Aaron Burr was a complex man full of contradictions. He served in the Continental Army with valor. He became Attorney General of New York, was elected to the US Senate, and was elected vice president of the United States. However, Burr killed his bitter political adversary, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel. He secretly plotted to conquer Spanish territory in Mexico and possibly to enlarge this territory by separating western territories from the US. This resulted in Burr being unsuccessfully tried for treason. Many of Burr’s actions were detrimental to our new nation and I cannot designate him an American hero. The best I can say is that he was a hero and patriot who went rogue.
Aaron Burr Jr. Was born on 6 February 1756. He was the second child of the Reverend Aaron Burr Sr. And Esther Edwards Burr. He had one sibling; an older sister named Sarah. His father was president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton University) and his mother was the daughter of prominent theologian Jonathon Edwards. His father died in 1757 and his mother’s father moved in to take care of the family in December 1757; however, he died in 1758. Young Aaron and his sister were then placed with the Shippen family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Guardianship of the two children was assumed by their uncle, Timothy Edwards in 1759. Timothy married Rhoda Ogden and moved the family to Elizabeth, New Jersey. This was not a happy time because Edwards physically abused young Aaron who tried to run away from home several times.
Aaron was admitted to Princeton University at the age of 13. He joined literary and debating societies and earned his BA Degree at age 16. He stayed and studied theology for another year and then started rigorous theological training. After two more years he changed his career path to law and moved to Litchfield, Connecticut to study with his sister’s husband, Tapping Reeve.
In 1775, after the battles at Lexington and Concord, Aaron enlisted in the Continental Army. He became a junior officer and took part in Colonel Benedict Arnold’s arduous expedition to Quebec. Burr impressed Arnold with his “spirit and resolution” and was assigned to travel up the Saint Lawrence River to contact General Richard Montgomery who had taken Montreal. Montgomery promoted Burr to captain and made him an aide-de-camp. Burr distinguished himself at the 31 December 1775 Battle of Quebec where he tried to recover Montgomery’s body after the General was killed.
In the spring of 1776, Burr’s stepbrother Matthias Ogden helped him secure a position on General Washington’s staff. The two did not get along and Burr resigned on 26 June. General Israel Putnam then gave Burr a position. This was a fortunate decision because Burr saved an entire brigade from capture by his vigilance during the retreat from lower Manhattan. However, Washington failed to commend Burr’s actions in his next day’s General Orders, which was an obvious snub. Burr was furious. His pride was hurt, and commendations were important for consideration for promotion. Burr was nationally known as a hero, but he never received a commendation from Washington.
In late 1776, Burr tried to convince General Washington to let him retake British fortifications on Staten Island, but Washington refused. This attack never occurred, and the British were informed of Burr’s idea and reinforced the position.
Burr was promoted to lieutenant colonel in July 1777 and assigned to Malcolm’s 300-man Regiment in central New Jersey. Malcolm was often tapped for other duties leaving Burr in command. This regiment successfully repulsed many night raids by the British. Later that year Burr commanded a small contingent guarding an isolated pass that controlled one approach to Valley Forge. He demanded discipline and defeated an attempted mutiny.
British artillery decimated Burr’s unit on 28 June 1778 at the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey. In January 1779 he was deployed to Westchester, New York, again in command of Malcolm’s Regiment. His area of operation was between the opposing armies and was very turbulent. There was much plundering by lawless civilian bands and raiding parties of undisciplined soldiers from both armies.
Due to bad health, Burr resigned from the Continental Army in March 1779 and renewed study of the law. Although no longer in the military, he remained active with General Washington assigning him occasional intelligence missions. When British troops tried to enter New Haven, Connecticut, he organized New Haven students, and along with the Second Connecticut Governor’s Guards commanded by Captain James Hillhouse, repulsed the British.
