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Aaron Burr

Aaron Burr
Aaron burr.jpg
3rd Vice President of the United States
From: March 4, 1801 – March 4, 1805
President Thomas Jefferson
Predecessor Thomas Jefferson
Successor George Clinton
U.S. Senator from New York
From: March 4, 1791 – March 4, 1797
Predecessor Philip Schuyler
Successor Philip Schuyler
3rd Attorney General of New York
From: September 29, 1789 – November 8, 1791
Governor George Clinton
Predecessor Richard Varick
Successor Morgan Lewis
Party Republican (Jeffersonian)
Spouse(s) Theodosia Bartow Prevost
Eliza Bowen Jemel
Religion Episcopalianism
Military Service
Allegiance The United States
Service/branch Continental Army
Service Years 1775–1779
Rank Lieutenant Colonel
Battles/wars American Revolutionary War

Aaron Burr Jr. (February 6, 1756 – September 14, 1836), was a leader of the left-leaning Jeffersonian Republicans in New York, and its vice presidential candidate in 1796 and 1800. He was elected in 1800, but ruined his reputation by killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Burr then plotted an elaborate scheme to create a new country around New Orleans (and breaking off the region from the U.S.). Tried for treason, he was acquitted on a technicality.

Early life

Burr was born in Neubik, New Jersey to Reverend Aaron Burr Sr. who was a Presbyterian minister and the second President of the College of New Jersey which is now Princeton University. His mother, Esther Edwards, was the daughter of Jonathan Edwards, the famous Calvinist theologian. Aaron and his sister, Sally, were left orphans when Aaron was 2 years old and Sally was 4 years old, following the deaths of their parents and both maternal grandparents who died of Yellow Fever. Aaron did not respond well to his austere uncle, Timothy Edwards, several times running away from home and attempting to go to sea. He entered the sophomore class at The College of New Jersey(later named Princeton University) at the age of 13 and graduated with distinction at 16 in 1772. He received B.A. in theology, but changed his career path two years later and began to study law in the celebrated law school conducted by his brother-in-law, Tapping Reeve, at Litchfield, Conn.

While at Princeton, Burr helped to found the American Whig Society[1] and he was also a member of the Cliosophic Society, around the time they merged to form the American Whig-Cliosophic Society.[2]


In 1775, he joined the American army that was besieging Boston. Appointed a captain, he served on Benedict Arnold's staff during the Quebec campaign of 1775–1776.[3] In 1776 Burr served briefly on Washington's staff with the rank of major. He saw combat during the Battle of Long Island and, in July 1777, was commissioned Lieutenant Colonel in the Continental Army and given the command of a regiment. Following the campaign of 1778, which culminated in the Battle of Monmouth, and a winter conducting patrol activity, he resigned his commission because of ill health.

Burr was admitted to the bar in New York in 1782. As a practicing attorney he vied with arch-rival Alexander Hamilton for the status as the city's most prominent lawyer. His income was large, but he was a poor manager of it and repeatedly attempted various speculative schemes to cover his debts.


Burr became the leader of the Republicans of New York, and built a formidable political machine in opposition to the Federalist Party that Hamilton ran. The party nominated him as vice president in 1796 and 1800. A master of the nuts and bolts of the political game, his brilliantly managed campaign in New York City during the presidential election of 1800 proved decisive in defeating the reelection bid of President John Adams.

Since this was before the Twelfth Amendment, Burr was technically running for president as well. The normal practice was for one elector to vote for Jefferson but not Burr, which would have caused Burr to come in second and be vice-president; however, no elector did so in 1800, so Burr and Jefferson tied. According to the Constitution, the lame duck Federalist House would break the tie. Jefferson pressed Burr to promise not to serve; however, he did not do so. Burr himself never explained why. It may have been in part due to the Constitution not clearly saying whether he would become vice president or have to drop out of the race completely (meaning third-placed John Adams would have become vice president instead), or it may have been because the Constitution did not specify what would happen if the Federalist-controlled House failed to break the tie before Inauguration Day,[4] or Burr may have wanted to snatch the presidency away from Jefferson. Nonetheless, even when someone told Burr that some Congressmen would vote for him if he arrived at Washington in person, he did not do so. Eventually, Alexander Hamilton's opposition to Burr and minor concessions from Jefferson moved a majority of the House to vote for Jefferson. Jefferson became president, and Burr served as the vice president of Thomas Jefferson from 1801 to 1805.

Jefferson was now Burr's enemy. Republicans now deeply distrusted Burr, convinced that he had tried to cut a deal with Federalists to place himself in the presidency at the expense of Jefferson and against the very strong will of the party. His law business had also fallen off and his enemies had ousted him from the board of a major bank, so return to private practice was not an attractive alternative. By 1803, Burr was desperate to restore his political standing. The national party caucus re-nominated Jefferson for president in 1804, but unanimously dropped Burr. Despite the collapse of his political support Burr decided to run for governor of New York in 1804. He lost, with 30,829 votes for his opponent Morgan Lewis and only 22,139 for Burr—by far the largest majority in state history and a complete humiliation for Burr.

