|3rd Vice President of the United States|
March 4, 1801 – March 4, 1805
|Preceded by||Thomas Jefferson|
|Succeeded by||George Clinton|
|United States Senator
from New York
March 4, 1791 – March 4, 1797
|Preceded by||Philip Schuyler|
|Succeeded by||Philip Schuyler|
|3rd New York State Attorney General|
September 29, 1789 – November 8, 1791
|Preceded by||Richard Varick|
|Succeeded by||Morgan Lewis|
|Born||Aaron Burr Jr.
February 6, 1756
Newark, Province of New Jersey, British America
|Died||September 14, 1836
Staten Island, New York, U.S.
|Spouse(s)||Theodosia Bartow Prevost
Eliza Bowen Jumel
|Alma mater||College of New Jersey|
|Years of service||1775–1779|
|Battles/wars||American Revolutionary War|
After serving as a Continental Army officer in the Revolutionary War, Burr became a successful lawyer and politician. He was elected twice to the New York State Assembly (1784–1785, 1798–1799),1 was appointed New York State Attorney General (1789–1791), was chosen as a United States Senator (1791–1797) from the state of New York, and reached the apex of his career as Vice President.
The highlight of Burr's tenure as President of the Senate (one of his few official duties as Vice President) was the Senate's first impeachment trial, of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase. In 1804, the last full year of his single term as Vice President, Burr killed his political rival Alexander Hamilton in a famous duel. Burr was never tried for the illegal duel, and all charges against him were eventually dropped. The death of Hamilton, however, ended Burr's political career. President Jefferson dropped him from the ticket for the 1804 presidential election, and he never held office again.
After leaving Washington, Burr traveled west seeking new opportunities, both economic and political. His activities eventually led to his arrest on charges of treason in 1807. Although the subsequent trial resulted in acquittal, Burr's western schemes left him with large debts and few influential friends. In a final quest for grand opportunities, he left the United States for Europe. He remained overseas until 1812, when he returned to the United States to practice law in New York City. There he spent the remainder of his long life in relative obscurity.
- 1 Early life
- 2 Marriage and family
- 3 Politics
- 4 Later life and death
- 5 Character
- 6 Legacy
- 7 Burr in literature and popular culture
- 8 Notes
- 9 References
- 10 Further reading
- 11 External links
Burr was born in Newark, New Jersey, to the Reverend Aaron Burr, Sr., a Presbyterian minister and second president of the College of New Jersey in Newark (which moved in 1756 to Princeton and later became Princeton University). His mother, Esther Edwards, was the daughter of Jonathan Edwards, the famous Calvinist theologian, making Burr Edwards's grandson. The elder Burrs also had a daughter, Sarah ("Sally"), who married Tapping Reeve, founder of the Litchfield Law School in Litchfield, Connecticut. Aaron Burr's father died in 1757, and his mother the following year, leaving him orphaned at the age of two. Grandfather Edwards died in 1758 and his wife Sarah in 1757; young Aaron and his sister Sally went to live with the William Shippen family in Philadelphia. In 1759, the children's guardianship was assumed by 21-year-old uncle Timothy Edwards. The next year, Edwards married Rhoda Ogden and moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey. Rhoda's younger brothers Aaron and Matthias became the boy's playmates. The three boys, along with Jonathan Dayton, their neighbor, formed the group that lasted the boys' lifetimes.
After being rejected once, Aaron Burr was admitted to the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton University) at the age of 13. Aside from being occupied with intensive studies, he was a part of the American Whig Society and Cliosophic Society, the 2 clubs the college had to offer at the time. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1772. He then studied theology for an additional year, before rigorous theological training with Joseph Bellamy, a Presbyterian. Yet again, he changed his career path two years later and began the study of law with his brother-in-law Reeve.2 When, in 1775, news reached Litchfield of the clashes with British troops at Lexington and Concord, Burr's studies were put on hold while he went to join the Continental Army.
During the Revolutionary War, Burr took part in Colonel Benedict Arnold's expedition to Quebec, an arduous trek of over 300 miles (480 km) through the wilderness of what is now Maine. Upon arriving before the city of Quebec, Burr was sent up the Saint Lawrence River to reach General Richard Montgomery, who had taken Montreal, and escorted him to Quebec. Montgomery promoted Burr to captain and made him an aide-de-camp. Burr distinguished himself during the Battle of Quebec, earning him a place on Washington's staff in Manhattan. However, he quit within two weeks, desiring a return to the battlefield.
