|3rd Vice President of the United States|
March 4, 1801 – March 4, 1805
|Preceded by||Thomas Jefferson|
|Succeeded by||George Clinton|
|United States Senator
from New York
March 4, 1791 – March 3, 1797
|Preceded by||Philip Schuyler|
|Succeeded by||Philip Schuyler|
|3rd Attorney General of New York|
September 29, 1789 – November 8, 1791
|Preceded by||Richard Varick|
|Succeeded by||Morgan Lewis|
February 6, 1756|
Newark, New Jersey, British America
|Died||September 14, 1836 (aged 80)
Staten Island, New York
|Resting place||Princeton Cemetery|
|Spouse(s)||Theodosia Bartow Prevost (m. 1782; d. 1794)
Eliza Jumel (m. 1833)
|Children||7 or more, including:
Theodosia Burr Alston
Louisa Charlotte Burr
John Pierre Burr
Aaron Columbus Burr
|Parents||Aaron Burr Sr.
|Alma mater||Princeton University|
|Years of service||1775–1779|
Burr served as a Continental Army officer in the Revolutionary War, after which he became a successful lawyer and politician. He was elected twice to the New York State Assembly (1784–1785, 1798–1799), was appointed New York State Attorney General (1789–1791), was chosen as a U.S. senator (1791–1797), from the State of New York, and reached the apex of his career as vice president.
The highlight of Burr's tenure as president of the Senate, one of his few official duties as vice president, was the Senate's first impeachment trial, that of Supreme Court justice Samuel Chase. In 1804, the last full year of his single term as vice president, Burr killed his political rival Alexander Hamilton in a famous duel. Burr was never tried for the illegal duel, and all charges against him were eventually dropped, but Hamilton's death ended Burr's political career.
After leaving Washington, Burr traveled west seeking new opportunities, both economic and political. His activities eventually led to his arrest on charges of treason in 1807. The subsequent trial resulted in acquittal, but Burr's western schemes left him with large debts and few influential friends. In a final quest for grand opportunities, he left the United States for Europe. He remained overseas until 1812, when he returned to the United States to practice law in New York City. There he spent the rest of his life in relative obscurity.
- 1 Early life
- 2 First marriage and family
- 3 Politics
- 4 Exile and return
- 5 Later life and death
- 6 Character
- 7 Legacy
- 8 Representation in literature and popular culture
- 9 Notes
- 10 References
- 11 Further reading
- 12 External links
Aaron Burr Jr. was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1756 as the second child of the Reverend Aaron Burr Sr., a Presbyterian minister and second president of the College of New Jersey in Newark (which moved to Princeton in 1756 and became Princeton University). His mother Esther Burr (née Edwards) was the daughter of Jonathan Edwards, the noted Calvinist theologian, and his wife Sarah. Burr had an older sister Sarah ("Sally"), named for her maternal grandmother. She later married Tapping Reeve, founder of the Litchfield Law School in Litchfield, Connecticut.
Burr's father died in 1757, and his mother the following year, leaving him and his sister orphans when he was two years old. He and his sister first lived with their maternal grandparents, but Sarah Edwards also died in 1757, and Jonathan Edwards in 1758. Young Aaron and Sally were placed with the William Shippen family in Philadelphia. In 1759, the children's guardianship was assumed by their 21-year-old maternal uncle Timothy Edwards. The next year, Edwards married Rhoda Ogden and moved with the children to Elizabeth, New Jersey, near her family. Rhoda's younger brothers Aaron Ogden and Matthias Ogden became the boy's playmates. The three boys, along with their neighbor Jonathan Dayton, formed a group of friends that lasted their lifetimes.
Burr was admitted to the sophomore class of the College of New Jersey at the age of 13, after being rejected once at age 11. Aside from being occupied with intensive studies, he was a part of the American Whig Society and Cliosophic Society, the two clubs that the college had to offer at the time. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1772 at age 16. He studied theology for an additional year, before rigorous theological training with Joseph Bellamy, a Presbyterian. He changed his career path two years later, at age 19, when he moved to Connecticut to study law with his brother-in-law Tapping Reeve, his sister's husband. News of the clashes with British troops at Lexington and Concord reached Litchfield in 1775, and Burr put his studies on hold and enlisted in the Continental Army.
During the Revolutionary War, Burr took part in Colonel Benedict Arnold's expedition to Quebec, an arduous trek of more than 300 miles (480 km) through the frontier of what is now Maine. Arnold was deeply impressed by Burr's "great spirit and resolution" during the long march. When their forces reached the city of Quebec, he sent Burr up the Saint Lawrence River to contact General Richard Montgomery, who had taken Montreal, and escort him to Quebec. Montgomery then promoted Burr to captain and made him an aide-de-camp. Burr distinguished himself during the Battle of Quebec, where he was rumored to have attempted to recover Montgomery's corpse after the General had been shot.
In the spring of 1776, Burr's stepbrother Mathias Ogden helped him to secure a place on George Washington's staff in Manhattan. However, Burr quit within two weeks on June 26, wanting to be on the battlefield; there was more honor to be found in that area than in the "insular world of the commander's staff," according to historian Nancy Isenberg. General Israel Putnam took Burr under his wing. Burr saved an entire brigade from capture after the British landing on Manhattan by his vigilance in the retreat from lower Manhattan to Harlem. In a departure from common practice, Washington failed to commend Burr's actions in the next day's General Orders (the fastest way to obtain a promotion in rank). Burr was already a nationally known hero, but he never received a commendation. According to Ogden, Burr was infuriated by the incident, which may have led to the eventual estrangement between him and Washington. And yet, Burr defended Washington's decision to evacuate New York as "a necessary consequence." It was not until the 1790s that the two men found themselves on opposite sides, in the realm of politics.
