A brilliant law student, Burr interrupted his study to serve in the American Revolution and proved himself a valiant soldier in early campaigns. In 1779 ill health forced him to leave the army. Upon admission (1782) to the bar, he plunged energetically into the practice of both law and politics. He served as a member (1784-85; 1797-99) of the New York assembly, as state attorney general (1789-91), and as U.S. Senator (1791-97).
Defeated for reelection to the assembly in 1799, he set about organizing the Republican (see Democratic party) element in New York City for the election of 1800, for the first time making use of the Tammany Society for political purposes. The result was an unexpected victory for the Republicans, who gained control of the state legislature. Since the legislature named presidential electors and New York was the pivotal state, Burr's victory insured the election of a Republican president.
The intention of the party was to make Thomas Jefferson president and Burr vice president, but confusion in the electoral college resulted in a tie vote. This threw the election into the House of Representatives. There, the Federalist Alexander Hamilton, who regarded Jefferson as the lesser evil of the two Republicans, helped to secure Jefferson the presidency, and on the 36th ballot Burr became vice president.
Burr presided over the Senate with a dignity and impartiality that commanded respect from both sides, and in 1804 his friends nominated him for the governorship of New York. Hamilton again contributed to his defeat, in part by statements reflecting on Burr's character. Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel and mortally wounded him.
Soon after Hamilton's death, Burr left Washington on a journey to New Orleans, at that time a center of Spanish conspiring for possession of the lower Mississippi valley. Burr, unaware that Gen. James Wilkinson was in the pay of the Spanish, laid plans with him; what exactly Burr's aims were has never been made clear. Speculation ranges from the establishment of an independent republic in the American Southwest to seizure of territory in Spanish America.
With money secured from Harman Blennerhassett, Burr acquired the Bastrop grant on the Ouachita River in Louisiana to serve as a base of operations. In the autumn of 1806, he and a party of 60-odd colonists, well-armed and supplied, began the journey west from Blennerhassett Island. Burr's earlier trip to New Orleans had brought him under suspicion; now distrust became widespread. Wilkinson, in an effort to save himself, turned against Burr, and in dispatches to Washington accused Burr of treason.
Burr was arrested and tried for treason in the U.S. Circuit Court at Richmond, Va., Chief Justice John Marshall presiding, and found not guilty. Popular opinion nonetheless condemned him, and his remaining years were spent in private life. He was married in 1833 to the famous Madame Jumel (see Jumel Mansion); they were divorced in 1834.
See his correspondence with his daughter, Theodosia (ed. by M. Van Doren, 1929); biographies by N. Schachner (1937, repr. 1961), S. H. Wandell and M. Minnegerode (1925, repr. 1971), H. M. Alexander (1937, repr. 1973) P. Vail (1974), and N. Isenberg (2007); H. C. Syrett and J. G. Cooke, ed., Interview in Weehawken (1960); J. Daniels, Ordeal of Ambition (1970); T. Fleming, Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the Future of America (1999); R. G. Kennedy, Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character (1999).
Aaron Burr, Jr. (February 6, 1756 – September 14, 1836) was an American politician, Revolutionary War hero and adventurer. He served as the third Vice President of the United States under Thomas Jefferson (1801–1805).
A formative member of the Democratic-Republican Party with a political base in New York, Burr served in the New York State Assembly (1784–1785, 1798–1801), as New York State Attorney General (1789–1791), United States Senator (1791–1797), and for one term as Vice President of the United States (1801–1805) under President Thomas Jefferson. A candidate for President in 1800, Burr tied Jefferson with 73 electoral votes, making him eligible for one of the Nation's two highest offices and sending the election into the U.S. House of Representatives. After 36 ballots, Jefferson was elected President and Burr elected Vice President. As Vice President, Burr was President of the Senate, and in this role presided over the impeachment trial of Samuel Chase.
