Born February 6, 1756 (Newark, New Jersey)
Died September 14, 1836 (Port Richmond, New York)
Vice president, U.S. senator
Aaron Burr played many roles in early U.S. history. He was a revolutionary soldier, a lawyer, a senator, and a vice president. However, he was also charged with treason (betrayal of one's own country), and he gunned down one of the nation's leading Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804; see entry in volume 1), in a famous duel. The treason charge resulted from various vague plots by Burr to invade the Spanish Southwest and to separate sections of the American West from the union. Burr helped shape America, but his influence and his contributions were complex and controversial.
"When the word 'present' was given, he took aim at his adversary & fired very promptly—the other fired two or three seconds after him & the General instantly fell exclaiming, 'I am a dead Man."'
Aaron Burr, in a letter to Charles Biddle on July 18, 1804.
Orphaned as an infant
Aaron Burr was born in Newark, New Jersey, in February 1756, to a family with a rich background in religious and educational activity. His father, Aaron Burr Sr., became the second school president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) after being pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Newark. His mother, Esther Edwards, was the daughter of prominent clergyman Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758). Burr's father died shortly after moving to Princeton in September 1757, less than two years after Aaron was born. The following year, his mother and both her parents died. His uncle, Timothy Edwards, became the guardian of Aaron and his sister, Sally. Future Connecticut Supreme Court justice Tapping Reeve (1744–1823) became young Burr's tutor and later married Sally.
Burr grew up very bright but not well-behaved. He was strong-willed, independent, and adventurous. Burr was quite short and wore fashionable clothes. He was outgoing and made friends easily, especially among his young female acquaintances. As a thirteen-year-old, Burr entered the sophomore class at the College of New Jersey. He graduated with honors in 1772 at the age of sixteen.
An eager warrior
After college, Burr began taking courses in theology (religious studies), following in his family's tradition. However, he soon changed to the study of law. When fighting broke out in the American Revolution (1775–83) in 1775 at Lexington, Massachusetts, Burr left his studies to join the Continental Army. With his usual boldness, Burr obtained a recommendation letter directly from John Hancock (1737–1793), president of the Continental Congress; the letter requested that Burr be granted an officer's commission in the Continental Army. Burr delivered it personally to General George Washington (1732–1799; see entry in volume 2), who nevertheless refused to grant him the commission due to his lack of military experience and training.
As a member of the Continental Army, Burr took part in the unsuccessful invasion of Quebec in 1775–76. He showed much daring and discipline and was soon chosen as staff officer to Benedict Arnold (1741–1801) at the rank of captain. By the spring of 1776, Burr rose to the rank of major, personally serving General Washington. However, the two did not get along, and Burr transferred to the staff of General Israel Putnam (1718–1790) in June, where he served for some time.
Burr took part in the Battle of Long Island. After with-drawing from Boston in March 1776, the British army decided to capture New York. In late August, a large British force attacked the American forces on Long Island. Outnumbered, the Americans evacuated in the middle of the night on August 30. Burr personally rescued many fellow soldiers in the evacuation of New York as British troops pressed forward. This courageous action led to his promotion to lieutenant colonel in July 1777; with his new rank, he was given command of a regiment at Orange County, New York. He wintered with General Washington in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, in 1777–78. On June 28, 1778, Burr led his men in the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse in New Jersey. It was extremely hot, and many soldiers died from sunstroke. In addition, Burr's horse was killed beneath him. Though Burr was not injured in the battle, his health was never the same after that day, likely affected by the heat. He was still a young man, but his aggressive service had worn out his body. In March 1779, Burr resigned from the army.
Establishing a law practice
After a period of recuperation, Burr resumed his study of law in the fall of 1780. In early 1782, he received a license to practice law in New York. He began his practice in Albany. In July of that year, Burr married Theodosia Prevost, the widow of a former British officer. They had begun their relationship in July 1777, four years before her first husband's death. Prevost was ten years older than Burr and had two sons. The Burrs would have a daughter from their marriage, also named Theodosia, for whom Burr always showed a great deal of affection. His wife died in 1794.
In the fall of 1783, Burr and his family moved to New York City, where he practiced law for the next six years, often in competition with another popular young New York lawyer, Alexander Hamilton. Burr's reputation and income grew. However, he never accumulated much wealth because of his lavish spending and generosity with friends. Burr also became interested in politics. New York was split into two political factions, one led by Hamilton and the other by Governor George Clinton (1739–1812; see entry in volume 1). In September 1789, Burr became a member of the Clinton faction when the governor appointed him state attorney general.
Beginning of a political career
With the support of Clinton's political organization, Burr ran for and won a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1791. In the senate race, Burr defeated Hamilton's father-in-law, General Philip Schuyler (1733–1804). Because of this, Hamilton would always have great personal disdain for Burr.
Burr served in the Senate until 1797. He opposed many of Hamilton's economic proposals and the Jay Treaty with the British while trying to establish himself in the Democratic-Republican Party, in opposition to Hamilton's Federalist Party. During this time, Burr was often considered to be the most likely successor to Clinton as New York governor. In addition, Burr was the running mate of Virginian Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; see entry in volume 1) in the 1796 presidential race and received thirty electoral votes. Jefferson and Burr lost to Vice President John Adams (1735–1826; served 1797–1801; see entry in volume 1). Burr also lost in his bid for reelection to the Senate.
In April 1797, Burr was elected to the New York state assembly. While in the assembly, Burr became involved in a controversy when he voted for passage of bills supporting the Holland Land Company and the Manhattan Company, a banking company connected with his own financial interests. With his character in question, Burr was defeated for reelection in April 1799.
Burr worked hard to build a political group to win control of the state legislature for the Democratic-Republican Party. His efforts paid off in April 1800, when the party won a number of seats in the legislature, taking control away from the Federalist Party members led by Hamilton. The Democratic-Republican Party then endorsed Burr as its vice presidential candidate; he would once again be the running mate of Thomas Jefferson in the presidential election.
Election of 1800
Burr lobbied hard to gather support for his candidacy. During the early years of the new republic, each state chose presidential electors by various means. Electors were a certain number of persons in each state who are elected by the general public or legislature to cast votes for the president and vice president. The electors were allowed to cast two votes. All candidates for president and vice president were listed on the same ballot. Under the system then in place, the candidate with the most electoral votes was elected president; the second-place candidate became vice president. As it turned out, all electors favoring the Democratic-Republican Party cast their two votes for Jefferson and Burr, resulting in a tie between the two for the presidency. Each received seventy-three electoral votes. President Adams, in his reelection bid, won sixty-five electoral votes, while U.S. representative Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746–1825) of South Carolina received sixty-four.
The U.S. Constitution dictated that in the event of a tie, the House of Representatives would determine the winner by casting votes for the top two candidates. Burr immediately announced he would not compete with Jefferson by campaigning on his own behalf. However, he then remained silent as the House proceeded through thirty-five ballots without breaking the tie. Hamilton secretly campaigned hard for Jefferson, claiming Jefferson was the more honorable man. Finally, on the thirty-sixth ballot, the House selected Jefferson as president and Burr as vice president. Some thought Burr should have withdrawn in favor of the more popular Jefferson during the vote. It was even suspected that Burr might have been working on a secret deal with the Federalists to win the vote. The Twelfth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1804 to prevent this type of crisis from happening again. It stated that electors would vote for presidential and vice presidential candidates separately.
Burr's influence with Jefferson and within the Democratic-Republican Party steadily declined following the election. Jefferson did not confer with him on important decisions and passed over Burr's friends and supporters in making appointments. Burr did help in the reelection of Clinton as New York governor and was chairman of the 1801 state convention that revised the state constitution. However, on several important issues, Burr took positions that were unpopular with Jefferson and his supporters. By March 1802, Burr left the Democratic-Republican Party. The party selected Clinton to replace him as Jefferson's running mate for the 1804 presidential election.