Burr was promoted to lieutenant colonel in July 1777 and assumed virtual leadership of Malcolm's Additional Continental Regiment. There were approximately 300 men under Colonel William Malcolm's nominal command. The regiment successfully fought off many nighttime raids into central New Jersey by British troops arriving by water from Manhattan. Later that year, Burr commanded a small contingent during the harsh winter encampment at Valley Forge, guarding "the Gulf," an isolated pass that controlled one approach to the camp. Burr imposed discipline, defeating an attempted mutiny by some of the troops.
Burr's regiment was devastated by British artillery on June 28, 1778, at the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey and, in the day's heat, he suffered heat stroke. In January 1779, he was assigned to Westchester County in command of Malcolm's Regiment, a region between the British post at Kingsbridge and that of the Americans about 15 miles (24 km) to the north. This district was part of the larger command of General Alexander McDougall, and there was much turbulence and plundering by lawless bands of rebel or loyalist sympathizers, as well as by raiding parties of ill-disciplined soldiers from both armies.
Burr resigned from the Continental Army in March 1779 due to his continuing bad health and renewed his study of law. Technically, he was no longer in the service, but he remained active in the war; he was assigned by General Washington to perform occasional intelligence missions for Continental generals, such as Arthur St. Clair. On July 5, 1779, he rallied a group of Yale students at New Haven, along with Captain James Hillhouse and the Second Connecticut Governors Foot Guard, in a skirmish with the British at the West River. The British advance was repulsed, forcing them to enter New Haven from Hamden.
Despite these activities, Burr finished his studies and was admitted to the bar at Albany in 1782. He married that same year; he began practicing law in New York City the following year, after the British evacuated the city. He and his wife lived for the next several years in a house on Wall Street in Lower Manhattan.
First marriage and family
In 1782, Burr married Theodosia Bartow Prevost (1746–1794), a widow with five children who was ten years his senior, and lived with her in Philadelphia. Her first husband had been Jacques Marcus Prevost, a British Army officer of Swiss origin, with whom she lived at The Hermitage in New Jersey. One of her children, John Bartow Prevost, became noted as a judge in Louisiana. Jacques Prevost died in the West Indies during the Revolutionary War. Theodosia Burr died in 1794 of stomach cancer.
The Burrs' daughter Theodosia was born in 1783 and named after her mother; she was their only child to survive to adulthood. Burr prescribed education for his daughter in the classics, language, horsemanship, and music, and she became widely known for her education and accomplishments. In 1801, she married Joseph Alston of South Carolina. They had a son together, who died of fever at ten years of age. During the winter of 1812–1813, Theodosia was lost with the schooner Patriot off the Carolinas, either murdered by pirates or shipwrecked in a storm.
Stepsons and protégés
Burr acted as a father to the two teenage sons of his wife's first marriage, Augustine James Frederick Prevost (called Frederick) and John Bartow Prevost, later a member of Congress and a federal judge. He provided for their education, gave both of them clerkships in his law office, and frequently was accompanied by one of them as an assistant when he traveled on business.
From 1794 to 1801, during Theodosia's childhood, Burr served as a guardian to Nathalie de Lage de Volude (later Natalie DeLage Sumter), the daughter of a French admiral from an aristocratic family, taken to New York for safety from the French Revolution by her governess, Caroline de Senat. Burr opened his home to them, allowing Madame Senat to tutor private students there along with Theodosia. Natalie became a companion and close friend to Burr's daughter Theodosia, who was about the same age.
In the 1790s, Burr also took the painter John Vanderlyn into his home as a protégé, and provided him with financial support and patronage for twenty years. Burr arranged Vanderlyn's training by Gilbert Stuart in Philadelphia, and sent him in 1796 to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he remained for six years.
During his first marriage, Burr also fathered two illegitimate children by Mary Emmons, a.k.a. Eugénie Beauharnais, an East Indian woman said to be from Calcutta who worked as a servant or governess in Burr's household in Philadelphia. Emmons was said to have lived and worked in Haiti or Saint-Domingue before being brought to Philadelphia, possibly by Jacques Prevost, Theodosia's first husband. Both of her children with Burr married into Philadelphia's community of free African-Americans, in which their families became prominent:
- Louisa Charlotte Burr (b. 1788) worked most of her life as a domestic servant in the home of Mrs. Elizabeth Powel Francis Fisher, a prominent Philadelphia society matron closely connected to the oldest Philadelphia families, and later in the home of Mrs. Fisher's son, prominent Philadelphia businessman Joshua Francis Fisher. She was married to Francis Webb (1788–1829), a founding member of the Pennsylvania Augustine Education Society, secretary of the Haytien Emigration Society formed in 1824, and distributor of Freedom's Journal from 1827 to 1829. After Francis Webb's death, Louisa remarried and became Louisa Darius. Her youngest son, Frank J. Webb, wrote the 1857 novel The Garies and Their Friends, the second novel to be published by an African-American writer.