During an unsuccessful campaign for election to Governor of New York in 1804, Burr was often referred to in published articles written by Alexander Hamilton, a long-time political rival and son-in-law of Philip Schuyler, the first U.S. Senator from New York whom Burr defeated in his bid for re-election in 1791. Taking umbrage at remarks made by Hamilton at a dinner party and Hamilton's subsequent failure to account for the remarks, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel on July 11, 1804, at the Heights of Weehawken in New Jersey at which he mortally wounded Hamilton. Easily the most famous duel in U.S. history, it had immense political ramifications. Burr, who survived the duel, was indicted for murder in both New York and New Jersey (though these charges were either later dismissed or resulted in acquittal), and the harsh criticism and animosity directed towards him brought about an end to his political career in the East, though he remained a popular figure in the West and South. Further, Hamilton's untimely death would fatally weaken the remnants of the Federalist Party.
After Burr left the Vice Presidency at the end of his term in 1805, he journeyed into what was then the U.S. West, particularly the Ohio River Valley area and the lands acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. While historians are uncertain as to Burr's particular activities, he was accused in turns of having committed treason, of a conspiracy to steal Louisiana Purchase lands away from the United States and crown himself a King or Emperor, or of an attempt to declare an illegal war against Spanish possessions in Mexico. He did go so far as to form his own regiment of at least 200 men. Burr was arrested in 1807 and brought to trial on charges of treason, for which he was acquitted. After several years in self-imposed exile in Europe, Burr returned to practicing law in New York City and lived a largely reclusive existence until his death.
Burr was born in Newark, New Jersey, to the Rev. Aaron Burr, Sr., who was a Presbyterian minister and 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. The Burrs also had a daughter, Sarah, who married an officer in Washington's Revolutionary Army, Sir Solomon Tarbox. Aaron and his sister were of English ancestry.
In 1772, he received his A.B. in theology at Princeton University, but changed his career path two years later and began the study of law in the celebrated law school conducted by Tapping Reeve, at Litchfield, Connecticut. His studies were put on hold while he served during the Revolutionary War, under Generals Benedict Arnold, George Washington (for two weeks), and Israel Putnam.
His courage made him a national hero and earned him a place on Washington's staff in Manhattan, but he quit after two weeks because he wanted to return to the field. Never hesitant to voice his opinions, Burr may have set Washington against him; however, rumors that Washington then distrusted Burr have never been substantiated.
General Israel Putnam took Burr under his wing; by his vigilance in the retreat from lower Manhattan to Harlem, Burr saved an entire brigade (including Alexander Hamilton, who was one of its officers) from capture. In a stark 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). Although Burr was already a nationally-known hero, he never received a commendation. According to Burr's stepbrother Matthew Ogden, Burr was infuriated by the incident, which may have led to the eventual estrangement between him and Washington.
On becoming lieutenant colonel in July 1777, Burr assumed virtual leadership of Malcolm's Additional Continental Regiment, approximately 300 men under Colonel William Malcolm. The regiment successfully fought off continual nighttime raids into central New Jersey by English troops sailing over from Manhattan, crushing those forces. During the harsh winter encampment at Valley Forge, Burr was put in charge of a small contingent guarding the "Gulph," an isolated pass commanding the approach to the camp, and necessarily the first point that would be attacked. Burr was chosen to enforce discipline there, successfully defeating a mutiny by some of the troops.
On June 28, 1778 at the Battle of Monmouth, his regiment was decimated by British artillery, and in the day's terrible heat, Burr suffered a stroke from which he would never quite recover. 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 U.S. about 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 Continental Army in March 1779 due to ill health, and renewed his study of law. Though technically no longer in the service, 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, and on July 5, 1779, he rallied a group of Yale students at New Haven along with Capt. James Hillhouse and the Second Connecticut Governors Foot Guard in a skirmish with the British at the West River. The British advance was repulsed, having to enter New Haven from Hamden.
Despite these activities, Burr was able to finish his studies and was admitted to the bar at Albany in 1782. He began to practice in New York City after the British evacuated the city the following year. He lived in Richmond Hill, Manhattan, an area just outside of Greenwich Village.
In 1833, at age 77, Burr married again, this time to Eliza Bowen Jumel, the extremely wealthy widow of Stephen Jumel. When she realized her fortune was dwindling from her husband's land speculation, they separated after only four months. The divorce between Burr and Jumel was finalized on September 14, 1836, the same day of Burr`s death.
While Burr and Jefferson served during the Washington administration, the Federal Government was resident in Philadelphia. They both roomed for a time at the boarding house of a Mrs. Payne. Her daughter Dolley, an attractive young widow, was introduced by Burr to James Madison, whom she subsequently married.