Race for New York governor
A political support group for Burr remained active in his home state of New York. In 1804, it nominated him as governor of New York to replace Clinton. In hopes of gaining wider support, Burr switched his political allegiance, joining the Federalist Party. Some wondered if Burr was listening to radical Federalists in the New England states who were plotting to form a Northern confederacy by separating New York and New England from the union. However, Burr publicly claimed no interest in such a scheme. His Democratic-Republican opponent was New Yorker Morgan Lewis (1754–1844), who was supported by Clinton.
One Federalist who did not support Burr's candidacy for governor was Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton personally despised Burr, and he feared Burr was indeed secretly plotting with those seeking a separate Northern confederacy. Hamilton launched strong personal attacks against Burr during the campaign, and in the end, Burr lost by a large majority.
Duel with Hamilton
Burr had fallen out of favor with both key political parties, and his political future was in doubt. Hamilton's personal attacks, three of which were letters published in a New York newspaper, gave Burr little choice but to challenge Hamilton to a duel. At the time, dueling was a widely accepted way for a man to defend his honor. Hamilton had for fifteen years privately attacked Burr's character as dangerous and untrust-worthy while the two remained socially friendly. Refusing to apologize for his remarks, Hamilton felt he had to accept the challenge.
Burr and Hamilton met in Weehawken, New Jersey, on the morning of July 11, 1804. They each fired a single shot, Hamilton's in the air and Burr's finding its mark. Hamilton fell, mortally wounded, and died the following day. Burr had killed one of the leading Founding Fathers of the nation. Upon Hamilton's death, Burr fled from New York to Philadelphia for his safety. Both New Jersey and New York issued murder indictments (criminal accusations) against Burr. He lost much of his property to those incensed by his actions.
With his political life in shambles, Burr began exploring various plots and schemes. For example, he anticipated that there might be a future war between the United States and Spain over a boundary dispute. If this happened, Burr had a plan to invade Spanish-held territory in the Southwest and form a new republic. In a different plot, he considered splitting the region west of the Appalachians apart from the United States and forming a new country. While in Philadelphia, Burr approached British minister Anthony Merry (1756–1835), asking him whether Britain would support such schemes. No one was sure how real Burr's intentions were.
Burr was still serving as vice president at this time, and later in 1804 President Jefferson asked him to preside in the U.S. Senate over the impeachment trial of Supreme Court justice Samuel Chase (1741–1811). Burr was safe from arrest and prosecution while in Washington, D.C., where he had immunity, meaning he could not be arrested by other states while serving as a public official. Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans despised Chase, who was an ardent Federalist. They charged Chase with injecting his political views into his judicial opinions. Burr conducted the trial, and Chase was found not guilty. Chase continued to serve in the Court, and Burr gained some respect for his impartiality during the trial. The following spring, on March 2, 1805, Burr gave a stirring political farewell address to the Senate. Two days later, Clinton replaced him as vice president.
General James Wilkinson
Like Aaron Burr, General James Wilkinson led a life filled with intrigue and controversy. Wilkinson was born in Calvert County, Maryland, in 1757 to a wealthy merchant and planter. Young Wilkinson began studying medicine in Philadelphia, but the American Revolution interrupted his education. Wilkinson joined the Continental Army and rose to the rank of brigadier general. However, he was forced to resign from the army in 1778 after critical remarks he made about General George Washington became public.
In 1783, Wilkinson moved to the western frontier of Virginia, the region that later became the state of Kentucky, and established trade relations with Spain. Spain still controlled New Orleans and territory west of the Mississippi River. By 1787, Wilkinson's relations with Spanish officials had grown, and he became their paid secret adviser, providing them with information about U.S. plans for the West.
Wilkinson was also involved in local politics, supporting Kentucky's separation from Virginia and its statehood. He then returned to military service in the early 1790s to fight against the Native American alliance that was resisting the spread of American settlement in the Ohio River valley. Serving under General Anthony Wayne (1745–1796; see entry in volume 2), Wilkinson again rose to the rank of brigadier general. He was a commander in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, leading his forces to a victory that effectively crushed the Native American alliance. Following Wayne's sudden death, Wilkinson replaced him as the senior officer in the U.S Army from December 1796 to July 1798. He then served as military governor of the southwest frontier region, the area between the Mississippi River and the Appalachians and south of the Ohio River. In that role, he helped guide the transfer of the Louisiana Purchase from French control to U.S. control. The Louisiana Purchase was an immense area of land that France sold to the United States in 1803.
In the winter of 1804–5, Wilkinson was in the East and met with Aaron Burr on several occasions. They discussed various vague plots to create a new nation by either attacking Mexico or separating the region west of the Appalachians from the United States, or both. In the meantime, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Wilkinson as governor of the Louisiana Territory, not knowing of Wilkinson's secret arrangement with Spain and his plotting with Burr. In 1806, Wilkinson became aware that Jefferson was suspicious of Burr's behavior. It was also evident that Burrwas not having any luck obtaining Britain's support for their plots. Wilkinson, perhaps nervous about his role in the scheme being discovered also, advised Jefferson of Burr's intentions to invade Mexico and then organized a force to apprehend Burr and take him back to Richmond, Virginia, for trial.
When Wilkinson appeared at Burr's treason trial to testify, he found that he himself was the subject of grand jury investigations. Eventually, President James Madison (1751–1836; served 1809–17; see entry in volume 2) ordered that Wilkinson be arrested and tried for treason. He was acquitted (cleared) on December 25, 1811. During the War of 1812 (1812–15), Wilkinson would take a military command again. However, he suffered an embarrassing defeat at Montreal and resigned in disgrace once more. He died in December 1825 in Mexico. Clear evidence of Wilkinson's secret involvement with Spain was not revealed until decades later, through research in Spanish archives.
During the winter of 1804–5, in his last months as vice president, Burr often met with General James Wilkinson (1757–1825; see box), commander of the American forces in the West, to discuss possible actions against Spain in the Southwest, including a possible invasion of Mexico. Wilkinson had received a new appointment as governor of the Louisiana Territory. Burr, however, was unsuccessful in gaining a new appointment for a post in the West. He decided to accompany Wilkinson westward to St. Louis in mid-March, perhaps as a scouting trip for his schemes. First Burr stopped in Philadelphia to meet with Merry again. He requested a $500,000 loan from Britain for his plans to create a separate country. He also asked for the use of a British fleet, to be placed at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
On his way to St. Louis, Burr stopped at many communities, and rumors spread about what his intentions might be. His journey also included a brief stay in Nashville with Andrew Jackson (1767–1845; see entry in volume 1), head of the Tennessee militia. Burr likely found a great deal of interest in his plots among Western citizens, but he was disappointed to find that farther south, the border area was not on the verge of war.
Burr returned to the East for the winter of 1805–6. He approached Jefferson about foreign diplomatic appointments, but because of the rumors about Burr's plotting, Jefferson did not trust him in an official post. Though still unsuccessful in gaining British support for his schemes, Burr did receive contributions from U.S. citizens sympathetic to his plans. With these funds, he began to build boats and gather provisions for an attack on Mexico. In the meantime, Burr sought to stir up some hostility toward Spain to justify an attack on Spanish territory. However, he was unsuccessful in this attempt.
A failed plan
In August 1806, Burr was ready to head west again. He traveled into the Ohio River valley, gathering men and supplies. By now, rumors of his intentions were spreading widely. Some sympathizers began broadcasting their desires to separate the West from the United States. President Jefferson issued a warning to Western officials to keep an eye on Burr. A federal grand jury in Kentucky twice brought Burr in for questioning. Burr denied that he had been involved in any political or military scheming, and no evidence was discovered to justify detaining him. However, Wilkinson was apparently becoming nervous about Burr's intentions and sent Jefferson a report warning him about Burr. After receiving Wilkinson's report, Jefferson issued a proclamation on November 27. The proclamation warned citizens that taking part in any illegal plots against Spain or the United States would be considered treason.