Aaron Burr was a serial womanizer, which negatively affected his reputation. He fathered many children, some acknowledged and some not. In 1776, while in the army, he was assigned to protect 14-year-old Margaret Moncrieffe, the daughter of British officer Major Thomas Moncrieffe. Margaret was stranded in Manhattan which was held by American forces. The major asked General Washington to guarantee her safety and eventual return. Burr apparently did more than protect her, and they fell in love. Margaret tried unsuccessfully to stay with Burr.
One of Burr’s most public affairs began in August 1778 when he met Theodosia Bartow Prevost. She was ten years older than Burr and was married to Swiss-born British officer Jacques Marcus Prevost. Burr began regularly visiting Theodosia at her home in New Jersey, which caused considerable gossip. By 1780 the two were openly lovers. In December 1781, Theodosia was informed of her husband’s death in Jamaica. Theodosia and Burr married in 1782 and moved to Lower Manhattan. Their only child to survive to adulthood was a daughter, Theodosia who was born in 1783.
Womanizing was fairly common at the time, but if it was blatant and publicly known it was usually a career and reputation killer. Burr’s affairs were mostly well-known and many of his superiors and peers did not trust his judgment nor his character. Much of his later political problems stemmed from this distrust and he was unable to handle the rejection.
Aaron Burr was admitted to the bar in 1782 at Albany, New York. Once the British evacuated New York City, he set up practice there and began his political career. He served in the New York State Assembly in 1784 and 1785. In 1789, Governor Clinton appointed Burr New York State Attorney General. He was also Commissioner of Revolutionary War Claims in 1791. That same year Burr was elected a New York Senator defeating incumbent General Philip Schuyler. He served until 1797.
Burr ran for president in the 1796 election and finished fourth behind Adams, Jefferson, and Pinckney. Burr was shocked by this defeat, but it was clear that he was not a favorite of the voters.
In 1798 President John Adams appointed George Washington commander of all US forces to lead during the Quasi-War with France. Burr applied for a brigadier general commission, but Washington rejected him. 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.” Obviously, Burr’s reputation was catching up with him.
Burr was again elected to the New York State Assembly in 1798 serving through 1799. National parties became organized during the Adams administration and Burr loosely associated himself with the Democratic-Republicans.
The Tammany Society (which became Tammany Hall) became Burr’s source of political power in New York where he was a major player. He converted it from a social club to a political machine to help propel Thomas Jefferson to the presidency.
An incident that probably started Burr’s troubled relationship with Alexander Hamilton occurred in September 1799 when Burr fought a duel with John Barker Church. Church’s wife was a sister of Hamilton’s wife. Church had accused Burr of taking a bribe in exchange for his political influence. The two men fired at each other, but both missed. Church then admitted that he was wrong to accuse Burr without proof. Burr accepted and the two shook hands and ended the dispute.
The Burr-Hamilton relationship really deteriorated when Burr founded the Bank of the Manhattan Company in 1799. The Federalists controlled banking in the city at the time, and they financed business interests of aristocrats. This meant the Federalists controlled property, which controlled who voted since voting rights were based on property ownership. Burr wanted a bank that empowered small businesses to increase the voter pool of his party.
Burr used deception to found his bank by declaring he was going to establish a badly needed water company for New York City. He then secretly changed the charter application to include the ability to invest in any cause that did not violate state law. Once approved, he dropped all pretense of founding the water company. Hamilton and his supporters believed that Burr had acted “dishonorably” which was a strong public statement in those days.
The new bank achieved its goal of increasing the Democratic-Republican voter rolls by making loans to partisans. The Federalists responded by trying to organize credit boycotts, but with little success. Burr’s successful strengthening of his party must have further infuriated Hamilton.
In the 1800 presidential election, Jefferson ran with Burr in exchange for Burr working to get New York electoral votes for Jefferson. In New York, Hamilton and Burr were the major opposing campaigners, and Burr won the day. His Democratic-Republican party gained control of the legislature giving New York’s electoral votes to Jefferson. This caused even more friction between Burr and Hamilton.