General Israel Putnam took Burr under his wing; by his vigilance in the retreat from lower Manhattan to Harlem, Burr saved an entire brigade (including Alexander Hamilton, who was one of its officers) from capture after the British landing on Manhattan. In a stark departure from common practice, Washington failed to commend Burr's actions in the next day's General Orders (the fastest way to obtain a promotion in rank). Although Burr was already a nationally known hero, he never received a commendation. According to Burr's stepbrother Mathias Ogden, Burr was infuriated by the incident, which may have led to the eventual estrangement between him and Washington.34
On becoming a lieutenant colonel in July 1777, Burr assumed virtual leadership of Malcolm's Additional Continental Regiment. There were approximately 300 men under Colonel William Malcolm's nominal command. The regiment successfully fought off many nighttime raids into central New Jersey by British troops sailing over from Manhattan. Later that year, during the harsh winter encampment at Valley Forge, Burr was put in charge of a small contingent guarding "the Gulf", an isolated pass commanding one approach to the camp. Burr imposed discipline there, defeating an attempted mutiny by some of the troops.5
On June 28, 1778, at the Battle of Monmouth, Burr's regiment was devastated by British artillery, and in the day's heat, Burr suffered heat stroke. In January 1779 Burr, in command of Malcolm's Regiment, was assigned to Westchester County, a region between the British post at Kingsbridge and that of the Americans about 15 miles (24 km) to the north. In this district, part of the larger command of General Alexander McDougall, there was much turbulence and plundering by lawless bands of both patriot and Loyalist sympathizers, and by raiding parties of ill-disciplined soldiers from both armies.6
He resigned from the Continental Army in March 1779 due to his continuing bad health and renewed his study of law. Though technically no longer in the service, he remained active in the war: he was assigned by General Washington to perform occasional intelligence missions for Continental generals such as Arthur St. Clair, 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 Guard, in a skirmish with the British at the West River. The British advance was repulsed, forcing them to enter New Haven from Hamden.
Despite these activities, 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 the British evacuated the city the following year. The Burrs lived, for the next several years, in a house on Wall Street.7
In 1782, Aaron Burr married Theodosia Bartow Prevost (1746–1794), a widow with five children who was ten years his senior. Her first husband had been Jacques Marcus Prevost (see The Hermitage), a British Army officer of Swiss origin, who died in the West Indies during the Revolutionary War. The Burrs moved to New York City, where his reputation as a brilliant trial lawyer grew. Twelve years later, Mrs. Burr died from stomach cancer. They had one child together who survived birth, a daughter named Theodosia, after her mother. Burr believed in equality of the sexes; and he prescribed education for his daughter in the Classics, language, horsemanship and music. Born in 1783, Theodosia became widely known for her education and accomplishments. In 1801, she married Joseph Alston of South Carolina and bore a son, who died of fever at ten years of age. During the winter of 1812–1813, she disappeared with the schooner Patriot off The Carolinas, either murdered by pirates or shipwrecked in a storm.
The Aaron Burr Association has acknowledged the possibility that Burr had two illegitimate children—Louisa Charlotte (born 1788) and John Pierre Burr (born 1792)—with his servant Mary Emmons, not wanting to delay pending proof of the claims of Emmons' elderly descendant. Burr was still married to Theodosia then, but most of his time was spent in Albany, serving in the State Assembly. DNA testing, which might verify these claims, is not possible because there is no known legitimate male descendant. A historian who has written extensively on Burr stated that the claims were "plausible".8
Burr served in the New York State Assembly from 1784 to 1785, but became seriously involved in politics in 1789, when George Clinton appointed him New York State Attorney General. He was also Commissioner of Revolutionary War Claims in 1791. In 1791, he was elected a U.S. Senator from New York, defeating the incumbent, General Philip Schuyler, and served there until 1797. He ran for Vice President in the 1796 election, coming in fourth with 30 votes behind John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Pinckney. (At the time members of the electoral college cast two ballots but did not specify an office. The first place finisher became President and the runner up Vice President.) This came as shock to Burr as he was convinced that he had arranged with Jefferson's supporters for them to vote for Jefferson and Burr, in exchange for Burr working to obtain New York's electoral votes for Jefferson. But instead, many Democratic-Republican electors voted for Jefferson and no one else, or for Jefferson and a candidate other than Burr. These circumstances may have factored into Burr's conduct during the next presidential election. In 1800 Jefferson and Burr were again candidates for President and Vice President, and Jefferson ran with Burr in exchange for Burr working to obtain New York's electoral votes for Jefferson.9
Burr was also active in various Democratic clubs and societies. "Aaron Burr defended the democratic clubs and was listed as a member of the New York Democratic Society in 1798."10 Although Alexander Hamilton and Burr had long been on good personal terms, often dining with one another (Lomask, vol. 1), Burr's defeat of General Schuyler, Hamilton's father-in-law, probably drove the first major wedge into their friendship.11 Nevertheless, their relationship took a decade to reach a status of enmity. More details of their relationship may be found in the Burr–Hamilton duel article.