Meanwhile, Burr set out to the south, gathering more followers. By January 1807, Burr had nine boats and about sixty men traveling south on the Mississippi River. When they reached settlements in the Mississippi Territory on January 10, word arrived that Wilkinson had gathered a force in New Orleans to apprehend Burr upon his arrival. At that point, Burr turned himself over to local authorities. Again another grand jury hearing led to his release with no charges filed. However, the local judge refused to release him from parole. Fearing further actions by Wilkinson, Burr fled toward Spanish-held Florida. Wilkinson apprehended him a few miles short of the U.S. border and took him to Virginia for legal proceedings.
On March 30, 1807, Burr appeared before Chief Justice John Marshall (1755–1835; see entry in volume 2) in U.S. Circuit Court in Richmond, Virginia, for a preliminary hearing. Burr was charged with organizing a military operation against Spanish territory. A federal grand jury added the charge of treason. Burr's trial began on May 22 with President Jefferson personally pressing for a conviction. However, Chief Justice Marshall was an avid Federalist and not eager to please Jefferson. The jury's decision rested on a very narrow definition of treason that Marshall gave to them. A guilty verdict required that there be evidence of actual participation in an attack on Spanish territory. Because there was no such evidence, the jury found Burr not guilty. Jefferson pressed for a conviction on the lesser charge of organizing a military operation, but the jury acquitted Burr on that charge too.
Man without a country
The verdicts were very unpopular with Jefferson and the public in general. Though Burr was free again, his reputation was destroyed. A Baltimore mob hung him in effigy (staged a mock hanging, using a crude figure of him, to express their anger and disrespect). Burr stayed in Philadelphia until June 1808, then sailed for Britain. In Britain, Burr again began pursuing a scheme of invading Mexico and taking it from Spanish control. He was ordered to leave the country.
Burr traveled to Sweden, Denmark, and Germany before ending up in Paris, France, in February 1810. There, Burr hoped to gain support from French leader Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821) for inciting war between the United States and Britain, helping France gain control of Canada from the British, and creating a new nation by liberating Spanish colonies. Burr presented his schemes to French officials. However, the officials provided no response from Napoléon, and after several months Burr decided to leave. It took him a year to obtain a passport from the United States. During this period, Burr lived in poverty.
A return to America
In July 1811, Burr set sail for America, but the French ship he was sailing on was captured by the British and detained in Britain. Finally, in May 1812, Burr arrived in the United States. After making sure it was safe for him to return to New York, he reestablished his legal practice. However, personal tragedy soon struck twice. That summer, his only grandchild died; then in December, his daughter Theodosia was lost at sea while sailing on a ship from Charleston, South Carolina. Carrying on despite these losses, Burr continued building a successful law practice, and in July 1833 at the age of seventy-seven, he married a wealthy widow, Elizabeth Brown Jumel, who was twenty years younger. One year later, Elizabeth filed for divorce after realizing he was rapidly spending her fortune. Burr suffered a series of strokes and died on Staten Island on September 14, 1836, the day the divorce was issued.
For More Information
Fleming, Thomas. Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America. New York: Basic Books, 1999.
Ingram, W. Scott. Aaron Burr and the Young Nation. Woodbridge, CT: Blackbirch Press, 2002.
Jacobs, James R. Tarnished Warrior: Major-General James Wilkinson. New York: Macmillan, 1938. Reprint, Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1972.
Kline, Mary-Jo, ed. Political Correspondence and Public Papers of Aaron Burr. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.
Melton, Buckner F., Jr. Aaron Burr: Conspiracy to Treason. New York: Wiley, 2001.
Melton, Buckner F., Jr. Aaron Burr: The Rise and Fall of an American Politician. New York: PowerPlus Books, 2004.
Rogow, Arnold A. A Fatal Friendship: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. New York: Hill and Wang, 1998.
"The Duel." The American Experience: Public Broadcasting Service.http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/duel (accessed on August 12, 2005).
Burr, Aaron 1756-1836
Grandson of Jonathan Edwards and son of the second president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), Aaron Burr seemingly showed great promise. He sided with the revolutionary cause and served with courage and skill in various campaigns. The real leadership skills he displayed, however, were overshadowed by George Washington’s (and Alexander Hamilton’s) distrust, which somehow Burr earned in his first contacts with Washington. After the American Revolution he began a career in law and quickly became immersed in politics. His political views, to the extent that they are known, tended toward radical republicanism. Burr was a vigorous opponent of slavery early in his career, and he supported expanding the rights of women. But his enlightened views were tarnished by his ambition and political opportunism. He was elected to the Senate in 1791, where he served one undistinguished term. He was included on the Republican ticket in 1800 in order to secure a victory in New York, where he had created an effective political machine. The outcome of the election plunged the nation into crisis because Burr received the same number of electoral votes as Jefferson. Rather than step aside, as might have been expected from someone who was almost universally held to be the vice-presidential candidate, Burr forced the election into the House of Representatives. Jefferson was eventually victorious in the House, but by then his suspicions of Burr had hardened into hatred and for the next four years he simply ignored his vice president. Burr did preside with competence and fairness over the Senate, including the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase.
Hamilton had thrown his political weight behind Jefferson in the struggle of 1800. Again in 1804 Hamilton worked actively to thwart Burr’s campaign to become governor of New York. Burr had had enough. He and Hamilton met on the dueling field on July 11, 1804. Hamilton’s death at Burr’s hands was the death knell for Burr’s conventional political career. He then embarked on the unconventional political career in the American Southwest that would see him charged with treason. The goals of Burr’s extensive and well-documented efforts to put together a private military force remain unclear. Did he mean to dismember the Union? Or did he mean only to subvert Spain’s empire? Were his goals in some way republican? Or would he have preferred to become the Napoléon of the Southwest? Would he have liberated slaves in the territories he conquered? Was he indifferent among these alternatives?
Significant doubts remain regarding the answers to all of these questions. Burr’s own most unequivocal statement as to his intentions came late in his life when, after the Battle of San Jacinto paved the way for an independent Texas, he is said to have remarked, “I was only thirty years too soon. What was treason in me thirty years ago is patriotism today.” Whatever the case, rumors of Burr’s plans swept the country and, after a period of inaction, Jefferson pursued Burr ruthlessly. He had Burr captured and charged with the capital offense of treason. A spectacular and controversial trial followed. Chief Justice John Marshall strictly construed the constitutional provisions on treason. Only an “overt act” of “levying war” against the United States witnessed by two persons could amount to treason. The jury found that Burr’s various plans and meetings fell short of this standard and rendered a verdict of not guilty. After the trial Burr left for Europe, where he spent four years and continued to seek support for his southern scheme.
The rest of Burr’s life was sad and uneventful. Burr had admirers such as Andrew Jackson, and impressive figures such as Marshall and John Jay did not view Burr with the same hostility as did Jefferson and Hamilton. Yet it is hard not to conclude that Burr was an anomaly in his generation. When many Americans thought they were walking with history, Burr seemed strangely detached from the great republican experiment that was going on around him. This is perhaps one key reason why his life is full of extraordinary episodes but his lasting contributions are negligible.
SEE ALSO American Revolution; Hamilton, Alexander; Jefferson, Thomas; Nationalism and Nationality; Nation-State; Republicanism
Melton, Buckner F., Jr. 2002. Aaron Burr: Conspiracy to Treason. New York: Wiley.