Although Hamilton and Burr had long been on good personal terms, often dining with one another, Burr's defeat of General Schuyler, Hamilton's father-in-law probably drove the first major wedge into their friendship. Nevertheless, their relationship took a decade to reach a status of enmity.
As a U.S. Senator, Burr was not a favorite in President George Washington's eyes. He sought to write an official Revolutionary history, but Washington blocked his access to the archives, possibly because the former colonel had been a noted critic of his leadership, and possibly because he regarded Burr as a schemer. Washington also passed over Burr for the ministry to France. 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. Adams 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. Hamilton, who by then despised Burr, still had Washington's ear at this time. Burr is said to have despised Washington "as a man of no talents and one who could not spell a sentence of common English." However, Washington's wartime strategies may have colored Burr's opinion of the General. (Sources: Schachner; Lomask.)
Bored with the inactivity of the new U.S. Senate, Burr ran for and was elected to the New York State Assembly, serving from 1798 through 1801. During John Adams' term as President, national parties became clearly defined. Burr loosely associated himself 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, largely because of the Tammany Society, later to become the infamous Tammany Hall, which Burr converted from a social club into a political machine to help Jefferson reach the Presidency. In 1799, Burr founded the Bank of the Manhattan Company, which in later years evolved into the Chase Manhattan Bank and later JPMorgan Chase.
In 1800, New York presidential electors were to be chosen by the state legislature as they had been in 1796 (for John Adams). The state assembly was controlled by the Federalists going into the April 1800 legislative elections. In the city of New York, assembly members were to be selected on a at-large basis. Burr and Hamilton were the key organizers for their respective parties in the April 1800 election. Burr succeeded in getting the entire Republican slate of assemblymen for New York City elected, gaining control of the legislature and in due course giving New York's electoral votes to Jefferson and winning the 1800 presidential election for him. This drove another wedge between Hamilton and Burr. Burr became U.S. Vice President during Jefferson's first term (1801-1805).
During the French Revolution, French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, in need of sanctuary to escape the Terror, stayed in Burr's home in New York City but also spent much time at Hamilton's house. When Burr, after the Hamilton duel and treason trial, traveled Europe in an attempt to recoup his fortunes, Talleyrand refused him entrance into France. Talleyrand was an ardent admirer of Alexander Hamilton and had even once written: "I consider Napoleon, Fox, and Hamilton, the three greatest men of our epoch, and if I were forced to decide between the three, I would give without hesitation the first place to Hamilton. He had divined Europe."
Burr is known as the father of modern political campaigning. He enlisted the help of members of Tammany Hall, a social club, and won the election. He was then placed on the Democratic-Republican presidential ticket in the 1800 election with Jefferson. At the time, state legislatures chose the members of the U.S. Electoral College, and New York was crucial to Jefferson. Though Jefferson did win New York, he and Burr tied for the presidency with 73 electoral votes each.
It was well understood that the party intended that Jefferson should be president and Burr vice president, but the responsibility for the final choice 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 and partly due to Burr himself, who did little to obtain votes in his own favor. He wrote to Jefferson underscoring his promise to be vice president, and again during the voting stalemate in the Congress wrote again that he would give it up entirely if Jefferson so demanded. Ultimately, the election devolved to the point where it took 36 ballots before James A. Bayard, a Delaware Federalist, submitted a blank vote. Federalist abstentions in the Vermont and Maryland delegations led to Jefferson's election as President, and Burr’s moderate Federalist supporters conceded his defeat.
Upon confirmation of Jefferson’s election, Burr became Vice President of the United States, but despite his letters and his shunning of any political activity during the balloting (he never left Albany) he lost Jefferson's trust after that, and was effectively shut out of party matters. Some historians conjecture that the reason for this was Burr's casual regard for politics, and that he didn't act aggressively enough during the election tie. Jefferson was tight-lipped in private about Burr, so his reasons are still not entirely clear. However, Burr's even-handed fairness and his judicial manner as President of the Senate were praised even by some of his enemies, and he fostered some time-honored traditions in regard to that office. Historian Forrest MacDonald has credited Burr's judicial manner in presiding over the impeachment trial of Justice Samuel Chase with helping to preserve the principle of judicial independence that was established by Marbury v. Madison in 1803.