- John Pierre Burr (c. 1792–1864) grew up to be an active member of Philadelphia's Underground Railroad. He also served as an agent for the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, worked in the National Black Convention movement, and served as Chairman of the American Moral Reform Society.
Legal and early political career
Burr served in the New York State Assembly from 1784 to 1785. In addition, he continued his military service as lieutenant colonel and commander of a regiment in the militia brigade commanded by William Malcolm. He became seriously involved in politics in 1789, when George Clinton appointed him as New York State Attorney General. He was also Commissioner of Revolutionary War Claims in 1791. In 1791, he was elected by the legislature as a U.S. Senator from New York, defeating the incumbent, General Philip Schuyler. He served in the Senate until 1797.
Burr ran for president in the 1796 election, coming in fourth with 30 votes behind John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Pinckney. (At the time members of the electoral college cast two ballots but did not specify an office. The first-place finisher overall became president and the runner up vice president. They did not run on a 'ticket' and were often opponents.) Burr was shocked by his defeat, as he believed he had arranged with Jefferson's supporters for their vote for him as well, in exchange for Burr's working to obtain New York's electoral votes for Jefferson. But many Democratic-Republican electors voted for Jefferson and no one else, or for Jefferson and a candidate other than Burr.
During the next presidential election of 1800, Jefferson and Burr were again candidates for president and vice president. Jefferson ran with Burr in exchange for the latter's working to obtain New York's electoral votes for Jefferson.
Burr was active in various Democratic clubs and societies. "Aaron Burr defended the democratic clubs and was listed as a member of the New York Democratic Society in 1798." Although Alexander Hamilton and Burr had long been on good personal terms, often dining with one another,[page needed] Burr's defeat of General Schuyler, Hamilton's father-in-law, probably drove the first major wedge into their friendship. Their relationship declined over the following decade. (See the Burr–Hamilton duel article for further details.)
After being appointed commanding general of U.S. forces by President John Adams in 1798, Washington turned down Burr's application for a brigadier general's commission during the Quasi-War with France. Washington wrote, "By all that I have known and heard, Colonel Burr is a brave and able officer, but the question is whether he has not equal talents at intrigue." John Adams, whose enmity toward Alexander Hamilton was legendary, later wrote in 1815 that Washington's response was startling given his promotion of Hamilton, whom he described as
the most restless, impatient, artful, indefatigable, and unprincipled intriguer in the United States, if not in the world, to be second in command under himself, and now [Washington] dreaded an intriguer in a poor brigadier.
Bored with the inactivity of the new U.S. Senate,[page needed] Burr ran for and was elected to the New York State Assembly, serving from 1798 through 1799. During this time, he cooperated with the Holland Land Company in gaining passage of a law to permit aliens to hold and convey lands.[page needed] During John Adams' term as president, national parties became clearly defined. Burr loosely associated with the Democratic-Republicans, though he had moderate Federalist allies, such as Sen. Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey. Burr quickly became a key player in New York politics, more powerful in time than Hamilton. This was due largely to the power of the Tammany Society, later to become the infamous Tammany Hall. Burr converted it from a social club into a political machine, particularly in populous New York City, to help Jefferson reach the presidency.
In 1799, Burr founded the Bank of the Manhattan Company. In later years, it was absorbed into the Chase Manhattan Bank, which in turn became part of JPMorgan Chase. In September 1799, Burr fought a duel with John Barker Church, whose wife, Angelica, was the sister of Hamilton's wife, Elizabeth. Church had alleged that Burr had taken a bribe from the Holland Company in exchange for using his political influence on its behalf. Burr and Church fired at each other and missed, and afterward Church acknowledged that he was wrong to have accused Burr without having proof. Burr accepted this as an apology, and the two men shook hands and ended the dispute.
The enmity between Hamilton and Burr may have arisen from how he founded the bank. Burr solicited Hamilton and other Federalists' support under the guise that he was establishing a badly needed water company for Manhattan. However, Burr secretly changed the charter to include banking; shortly after it was approved, he dropped any pretense of founding the water company. Hamilton and other supporters believed Burr acted dishonorably in deceiving them. Due to Burr's manipulations, there was a delay in constructing a safe water system for Manhattan. This likely contributed to additional deaths during a subsequent malaria epidemic.[page needed]
In 1800, New York's state legislature was to choose the presidential electors, as they had in 1796 (for John Adams). Before the April 1800 legislative elections, the State Assembly was controlled by the Federalists. The City of New York elected assembly members on an at-large basis. Burr and Hamilton were the key campaigners for their respective parties. Burr's Republican slate of assemblymen for New York City was elected, giving the party control of the legislature. In due course, they gave New York's electoral votes to Jefferson and helped him win the 1800 presidential election. This drove another wedge between Hamilton and Burr. Burr became vice president during Jefferson's first term (1801–1805).
Because of his influence in New York and opposition to the Hamiltonian Federalists, Burr had been asked by Jefferson and Madison to help them in the election of 1800. Burr sponsored a bill through the New York Assembly that established the Manhattan Company, a water utility company whose charter also allowed creation of a bank controlled by Jeffersonians. Another crucial move was Burr's success in securing the election of his slate of greater New York City area electors, defeating the Federalist slate backed by Alexander Hamilton. This event served only to increase the antagonism between the former friends.
