Aaron Burr

American lawyer and politician Aaron Burr (1756-1836) was vice president under Thomas Jefferson. After his term of office he conspired to invade Spanish territory in the Southwest and to separate certain western areas from the United States.

Aaron Burr was born in Newark, N.J., on Feb. 6, 1756, the grandson of the Calvinist theologian Johathan Edwards, and the son of a Presbyterian minister. The family soon moved to Princeton, where the Reverend Burr became president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University). Burr was soon orphaned.

From an early age Burr prepared for an education at the College of New Jersey. Denied admission at the age of age 11, the precocious youth was accepted as a sophomore 2 years later. An eager and industrious student, he graduated with distinction in 3 years. He studied theology for a while but found himself disenchanted with the religious controversies generated by the Great Awakening. He turned instead to the study of law and for a period worked under the famous jurist Tapping Reeve.

Officer in the Revolution

Attracted by the drama and opportunity of the Revolutionary War, Burr secured a letter of recommendation from John Hancock, the president of the Continental Congress, and appeared before Gen. Washington to request a commission in the Continental Army. Washington refused, thus opening the first in a series of conflicts between the two men. Burr, however, persisted. He joined the Army and behaved commendably in the illfated expedition against Quebec. In the spring of 1776 he secured appointment, with the rank of major, to Washington's official household in New York. Mutual distrust quickly deepened between the two men, partly because of Burr's disenchantment with the tedium of administrative duties and partly because of the glaring contrast between his own spontaneous behavior and Washington's stiff and humorless manner.

Again through the intercession of Hancock, Burr transferred to the staff of Gen. Israel Putnam. For the next several years he served effectively in a variety of posts, developing a reputation both for vigilance and the effective disciplining of his troops.

In March 1779, his health impaired by exhaustion and exposure, Burr resigned his commission. By 1780, however, he was ready to launch a heavy program of legal study. Burr was licensed as an attorney in January 1782 and 2 months later was admitted to the bar.

At least equal to Burr's pursuit of fame and fortune was his passion for women. Throughout his long life he carried on numerous affairs. Though he was only 5 feet 6 inches tall, his erect military bearing and graceful manner, his sparkling conversation and elegant appearance made him very attractive to women. In July 1777 he began regular visits to Mrs. Theodosia Prevost, 10 years his senior and wife of a British officer frequently away on duty. In July 1781 she was widowed; 9 months later she and Burr were married. The marriage lasted until her death in 1794, though Burr carried on a number of amours during the interval. In 1783 a daughter, Theodosia, was born, with whom Burr developed a deep and affectionate relationship. Indeed, much of Burr's life came to revolve around his ambitions and concerns for her.

Lawyer in New York

After establishing a successful legal practice in the booming town of Albany, Burr moved in 1783 to New York City. For 6 years he stuck to his practice, generating a substantial reputation and income. He never compiled a large fortune, however, for his generosity and his own lifestyle drained his money away.

Local and National Politics

Gradually during the 1790s Burr worked his way into New York politics. Nominally a member of the emerging Jeffersonian opposition, he took care not to break completely with the Federalists. The results of this were twofold. By carefully balancing group against group, he could present himself as a nonsectarian, coalition candidate. On the other hand, this generated suspicions among both Jeffersonians and Federalists about his "unsettled" political loyalties. In 1791 Burr won election to the U.S. Senate, defeating Philip Schuyler, Alexander Hamilton's father-in-law. Burr and Hamilton had been for some time political and professional antagonists; this election elicited Hamilton's unrelenting hatred. In the Senate, Burr occupied a somewhat ambiguous position, opposing Hamilton's financial program and the Jay Treaty, yet not becoming a full Jeffersonian partisan.

Burr failed to drum up support for the vice presidency in 1796 and also lost his seat in the Senate. From 1797 to 1799 he served in the New York Legislature but was defeated for reelection when he came under fire for promoting legislation to aid a land company and banking corporation in which he had financial interests.

Vice Presidency

Burr's opportunity to fashion a national political career came with the presidential election of 1800. With the support of the Tammany organization (which he never formally joined), he organized New York City and enabled Jefferson to carry the state's crucial electoral votes. Meanwhile Burr had secured a pledge from the Jeffersonians in Congress to support him equally with Jefferson in the election as a way of ensuring that neither of the Federalist candidates would have a chance. (In 1800 presidential electors simply cast two ballots, making no distinction between presidential and vice-presidential preferences.) The result was a tie. Jefferson and Burr each received 73 votes, and the election shifted to the House of Representatives. For 35 ballots neither man received a majority, while rumors circulated that Burr was scheming for Federalist support. A number of Federalists did state their strong preference for him, but Hamilton argued just as strongly that Jefferson was a more honorable man. Finally several Federalists withheld their votes and permitted Jefferson's election, thus ending a major constitutional crisis.

Burr was now vice president, but his political career was near its end. His relations with Jefferson's supporters were further strained during his 4 years in office. In 1804 Burr was passed over by the Jeffersonian congressional caucus and was not renominated for vice president.