When it became clear that Jefferson would drop Burr from his ticket in the 1804 election, the Vice President ran for the governorship of New York instead. Burr lost the election, and blamed his loss on a personal smear campaign believed to have been orchestrated by his own party rivals, including New York governor George Clinton. Alexander Hamilton also opposed Burr, due to his (still controversial) belief that Burr had entertained a Federalist secession movement in New York. But Hamilton, Burr felt, went too far at one political dinner, where he said that he could express a "still more despicable opinion" of Burr. After a letter regarding the incident written by Dr. Charles D. Cooper was published in the Albany Register, Burr sought an explanation from Hamilton.
Hamilton had written so many letters, and made so many private tirades against Burr, that he claimed that he could not reliably comment on Cooper's statement; Hamilton greatly contributed to Burr's loss in the election of 1800. Instead Hamilton responded casually by educating Burr on the many possible meanings of despicable, enraging and embarrassing Burr. Burr then demanded that Hamilton recant or deny anything he might have said regarding Burr’s character over the past 15 years, but Hamilton, having already been disgraced by the Maria Reynolds scandal and ever mindful of his own reputation and honor, did not. Burr responded by challenging Hamilton to personal combat under the code duello, the formalized rules of dueling. Both men had been involved in duels (though most never reached the dueling field) in the past (for Hamilton 21, for Burr 1), and Hamilton's eldest son, Philip, had died in a duel in 1801.
Although still quite common, dueling had been outlawed in New York, and the punishment for conviction of duelling was death. It was illegal in New Jersey as well, but the consequences were less severe. On July 11, 1804, the enemies met outside of Weehawken, New Jersey, and following the code duello Hamilton was mortally wounded. There has been some controversy as to the claims of Burr's and Hamilton's seconds. While one party indicates Hamilton fired only as a consequence of the shock of being struck by Burr's shot--the implication being that Hamilton's shot was unintentional--the other claims that Hamilton in fact fired first. A scientific study proved that Hamilton fired first, although it is still unclear whether he shot by accident or not. The two sides do, however, agree that there was a 3 to 4 second interval between the first and the second shot, raising difficult questions in evaluating the two camps' versions. In any event, Hamilton's shot missed Burr, but Burr's shot was fatal. The bullet entered Hamilton's abdomen above his right hip, piercing Hamilton's liver and spine. Hamilton was evacuated to Manhattan where he lay in the house of a friend, receiving visitors until he died the following day. 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 Philadelphia and then on to Washington to complete his term as Vice President. As leader of the Senate he presided over the impeachment trial of Samuel Chase. It was written by one Senator that Burr had conducted the proceedings with the "impartiality of an angel and the rigor of a devil." Burr's farewell in March 1805 moved some of his harshest critics in the Senate to tears. However, except for short quotes and descriptions of the address, which defended America's system of government, it was never recorded in full.
Burr had leased 40,000 acres (160 km²) of land in the Texas part of Mexico, in the "Bastrop" lands from the Spanish government. 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, that war in Texas didn't occur until 1836, the year of Burr's death.
In 1805, General James Wilkinson was chosen by Jefferson to be the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Army at New Orleans and Governor of the Louisiana Territory (It was revealed years later that at the time he was a spy, secretly in the pay of the Kingdom of Spain.) Wilkinson had his own reasons for aiding the Burr Conspiracy. As Territorial Governor, he could have seized power for himself, as he had attempted in earlier plots in Kentucky. Ignorant of the General's treason, Burr enlisted Wilkinson and others to his plan in a reconnaissance mission to the West in April 1805.
Another member of the Burr conspiracy was the Anglo-Irish aristocrat Harman Blennerhassett. After marrying his niece, Blennerhassett had been forced out of Ireland. He came to live as a quasi-feudal lord, owning an island now bearing his name in the Ohio River. Highly educated, Blennerhassett maintained a scientific laboratory and an impressive villa on the island. It was there that he met Burr and agreed to help finance the ambitions of Burr's group.
