Aaron Burr, Jr. (February 6, 1756–September 14, 1836) was an American politician and adventurer. He was a major formative member of the Democratic-Republican party in New York and a strong supporter of Governor George Clinton. He is remembered not so much for his tenure as the third Vice President under Thomas Jefferson as for his duel with Alexander Hamilton and his trial and acquittal on charges of treason.
Early life and family
Burr was born in Newark, New Jersey, to the Rev. Aaron Burr, Sr. who was the second president of the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University; his mother Esther Edwards was the daughter of Jonathan Edwards, the famous Calvinist theologian.
He originally studied theology, but soon abandoned it two years later and began the study of law in the celebrated law school conducted by his brother-in-law, Tappan Reeve, at Litchfield, Connecticut. His studies were put on hold for the Revolutionary War, in which he served under Benedict Arnold, George Washington and Israel Putnam.
During the American Revolutionary War, Burr accompanied Benedict Arnold's expedition into Canada in 1775, and on arriving before the Battle of Quebec he disguised himself as a Roman Catholic priest and made a dangerous journey of 120 miles through the British lines to notify General Richard Montgomery, at Montreal, of Arnold's arrival. Burr is said to have carried the fallen Montgomery for a short distance, during the retreat from Quebec. Burr's courage brought him to Washington's staff, but the general never quite trusted Major Burr. However, Israel Putnam took Burr under his wing, and by his vigilance in the retreat from Long Island Burr saved an entire brigade from capture. On becoming lieutenant-colonel in July 1777, he assumed the command of a regiment, and during the winter at Valley Forge guarded the Gulf, a pass commanding the approach to the camp, and necessarily the first point that would be attacked. In the Battle of Monmouth, on June 28, 1778, he commanded the Malcolms, a brigade in Lord Stirling's division. In the terrible heat, the Malcolms were decimated by British artillery, and Burr suffered a stroke he never quite recovered from. In January 1779 Burr was assigned to the command of the lines of Westchester county, a region between the British post at Kingsbridge and that of the Americans about 15 miles to the north. In this district there was much turbulence and plundering by the lawless elements of both Whigs and Tories and by bands of ill-disciplined soldiers from both armies. Burr established a thorough patrol system, rigorously enforced martial law, and quickly restored order. He resigned from the army in March 1779, on account of ill health and renewed the study of law. He was admitted to the bar at Albany in 1782, and began to practice in New York City after its evacuation by the British in the following year.
In the same year 1782, Burr, married Theodosia Bartow Prevost, the widow of a British army officer who had died in the West Indies during the American Revolutionary War. They had one child, a daughter, Theodosia, born in 1783, who became widely known for her beauty and accomplishments. She married Joseph Alston of South Carolina in 1801, and died in a shipwreck off the Carolinas in the winter of 1812 or early 1813. Aaron Burr and his wife were married for twelve years, when she passed away. In 1833, he married again, this time to the widow of Stephen Jumel. When she realized her fortune was dwindling from her husband's land speculation, they separated after only four months. During the month of their first anniversary, she sued for divorce which was granted the day he died: September 14, 1836.
Legal and early political career
Burr's main rival for dominance of the New York bar was Alexander Hamilton. He served in the New York Assembly from 1784 to 1785, but Burr became seriously involved in politics in 1789, when George Clinton appointed him Attorney General of New York. He was commissioner of Revolutionary claims in 1791, and that same year he defeated a favored candidate for a seat in the United States Senate and served in the upper house of the U.S. Congress until 1797. He was not reelected and instead went into the New York state legislature, serving from 1798 through 1801. As national parties became clearly defined, he associated himself with the Democratic-Republicans. Burr quickly became a key player in New York politics, more powerful than Hamilton, largely because of the Tammany Society, later to become the infamous Tammany Hall, which Burr converted from a social club into a political machine.
Because of his control of the crucial New York legislature, Burr was placed on the Democratic-Republican presidential ticket in the 1800 election with Thomas Jefferson. The state legislatures elected the electors to the U.S. Electoral College at that time, and New York would be a needed win for Jefferson. Jefferson did win New York and the election, but so did Burr; they both tied with 73 electoral votes.
It was well understood that the party intended that Jefferson should be president and Burr vice-president, but owing to a defect (later remedied) in the U.S. Constitution the responsibility for the final choice was thrown upon the House of Representatives. The attempts of a powerful faction among the Federalists to secure the election of Burr failed, partly because of the opposition of Alexander Hamilton and partly, it would seem, because Burr himself would make no efforts to obtain votes in his own favor.
The election devolved to the point where it took three days and 36 ballots for the moderate Federalists supporting Burr to finally accept that he could not win.