Burr is known as the father of modern political campaigning. He enlisted the help of members of Tammany Hall, a social club, to win the voting for selection of Electoral College delegates. He gained a place on the Democratic-Republican presidential ticket in the 1800 election with Jefferson. At the time, most states' legislatures chose the members of the U.S. Electoral College, and New York was crucial to Jefferson. Though Jefferson won New York, he and Burr tied for the presidency overall, with 73 electoral votes each.
Members of the Democratic Republican Party understood they intended that Jefferson should be president and Burr vice president, but the final choice still belonged to the House of Representatives. The attempts of a powerful faction among the Federalists to secure the election of Burr failed, partly due to opposition by Alexander Hamilton.
As Thomas Baker asserts in his piece, "An Attack Well Directed", William P. Van Ness, now believed to be in cahoots with Burr, had an electoral scheme. It was explained in a letter from Edward Livingston, a Democratic-Republican Representative. Van Ness planned to swing the election in Burr's favor by first having Livingston or another colleague vote for Burr on the first ballot, deadlocking New York. On the second ballot, Livingston would swing three House Republicans from the vulnerable states of New York, New Jersey, and Vermont to vote for Burr. Despite this plan, Livingston changed his mind on his way to Washington. This was likely due to a strong belief that some Federalists would vote for Jefferson so as to avoid a hung election. Despite Livingston's last minute renege, Jefferson lost the first ballot because Burr's supporters scrambled to keep Maryland voters on the side of the Federalists. Even so, there was little instability on the Democratic-Republican side of the ticket on the second ballot. Ultimately, it took 36 ballots before James A. Bayard, a Delaware Federalist, and several of his Federalist colleagues submitted blank votes to decide the election in Jefferson's favor.
Mudslinging was heavily used against the candidates, specifically Burr. In the general campaign, the public went at each other's throats so to defend the candidate thought best qualified to lead the country. While Van Ness and Burr had their own plans to turn the election in their favor, James Cheetham, a supporter of Clinton, had a plan to discredit Burr. Cheetham released Van Ness' letter. When Burr showed interest in certain Federalists, Cheetham and DeWitt Clinton accused Burr of "tampering with New York's electors; accusing Jefferson of buying off wavering Republicans to ensure his election; actively intriguing with Federalists to capture the chief magistracy in 1804".
Cheetham and Clintonians published a series of letters in American Citizen. These eight letters were meant to expose the supposed conspiracy of Burr, Van Ness, Ogden and Livingston. Many Republicans were persuaded by these letters; the defenses by Burr supporters seemed to lead more adverse admissions. When it came to the 9th letter in this series, Livingston was the key to the details to take down Burr. Cheetham pushed Livingston for his details on interactions with Ogden and Van Ness. Livingston would not give in, and Cheetham sent him letters explaining his already expansive knowledge of the contents of the letter with Van Ness, threatening "We stand upon the best ground. We know Mr. Burr is guilty. You have in fact, and I may say in express term, committed his guilt to me".
Livingston's resistance to Cheetham's push for information on Van Ness' original letter, which he had planned to publish as the 9th letter in American Citizen, was what saved Burr from exposure, at least temporarily. According to historian Baker, Burr dragged out the uncertainty of the 1800 election to manipulate it to his will. Burr's actions resulted in general political instability in the nation.
Upon confirmation of Jefferson's election, Burr became Vice President of the United States. Despite his letters supporting Jefferson and his shunning of any political activity during the balloting (he never left Albany), Burr was never trusted by Jefferson. He was effectively shut out of party matters.
As Vice President, Burr earned praise from some enemies for his even-handed fairness and his judicial manner as President of the Senate; he fostered some traditions for that office that have become time-honored. Burr's judicial manner in presiding over the impeachment trial of Justice Samuel Chase has been credited as helping to preserve the principle of judicial independence that was established by Marbury v. Madison in 1803. One newspaper wrote that Burr had conducted the proceedings with the "impartiality of an angel, but with the rigor of a devil".
Burr's farewell speech in March 1805 moved some of his harshest critics in the Senate to tears. But it was never recorded in full, and has been preserved only in short quotes and descriptions of the address, which defended the United States of America's system of government.
Duel with Alexander Hamilton
|Wikisource has original texts related to:|
When it became clear that Jefferson would drop Burr from his ticket in the 1804 election, the Vice President ran for Governor of New York instead. Burr lost the election to little known Morgan Lewis, in what was the largest margin of loss in New York's history up to that time. Burr blamed his loss on a personal smear campaign believed to have been orchestrated by his party rivals, including New York governor George Clinton. Alexander Hamilton also opposed Burr, due to his belief that Burr had entertained a Federalist secession movement in New York. In April, the Albany Register published a letter from Dr. Charles D. Cooper to Philip Schuyler, which relayed Hamilton's judgment that Burr was "a dangerous man, and one who ought not be trusted with the reins of government", and claiming to know of "a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr". In June, Burr sent this letter to Hamilton, seeking an affirmation or disavowal of Cooper's characterization of Hamilton's remarks.
Hamilton replied that Burr should give specifics of Hamilton's remarks, not Cooper's. He said he could not answer regarding Cooper's interpretation. A few more letters followed, in which the exchange escalated to Burr's demanding that Hamilton recant or deny any statement disparaging Burr's honor over the past 15 years. Hamilton, having already been disgraced by the Maria Reynolds adultery scandal and mindful of his own reputation and honor, did not. According to historian Thomas Fleming, Burr would have immediately published such an apology, and Hamilton's remaining power in the New York Federalist party would have been diminished. Burr responded by challenging Hamilton to a duel, personal combat under the formalized rules for dueling, the code duello.