Like many of his countrymen, including Jefferson, Burr anticipated a war with Spain, a distinct possibility if someone other than Wilkinson commanded U.S. troops on the Louisiana border. In case of a war declaration, Andrew Jackson stood ready to help Colonel Burr, who had already purchased the land shares in Texas. Burr's expedition of perhaps eighty men carried modest arms for hunting, and no war materiel ever came to light, even when Blennerhassett Island was seized by Virginia militia (the island was just off shore from modern Parkersburg, West Virginia).
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 his Spanish paymasters. Jefferson's passivity throughout most of 1806 remains baffling to this day, but he finally issued a proclamation for Burr's arrest, declaring him a traitor even before an indictment. Burr read this in a newspaper in the Orleans Territory on January 10, 1807. Jefferson's warrant put Federal agents on his trail. He turned himself in to the Federal authorities twice. Two judges found his actions legal and released him. But Jefferson's warrant followed Burr, who then fled for Spanish Florida; he was intercepted in the vicinity of the Missouri and Alabama Territories on February 19, 1807 and confined to Fort Stoddert after being arrested on charges of treason.
Burr was treated well at Fort Stoddert. For example, in the evening of February 20, 1807, Burr appeared at the dinner table, and was introduced to Frances Gaines, the wife of the commandant Edmund P. Gaines and the daughter of Judge Harry Toulmin, the man responsible for the legal arrest of Burr. Frances 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. It had been, 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 a dynasty in what would have become former Mexican territory. This seems to have been a misdemeanor, based on the Neutrality Act passed to block filibuster expeditions like those questionable enterprises of George Rogers Clark and William Blount. But Jefferson sought the highest charges against Burr. It seems that both Jefferson and Burr gravely misjudged Wilkinson's character - Jefferson had personally put him in charge of the Army at New Orleans.
In 1807, on a charge of treason, Burr was brought to trial before the United States Circuit Court at Richmond, Virginia. His defense lawyers were John Wickham and Luther Martin. Burr was arraigned four times for treason before a grand jury indicted him. This is surprising, because the only physical evidence presented to the Grand Jury was Wilkinson's so-called letter from Burr, proposing stealing land in the Louisiana Purchase. During the Jury's examination it was discovered that the letter was in Wilkinson's own handwriting - a "copy," he said, because he had "lost" the original. The Grand Jury threw the letter out, 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 proved by an overt act witnessed by two people. Since no two witnesses came forward, Burr was acquitted on September 1, in spite of the fact that the full force of the political influence of the Jefferson administration had been thrown against him. Immediately afterward, he was tried on a more appropriate misdemeanor charge, but was again acquitted.
The trial was a major test of the Constitution. It was carefully watched drama (Henry Adams gives a full account) as Thomas Jefferson wanted a conviction. He challenged the authority of the Supreme Court and its Chief Justice John Marshall - an Adams appointee who clashed with Jefferson over judicial appointments that were signed up to the last minute of Adams' single term as president. Thomas Jefferson believed that Aaron Burr's treason was obvious, and warranted a conviction. (Burr had run off and declared himself "Emperor of Mexico") The actual case hinged 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 move to conviction, but Marshall was not swayed.
He and his first wife would be called Feminists today. He believed women to be intellectually equal to men, and hung a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft over his mantle. 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.
In her Autobiography of Jane Fairfield, the wife of the struggling poet Sumner Lincoln Fairfield relates how 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 was in fear for their very lives. She sought out Burr, as the only one that might be able and willing to help her. 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, he practiced estate law and provided money and education for several children, earning their lifelong affection.
Although he proved irresistible to many women, few historians doubt Burr's devotion to his first wife while she lived. He was profligate in his personal finances, and gave lip service to abolitionism even though he owned one or two slaves for a time. John Quincy Adams (who was a great admirer of Jefferson) said after the former Vice President's death, "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." This was his own opinion: his father, President John Adams, was an admirer and frequent defender of Burr.
A famous "Got Milk?" commercial directed by Michael Bay features a historian obsessed with the study of Burr who is called by a radio station while he has peanut butter in his mouth and asked the question of who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in order to win a large prize. The historian is out of milk and cannot manage to say the "Aaron Burr" clearly enough to be heard before his time runs out.
In the Saturday Night Live Digital Short "Lazy Sunday," Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg sing, "You can call us Aaron Burr from the way we're droppin' Hamiltons," referring to spending ten dollar bills (which have Hamilton's portrait on them).