Rogow, Arnold. 1999. A Fatal Friendship: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. New York: Hill and Wang.
Burr was born February 6, 1756, in Newark, New Jersey. His family traced its ancestry to the Pilgrims and through hundreds of years of English gentry with many members who were prominent in government and politics. Both his parents died when he was young and he and his sister were raised in comfortable circumstances by their maternal uncle. Burr was a bright, charming, handsome, and witty boy who was gifted intellectually but decidedly mischievous and difficult to control. From earliest childhood he showed ambition, determination, and leadership.
Burr entered the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) as a sophomore in 1769 at the age of thirteen and graduated summa cum laude three years later. He then enrolled in litchfield law school (Connecticut), which was run by his brother-in-law and former tutor, Tapping Reeve. However, the Revolutionary War and his desire to be a part of it interrupted his studies.
Burr rose swiftly through the ranks of the revolutionary army, displaying daring, energy, courage, and imagination. His small stature and pampered upbringing belied an internal strength that surprised many who knew him. Accompanying Colonel Benedict Arnold's troops in their expedition to Quebec, he endured cold, hunger, and illness. He was made an officer in the Continental Army and soon served with General george washington.
Burr resigned his Army commission in 1779. He resumed the study of law in 1780 and was admitted to the bar in 1782. Later in 1782 he married Theodosia Prevost, a widow ten years his senior, and the following year their only child, a daughter also named Theodosia, was born.
In 1789 Burr was appointed attorney general of the state of New York and in 1791 he was elected a U.S. senator, defeating General Philip Schuyler, the father-in-law of alexander hamilton. This was the beginning of a bitter rivalry with Hamilton that would come to a ruinous conclusion years later.
Burr served in the Senate for six years. In 1797, the voters turned against him and elected his former antagonist, General Schuyler. Burr attributed his loss to Hamilton's assiduous efforts to undermine his support and reputation.
After losing his Senate seat, Burr served a short time in the New York assembly, before entering the presidential race of 1800. He and his opponent, thomas jefferson, received the same number of votes in the electoral college, and the election went to the House of Representatives for resolution. Burr and his supporters were unabashedly ambitious in their zeal to win the office. Burr's nemesis Hamilton stepped into the fray, announcing his support for Jefferson and criticizing Burr. Finally, through clever manipulation of the voting process, Hamilton secured the presidency for Jefferson and Burr automatically became vice president. As a result of this peculiar election Congress passed the twelfth amendment,
which mandated separate balloting for president and vice president.
"Law is whatever is boldly asserted and plausibly maintained."
Burr's ruthless and opportunistic ambition caused many of his colleagues to shun him both professionally and socially. President Jefferson held him at arm's length, and others in the administration treated him like an outsider. Burr blamed his failure to secure the top office largely on Hamilton and he brooded over perceived injustices. Having lost his beloved wife in 1794, Burr was left with only his daughter, whom he idolized. He devoted as much time and energy as possible to her education and her grooming. However, the young lady was moving into adulthood and a life of her own. In 1801,
United States v. Aaron Burr
In 1807 Aaron Burr was prosecuted for treason and high misdemeanor in the federal circuit court in Richmond, Virginia, with U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice john marshall presiding as a trial judge. Despite evidence that Burr had been plotting to raise a rebellion and overtake a portion of the western territories in the United States and other evidence that Burr was planning to lead an unauthorized invasion of Mexico, the defendant was acquitted by a jury on both the treason and high misdemeanor charges.
Aaron Burr served as the nation's third vice president from 1801–1805, having lost the 1800 presidential election after the U.S. House of Representatives broke an electoral deadlock by naming thomas jefferson president and Burr vice president. Although Burr contemplated running for president again four years later, those ambitions came to an end when he was indicted for murdering alexander hamilton in a duel on July 11, 1804.
Later that same month, Burr, now disaffected with American politics, met with Britain's minister to the United States, Anthony Merry, who subsequently reported to his government that Burr "was endeavoring to effect a separation of the western part of the United States" via military action. In early 1805 Burr, while still acting as the vice president of the United States, contacted Spanish minister, Marques de Casa Yrujo, to discuss the same subject. The governments of both Great Britain and Spain declined to offer Burr any financial or military assistance.
When his term as vice president expired, Burr headed west to raise a military force that would either invade Mexico or forcefully sever the southwestern United States into an independent nation led by Burr himself. The former vice president first met with another malcontent, Herman Blennerhassett, on Blennerhassett Island, located in the Ohio River, then part of Virginia. A year later Burr joined forces with General James Wilkinson on Blennerhassett Island, where they assembled a force of unknown size to carry out Burr's plan. Burr left the island before any actions were taken to implement the plan.
After Burr departed, Wilkinson had second thoughts about the plan and informed President Jefferson of their rebellious preparations. Jefferson issued a proclamation calling for the suppression of the conspiracy. Federal authorities arrested Burr in March 1807 while he was trying to flee into Spanish Florida. The former vice president was brought back to Virginia where he stood trial before Chief Justice John Marshall (early Supreme Court justices performed double duty as appellate judges on the nation's high court and as trial judges in their designated circuit court) and state trial judge Cyrus Griffin. Bail was set at $5,000.
After hearing testimony from Wilkinson, the grand jury for the Virginia federal circuit court indicted Burr on June 24, 1807. The indictment charged him with one count of treason and one count of high misdemeanor for "unlawfully, falsely, maliciously, and traitorously … intending to raise and levy war" against the United States.
The trial began on August 10, 1807, and ended less than a month later, on September 1, 1807. Jefferson, motivated in part by personal vindictiveness against Burr, declared in a special message to Congress during the trial that Burr's guilt had been "placed beyond question." Jefferson then gave George Hay, the U.S. attorney in charge of the prosecution, incriminating evidence to offer against Burr. Jefferson also dangled pardons as enticements to any co-conspirators who agreed to turn state's evidence.
But the prosecution had two major problems. First, the linchpin of the treason charge was the alleged overt act of assembling a military force on Blennerhassett Island for the purpose of waging war against the United States. The indictment said this act occurred on December 10, 1806, a date on which all defense and prosecution witnesses agreed that Burr was not on the island, but instead hundreds of miles away.
Second, Chief Justice Marshall instructed the jurors that they could still convict Burr of treason for being a co-conspirator to the crime, so long as at least two witnesses provided testimony that some overt act was committed in furtherance of the conspiracy. But General Wilkinson was the only witness who testified as to Burr's involvement in the alleged crime. The jury returned a verdict of "not guilty" after deliberating for only 25 minutes.
On September 9, 1807, the trial for the high misdemeanor began, again with Chief Justice Marshall and Cyrus Griffin presiding. Prosecutor Hay called more than 50 witnesses to testify against the defendant. But the jury again acquitted Burr. Hay then filed a motion to prosecute Burr for treason in Ohio, alleging that the defendant conspired to levy war against the U.S. government in that jurisdiction as well. Marshall listened to five weeks of testimony concerning the motion and then on October 20 ruled that Burr could only be tried for misdemeanor charges in Ohio. Finally, Hay ceased efforts at prosecuting Burr any further.
Beirne, Francis. 1959. Shout Treason: The Trial of Aaron Burr. New York: Hastings House.
Melton, Bucker F., Jr. 2001. Aaron Burr: Conspiracy to Treason. New York: Wiley.
Vail, Philip. 1973. The Turbulent Life of Aaron Burr: The Great American Rascal. New York: Award Books.
against her father's wishes, she married Joseph Alston, of South Carolina, and moved to the Palmetto State, leaving Burr alone in Washington, D.C.