On Jefferson's election, Burr of course became vice-president. His fair and judicial manner as president of the Senate, recognized even by his bitterest enemies, helped to foster traditions in regard to that position quite different from those which have become associated with the speakership of the House of Representatives. However, Burr's refusal to give the victory to Jefferson as he had promised cost him the trust of his own party and of Jefferson: for the rest of the administration, Burr was an outsider.
Burr did not run with Jefferson in the 1804 election. Instead he ran for the governorship of New York. Alexander Hamilton had opposed Burr's aspirations for the vice-presidency in 1792, and had exerted influence through Washington to prevent his appointment as brigadier-general in 1798, at the time of the threatened war between the United States and France. Alexander Hamilton, his old rival, made insulting comments about him in advance of the governor's race, which led, in large part, to Burr's lack of success in his run for the state house; moreover the two had long been rivals at the bar.
Burr responded with a challenge to a duel. On July 11, 1804, Aaron Burr shot and fatally wounded Hamilton in their duel in Weehawken, New Jersey. The bullet entered Hamilton below the chest, and he died the following day. Burr was later charged with murder in two states but never tried in either jurisdiction. He escaped to South Carolina, then returned to Washington D.C. and completed his term of service as Vice President.
Conspiracy and trial
After the expiration of his term as Vice President on March 4, 1805, broken in fortune and virtually an exile from New York, where, as in New Jersey, he had been indicted for murder after the duel with Hamilton, Burr fled to Philadelphia. There he met Jonathan Dayton. Burr and Dayton together created a conspiracy, the goal of which is unclear. At its grandest, the plan may have been for Burr to make a massive new nation in the west, forged from conquered provinces of Mexico and the states west of the Appalachian Mountains. Burr was to have been the leader of this Southwestern republic.
General James Wilkinson, a conspirator, betrayed Burr's plans to the president, who issued a proclamation for Burr's arrest. Burr read this in a newspaper in the Orleans Territory on January 10, 1807. He turned himself in to the authorities, but soon jumped bail and fled for Spanish Florida; he was intercepted in Alabama on February 19, 1807.
Another member of the Burr conspiracy was the Anglo-Irish Aristocrat Harman Blennerhassett. After marrying his niece, Blennerhasset had been forced out of Ireland. He came to live as a quasi-feudal lord on an island in the Ohio River. It was there that he met Burr and agreed to help finance the imperial ambitions of Burr's group.
(The objects of Burr's treasonable correspondence with Merry and Yrujo, the British and Spanish ministers at Washington, were, it would seem, to secure money and to conceal his real designs, which were probably to overthrow Spanish power in the Southwest, and perhaps to found an imperial dynasty in Mexico.)
Burr was arrested in 1807 on the charge of treason, was brought to trial before the United States circuit court at Richmond, Virginia. Burr was arraigned four times for treason before a grand jury. The fourth time, May 22, sufficient evidence was found to indict him. His trial, which was run by Chief Justice John Marshall, began August 3.
Due to lack of the constitutionally required two witnesses, Burr was acquitted on September 1, in spite of the fact that the political influence of the national administration was thrown against him. Immediately afterward he was tried on a charge of misdemeanor, and on a technicality was again acquitted.
Burr was at this point without a hope of a comeback in politics, and fled America and his creditors for Europe, where he tried to regain his fortunes. He lived abroad from 1808 to 1812, passing most of his time in England, Scotland, Denmark, Sweden and France; trying to secure aid in the prosecution of his filibustering schemes but meeting with numerous rebuffs, being ordered out of England and Napoleon refusing to receive him.
He returned quietly to New York in 1812, when he wanted to see his daughter, but the ship his daughter had been travelling in was lost at sea. Burr lived in New York as a moderately successful attorney until his death in 1836.
Character and miscellany
Burr could be unscrupulous, insincere, and somewhat amoral, but toward his friends, he could be pleasing in his manners and generous to a fault. Although he proved irresistible to many women, few historians doubt Burr was intensely devoted to his wife and daughter. When his first wife died, Burr lost whatever stabilizing influence he had in life. Thereafter, Burr's character took a turn for the worse. He once said he considered it an honor if a woman claimed him as the father of her child, even if the claim were false. Burr lived by the Enlightenment codes of conduct, which seem corrupt by our standards, but were practiced by many great men in this era.
In 1833, he married Eliza B. Jumel (1769-1865), a rich New York widow with her own scandalous past; the two soon separated, however, owing to Burr's having lost much of her fortune in speculation. He died at Port Richmond, Staten Island, New York in 1836.
Late in life Burr reportedly went by Aaron Edwards (Edwards being his mother's maiden name) because it was less associated with past scandals.
Burr: A Novel by Gore Vidal is an oblique biographical take on the politician, but it should be taken as historical fiction.