Dueling had been outlawed in New York; the sentence for conviction of dueling was death. It was illegal in New Jersey as well, but the consequences were less severe. On July 11, 1804, the enemies met outside Weehawken, New Jersey, at the same spot where Hamilton's oldest son had died in a duel just three years prior. Both men fired, and Hamilton was mortally wounded by a shot just above the hip.
The observers disagreed on who fired first. They did agree that there was a three-to-four-second interval between the first and the second shot, raising difficult questions in evaluating the two camps' versions. Historian William Weir speculates that Hamilton might have been undone by his own machinations: secretly setting his pistol's trigger to require only a half pound of pressure as opposed to the usual 10 pounds. Burr, Weir contends, most likely had no idea that the gun's trigger pressure could be reset.[page needed] Louisiana State University history professors Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein concur with this. They note that "Hamilton brought the pistols, which had a larger barrel than regular dueling pistols, and a secret hair-trigger, and were therefore much more deadly," and conclude that "Hamilton gave himself an unfair advantage in their duel, and got the worst of it anyway."
David O. Stewart, in his biography of Burr, American Emperor, notes that the reports of Hamilton's intentionally missing Burr with his shot began to be published in newspaper reports in papers friendly to Hamilton only in the days after his death.[page needed] But Ron Chernow, in his biography, Alexander Hamilton, states Hamilton told numerous friends well before the duel of his intention to avoid firing at Burr. Additionally, Hamilton wrote a number of letters, including a Statement on Impending Duel With Aaron Burr and his last missives to his wife dated before the duel, that also attest to this intention. The two shots, witnesses reported, followed one another in close succession, and none of those witnesses could agree as to who fired first. Prior to the duel proper, Hamilton took a good deal of time getting used to the feel and weight of the pistol (which had been used in the duel at the same Weehawken site in which his 19-year-old son had been killed), as well as putting on his eyeglasses in order to see his opponent more clearly. The seconds placed Hamilton so that Burr would have the rising sun behind him, and during the brief duel, one witness reported, Hamilton seemed to be hindered by this placement as the sun was in his eyes.
In any event, Hamilton's shot missed Burr, but Burr's shot fatally injured Hamilton. The bullet entered Hamilton's abdomen above his right hip, piercing Hamilton's liver and spine. Hamilton was evacuated to Manhattan; he lay in the house of a friend, receiving visitors including clergy, in order to be baptized before he died the following day. Burr was charged with multiple crimes, including murder, in New York and New Jersey, but was never tried in either jurisdiction.
He fled to South Carolina, where his daughter lived with her family, but soon returned to Philadelphia and then to Washington to complete his term as Vice President. He avoided New York and New Jersey for a time, but all the charges against him were eventually dropped. In the case of New Jersey, the indictment was thrown out on the basis that, although Hamilton was shot in New Jersey, he died in New York.
Conspiracy and trial
After Burr left the Vice-Presidency at the end of his term in 1805, he journeyed into what was then the Western frontier, areas west of the Allegheny Mountains and down the Ohio River Valley eventually reaching the lands acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. Burr had leased 40,000 acres (16,000 ha) of land—known as the Bastrop Tract—along the Ouachita River, in what is now Louisiana, from the Spanish government. Starting in Pittsburgh and then proceeding to Beaver, Pennsylvania, and Wheeling, Virginia, and onward he drummed up support for his plans.
His most important contact was General James Wilkinson, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Army at New Orleans and Governor of the Louisiana Territory. Others included Harman Blennerhassett, who offered the use of his private island for training and outfitting Burr's expedition. Wilkinson would later prove to be a bad choice.
Burr saw war with Spain as a distinct possibility. In case of a war declaration, Andrew Jackson stood ready to help Burr, who would be in position to immediately join in. Burr's expedition of about eighty men carried modest arms for hunting, and no materiel was ever revealed, even when Blennerhassett Island was seized by Ohio militia. His "conspiracy", he always avowed, was that if he settled there with a large group of (armed) "farmers" and war broke out, he would have an army with which to fight and claim land for himself, thus recouping his fortunes. However, the 1819 Adams–Onís Treaty secured Florida for the United States without a fight, and war in Texas did not occur until 1836, the year Burr died.
After a near-incident with Spanish forces at Natchitoches, Wilkinson decided he could best serve his conflicting interests by betraying Burr's plans to President Jefferson and to his Spanish paymasters. Jefferson issued an order for Burr's arrest, declaring him a traitor before any indictment. Burr read this in a newspaper in the Territory of Orleans on January 10, 1807. Jefferson's warrant put Federal agents on his trail. Burr twice turned himself in to the Federal authorities. Two judges found his actions legal and released him.
Jefferson's warrant, however, followed Burr, who fled toward Spanish Florida. He was intercepted at Wakefield, in Mississippi Territory (now in the state of Alabama), on February 19, 1807. He was confined to Fort Stoddert after being arrested on charges of treason. Burr was treated well there. For example, in the evening of February 20, 1807, when Burr appeared at the dinner table, he was introduced to Frances Gaines, the wife of the commandant Edmund P. Gaines. She was also the daughter of Judge Harry Toulmin, who had issued Burr's arrest warrant. Mrs. Gaines and Burr played chess that evening and continued this entertainment during his confinement at the fort.