After being appointed commanding general of U.S. 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." (Lomask vol.1) John Adams, whose enmity towards Alexander Hamilton was legendary, later wrote in 1815 that Washington's response was startling given his promotion of Hamilton, "the most restless, impatient, artful, indefatigable, and unprincipled intriguer in the United States, if not in the world, to be second in command under himself, and now [Washington] dreaded an intriguer in a poor brigadier".12
Bored with the inactivity of the new U.S. Senate (Lomask vol. 1), Burr ran for and was elected to the New York State Assembly, serving from 1798 through 1799.1 It was during this time he cooperated with the Holland Land Company in obtaining a law to permit aliens to hold and convey lands.13 During John Adams' 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 to help Jefferson reach the presidency. In 1799, Burr founded the Bank of the Manhattan Company, which in later years was absorbed into the Chase Manhattan Bank, which in turn became part of JPMorgan Chase. In September, 1799 Burr fought a duel with John Barker Church, whose wife was the sister of Hamilton's wife, after Church said that Burr had taken a bribe from the Holland Company in exchange for using his political influence on its behalf. Burr and Church fired at each other and missed, and afterwards Church acknowledged that he was wrong to have accused Burr without having proof. Burr accepted this as an apology, and the two men shook hands and ended the dispute.14
The enmity between Hamilton and Burr may have stemmed from the details of the founding of the bank. Burr solicited Hamilton and other Federalists' support under the guise he was establishing a badly-needed water company for Manhattan. However, Burr secretly changed the charter to include banking; shortly after approval, Burr dropped any pretense of founding the water company. Hamilton and other supporters believed Burr acted dishonorably in deceiving them. Further, the affair resulted in a delay in constructing a safe water system for Manhattan, which may have contributed to additional deaths during a subsequent malaria epidemic.15
In 1800, New York presidential electors were to be chosen by the state legislature as they had been in 1796 (for John Adams). The State Assembly was controlled by the Federalists going into the April 1800 legislative elections. In the city of New York, assembly members were to be selected on an at-large basis. Burr and Hamilton were the key campaigners for their respective parties. Burr's Republican slate of assemblymen for New York City was elected, gaining control of the legislature and in due course giving New York's electoral votes to Jefferson and helping to win the 1800 presidential election for him. This drove another wedge between Hamilton and Burr. Burr became Vice President during Jefferson's first term (1801–1805).
Because of his influence in New York and opposition to the Hamiltonian Federalists, Burr was asked by Jefferson and Madison to help them in the election of 1800. Burr sponsored a bill through the New York Assembly that established the Manhattan Company, a water utility company whose charter also allowed creation of a bank controlled by Jeffersonians. Another crucial move was Burr's success in securing the election of his slate of greater New York City area Electors, defeating the Federalist slate backed by Alexander Hamilton. This event only served to increase the antagonism between the former friends.
Burr is known as the father of modern political campaigning.16 He enlisted the help of members of Tammany Hall, a social club, to win the voting for selection of Electoral College delegates. He was then placed on the Democratic-Republican presidential ticket in the 1800 election with Jefferson. At the time, most states' legislatures chose the members of the U.S. Electoral College, and New York was crucial to Jefferson. Though Jefferson did win New York, he and Burr tied for the presidency with 73 electoral votes each.
It was well understood that the party intended that Jefferson should be president and Burr vice president, but the responsibility for the final choice belonged to the House of Representatives. The attempts of a powerful faction among the Federalists to secure the election of Burr failed, partly due to opposition by Alexander Hamilton.
As Thomas Baker asserts in his piece, "An Attack Well Directed", William P. Van Ness, now believed to be in cahoots with Aaron Burr, had a scheme that was explained in a letter from Edward Livingston, a Democratic-Republican Representative. Van Ness had a plan to swing the election in Burr's favor by first having Livingston or another colleague vote for Burr on the first ballot, deadlocking New York. On the second ballot, Livingston would swing three House Republicans from the vulnerable states of New York, New Jersey, and Vermont to vote for Burr.17 Livingston may have been planning on writing Burr's name but he changed his mind on his way to Washington. This was likely due to a strong belief that some Federalists would vote for Jefferson as to avoid a hung election.18 Despite Livingston's last minute renege, Jefferson still lost the first ballot because Burr's supporters scrambled to keep Maryland voters on the side of the Federalists.19 Even with the loss on the first ballot, there was little instability on the Democratic-Republican side of the ticket on the second ballot.20 Ultimately, it took 36 ballots before James A. Bayard, a Delaware Federalist, and several of his Federalist colleagues submitted blank votes to decide the election in Jefferson's favor.
