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).