Duel with Hamilton

American politics was verbally violent in the 1790s, but apparently had cooled off somewhat by 1804, when Burr ran for governor. Hamilton, convinced that Burr was a villain and an enemy of American Republicanism, made his opinion known. One political leader stated in the press:

The newspapers reported, "Gen. Hamilton and Judge Kent have declared in substance, that they looked upon Mr. Burr to be a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government ... I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr."

The line a still more despicable opinion was cause for the duel. Burr demanded an "explanation" from Hamilton, who refused; Burr demanded that Hamilton admit or deny, "Whether you have authorized their application either directly or by uttering expressions or opinions derogatory to my honor." Hamilton refused to answer and Burr challenged him to a duel.

Political duels in the early republic were part of the political game—Andrew Jackson killed men in duels and Abraham Lincoln barely escaped fighting one. After bitter elections, losing politicians sometimes provoked duels with the victors to redeem their failing status; that is, political duelists staged aristocratic contests of honor to refute the outcome of democratic contests of reputation. These duels followed a distinctive and detailed logic that likewise governed the Burr–Hamilton duel.[5]

Dueling had been outlawed in the states of New York and New Jersey, but Hamilton and Burr were not citizens of New Jersey, so on July 11, 1804, the enemies met outside of Weehawken, New Jersey, with pistols at ten paces. Burr shot and killed Hamilton.[6]

Burr was later 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 Washington to complete his term as vice president.

As presiding officer of the Senate, he presided over the impeachment trial of Samuel Chase. One Senator commented that Burr had conducted the proceedings with the "impartiality of an angel and the rigor of a devil." Burr's heartfelt farewell in March 1805 moved some of his harshest critics in the Senate to tears.

Western Conspiracy

See also: Insurrection Act

In 1804–05 Burr began the conspiracy for which he is most widely known. In company with Army General James Wilkinson, an old-time friend and the commander of U.S. forces in the Southwest and governor of the Louisiana Territory, Burr envisioned the separation of the western part of the United States, the seizure of the Spanish territory in Texas, California, and Mexico, and the uniting of these areas into a new nation with Burr as its head. The plot depended for its success on disaffected elements in the West and particularly in New Orleans. where the French were thought to be discontent with the Jefferson administration. Burr sought—but failed to receive—the cooperation of Britain through her ambassador, and of Spanish officials—although he was counting upon the outbreak of war between the United States and Spain to create a situation in which his plans could operate.

Burr's scheme was far too elaborate and underfunded. Burr told too many different versions of his plan to too many people; hence the plot was never fully organized and rumors spread. In August 1806, Burr set out for the Kentucky frontier where a band of 60 men had gathered to sail down the Mississippi River and stir the French Creoles to revolt, the first step in the plan. Wilkinson, in charge of the government at New Orleans, realized that the venture was hopeless. Hence, he turned on Burr in order to keep his own involvement a secret, and reported the plot to Washington. In January 1807 Burr was arrested by Wilkinson, and in May he was put on trial for treason before Chief Justice John Marshall in the U.S. Circuit Court sitting at Richmond, Virginia. Jefferson was determined to hang Burr, but he was found not guilty on the grounds that he had by no overt act levied war upon the United States.[7]

Later life

His position in America ruined but his ambitions still ablaze, Burr in 1808 went to Europe. He still dreamed of a new nation in the Southwest, however, and in Britain, and later in Napoleonic France, he pushed his project. The two nations were at war and neither would deal with this powerless failure. The French foreign office realized that "he could not be employed without giving great offense to the United States." In May 1812 he returned to New York and slowly rebuilt his law practice.

Burr in 1782 married Theodosia Bartow Prevost, the widow of a former British officer (however, the couple had been engaged in an extramarital affair for a long time prior to her first husband's death). She died in 1794, and the one child of this union, Theodosia, was Burr's closest companion up to her death at sea in December 1812. Until July 1833, Burr lived alone. Then, at age 77, he remarried, but she sued for divorce a year later. Burr was also known for many other adulterous relationships and may have fathered other children as a result.


Enigmatic by nature, Burr kept his motives and intentions to himself, leaving himself vulnerable to a host of suspicions and accusations, some of them true. Supposed seducer of countless women, alleged would-be Emperor of the American West, slayer of Alexander Hamilton in an 1804 duel, Burr left behind an ambiguous reputation. There is little doubt that Burr was an opportunist and gambler. In terms of the duel, Hamilton believed he was performing a public service by accepting Burr's challenge. Burr thought the duel would make amends for the humiliation of his defeat in the New York gubernatorial race of 1804. Both men, having faced charges involving personal character, felt the need to prove themselves as men of honor.[8] But Burr had a deeper problem.