Mudslinging was heavily used to (attempt to) cast the candidates in a biased light, specifically Burr. As a result, the public went at each other's throats so to defend the candidate thought best qualified to lead the country.21 While Van Ness and Burr had their own plans to turn the election in their favor, James Cheetham, a supporter of Clinton, had his own plan to discredit Burr. Cheetham released Van Ness' letter.22 Burr gave another opening for Cheetham and DeWitt Clinton to amplify accusations when he showed interest in certain Federalists. They accused Burr of "tampering with New York's electors; accusing Jefferson of buying off wavering Republicans to ensure his election; actively intriguing with Federalists to capture the chief magistracy in 1804".23
Cheetham and Clintonians released a series of letters in American Citizen. These eight letters were meant to expose the supposed conspiracy of Burr, Van Ness, Ogden and Livingston. Many Republicans were persuaded by these letters and the arguments Burrites tried to defend themselves with led to more admissions.24 When it came to the 9th letter in this series, Livingston was the key to the details to take down Burr. Cheetham pushed for details from Livingston on interactions with Ogden and Van Ness.25 Livingston would not give in and Cheetham sent him letters explaining his already expansive knowledge of the contents of the letter with Van Ness and threats such as "We stand upon the best ground. We know Mr. Burr is guilty. You have in fact, and I may say in express term, committed his guilt to me".26
Livingston's resistance of James Cheetham's push for information on Van Ness' original letter for that 9th letter in American Citizen was what saved Burr from exposure, at least temporarily.27 In reality, Burr dragged out the drama and uncertainty of the election of 1800 for the purpose of manipulating it to his will. Burr's actions had results throughout the nation of general instability.28
Upon confirmation of Jefferson's election, Burr became Vice President of the United States, but despite his letters and his shunning of any political activity during the balloting (he never left Albany) he was never trusted by Jefferson and was effectively shut out of party matters.29 However, Burr's even-handed fairness and his judicial manner as President of the Senate were praised even by some of his enemies, and he fostered some time-honored traditions regarding that office. Burr's judicial manner in presiding over the impeachment trial of Justice Samuel Chase has been credited as helping to preserve the principle of judicial independence that was established by Marbury v. Madison in 1803.30 It was written by one Senator that Burr had conducted the proceedings with the "impartiality of an angel and the rigor of a devil".31
Burr's farewell in March 1805 moved some of his harshest critics in the Senate to tears. However, except for short quotes and descriptions of the address, which defended America's system of government, it was never recorded in full.
|Wikisource has original texts related to:|
When it became clear that Jefferson would drop Burr from his ticket in the 1804 election, the Vice President ran for Governor of New York instead. Burr lost the election to little known Morgan Lewis, in what was the largest margin of loss in New York's history up to that time.32 Burr blamed his loss on a personal smear campaign believed to have been orchestrated by his own party rivals, including New York governor George Clinton. Hamilton also opposed Burr, due to his belief that Burr had entertained a Federalist secession movement in New York.33 In April, the Albany Register published a letter from Dr. Charles D. Cooper to Philip Schuyler which relayed Hamilton's judgement that Burr was "a dangerous man, and one who ought not be trusted with the reins of government", and claiming to know of "a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr".34 In June, Burr sent this letter to Hamilton, seeking an affirmation or disavowal of Cooper's characterization of Hamilton's remarks.35
Instead Hamilton responded that Burr should give specifics of Hamilton's remarks, not Cooper's. He said he couldn't answer regarding Cooper's interpretation. A few more letters followed, in which the exchange escalated to Burr's demanding that Hamilton recant or deny any statement disparaging Burr's honor over the past 15 years, but Hamilton, having already been disgraced by the Maria Reynolds adultery scandal and ever mindful of his own reputation and honor, did not. According to Thomas Fleming, the apology Burr was asking for would have been immediately published. Hamilton's remaining power in the New York Federalist party would have been impaired.36 Burr responded by challenging Hamilton to personal combat under the code duello, the formalized rules of dueling. Hamilton's eldest son, Philip, had died in a duel in 1801.