Toward the end of his term as vice president, Burr ran for governor of New York but was defeated. During the campaign Hamilton again expressed his distrust of Burr and made other disparaging comments about him. Feeling that his honor had been impugned, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Although Hamilton tried to defuse the conflict, Burr was determined to force a confrontation. The two men met at 7:00 a.m. on July 7, 1804. Burr was an excellent marksman, and he killed Hamilton with the first shot. In an ensuing public outcry, Burr was indicted for murder. He escaped to his daughter's home in South Carolina until the furor died down and eventually returned to Washington, D.C., to complete his term as vice president.
Burr came to realize that his aspirations to the presidency had been destroyed. His political career in ruins, he left Washington, D.C., and traveled west to explore frontier territory. He also concocted an elaborate conspiracy that was to be his final political undoing. Though complete details of the scheme have never been fully discovered, Burr apparently intended to lead the western states in an insurrection against the federal government. After the states seceded, he planned to install himself as the head of a newly created republic. He then intended to conquer Texas and Mexico. In October 1806, President Jefferson issued a proclamation denouncing Burr's venture. On January 14, 1807, Burr was arrested in Mississippi on a charge of treason. He escaped, but was later apprehended in Alabama. Burr's trial began in May 1807, and lasted six months. He was eventually acquitted but his political life was over.
Burr spent the next several years in exile in Europe, where he endured poverty, humiliation, and degradation. In 1812, he quietly returned to the United States, slipping into Boston wearing a disguise and using an assumed name. After a time he resumed a somewhat normal life and opened a law office in New York. Burr's prospects seemed to be brightening when he was dealt two crushing personal blows. First, he learned that his only grandchild, Aaron Burr Alston, had died before Burr returned to the United States. A few months later his beloved daughter perished in a shipwreck while traveling from South Carolina to New York to visit Burr.
Burr was devastated by these losses. A wave of sympathy tempered public opinion toward him, but he was still shunned by those in prominence. He continued his law practice, enjoyed a small circle of supportive friends, and even remarried, though the union was short-lived and unhappy. He quietly and unobtrusively engaged in numerous altruistic and philanthropic ventures, including providing for the education of young men and women of limited resources and adopting an orphan who lived with him until late adolescence.
During the last few years of his life, Burr suffered a series of strokes. At first, he rebounded completely, but each successive episode left him weaker. He died September 14, 1836, and was buried beside his parents and grandfather in Princeton, New Jersey.
Kennedy, Roger G. 2000. Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character. Oxford; New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Lomask, Milton. 1982. Aaron Burr. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Melton, Buckner F., Jr. 2001. Aaron Burr: Conspiracy to Treason. New York: Wiley.
Vail, Philip. 1973. The Great American Rascal. New York: Hawthorn Books.
American lawyer and politician Aaron Burr (1756-1836) was vice president under Thomas Jefferson. After his term of office he conspired to invade Spanish territory in the Southwest and to separate certain western areas from the United States.
Aaron Burr was born in Newark, N.J., on Feb. 6, 1756, the grandson of the Calvinist theologian Johathan Edwards, and the son of a Presbyterian minister. The family soon moved to Princeton, where the Reverend Burr became president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University). Burr was soon orphaned.
From an early age Burr prepared for an education at the College of New Jersey. Denied admission at the age of age 11, the precocious youth was accepted as a sophomore 2 years later. An eager and industrious student, he graduated with distinction in 3 years. He studied theology for a while but found himself disenchanted with the religious controversies generated by the Great Awakening. He turned instead to the study of law and for a period worked under the famous jurist Tapping Reeve.
Officer in the Revolution
Attracted by the drama and opportunity of the Revolutionary War, Burr secured a letter of recommendation from John Hancock, the president of the Continental Congress, and appeared before Gen. Washington to request a commission in the Continental Army. Washington refused, thus opening the first in a series of conflicts between the two men. Burr, however, persisted. He joined the Army and behaved commendably in the illfated expedition against Quebec. In the spring of 1776 he secured appointment, with the rank of major, to Washington's official household in New York. Mutual distrust quickly deepened between the two men, partly because of Burr's disenchantment with the tedium of administrative duties and partly because of the glaring contrast between his own spontaneous behavior and Washington's stiff and humorless manner.
Again through the intercession of Hancock, Burr transferred to the staff of Gen. Israel Putnam. For the next several years he served effectively in a variety of posts, developing a reputation both for vigilance and the effective disciplining of his troops.
In March 1779, his health impaired by exhaustion and exposure, Burr resigned his commission. By 1780, however, he was ready to launch a heavy program of legal study. Burr was licensed as an attorney in January 1782 and 2 months later was admitted to the bar.
At least equal to Burr's pursuit of fame and fortune was his passion for women. Throughout his long life he carried on numerous affairs. Though he was only 5 feet 6 inches tall, his erect military bearing and graceful manner, his sparkling conversation and elegant appearance made him very attractive to women. In July 1777 he began regular visits to Mrs. Theodosia Prevost, 10 years his senior and wife of a British officer frequently away on duty. In July 1781 she was widowed; 9 months later she and Burr were married. The marriage lasted until her death in 1794, though Burr carried on a number of amours during the interval. In 1783 a daughter, Theodosia, was born, with whom Burr developed a deep and affectionate relationship. Indeed, much of Burr's life came to revolve around his ambitions and concerns for her.
Lawyer in New York
After establishing a successful legal practice in the booming town of Albany, Burr moved in 1783 to New York City. For 6 years he stuck to his practice, generating a substantial reputation and income. He never compiled a large fortune, however, for his generosity and his own lifestyle drained his money away.
Local and National Politics
Gradually during the 1790s Burr worked his way into New York politics. Nominally a member of the emerging Jeffersonian opposition, he took care not to break completely with the Federalists. The results of this were twofold. By carefully balancing group against group, he could present himself as a nonsectarian, coalition candidate. On the other hand, this generated suspicions among both Jeffersonians and Federalists about his "unsettled" political loyalties. In 1791 Burr won election to the U.S. Senate, defeating Philip Schuyler, Alexander Hamilton's father-in-law. Burr and Hamilton had been for some time political and professional antagonists; this election elicited Hamilton's unrelenting hatred. In the Senate, Burr occupied a somewhat ambiguous position, opposing Hamilton's financial program and the Jay Treaty, yet not becoming a full Jeffersonian partisan.
Burr failed to drum up support for the vice presidency in 1796 and also lost his seat in the Senate. From 1797 to 1799 he served in the New York Legislature but was defeated for reelection when he came under fire for promoting legislation to aid a land company and banking corporation in which he had financial interests.
Burr's opportunity to fashion a national political career came with the presidential election of 1800. With the support of the Tammany organization (which he never formally joined), he organized New York City and enabled Jefferson to carry the state's crucial electoral votes. Meanwhile Burr had secured a pledge from the Jeffersonians in Congress to support him equally with Jefferson in the election as a way of ensuring that neither of the Federalist candidates would have a chance. (In 1800 presidential electors simply cast two ballots, making no distinction between presidential and vice-presidential preferences.) The result was a tie. Jefferson and Burr each received 73 votes, and the election shifted to the House of Representatives. For 35 ballots neither man received a majority, while rumors circulated that Burr was scheming for Federalist support. A number of Federalists did state their strong preference for him, but Hamilton argued just as strongly that Jefferson was a more honorable man. Finally several Federalists withheld their votes and permitted Jefferson's election, thus ending a major constitutional crisis.
Burr was now vice president, but his political career was near its end. His relations with Jefferson's supporters were further strained during his 4 years in office. In 1804 Burr was passed over by the Jeffersonian congressional caucus and was not renominated for vice president.