1."Burr thought the duel would make amends for the humiliation..." He thought? How does one know what he thought, especially if he was as private and inscrutable as the article describes him? My research shows no such "thought" recorded by Burr.

2. "Secretive corresondence." Many of the Founding Fathers constantly wrote coded letters, including Jefferson and Hamilton. Burr did the same. Mail was constantly being opened and read by others. Code was used as a precaution.

Burr's private letters differs markedly from that of other leaders of the American Revolution and reflect Burr's different worldview. Unlike fellow Revolutionary statesmen who endorsed republicanism and celebrated virtue and enlightened values as their claim to natural aristocracy, Burr esteemed traditional aristocratic values and believed it only proper to use his public office to maintain his position in society and to make money. His correspondence is secretive, and deals primarily with schemes to promote his friends and his business interests. He never wrote about constitutionalism or government policy like his contemporaries. After the Revolution, rival politicians such as Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson united against Burr because his behavior threatened republican ideals and made him a traitor to the new American elite.[9]

NOTE: There are no records of Burr "...threatening republican ideals.." To the contrary, according to most contemporary accounts Burr's behavior in his several elected and appointed offices were honorable. Even his political rivals begrudged him that. As to "republican ideals," as a U.S. Senator Burr moved for an amendment for complete abolition of slavery. He condemned an amendment in the N.Y. legislature that would bar recent immigrants from joining craft unions—a dangerous move for him in New York at the time. His record as NY Attorney General was progressive and untainted by corruption. And he committed allegiance to the Jeffersonian Republicans when he ran for vice president. Read the reports of his behavior as President Pro-Tempore of the U.S. Senate. According to some of Burr's writing he enjoyed politics, but his family, friends and career (he ws always in debt) came first. The period mentioned above was long before the Conspiracy chapter of his life. Politics alone, if you read contemporary accounts by Jefferson and Hamilton, were the bases of their animosity. Both Jefferson and Hamilton published attacks on Burr under pseudonyms, both in letters and newspapers. He never attacked them in this manner. He was writing a history of the Revolution, but it was lost at sea with his daughter.

Undoubtly there are many unanswered questions about the conspiracy, but recently uncovered records have caused many historians to take a newer, unprejudiced investigation of all the claims. No doubt the filibustering might have taken place eventually, but it didn't. Time was against Burr. When, in 1836, the U.S. took Texas from Mexico, Burr stated, "thirty years ago I was called a traitor—today I would be a hero." Dav123 21 May 2010

See also


  • Freeman, Joanne B. "Dueling as Politics: Reinterpreting the Burr-Hamilton Duel," William and Mary Quarterly 1996 53(2): 289–318. in Jstor
  • Hoffer, Peter Charles. The Treason Trials of Aaron Burr. (2008). 224 pages.
  • Isenberg, Nancy. Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr. (2007) 560pp The best scholarly biography; favorable to Burr
  • Kennedy, Roger G. Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character. (2000). 476 pp., character study; pro-Burr online edition
  • Lomask, Milton. Burr (2 vol 1979)
  • Melton, Buckner F. Jr. Aaron Burr: Conspiracy to Treason. (2002). 278 pp. online edition, anti-Burr
  • Parmet, Herbert S. and Marie B. Hecht. Aaron Burr: Portrait of an Ambitious Man (1967) 399pp online edition
  • Rorabaugh, W. J. "The Political Duel in the Early Republic: Burr v. Hamilton." Journal of the Early Republic 1995 15(1): 1-23. 0275-1275
  • Stagg, J. C. A. "The Enigma of Aaron Burr." Reviews In American History 1984 12(3): 378–382. 0048-7511

Primary sources

  • Burr, Aaron. Political Correspondence and Public Papers of Aaron Burr. ed. by Mary-Jo Kline, 2 vol. (1983). 1311 pp.


  1. Apostles of Equality: The Birneys, the Republicans, and the Civil War
  2. The Duel: The Parallel Lives of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr
  3. Arnold at the time was loyal to the Patriot side.
  4. Indeed, one Congressman proposed a bill specifying that a Federalist-controlled committee could then elect whatever candidate they wanted as president. (America Afire: Jefferson, Adams, and the Revolutionary Election of 1800. Bernard A. Weisberger.)
  5. Freeman (1996)
  6. Hamilton either did not shoot at all, or shot to miss Burr deliberately, by aiming over his head. Hamilton believed that a Christian gentlemen should fire over his target so that honor is served, but no one is hurt. He taught this to his son, who had died in a duel not long before when his opponent did not feel the same. Burr had already engaged in two duels in which no one was seriously hurt.
  7. Isenberg (2007), however, bluntly concludes that Burr never even considered a division of the union or any other form of treason.
  8. Freeman (1996)
  9. Gordon S. Wood, "The Real Treason of Aaron Burr". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 1999 143(2): 280–295. 0003-049X