Burr's secret correspondence with Anthony Merry and the Marquis of Casa Yrujo, the British and Spanish ministers at Washington, was eventually revealed. He had tried to secure money and to conceal his true designs, which was to help Mexico overthrow Spanish power in the Southwest. Burr intended to found a dynasty in what would have become former Mexican territory. This was a misdemeanor, based on the Neutrality Act of 1794, which Congress passed to block filibuster expeditions against US neighbors, such as those of George Rogers Clark and William Blount. Jefferson, however, sought the highest charges against Burr.
In 1807, Burr was brought to trial on a charge of treason before the United States Circuit court at Richmond, Virginia. His defense lawyers included Edmund Randolph, John Wickham, Luther Martin, and Benjamin Gaines Botts. Burr had been arraigned four times for treason before a grand jury indicted him. The only physical evidence presented to the Grand Jury was Wilkinson's so-called letter from Burr, which proposed the idea of stealing land in the Louisiana Purchase. During the Jury's examination, the court discovered that the letter was written in Wilkinson's own handwriting. He said he had made a copy because he had lost the original. The Grand Jury threw the letter out as evidence, and the news made a laughingstock of the general for the rest of the proceedings.
The trial, presided over by Chief Justice of the United States John Marshall, began on August 3. Article 3, Section 3 of the United States Constitution requires that treason either be admitted in open court, or proven by an overt act witnessed by two people. Since no two witnesses came forward, Burr was acquitted on September 1, in spite of the full force of the Jefferson administration's political influence thrown against him. Burr was immediately tried on a misdemeanor charge and was again acquitted.
Given that Jefferson was using his influence as president in an effort to obtain a conviction, the trial was a major test of the Constitution and the concept of separation of powers. Jefferson challenged the authority of the Supreme Court, specifically Chief Justice Marshall, an Adams appointee who clashed with Jefferson over John Adams' last-minute judicial appointments. Jefferson believed that Burr's treason was obvious. Burr sent a letter to Jefferson in which he stated that he could do Jefferson much harm. The case as tried was decided on whether Aaron Burr was present at certain events at certain times and in certain capacities. Thomas Jefferson used all of his influence to get Marshall to convict, but Marshall was not swayed.
Historians Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein write that Burr:
was not guilty of treason, nor was he ever convicted, because there was no evidence, not one credible piece of testimony, and the star witness for the prosecution had to admit that he had doctored a letter implicating Burr.
David O. Stewart, on the other hand, insists that while Burr was not explicitly guilty of treason according to Marshall's definition, evidence exists that links him to treasonous crimes. For example, Bollman admitted to Jefferson during an interrogation that Burr planned to raise an army and invade Mexico. He said that Burr believed that he should be Mexico's monarch, as a republican government was not right for the Mexican people. Many historians believe the extent of Burr's involvement may never be known.
Exile and return
By the conclusion of his trial for treason, despite an acquittal, all of Burr's hopes for a political comeback had been dashed, and he fled America and his creditors for Europe. Dr. David Hosack, Hamilton's physician and a friend to both Hamilton and Burr, loaned Burr money for passage on a ship.
Burr lived in self-imposed exile from 1808 to 1812, passing most of this period in England, where he occupied a house on Craven Street in London. He became a good friend, even confidant, of the English Utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, and on occasion lived at Bentham's home. He also spent time in Scotland, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and France. Ever hopeful, he solicited funding for renewing his plans for a conquest of Mexico, but was rebuffed. He was ordered out of England and Napoleon Bonaparte refused to receive him, although one of his ministers held an interview concerning Burr's goals for Spanish Florida or the British possessions in the Caribbean.
After returning from Europe, Burr used the surname "Edwards", his mother's maiden name, for a while to avoid creditors. With help from old friends Samuel Swartwout and Matthew L. Davis, Burr returned to New York and his law practice. Later he helped the heirs of the Eden family in a financial lawsuit. By the early 1820s, the remaining members of the Eden household, Eden's widow and two daughters, had become a surrogate family to Burr.
Later life and death
Burr lived out the remainder of his life in New York in relative peace, until 1833, when his second marriage failed after four months, soon followed by medical and financial setbacks.
Adopted and natural children
In addition to his daughter Theodosia and the two illegitimate children born during Burr's first marriage (Louisa Charlotte Burr and John Pierre Burr), Burr adopted or otherwise acknowledged two sons and two daughters later in his life:
- During the 1810s and 1820s, Burr adopted two boys, both of whom were reputed to be his biological sons: Aaron Burr Columbe (later Aaron Columbus Burr), who was born in Paris in 1808 and arrived in America around 1815, and Charles Burdett, born in 1814. A Burr biographer described Aaron Columbus Burr as "the product of a Paris adventure," conceived presumably during Burr's exile from the United States between 1808 and 1814.
- In a will dated January 11, 1835, Burr also acknowledged and made specific provisions for two young daughters, to whom he left "all the rest and residue" of his personal estate after other specific bequests. The first, Frances Ann (born c. 1829) was then about six years old; the second, Elizabeth (born c. 1833), was then about two. Both daughters resided in different homes.
Marriage to Eliza Jumel
On July 1, 1833, at age 77, Burr married Eliza Jumel, a wealthy widow who was 19 years younger. They lived together briefly at her residence which she had acquired with her first husband, the Morris–Jumel Mansion in the Washington Heights neighborhood in Manhattan. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is now preserved and open to the public.