Hamilton-Burr Duel

In July 1804 the famous duel with Hamilton took place. Burr had tried to avoid it, but it was forced upon him by Hamilton's mounting public attacks. As word of Hamilton's death spread, the public outcry forced Burr to flee for his safety. His political base, both within New York and in the Jeffersonian party, was now completely gone. To fulfill his obligation as vice president, Burr returned to Washington to preside over the impeachment proceedings against Justice Samuel Chase, a task he carried out with justice and impartiality. The day after the trial was over, Burr left the Senate chamber for the last time.

Burr's Conspiracy

For at least a year prior to this, Burr had been making plans to recoup in the West some of the power denied him in the East. The precise motive behind his western adventures has never been clarified. There seems to have been two options: to gather a force to invade Spanish-held territory across the Mississippi out of which an independent republic was to be fashioned, or to separate certain southwestern territories (east of the Mississippi) from the United States and incorporate them with the Spanish lands to form an independent nation. Burr's primary goal seems to have been the Spanish venture, though he was clearly interested in including New Orleans and territory along the Mississippi. If his proposals to England to aid in dismembering the Union had met with support, Burr might well have placed separation at the center of his planning. Whatever the case, his western adventure had the gravest implications for the young republic.

Burr's involved intrigue took form in 1804-1805, when he divulged his plans to various persons, among them Gen. James Wilkinson, commander of American forces in the West, and Anthony Merry, British minister to the United States, whom Burr asked for half a million dollars and the promise of aid from the British fleet. After a scouting trip down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, Burr returned east and made further attempts to organize support. Failing to secure funds from England, he turned to various private sources.

When Jefferson's purchase of Spanish Florida ended the prospect of the Spanish-American border war that Burr had hoped to use as the occasion for his own invasion of Spanish territory, he decided to launch his enterprise. In August 1806 he started west into the Ohio Valley to rally men and supplies. Increasingly alarmed by rumors of Burr's operations, President Jefferson sent warnings to western officials to keep Burr under careful surveillance. Receiving a communication from Wilkinson (who had now turned against Burr), the President issued a proclamation describing the intended expedition and warning American citizens not to participate. At the beginning of 1807, unaware of Wilkinson's betrayal, Burr started down the Ohio with about 100 men. Within a few weeks the whole thing was over. Behind Burr, units of the Ohio militia organized for pursuit, and ahead of him Wilkinson was frantically arranging New Orleans's defense while preparing a force to intercept Burr. Learning of Wilkinson's opposition, Burr fled toward Mobile, Ala., leaving his force to be placed under detention. Burr was arrested a few miles from Spanish Florida and returned east for trial.

On Trial

Charged with the high misdemeanor of launching a military expedition against Spanish territory and the treasonous act of attempting to separate areas from the United States, Burr stood trial before Chief Justice John Marshall in the U.S. Circuit Court at Richmond, Va. The outcome hung upon Marshall's instructions to the jury concerning the technicalities of American treason law. Burr was acquitted on the treason charge, and the misdemeanor indictment was eventually canceled. The acquittal was extremely unpopular; Marshall was burned in effigy as a result.

Burr's Decline

Although Burr was legally free, his political career was finished. For the next 4 years he wandered through Europe, vainly trying to find support for plans to revolutionize Mexico, free the Spanish colonies, and instigate war between England and the United States. Finally, in 1812, he returned to America, broken in health and financially destitute. After some discreet inquiries, he decided it was safe to return to New York. There he set about the task of reestablishing his legal practice. He was moderately successful, but his final years were not easy. In December 1812 his cherished daughter, Theodosia, was lost at sea. As the years passed, his fortunes again declined. By 1830 he had come to depend heavily upon contributions from a few friends for his survival. In 1833, at the age of 77, Burr married a wealthy widow 20 years his junior who quickly divorced him when it became apparent he would run through her fortune. Over the next several years a series of strokes left him paralyzed and utterly dependent for his care upon a cousin. Burr died on Staten Island, N.Y., on Sept. 14, 1836.

Further Reading on Aaron Burr

The best modern biography of Burr is Herbert S. Parmet and Marie B. Hecht, Aaron Burr: Portrait of an Ambitious Man (1967). The most detailed biographical study, however, is still James Parton, The Life and Times of Aaron Burr (1858; repr. 1967). Other biographies of Burr include Samuel H. Wandell and Meade Minnigerode, Aaron Burr (2 vols., 1925); Walter Flavius McCaleb, The Aaron Burr Conspiracy (1936); and Nathan Schachner, Aaron Burr (1937). For the fullest treatment of Burr's western adventures see Thomas P. Abernethy, The Burr Conspiracy (1954). Bradley Chapin explains many of the technicalities surrounding the famous trial of Aaron Burr in The American Law of Treason (1964).

Additional Biography Sources

Lomask, Milton, Aaron Burr, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979-c1982.

Keunstler, Laurence S, The unpredictable Mr. Aaron Burr, New York: Vantage Press, 1974.

Chidsey, Donald Barr, The great conspiracy; Aaron Burr and his strange doings in the West, New York: Crown Publishers, 1967.

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