Although still quite common, dueling had been outlawed in New York, and the punishment for conviction of dueling was death. It was illegal in New Jersey as well, but the consequences were less severe. On July 11, 1804, the enemies met outside of Weehawken, New Jersey, at the same spot where Hamilton's son had died. Both men fired, and Hamilton was mortally wounded by a shot right above the hip.37
The observers disagreed on who fired first. They did agree that there was a three-to-four second interval between the first and the second shot, raising difficult questions in evaluating the two camps' versions.38 Historian William Weir speculates that Hamilton might have been undone by his own machinations: secretly setting his pistol's trigger to require only a half pound of pressure as opposed to the usual 10 pounds. Burr, Weir contends, most likely had no idea that the gun's trigger pressure could be reset.39 Louisiana State University history professors Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg concur in this view. They note that "Hamilton brought the pistols, which had a larger barrel than regular dueling pistols, and a secret hair-trigger, and were therefore much more deadly,"40 and conclude that "Hamilton gave himself an unfair advantage in their duel, and got the worst of it anyway."40 However, this is a minority view among historians.
David O. Stewart, in his biography of Burr, American Emperor, notes that the reports of Hamilton's intentionally missing Burr with his shot only began to appear in newspaper reports published in papers friendly to Hamilton in the days after his death. However Ron Chernow, in his biography, "Alexander Hamilton", states Hamilton told numerous friends of his intention to avoid firing at Burr well before the duel.15 Additionally, according to Chernow, Hamilton wrote a number of letters dated before the duel that also attest to this intention. The two shots, witnesses reported, followed one another in close succession, and none of those witnesses could agree as to who fired first. Prior to the duel proper, Hamilton took a good deal of time getting used to the feel and weight of the pistol (which, incidentally, had been used in a duel in which his own 19-year-old son had been killed on the same Weehawken site), as well as putting on his eyeglasses in order to see his opponent more clearly. His seconds placed him so that Burr would have the rising sun behind him, though during the duel itself, one witness reported, Hamilton seemed to be hindered by this placement as the sun was in his eyes.
In any event, Hamilton's shot missed Burr, but Burr's shot was fatal. The bullet entered Hamilton's abdomen above his right hip, piercing Hamilton's liver and spine. Hamilton was evacuated to Manhattan where he lay in the house of a friend, receiving visitors including different clergymen in an attempt to receive baptism before he died the following day. Burr was charged with multiple crimes, including murder, in New York and New Jersey, but was never tried in either jurisdiction. He fled to South Carolina, where his daughter lived with her family, but soon returned to Philadelphia and then on to Washington to complete his term as Vice President. He avoided New York and New Jersey for a time, but all the charges against him were eventually dropped. In the case of New Jersey, the indictment was thrown out on the basis that, although Hamilton was shot in New Jersey, he actually died in New York. According to Bruce Adamson, a fourth great grandson of Rufus Easton; "two years later in 1806, Rufus Easton, postmaster of St. Louis and Judge of the Louisiana Territory was talked out of a duel with Aaron Burr. Jefferson's postmaster general Gideon Granger wrote a three page letter, demanding that Rufus Easton take the high road." 41 15
After Burr left the Vice-Presidency at the end of his term in 1805, he journeyed into what was then the Western frontier, areas west of the Allegheny Mountains and down the Ohio River Valley eventually reaching the lands acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. Burr had leased 40,000 acres (16,000 ha) of land—known as the Bastrop Tract—along the Ouachita River, in what is now Louisiana, from the Spanish government. Starting in Pittsburgh and then proceeding to Beaver, Pennsylvania, and Wheeling, Virginia, and onward he drummed up support for his plans.42
His most important contact was General James Wilkinson, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Army at New Orleans and Governor of the Louisiana Territory. Others included Harman Blennerhassett, who offered the use of his private island for training and outfitting Burr's expedition. Wilkinson was later proved to be a bad choice.43
Burr saw war with Spain as a distinct possibility. In case of a war declaration, Andrew Jackson stood ready to help Burr, who would be in position to immediately join in. Burr's expedition of about eighty men carried modest arms for hunting, and no materiel was ever revealed, even when Blennerhassett Island was seized by Ohio militia.44 His "conspiracy", he always avowed, was that if he settled there with a large group of (armed) "farmers" and war broke out, he would have an army with which to fight and claim land for himself, thus recouping his fortunes. However, the 1819 Adams-Onís Treaty secured Florida for the United States without a fight, and war in Texas didn't occur until 1836, the year of Burr's death.