Soon after the marriage, she realized her fortune was dwindling due to Burr's land speculation losses. She separated from Burr after four months of marriage. For her divorce lawyer, she chose Alexander Hamilton Jr., and the divorce was officially completed on September 14, 1836, coincidentally the day of Burr's death.
Burr suffered a debilitating stroke in 1834, which rendered him immobile. In 1836, Burr died on Staten Island in the village of Port Richmond, in a boardinghouse that later became known as the St. James Hotel. He was buried near his father in Princeton, New Jersey.
Aaron Burr was a man of complex character who made many friends, but also many powerful enemies. He may be the most controversial of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He was indicted for murder after the death of Hamilton, but never prosecuted; he was reported by acquaintances to be curiously unmoved by Hamilton's death, expressing no regret for his role in the result. He was arrested and prosecuted for treason by President Jefferson, but acquitted.
To his friends and family, and often to complete strangers, he could be kind and generous. Jane Fairfield, the wife of the struggling poet Sumner Lincoln Fairfield relates in her autobiography that their friend Burr saved the lives of her two children, who were left with their grandmother in New York while the parents were in Boston. The grandmother was unable to provide adequate food or heat for the children and feared for their lives; she went to Burr, pleading for his help. Burr wept and replied,
"Though I am poor and have not a dollar, the children of such a mother shall not suffer while I have a watch." He hastened on this errand, and quickly returned, having pawned the article for twenty dollars, which he gave to make comfortable my precious babies.
In his later years in New York, Burr provided money and education for several children, earning their lifelong affection. But contemporaries were often suspicious of Burr's motives, with many viewing him as untrustworthy, following his role in the founding of the Bank of Manhattan (discussed above).
Burr believed women to be intellectually equal to men, and hung a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft over his mantel. The Burrs' daughter, Theodosia, was taught dance, music, several languages, and learned to shoot from horseback. Until her death at sea in 1813, she remained devoted to her father. Not only did Burr advocate education for women, upon his election to the New York State Legislature, he submitted a bill to allow women to vote.
Burr had been a frequent patron of prostitutes during various periods of his life. In his personal journals, he recorded with great detail encounters in Europe with dozens of women whom he paid for sex. Often he described "sexual release as the only remedy for his restlessness and irritability". He was considered a notorious womanizer, and is believed to have had at least three natural children.
In 1784 as a New York state assemblyman, Burr unsuccessfully sought to abolish slavery immediately following the American Revolutionary War. The legislature in 1799 finally abolished slavery in New York. John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary when Burr died: "Burr's life, take it all together, was such as in any country of sound morals his friends would be desirous of burying in quiet oblivion." Adams' father, President John Adams, had frequently defended Burr during his life. At an earlier time, he wrote, Burr "had served in the army, and came out of it with the character of a knight without fear and an able officer".
Gordon S. Wood, a leading scholar of the revolutionary period, holds that it was Burr's character that put him at odds with the rest of the "founding fathers", especially Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton. He believed that this led to his personal and political defeats and, ultimately, to his place outside the golden circle of revered revolutionary figures. Because of Burr's habit of placing self-interest above the good of the whole, those men thought that Burr represented a serious threat to the ideals for which they had fought the revolution. Their ideal, as particularly embodied in Washington and Jefferson, was that of "disinterested politics", a government led by educated gentlemen who would fulfill their duties in a spirit of public virtue and without regard to personal interests or pursuits. This was the core of an Enlightenment gentleman, and Burr's political enemies thought that he lacked that essential core. Hamilton thought that Burr's self-serving nature made him unfit to hold office, especially the presidency.
Although Hamilton considered Jefferson a political enemy, he believed him a man of public virtue. Hamilton conducted an unrelenting campaign in the House of Representatives to prevent Burr's election to the presidency and gain election of his erstwhile enemy, Jefferson. Hamilton characterized Burr as greatly immoral, "unprincipled ... voluptuary", and deemed his political quest as one for "permanent power". He predicted that if Burr gained power, his leadership would be for personal gain, but that Jefferson was committed to preserving the Constitution.
Although Burr is often remembered primarily for his duel with Hamilton, his establishment of guides and rules for the first impeachment trial set a high bar for behavior and procedures in the Senate chamber, many of which are followed today.
A lasting consequence of Burr's role in the election of 1800 was the Twelfth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which changed the way in which vice presidents were chosen. As was obvious from the 1800 election, the situation could easily arise where the vice president, as the defeated presidential candidate, could not work well with the president. The Twelfth Amendment required that votes be cast separately for president and vice president.
Representation in literature and popular culture
- Burr appears as a character of worldly sophistication in Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1859 historical romance The Minister's Wooing.
- Edward Everett Hale's 1863 story The Man Without a Country is about a fictional co-conspirator of Burr's in the Southwest and Mexico, who is exiled for his crimes.
- Charles Felton Pidgin's 1902 novel The Climax is an alternate history where no Hamilton duel occurred, and Burr later becomes president.
- My Theodosia (1945) by author Anya Seton is a fictional interpretation about the life of Theodosia Burr, daughter of Aaron Burr.
- "The Aaron Burr Story" (1965), a second-season episode of the television series Daniel Boone, starred Leif Erickson as ex-Vice President Aaron Burr trying to organize an army to take over the western states.