Burr and Jefferson each received 73 electoral votes, so the selection of president moved to the House of Representatives. Burr remained silent in public but there was much plotting by both candidates in the background. Many of the details are not known but it is apparent that Hamilton successfully worked against Burr becoming president. As a result, Jefferson became President and Burr became Vice President.
The Jefferson-Burr ticket had been a “marriage of convenience” and Jefferson had never trusted Burr. Jefferson essentially shut Burr out of all important administration matters. Burr, however, earned a reputation of professionalism and fairness as President of the Senate. He established many procedures that became permanent in the senate, and his manner of presiding over the impeachment of Justice Samuel Chase helped preserve the independence of the Judicial Branch.
It was obvious that Jefferson would drop Burr from the ticket in the 1804 election, so Burr ran for New York Governor. Burr lost by a landslide to little-known Morgan Lewis. Burr believed, with some justification, that he had been the victim of a smear campaign by party rivals. Hamilton probably contributed the most to his defeat by publication of a letter that indicated Hamilton had made the following statement: Burr “was a dangerous man and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government.” The letter also claimed to know of “a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.”
Aaron Burr was enraged and sent a letter to Hamilton demanding to know if the letter was accurate. Hamilton tried to fend off Burr with questions in an effort to confuse the issue. Burr was having none of it and demanded Hamilton recant any disparaging remarks made during the past 15 years. Hamilton had recently been disgraced by the “Maria Reynolds adultery scandal” which had weakened his reputation, so he refused to apologize. Burr responded by challenging Hamilton to a duel.
The duel challenge was accepted and the two with their seconds met near Weehawken, New Jersey on 11 July 1804. The spot was chosen because dueling was illegal in both New York and New Jersey, but the punishment was less severe in New Jersey. It was also the same spot where Hamilton’s oldest son had died in a duel three years earlier.
Both men fired and Hamilton was mortally wounded by a shot above the hip that pierced his liver and spine. Nobody could determine who fired first but there reportedly was a slight delay between the shots, so it is likely Hamilton fired first and missed. We know that Hamilton had provided both pistols, which were heavier than normal and that he had secretly altered to have hair triggers. He tried to gain an unfair advantage, but it appears that he became the victim of his own deceit. Before the duel Hamilton had claimed he intended to intentionally miss Burr, but his deceptions don’t support that claim.
Hamilton was taken to a friend’s house in Manhattan where he died. Burr was charged with multiple crimes, including murder in both New York and New Jersey. He quickly became very unpopular and with the charges against him, he fled to South Carolina where his daughter lived with her family.
Burr soon returned to Philadelphia and then to Washington to finish his term as vice president. He avoided New York and New Jersey for a while but by that time all charges against him had been dropped. Despite this, Burr’s popularity and reputation were in the tank and showed no signs of improving.
Vice President Burr completed his term in 1805 and traveled to the western frontier. He had leased 40,000 acres from Spain in present day Louisiana. As he traveled towards his land, he was drumming up support for a planned settlement with little public indication of its purpose. He believed war with Spain was a probability and he claimed the armed force he was organizing would be used to protect his land.
Although the details of Burr’s plan were known only to him, we do know his explanation was not true. His real goal apparently was to help defeat the Spanish when war came (war with the Spanish was a popular goal on the frontier), expel the Spanish from Mexico, and then set himself up as ruler of that vast territory. It was believed, although not proved, that Burr was planning to enlarge that territory by separating frontier holdings away from the US.
Things did not go as Burr expected. Differences with Spain were settled by treaty and there was no revolution in Texas. In addition, he had allied himself with General James Wilkinson, Commander of US forces at New Orleans and Governor of the Louisiana Territory. This was an unfortunate decision by Burr because Wilkinson was a very self-serving, paid spy for Spain.
Wilkinson got cold feet after a near-incident with his Spanish masters, so he decided to blow the whistle on Burr’s plans. He betrayed Burr to the Spanish and to President Jefferson. Without an indictment, Jefferson immediately issued an order for Burr’s arrest for treason and put federal agents on his trail. Burr turned himself in to federal authorities twice, and both times judges found his actions were legal and released him.