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 to his Spanish paymasters. Jefferson issued an order for Burr's arrest, declaring him a traitor even before an indictment. Burr read this in a newspaper in the Territory of Orleans on January 10, 1807. Jefferson's warrant put Federal agents on his trail. He turned himself in to the Federal authorities twice. Two judges found his actions legal and released him. Jefferson's warrant, however, followed Burr, who then fled toward Spanish Florida; he was intercepted at Wakefield, in Mississippi Territory (now in the state of Alabama) on February 19, 1807, and confined to Fort Stoddert after being arrested on charges of treason.45
Burr was treated well at Fort Stoddert. For example, in the evening of February 20, 1807, Burr appeared at the dinner table, and was introduced to Frances Gaines, the wife of the commandant, Edmund P. Gaines and the daughter of Judge Harry Toulmin, the man responsible for the legal arrest of Burr. Mrs. Gaines and Burr played chess that evening and continued this entertainment during his confinement at the fort.
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 to secure money and to conceal his real designs, which were to help Mexico to overthrow Spanish power in the Southwest, and to found a dynasty in what would have become former Mexican territory. This was a misdemeanor, based on the Neutrality Act of 1794 passed to block filibuster expeditions like those questionable enterprises of George Rogers Clark and William Blount. Jefferson, however, sought the highest charges against Burr.
In 1807, on a charge of treason, Burr was brought to trial before the United States Circuit Court at Richmond, Virginia. His defense lawyers included Edmund Randolph, John Wickham, Luther Martin and Benjamin Gaines Botts.46 Burr was arraigned four times for treason before a grand jury indicted him. This was surprising, since the only physical evidence presented to the Grand Jury was Wilkinson's so-called letter from Burr, which proposed the idea of stealing land in the Louisiana Purchase. During the Jury's examination it was discovered that the letter was written in Wilkinson's own handwriting – a "copy", he said, because he had "lost" the original. The Grand Jury threw the letter out, and the news made a laughingstock of the General for the rest of the proceedings. The trial, presided over by Chief Justice of the United States John Marshall, began on August 3.
Article 3, Section 3 of the United States Constitution requires that treason either be admitted in open court, or proved by an overt act witnessed by two people. Since no two witnesses came forward, Burr was acquitted on September 1, in spite of the full force of the Jefferson administration's political influence thrown against him. In acquitting him, the jury apparently tried to give something like the Scottish verdict of not proven.47 Immediately afterward, he was tried on a more appropriate misdemeanor charge, but was again acquitted.
The trial was a major test of the Constitution. It was a carefully watched drama (Henry Adams gives a full account in The History of the United States of America (1801–1817)) as Thomas Jefferson wanted a conviction. He challenged the authority of the Supreme Court and its Chief Justice John Marshall – an Adams appointee who clashed with Jefferson over John Adams' last-minute judicial appointments. Thomas Jefferson believed that Aaron Burr's treason was obvious. Burr sent a letter to Jefferson in which he stated that he could do Jefferson much harm. Thus, Jefferson warranted a conviction. The actual case hinged on whether Aaron Burr was present at certain events at certain times and in certain capacities. Thomas Jefferson used all of his influence to get Marshall to move to conviction, but Marshall was not swayed.
Historians Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg write that Burr "was not guilty of treason, nor was he ever convicted, because there was no evidence, not one credible piece of testimony, and the star witness for the prosecution had to admit that he had doctored a letter implicating Burr".40 David Stewart, on the other hand, insists that while Burr was not explicitly guilty of treason according to Marshall's definition, evidence exists that links him to treasonous crimes. For example, Bollman admitted to Jefferson during an interrogation that Burr planned to raise an army and invade Mexico because Burr felt that he should be Mexico's monarch, as a republican government was not right for the Mexican people (Stewart, American Emperor, 213–14). Many historians believe the extent of Burr's involvement may never be known.