In July 1804 the famous duel with Hamilton took place. Burr had tried to avoid it, but it was forced upon him by Hamilton's mounting public attacks. As word of Hamilton's death spread, the public outcry forced Burr to flee for his safety. His political base, both within New York and in the Jeffersonian party, was now completely gone. To fulfill his obligation as vice president, Burr returned to Washington to preside over the impeachment proceedings against Justice Samuel Chase, a task he carried out with justice and impartiality. The day after the trial was over, Burr left the Senate chamber for the last time.
For at least a year prior to this, Burr had been making plans to recoup in the West some of the power denied him in the East. The precise motive behind his western adventures has never been clarified. There seems to have been two options: to gather a force to invade Spanish-held territory across the Mississippi out of which an independent republic was to be fashioned, or to separate certain southwestern territories (east of the Mississippi) from the United States and incorporate them with the Spanish lands to form an independent nation. Burr's primary goal seems to have been the Spanish venture, though he was clearly interested in including New Orleans and territory along the Mississippi. If his proposals to England to aid in dismembering the Union had met with support, Burr might well have placed separation at the center of his planning. Whatever the case, his western adventure had the gravest implications for the young republic.
Burr's involved intrigue took form in 1804-1805, when he divulged his plans to various persons, among them Gen. James Wilkinson, commander of American forces in the West, and Anthony Merry, British minister to the United States, whom Burr asked for half a million dollars and the promise of aid from the British fleet. After a scouting trip down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, Burr returned east and made further attempts to organize support. Failing to secure funds from England, he turned to various private sources.
When Jefferson's purchase of Spanish Florida ended the prospect of the Spanish-American border war that Burr had hoped to use as the occasion for his own invasion of Spanish territory, he decided to launch his enterprise. In August 1806 he started west into the Ohio Valley to rally men and supplies. Increasingly alarmed by rumors of Burr's operations, President Jefferson sent warnings to western officials to keep Burr under careful surveillance. Receiving a communication from Wilkinson (who had now turned against Burr), the President issued a proclamation describing the intended expedition and warning American citizens not to participate. At the beginning of 1807, unaware of Wilkinson's betrayal, Burr started down the Ohio with about 100 men. Within a few weeks the whole thing was over. Behind Burr, units of the Ohio militia organized for pursuit, and ahead of him Wilkinson was frantically arranging New Orleans's defense while preparing a force to intercept Burr. Learning of Wilkinson's opposition, Burr fled toward Mobile, Ala., leaving his force to be placed under detention. Burr was arrested a few miles from Spanish Florida and returned east for trial.
Charged with the high misdemeanor of launching a military expedition against Spanish territory and the treasonous act of attempting to separate areas from the United States, Burr stood trial before Chief Justice John Marshall in the U.S. Circuit Court at Richmond, Va. The outcome hung upon Marshall's instructions to the jury concerning the technicalities of American treason law. Burr was acquitted on the treason charge, and the misdemeanor indictment was eventually canceled. The acquittal was extremely unpopular; Marshall was burned in effigy as a result.
Although Burr was legally free, his political career was finished. For the next 4 years he wandered through Europe, vainly trying to find support for plans to revolutionize Mexico, free the Spanish colonies, and instigate war between England and the United States. Finally, in 1812, he returned to America, broken in health and financially destitute. After some discreet inquiries, he decided it was safe to return to New York. There he set about the task of reestablishing his legal practice. He was moderately successful, but his final years were not easy. In December 1812 his cherished daughter, Theodosia, was lost at sea. As the years passed, his fortunes again declined. By 1830 he had come to depend heavily upon contributions from a few friends for his survival. In 1833, at the age of 77, Burr married a wealthy widow 20 years his junior who quickly divorced him when it became apparent he would run through her fortune. Over the next several years a series of strokes left him paralyzed and utterly dependent for his care upon a cousin. Burr died on Staten Island, N.Y., on Sept. 14, 1836.
The best modern biography of Burr is Herbert S. Parmet and Marie B. Hecht, Aaron Burr: Portrait of an Ambitious Man (1967). The most detailed biographical study, however, is still James Parton, The Life and Times of Aaron Burr (1858; repr. 1967). Other biographies of Burr include Samuel H. Wandell and Meade Minnigerode, Aaron Burr (2 vols., 1925); Walter Flavius McCaleb, The Aaron Burr Conspiracy (1936); and Nathan Schachner, Aaron Burr (1937). For the fullest treatment of Burr's western adventures see Thomas P. Abernethy, The Burr Conspiracy (1954). Bradley Chapin explains many of the technicalities surrounding the famous trial of Aaron Burr in The American Law of Treason (1964).
Lomask, Milton, Aaron Burr, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979-c1982.
Keunstler, Laurence S, The unpredictable Mr. Aaron Burr, New York: Vantage Press, 1974.
Chidsey, Donald Barr, The great conspiracy; Aaron Burr and his strange doings in the West, New York: Crown Publishers, 1967. □
American lawyer and politician Aaron Burr (1756–1836) was vice president under Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826). Political conspiracy and his famous duel with Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804) secured Burr an unfavorable place in American history.
Early life, education, and revolution
Aaron Burr was born in Newark, New Jersey, on February 6, 1756, the son of a Presbyterian minister. His father died when Aaron was just nineteen months old, shortly after moving the family to Princeton, New Jersey. Within the year, his mother and grandparents died as well. Orphaned along with his older sister Sarah, Burr was placed in the care of his twenty-year-old uncle, Timothy Edwards.
Burr graduated from Princeton University at the age of seventeen. He studied religion for a while but eventually decided to study law instead. His studies were halted by the outbreak of the American Revolution (1775–83). Burr joined the Continental Army, fighting for American independence from Great Britain. He fought in the battles of New York, Quebec, and Monmouth. In 1779 Burr's health forced him to resign from the military, and he resumed his law studies in New York City.
In 1782 Burr was admitted to the New York Bar, an association for lawyers. The same year, he married Theodosia Bartow Prevost, a woman ten years older than him and the widow of a British army officer. Aaron and Theodosia had four children together. Tragically, only his daughter Theodosia lived to be an adult.
After establishing a successful law practice in Albany, New York, Burr returned to New York City in 1783, where he quickly gained a reputation as a superior lawyer. During his years as a New York City lawyer, Burr clashed with many other city lawyers, including Alexander Hamilton.
Moving into politics
In the 1790s Burr began a career in politics. A member of the Jeffersonian Party (a political party whose members supported a weak federal government and a strict interpretation of the Constitution), Burr also had close dealings with the opposing Federalist Party (a political party whose members supported a strong federal government and a loose interpretation of the Constitution). Working well between the era's two dominant political parties was beneficial to Burr, but it also created problems for him. On one hand, Burr worked well as a mediator, or middleman, between the two opposing parties. On the other hand, his failure to make a clear choice between political parties raised suspicion among other politicians.
In 1791 Burr won a seat in the U.S. Senate by defeating Philip Schuyler (1733–1804), Alexander Hamilton's father-in-law. This strengthened Hamilton's feelings of professional and personal hatred toward Burr.
During his term as senator, Burr's political uncertainties became more and more evident and resulted in several professional setbacks. In 1796 he lost his seat in the senate. From 1797 to 1799, Burr served in the New York legislature but was defeated for reelection.
Election and controversy
The presidential election of 1800 gave Burr the opportunity to develop his career in national politics. Running against the popular Thomas Jefferson, Burr convinced his Jeffersonian friends in Congress to support him as well as Jefferson. By doing this, Burr all but shut out the opposing Federalist candidates.
The presidential election ended in a tie, with both Burr and Jefferson winning the same number of votes. Congress, where rumors circulated about Burr's Federalist leanings, was then given the task of breaking the tie and choosing the next president. Meanwhile, Alexander Hamilton argued strongly that Jefferson should be elected the fifth president of the United States. In the end, Jefferson won the presidency. At that time, Burr, the runner-up for president, became vice president.
