually revealed. It had been, it would seem, to secure money and to conceal his real designs, which were probably to overthrow Spanish power in the Southwest, and perhaps to found an imperial dynasty in Mexico. This seems to have been a misdemeanor, based on the Neutrality Act passed to block filibuster expeditions like those questionable enterprises of George Rogers Clark and William Blount. But Jefferson sought the highest charges against his former lieutenant, even though his informant Wilkinson was notoriously corrupt.

In 1807, on a charge of treason, Burr was brought to trial before the United States circuit court at Richmond, Virginia. His defense lawyers were John Wickham and Luther Martin. Burr was arraigned four times for treason before a grand jury; the fourth time, on May 22, sufficient evidence was found to indict him. His trial, presided over by Chief Justice of the United States John Marshall, began on August 3.

Due to lack of the constitutionally-required two witnesses, Burr was acquitted on September 1, in spite of the fact that the full force of the political influence of the Jefferson administration had been thrown against him. Immediately afterwards, he was tried on a more appropriate misdemeanor charge, but was again acquitted on a technicality.

Later life

By this point all of Burr's hopes for a political comeback had been dashed, and he fled America and his creditors for Europe, where he tried to regain his fortunes. He lived abroad from 1808 to 1812, passing most of his time in England, Scotland, Denmark, Sweden and France. He tried to secure aid in the prosecution of his filibustering schemes but was met with numerous rebuffs. He was ordered out of England and Napoleon Bonaparte refused to receive him. He had numerous affairs.

He returned quietly to New York in 1812, intending to visit his daughter, but the ship she had been traveling on from South Carolina was lost at sea (either due to piracy or shipwreck), along with all of Burr's important papers. Burr lived in New York as a moderately successful attorney until his death in a Port Richmond, Staten Island, New York hotel in 1836. He maintained an interest in Western expansion until his death, and lived to see the Texas Revolution. He noted with pleasure: "What was treason in me thirty years ago, is patriotism now."

Character and miscellany

Burr could be unscrupulous, insincere, devious and amoral, but towards his friends he was pleasing in his manners and generous to a fault. Although he proved irresistible to many women, few historians doubt Burr’s devotion to his first wife and daughter, while they lived. When his first wife died, Burr lost any stabilizing influence he had in life and his character took a marked turn for the worse. He once said he considered it an honor if a woman claimed him as the father of her child, even if the claim were false. He was profligate in his personal finances, and gave lip service to abolitionism even as he bought and sold slaves. John Quincy Adams said after the former Vice President's death, "Burr's life, take it all together, was such as in any country of sound morals his friends would be desirous of burying in quiet oblivion."

Late in life, Burr sometimes went by Aaron Edwards (his mother's maiden name) because it was less associated with past scandals.

Burr by Gore Vidal is an oblique biographical take on the politician, but it should be taken as historical fiction.

For further knowledge on Burr's interest in westward expansion, it should be noted that he wanted to be Emperor of the West. His view is that the U.S. need not worry about it and he would have control of it.

Primary sources

This article incorporates text from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, which is in the public domain.

Further reading

  • Lomask, Milton, "Aaron Burr," 2 Vols. New York, 1979, 1983.
  • Parton, James, The Life and Times of Aaron Burr, Boston and New York, 1898. (2 vols.)
  • McCaleb, W.F., The Aaron Burr Conspiracy, New York, 1903.
  • I. Jenkinson, Aaron Burr, Richmond, Indiana, 1902.
  • Adams, Henry, History of the United States, vol. iii. New York, 1890. (For the traditional view of Burr's conspiracy.)
  • Vidal, Gore, "Burr". New York. (For a slightly fictionalized view of Burr's life during and after the American Revolution)

External links

Preceded by:
Philip Schuyler
U.S. Senator from New York
Succeeded by:
Philip Schuyler
Preceded by:
George Clinton(a)
Republican Party vice presidential candidate
1796 (lost)(a),
1800 (won Vice Presidency)(a)
Succeeded by:
George Clinton
Preceded by:
Thomas Jefferson
Vice President of the United States
March 4, 1801March 3, 1805
Succeeded by:
George Clinton
(a) Technically, Clinton was a presidential candidate in 1792 and Burr was a presidential candidate in both 1796 and 1800. Prior to the passage of the Twelfth Amendment in 1804, each presidential elector would cast two ballots; the highest vote-getter would become President and the runner-up would become Vice President. Thus, in 1792, with George Washington as the prohibitive favorite to be elected President, the Republican Party fielded George Clinton with the intention that he be elected Vice President. Similarly, in both 1796 and 1800, the Republican Party fielded two candidates, Burr and Thomas Jefferson, with the intention that Jefferson be elected President and Burr be elected Vice President.
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