By this point all of Burr's hopes for a political comeback had been dashed, and he fled America and his creditors48 for Europe, where he tried to regain his fortunes. He lived abroad from 1808 to 1812, passing most of his time in England where he occupied a house on Craven Street in London. He became a good friend, even confidant, of the English Utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, even living at Bentham's home on occasion. He also spent time in Scotland, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and France. Ever hopeful, he solicited funding for renewing his plans for a conquest of Mexico, but was rebuffed. He was ordered out of England and Napoleon Bonaparte refused to receive him—although one of his ministers held an interview concerning Burr's aims for Spanish Florida or British possessions in the Caribbean. After returning from Europe, Burr used the surname "Edwards", his mother's maiden name, for a while to avoid creditors. With help from old friends Samuel Swartwout and Matthew L. Davis, Burr was able to return to New York and his law practice. Later on he helped the heirs of the Eden family on a financial lawsuit, which transitioned into a personal meaning because the remaining members of the household soon became a second family to him. He also adopted two sons named Aaron Burr Columbe and Charles Burdett and he lived the remainder of his life in relative peace.49
In 1833, at age 77, Burr married again, this time to Eliza Jumel, a wealthy widow. Soon, however, she realized her fortune was dwindling due to her husband's land speculation losses.50 She separated from Burr after only four months; their divorce was officially completed on September 14, 1836, coincidentally the day of Burr's death.51 The home of Eliza Jumel and Aaron Burr, the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Manhattan, is open to the public.52
Burr suffered a debilitating stroke in 1834, which rendered him immobile. In 1836, Burr died on Staten Island in the village of Port Richmond in a boardinghouse which later became the St. James Hotel.53 He was buried near his father in Princeton, New Jersey.
Aaron Burr made many friends, but also many powerful enemies, and is still perhaps the most controversial of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He was indicted for murder after the death of Hamilton, but never prosecuted;54 arrested and prosecuted for treason by Jefferson, but acquitted.55 To his friends and family, and often to complete strangers, he could be kind and generous. In her Autobiography of Jane Fairfield, the wife of the struggling poet Sumner Lincoln Fairfield relates how their friend Burr saved the lives of her two children, who were left with their grandmother in New York while the parents were in Boston. The grandmother was unable to provide adequate food or heat for the children and was in fear for their very lives. She sought out Burr, as the only one that might be able and willing to help her. Burr "wept and replied, 'Though I am poor and have not a dollar, the children of such a mother shall not suffer while I have a watch.' He hastened on this errand, and quickly returned, having pawned the article for twenty dollars, which he gave to make comfortable my precious babies."56 In his later years in New York, he provided money and education for several children, earning their lifelong affection. However, contemporaries were often suspicious of Burr's motives and many viewed him as untrustworthy, as typified by his role in the founding of the Bank of Manhattan (discussed above). Burr was reported by acquaintances to be curiously unmoved by Hamilton's death, expressing no regret for his role in the result.
Burr believed women to be intellectually equal to men, and hung a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft over his mantel. The Burrs' daughter, Theodosia, was taught dance, music, several languages, and learned to shoot from horseback. Until her death at sea in 1813, she remained devoted to her father. Not only did Burr advocate education for women, upon his election to the New York State Legislature, he submitted a bill to allow women to vote. However, not all women were on good terms with Burr. Burr was a notorious womanizer. In Burr's later years, he married Madame Jumel, the richest woman in America. Just one year later, she divorced him for his infidelity. He also stole thirteen thousand dollars' worth of her fortune, which he quickly spent.
Burr was an avid patron of prostitutes during various episodes of his life. He recorded with great detail, in his own personal journal, encounters in Europe with dozens of women which he paid to have sex with him. Often he described "sexual release as the only remedy for his restlessness and irritability".57
In 1784 as a New York state assemblyman, he unsuccessfully sought to immediately end slavery in that state.58 John Quincy Adams (who was a great admirer of Jefferson) 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." His father, President John Adams, was an enemy of Hamilton but a frequent defender of Burr. John Adams wrote that Burr "had served in the army, and came out of it with the character of a knight without fear and an able officer".12
Gordon S. Wood, a leading scholar of the Revolutionary period, holds that it was Burr's character that put him at odds with the rest of the "founding fathers", especially Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton, leading to his personal and political defeats and, ultimately, to his place outside the golden circle of revered revolutionary figures. Because of his habit of placing self-interest above the good of the whole, those men felt Burr represented a serious threat to the very ideals for which they had fought the Revolution. Their ideal, as particularly embodied in Washington and Jefferson, was that of "disinterested politics", a government led by educated gentlemen who would fulfill their duties in a spirit of public virtue and without regard to personal interests or pursuits. This was the core of an Enlightenment gentleman, and Burr, his political enemies felt, lacked that essential core. Indeed, it was Hamilton's belief that Burr's self-serving nature made him unfit to hold office—especially the presidency. Jefferson, though one of Hamilton's bitterest enemies, was at least a man of public virtue. This belief led Hamilton to launch his unrelenting campaign in the House of Representatives to prevent Burr's election to the presidency, favoring his erstwhile enemy Jefferson instead. Hamilton teamed up with his enemies in the rival party: Jefferson, Madison, and Adams, in order to prevent Burr from obtaining the presidency. Hamilton characterized Burr as greatly immoral, "unprincipled...voluptuary", and deemed his political quest as one for "permanent power". He predicted that if in power, Burr's contributions to the Constitution would be solely for personal gain, compared to Jefferson who was committed to its standing structure.59 Despite this, later in Burr's life, Jefferson would in turn go so far as to push the boundaries of the Constitution in his attempt—in the charging and trying of Burr for treason—to eliminate Burr.60 Though Burr's sentiments today seem prosaic, even hackneyed, his magnetic presence and precise delivery, combined with the occasion and the youthfulness of the nation, gave a powerful resonance to his twenty-minute speech.