- Gore Vidal's Burr: A Novel (1973) is the first in chronology of his Narratives of Empire series.
- James Thurber's story, "A Friend to Alexander", in his collection My World and Welcome To It (1969), portrayed the Burr–Hamilton rivalry in the twentieth century.
- Eudora Welty's story, "First Love", in her Selected Stories of Eudora Welty (Modern Library, 1992) related the romance of Burr's Western expedition.
- In the comic book, The Flash, "The Man of Destiny!", a 1975 backup story featuring Green Lantern, stars Burr. It reveals that Burr was recruited by aliens to act as a leader for an interplanetary society in chaos.
- In Michael Kurland's The Whenabouts of Burr, the protagonists chase across various alternate universes trying to recover the US Constitution, which has been stolen and replaced by an alternate signed by Aaron Burr.
- In Orson Scott Card's alternate history / fantasy novel, Seventh Son (1987), a character states that "... Aaron Burr got to be governor of Suskwahenny, before Daniel Boone shot him dead in ninety-nine."
- A 1993 "Got Milk?" commercial directed by Michael Bay features a historian obsessed with the study of Aaron Burr—he owns the guns and the bullet from the duel. (see Aaron Burr)
- In 2000, the PBS television series American Experience presented an episode titled "The Duel", re-enacting the events that led to the Burr–Hamilton duel.
- In Alexander C. Irvine's novel, A Scattering of Jades (2002), Burr is shown to take part in a plot to bring an ancient Aztec deity into power, as if to explain his interest in Mexico.
- The Lonely Island's "Lazy Sunday" lyrics quotes the line "you can call us Aaron Burr from the way we're dropping Hamiltons", as they spend a large number of ten-dollar bills, a reference to Burr killing or "dropping" Hamilton at their duel.
- In the alternate history short story, "The War of '07" by Jayge Carr, collected in the anthology Alternate Presidents, Burr is elected President over Thomas Jefferson in 1800, establishes an alliance with Napoleon Bonaparte, and creates a family dictatorship. He serves as president for a total of nine terms. Upon his death in 1836, he is succeeded by his grandson Aaron Burr Alston, who previously served as his Vice President.
- A 2011 short dramatic film recounts Burr's life as having become "a casualty of history". It was a selection at the 2011 New York Film Festival as well numerous other US festivals.
- In the gaslamp fantasy roleplaying game Castle Falkenstein, Burr is the founder and seemingly immortal President for Life of the pirates' republic of Orleans and the lover of Marie Laveau, although he has not been seen in public in more than 25 years at the time the game is set.[page needed]
- Burr is a lead role in the 2015 Broadway musical Hamilton, which was written by playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda and inspired by historian Ron Chernow's 2004 biography of Hamilton. The role of Burr was originated by Leslie Odom, Jr., who won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his work in the role. In Hamilton, Burr is both the main narrator of events as well as a sympathetic yet growing antagonist to Hamilton. He is portrayed as ambitious but indecisive, liking to smile and gladhand rather than make any strong commitment or action—something Hamilton constantly questions and calls him out on. Burr's prominent songs include "Wait For It", which explains his willingness to wait for fate to decide his place and what he deserves, and "The Room Where It Happens", which demonstrates his desire for more influence in decision making when he realizes waiting is not getting him where he wants to be. This puts him increasingly at odds with Hamilton, who views Burr as lacking morals or ideals and being willing to change positions for small gain. During the final duel, Burr is shown to have regret and sorrow for the duel and his role in Hamilton's death and his eventual villainous slant in history, rather than the more callous and dismissive regards records tend to show.
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- Seton, Anya. My Theodosia (1948).
- Slaughter, Thomas P. "Review Essay: Conspiratorial Politics: The Public Life of Aaron Burr". Conspiratorial Politics.
- Stewart, David O., "Burr, Ogden, and Dayton: The Original Jersey Boys", Smithsonian, Aug. 12, 2011.
- Todd, Charles Burr. The True Aaron Burr: A Biographical Sketch (1902). New York, A.S. Barnes & Company. Available from Internet Archive.
- Vail, Philip. The Great American Rascal: The Turbulent Life of Aaron Burr (1973).
- Van Ness, William Peter. An Examination of the Various Charges Exhibited Against Aaron Burr, Vice-President of the United States: and a Development of the Characters and Views of His Political Opponents. (1803) Available through Haithi Trust
- Wells, Colin. "Aristocracy, Aaron Burr, and the Poetry of Conspiracy". Early American Literature (2004).
- Wheelan, Joseph. Jefferson's Vendetta: The Pursuit of Aaron Burr and the Judiciary. New York: Carroll & Graff, 2005.
- Wilaon, Samuel M. (January 1936). "The Court Proceedings of 1806 in Kentucky Against Aaron Burr and John Adair". Filson Club History Quarterly. 10 (1). Archived from the original on April 25, 2012. Retrieved 2011-11-29.
- Wood, Gordon S. 2006 Revolutionary Characters. New York: Penguin.
- Works by Aaron Burr at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Aaron Burr at Internet Archive
- Works at Open Library
- Did Aaron Burr Really Try to Take Over Half of America?
- The Aaron Burr Association
- Letters of Aaron Burr
- Aaron Burr at Find a Grave
- United States Congress. "Aaron Burr (id: B001133)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Retrieved on 2009-02-26