Burr had become vice president, but his political career was near its end. He soon began to lose support among the party loyalists. In 1804 the Jeffersonians did not renominate Burr for vice president.
The Hamilton-Burr duel
Although Burr's political career had ended, his story in American history was far from finished. In July 1804, Burr's legendary duel with Hamilton took place. For years, the two had built up a dislike for one another. Burr initially tried to avoid the duel, which at the time was legal in parts of the country, but Hamilton demanded it take place. His insistence on the duel brought about his own death, as Burr mortally wounded him with a pistol shot. News of Hamilton's death spread and Burr was forced to flee, fearing for his safety. By the time things calmed down, Burr had lost what remained of his political support in New York and within the Jeffersonian party.
As if killing a political enemy was not enough, Burr continued his involvement in questionable activities. In 1806 his plot to gain power in western territories was uncovered. About a year before the duel with Hamilton, Burr had begun to plan to create an independent nation. Burr planned to do so either by invading and taking over Spanish territory near the area that would later become Florida or by separating the Mississippi Valley from the rest of America. Burr met with several political and military leaders in order to win support. He even tried to get funding from England, but failed and turned to private sources.
In August 1806 Burr began building support in the Ohio Valley. President Jefferson found out about Burr's activities and sent out a warning to western officials telling them to carefully watch Burr's moves. The president also warned American citizens not to participate in his plan. Meanwhile, Burr and about one hundred followers moved south along the Ohio River. The plot came to an end when Burr was trapped between the Ohio militia and forces in New Orleans. He fled to Mobile, Alabama, but was arrested a few miles from Spanish Florida.
A patriot on trial
For his plans in the west, Burr was charged with the high misdemeanor, or serious offense, of launching a military expedition against the Spanish Territory. For his attempt to separate parts of the United States, Burr was also charged with treason, the betrayal of one's own country. The high misdemeanor charge was dropped and Burr was found innocent of treason.
Although he was legally a free man and the charges against him had been dropped, Burr's political career was finished. For the next several years he wandered through Europe, where he tried without success to gain support for a revolution in Mexico, to free the Spanish colonies, and to start a war between England and the United States.
After Burr returned to America in 1812, ill and financially ruined, he attempted to reestablish his career in law. For a time he was moderately successful. Then a tragedy in his personal life occurred in December 1812, when his cherished daughter Theodosia died at sea.
The years passed, and by 1830 Burr was heavily dependent on friends for financial support. Over the next several years, a series of strokes left him paralyzed and completely dependent on his cousin's care. Burr died on Staten Island, New York, on Sept. 14, 1836.
For More Information
Kennedy, Roger G. Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Melton, Buckner F., Jr. Aaron Burr: Conspiracy to Treason. New York: Wiley, 2001.
Rogow, Arnold A. A Fatal Friendship: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. New York: Hill and Wang, 1998.
Aaron Burr was born on February 6, 1756, in Newark, New Jersey . His father, Aaron, was the pastor of the Newark Presbyterian Congregation. His mother, Esther, was the daughter of the well-known theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758).
Before the younger Aaron was a year old, his father took a post as president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), and the family moved to Princeton. His father died a few months later, in September 1757. The deaths of his mother and grandparents followed within the next year. Aaron and his older sister, Sarah, moved to the care of Timothy Edwards, a twenty-year-old uncle.
Burr prepared for college and graduated from Princeton at seventeen. He began to study theology to become a minister, but in 1774 he abandoned those studies. Instead he decided to become a lawyer. That plan, however, was delayed by the American Revolution (1775–83).
The Battle of Lexington, which opened the war, inspired Burr to join the Revolutionary cause. (See Battle of Lexington and Concord .) He and Benedict Arnold (1741–1801) fought in the expedition to take Quebec. Although the attack was unsuccessful, Burr served with distinction.
In the spring of 1776, Burr joined the staff of General George Washington (1732–1799) as a major. Their personalities conflicted, and Burr was transferred to the staff of General Israel Putnam (1718–1790). Burr served with distinction in the battle of Long Island and in the evacuation of New York .
In July 1777, Burr was appointed lieutenant-colonel in the Continental line. He earned a reputation for discipline and daring as the
leader of a regiment stationed in Orange County, New York. The hardships of his stations, however, took a toll on Burr. His health began to suffer, and in March 1779 he submitted his resignation. After a long period of recovery, Burr returned to the study of law.
Law and politics
In 1780, Burr was well enough to begin his study of law with determination. He eventually relocated to Haverstraw, New York, and was admitted to the New York Bar as an attorney in early 1782. In July, he married Theodosia Bartow Provost, the widow of a British army officer. Over the course of their twelve years together, she gave birth to four children. Only one, a daughter, survived into adulthood, and she disappeared at sea in 1812. Theodosia died in 1794.
In the fall of 1783, the Burrs moved to New York City, where Burr established a law practice. He was a highly respected attorney. With the encouragement of a radical political group, Burr gained election to the New York State Assembly. He served from 1784 to 1785 but refrained from being nominated for another term.
Burr continued to be entangled in the work of the state's political factions. As a result, he earned an appointment as the state attorney general in 1789. In 1791, he began to serve in the U.S. Senate. It was during this time that Burr gained an enemy in Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804), who was secretary of the treasury under President Washington.
During his six years in the Senate, Burr became associated with the politics of Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), President Washington's secretary of state. After James Monroe (1758–1831) left the Senate, Burr became the spokesman for the policies of the Jeffersonians. In 1796, both Burr and Jefferson ran for president, but Vice President John Adams defeated both of them. At that time, representatives from each state voted in the election; the first-place finisher was declared president, while the second-place finisher automatically became vice president. In 1796, that meant that Adams would be president and runner-up Jefferson would be vice president. Failing to gain reelection to the Senate the same year, Burr returned to New York in 1797. There, he was elected to the State Assembly again and served until 1799.
During Adams's presidency, political parties became clearly defined in the young nation. Jefferson's supporters, including Burr, belonged to the Democratic-Republican Party . In the election of 1800, Jefferson and Burr received the same number of electoral votes, tying for the presidency. The Constitution required that the election be decided by the House of Representatives. In the tie-breaking vote there, Jefferson was elected president, and Burr became vice president, thanks in part to Hamilton's support for Jefferson. As vice president, Burr was not very popular with members of either the Federalist Party or the Democratic-Republican Party. By 1804, the Twelfth Amendment had been passed, which required electors to vote for president and vice president separately. New York governor George Clinton (1739–1812) wound up being elected as Jefferson's second-term vice president.
With Burr's days as vice president numbered, his political friends nominated him for the governorship of New York. Although he gathered some support, Burr's popularity had continued to decline. His political rivals, especially Hamilton, worked against him as well. He was defeated by a heavy majority.
Hamilton's scorn during the New York election infuriated Burr and prompted a duel between them. Burr fatally shot Hamilton on July 11, 1804, at Weehawken, New Jersey, while still serving as vice president.
Burr's duel with Hamilton, while giving him political revenge, brought many difficulties as well. Although duels were still common, they were not legal in either New Jersey or New York. Hamilton was immensely popular and had many admirers who were angered by the event. Officials in both New York and New Jersey charged Burr with multiple crimes, including murder. He fled first to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania , and then to South Carolina . Although he eventually beat the charges and returned to complete his term as vice president, the end of his term in March 1805 effectively marked the end of his political career.
Another incident contributed to the decline of Burr's reputation. It appears that between 1805 and 1807 he was involved in plans either to separate the western states from the Union or to conquer the Spanish possessions of Texas and northern Mexico, or perhaps to accomplish both feats. The facts are so unclear that Burr's intentions remain clouded today. It is clear, however, that Burr was working toward some sort of uprising.