A lasting consequence of Burr's role in the election of 1800 was the Twelfth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which changed the way in which vice presidents were chosen. As was obvious from the 1800 election, the situation could easily arise where the vice president, as the defeated presidential candidate, could not work well with the president. The Twelfth Amendment required that votes be cast separately for president and vice president.61
He is remembered mainly for the duel with Hamilton. However, his establishment of guides and rules for the first impeachment trial set a high bar for behavior and procedures in the Senate chamber, many of which are followed today.62
"The Aaron Burr Story", a second season (1965) episode of the television series Daniel Boone, starred Leif Erickson as ex-Vice President Aaron Burr attempting to set up an army to take over the western states. In the show, Burr's attempt to hire one of Daniel Boone's young impressionable friends as a wilderness guide is ultimately thwarted by Boone when a proclamation is published for Burr's arrest for treason against the United States.65
"A Friend to Alexander", in James Thurber's My World and Welcome To It, transported the Burr–Hamilton rivalry into the twentieth century.67
Eudora Welty wrote a story about the romance of Burr's Western expedition, "First Love", which appears in Selected Stories of Eudora Welty (Modern Library 1992).68
In the comic book The Flash, a 1975 backup story featuring Green Lantern stars Burr.69 "The Man of Destiny", written by Dennis O'Neil and drawn by Dick Dillin, reveals that Burr was recruited by aliens to act as a leader for an interplanetary society in chaos. (The alliance cloned Burr, sending the clone back to earth to duel with Hamilton and live out of the rest of "Burr"'s life on earth).
In Michael Kurland's The Whenabouts of Burr (DAW, 1975)70 the protagonists chase across various alternate universes, trying to recover the Constitution of the United States, which has been stolen and replaced by an alternate signed by Aaron Burr instead of Alexander Hamilton.
In Orson Scott Card's alternate history / fantasy novel Seventh Son (1987), a character states that "... Aaron Burr got to be governor of Suskwahenny, before Daniel Boone shot him dead in ninety-nine."71
A famous 1993 "Got Milk?" commercial directed by Michael Bay features a historian obsessed with the study of Aaron Burr—he owns the guns and the bullet from the duel. He is called by a radio station and offered a prize if he can name the person who killed Alexander Hamilton in the duel, but he has peanut butter in his mouth and is out of milk, and cannot manage to say "Aaron Burr" clearly enough to be heard before his time runs out.72
The Lonely Island's "Lazy Sunday" quotes the line "you can call us Aaron Burr from the way we're dropping Hamiltons", as they spend a large number of ten dollar bills, a reference to Burr killing or "dropping" Hamilton at their duel.74
In the alternate history short story "The War of '07" by Jayge Carr, contained in the collection Alternate Presidents, Burr is elected President in 1800, establishing an alliance with Napoleon Bonaparte and creates a family dictatorship. Upon his death in 1836, he is succeeded by his grandson Aaron Burr Alston, who previously served as his Vice President.75
A 2011 short film re-tells the story of Burr's life as one having become "a casualty of history". It was a selection at the 2011 New York Film Festival as well numerous other US festivals.76
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|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Aaron Burr|
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- The Aaron Burr Association
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- Aaron Burr at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress Retrieved on 2009-02-26
- J. Ryland Kendrick (1900). "Burr, Aaron". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography
|Vice President of the United States
March 4, 1801 – March 4, 1805
|Attorney General of New York
September 29, 1789 – November 8, 1791
|United States Senate|
|U.S. Senator (Class 1) from New York
March 4, 1791 – March 4, 1797
Served alongside: Rufus King, John Laurance
|Party political offices|
|Democratic-Republican vice presidential nominee(1)
|Notes and references|
|1. Prior to the passage of the Twelfth Amendment in 1804, each presidential elector would cast two votes; the highest vote-getter with a majority would become President and the runner-up would become Vice President.
a. In 1792, with George Washington as the prohibitive favorite to be elected President, the Democratic-Republican Party fielded George Clinton with the intention that he be elected Vice President.