Jefferson’s warrant continued to follow Burr and he was eventually arrested for treason on 19 February 1807 in Mississippi Territory. He was confined to Fort Stoddert.
After Burr’s arrest, his secret correspondence with Anthony Merry and Marquis of Casa Yrujo, the British and Spanish ministers in Washington became public. Burr had tried to secure funds from them while concealing his true intentions to overthrow Spanish rule in Texas. Legally his plan to attempt the overthrow of another government was only a misdemeanor based on the Neutrality Act of 1794.
Jefferson insisted Burr be charged with treason and a trial was scheduled before the US Circuit Court at Richmond, Virginia. The trial was presided over by Chief Justice of the United States John Marshall and began on 3 August 1807.
The only physical evidence against Burr was a letter that General Wilkinson claimed he received from Burr which spelled out treasonous activity. This letter turned out to be a poor forgery written by Wilkinson. It was thrown out and Wilkinson became a laughingstock.
The Constitution of the United States spells out specifics for a charge of treason and the charges against Burr did not meet any of the specifics. Burr was acquitted of the charge of treason, and then acquitted of the misdemeanor charge and released. Marshall had correctly pointed out that thinking about committing treason without action is not a crime.
Since Jefferson pushed for a treason conviction, this trial was a major test of the Constitution and the concept of separation of powers. To his great credit, Marshall stuck to the law and Constitution and was not swayed by pressure from the Executive Branch. This was a huge victory for the American concept of limited government powers.
Some historians believe Burr was guilty of treason, but most of the evidence they cite is hearsay and subjective. The fact is, we will never know the complete story so speculation will continue as long as historians investigate Burr’s life and times.
After the trial Burr’s life was in shambles. He was broke and socially bankrupt. He had no hope, and his creditors were after him. He had to borrow money for passage to Europe and was in self-exile from 1808 to 1812. He lived primarily in London but traveled throughout Europe. He kept trying to get funding for a conquest of Mexico but was universally rebuffed. Finally, he wore out his welcome and was ordered out of Britain and France refused him entry.
When Burr returned to the US, he used the name “Edwards” to avoid creditors and was living off the generosity of friends. He reopened his law practice with minimal success.
On 1 July 1833, 77-year-old Burr married Eliza Jumel, a wealthy widow 19 years younger than him. Soon after the marriage Eliza realized her fortune was dwindling due to Burr’s spending, and after four months she separated from him. She chose Alexander Hamilton Jr to be her divorce lawyer.
Burr suffered a debilitating stroke in 1834 which left him paralyzed. On 14 September 1836 Aaron Burr died in a boarding house (which became the St. James Hotel) on Staten Island in the village of Port Richmond. He was buried without fanfare near his father in Princeton, New Jersey.
During his life, Aaron Burr made many life-long friends, but he made even more enemies. He was often generous to a fault. He helped others, even when he had nothing, and many families and children were fed and housed by him.
Burr is best known for killing Alexander Hamilton, but he also accomplished many good things. He was a brave and competent military officer. He achieved high political office becoming vice president of the United States. He brought order and new procedures to the senate and some of those procedures are still followed today. He also pioneered electioneering methods that are still used today, such as door-to-door campaigning.
Burr’s role in and after the election of 1800 revealed the dangers of the second vote getter becoming vice president. This makes the two men opponents and can result in them working against each other. This fact was proved by Burr and Jefferson and led to the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, which established that electoral votes be cast separately for president and vice president.
Aaron Burr allowed his pride and ego lead him to decisions that destroyed his reputation and legacy. Few people can name anything good about Burr, and he is rarely mentioned with early American heroes. Many of his actions were detrimental to the country, which destroyed the memory of the good he did. He began a patriot and hero but unfortunately became a rogue!
John Adams wrote that Burr “had served in the army, and came out of it with the character of a knight without fear and an able officer”
Later, son John Quincy Adams wrote: “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.”