In preparation for his plans, Burr recruited volunteers, gathered supplies, and sought financial assistance. Among those plotting alongside Burr was the commanding general of the U.S. Army, James Wilkinson (1757–1825), who promised to supply Burr with troops. Wilkinson, however, changed his mind and decided to further his own career by revealing Burr's plans to authorities.
Burr was arrested and tried for treason. Fortunately for him, political sparring between President Jefferson and Chief Justice John Marshall (1755–1835) resulted in Burr's acquittal. Upon his release, Burr sought refuge in Europe.
Burr's reputation both socially and politically had plummeted. He was heavily in debt, and creditors were relentless. Burr retreated and set sail for England in June 1808. Ever hopeful of gathering support for his plans, Burr traveled from England to Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and France. He failed to gain support, however, and decided to return home to his daughter and grandson. Due to an unfortunate string of events, he did not return home until May 1812.
Burr returned to New York, where he had little difficulty reestablishing his legal practice. Within the year, both his grandson and daughter died. Financial difficulties continued to plague him. He suffered a minor stroke in 1830. In July 1833, Burr married a much younger and wealthier woman, Eliza Jumel. After only four months, they separated due to arguments concerning finances. Her request for divorce was granted after a dramatic trial. Burr died on September 14, 1836, the day the divorce was to become effective.
BURR, AARON. (1756–1836). Continental Army officer. Third vice president. New Jersey. Son of Aaron Burr, second president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) and grandson of Jonathan Edwards, the eminent theologian. Young Aaron was a bright, unruly child who was raised by his maternal uncle after the death of his parents. He graduated with distinction from the College of New Jersey at the age of sixteen, studied theology until 1774, and then undertook the study of the law.
As a captain on Arnold's march to Quebec, he proved himself to be an able soldier, and he survived the blast that killed Montgomery at the assault on Quebec. In the spring of 1776 Congress promoted him to major and appointed him to George Washington's staff, but he left headquarters at New York City after a few weeks because he and Washington had developed a mutual dislike and distrust. On 22 June, Burr became aide-de-camp to Israel Putnam, at which post he conducted himself admirably in the battle of Long Island and in the evacuation of New York City. On 4 January 1777 he was commissioned lieutenant colonel of Malcolm's additional Continental regiment. Stationed in Orange County, New York, the twenty-one-year-old Burr established a reputation for courage and good discipline. He commanded an outpost that protected the Continental Army's winter quarters at Valley Forge in 1777–1778, and although he may have sympathized with Washington's critics, he took no active role in the so-called Conway Cabal that winter. He led his regiment in the battle at Monmouth on 28 June 1778, where his regiment was mauled and both commander and men suffered from the extreme heat and humidity. He openly sided with Charles Lee in the subsequent controversy about the conduct of the battle. After Monmouth, Washington sent the regiment to Westchester County, New York, where Burr maintained his reputation for discipline and alert soldiering in the field. On 3 March 1779 he resigned his commission on grounds of ill health, a condition that had been exacerbated by his experience at Monmouth. It was not until the fall of the next year that he was well enough to resume the study of law.
Burr was admitted to the New York bar in 1782 and the next year moved to New York City, where he and Alexander Hamilton competed for preeminence. He was elected to the state assembly in 1784; appointed attorney general by Governor George Clinton in September 1789; and elected U.S. senator in 1791 over Philip Schuyler, Hamilton's father-in-law. He failed to win reelection in 1797, but won a seat in the state senate for the next two years. Thereafter, he built a strong Democratic-Republican Party organization in New York City that helped the party capture control of the state legislature in 1800, a success that secured him the second slot on the party ticket headed by Jefferson in the presidential election. Because presidential electors at that time did not vote separately for president and vice president, both Burr and Jefferson ended up with seventy-three electoral votes each. Hamilton threw his support to Jefferson, ensuring his election as president in the House of Representatives. As vice president, Burr presided over the Senate in a manner that won praise from both parties, but he was dropped from the ticket in 1804 and failed later that year to win election as New York governor, a defeat he again attributed to Hamilton's political enmity. Angry at the failure of his political career, Burr sought satisfaction by challenging Hamilton to a duel. The antagonists met at ten paces the morning of 11 July 1804 at Weehawken, New Jersey. Each man fired, and Hamilton fell mortally wounded. For the next three years, Burr pursued a quixotic—and treasonous—effort to separate the western states from the Union. Acquitted of treason on 1 September 1807, Burr fled to England. After returning in May 1812 he pursued the practice of law in New York City for the rest of his life.
Lomask, Milton. Aaron Burr. 2 vols. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1979, 1982.
revised by Harold E. Selesky
Aaron Burr, 1756–1836, American political leader, b. Newark, N.J., grad. College of New Jersey (now Princeton).
A brilliant law student, Burr interrupted his study to serve in the American Revolution and proved himself a valiant soldier in early campaigns. In 1779 ill health forced him to leave the army. Upon admission (1782) to the bar, he plunged energetically into the practice of both law and politics. He served as a member (1784–85; 1797–99) of the New York assembly, as state attorney general (1789–91), and as U.S. Senator (1791–97).
Defeated for reelection to the assembly in 1799, he set about organizing the Republican (see Democratic party) element in New York City for the election of 1800, for the first time making use of the Tammany Society for political purposes. The result was an unexpected victory for the Republicans, who gained control of the state legislature. Since the legislature named presidential electors and New York was the pivotal state, Burr's victory insured the election of a Republican president.
The intention of the party was to make Thomas Jefferson president and Burr vice president, but confusion in the electoral college resulted in a tie vote. This threw the election into the House of Representatives. There, the Federalist Alexander Hamilton, who regarded Jefferson as the lesser evil of the two Republicans, helped to secure Jefferson the presidency, and on the 36th ballot Burr became vice president.
Burr presided over the Senate with a dignity and impartiality that commanded respect from both sides, and in 1804 his friends nominated him for the governorship of New York. Hamilton again contributed to his defeat, in part by statements reflecting on Burr's character. Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel and mortally wounded him.
Accusation of Treason
Soon after Hamilton's death, Burr left Washington on a journey to New Orleans, at that time a center of Spanish conspiring for possession of the lower Mississippi valley. Burr, unaware that Gen. James Wilkinson was in the pay of the Spanish, laid plans with him; what exactly Burr's aims were has never been made clear. Speculation ranges from the establishment of an independent republic in the American Southwest to seizure of territory in Spanish America.
With money secured from Harman Blennerhassett, Burr acquired the Bastrop grant on the Ouachita River in Louisiana to serve as a base of operations. In the autumn of 1806, he and a party of 60-odd colonists, well-armed and supplied, began the journey west from Blennerhassett Island. Burr's earlier trip to New Orleans had brought him under suspicion; now distrust became widespread. Wilkinson, in an effort to save himself, turned against Burr, and in dispatches to Washington accused Burr of treason.
Burr was arrested and tried for treason in the U.S. Circuit Court at Richmond, Va., Chief Justice John Marshall presiding, and found not guilty. Popular opinion nonetheless condemned him, and his remaining years were spent in private life. He was married in 1833 to the famous Madame Jumel (see Jumel Mansion); they were divorced in 1834.
See his correspondence with his daughter, Theodosia (ed. by M. Van Doren, 1929); biographies by N. Schachner (1937, repr. 1961), S. H. Wandell and M. Minnegerode (1925, repr. 1971), H. M. Alexander (1937, repr. 1973) P. Vail (1974), and N. Isenberg (2007); H. C. Syrett and J. G. Cooke, ed., Interview in Weehawken (1960); J. Daniels, Ordeal of Ambition (1970); T. Fleming, Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the Future of America (1999); R. G. Kennedy, Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character (1999); R. K. Newmyer, The Treason Trial of Aaron Burr (2012).