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Burr, Aaron


Aaron Burr was a soldier, lawyer, and politician and the third vice president of the United States.

Burr was born February 6, 1756, in Newark, New Jersey. His family traced its ancestry to the Pilgrims and through hundreds of years of English gentry with many members who were prominent in government and politics. Both his parents died when he was young and he and his sister were raised in comfortable circumstances by their maternal uncle. Burr was a bright, charming, handsome, and witty boy who was gifted intellectually but decidedly mischievous and difficult to control. From earliest childhood he showed ambition, determination, and leadership.

Burr entered the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) as a sophomore in 1769 at the age of thirteen and graduated summa cum laude three years later. He then enrolled in litchfield law school (Connecticut), which was run by his brother-in-law and former tutor, Tapping Reeve. However, the Revolutionary War and his desire to be a part of it interrupted his studies.

Burr rose swiftly through the ranks of the revolutionary army, displaying daring, energy, courage, and imagination. His small stature and pampered upbringing belied an internal strength that surprised many who knew him. Accompanying Colonel Benedict Arnold's troops in their expedition to Quebec, he endured cold, hunger, and illness. He was made an officer in the Continental Army and soon served with General george washington.

Burr resigned his Army commission in 1779. He resumed the study of law in 1780 and was admitted to the bar in 1782. Later in 1782 he married Theodosia Prevost, a widow ten years his senior, and the following year their only child, a daughter also named Theodosia, was born.

In 1789 Burr was appointed attorney general of the state of New York and in 1791 he was elected a U.S. senator, defeating General Philip Schuyler, the father-in-law of alexander hamilton. This was the beginning of a bitter rivalry with Hamilton that would come to a ruinous conclusion years later.

Burr served in the Senate for six years. In 1797, the voters turned against him and elected his former antagonist, General Schuyler. Burr attributed his loss to Hamilton's assiduous efforts to undermine his support and reputation.

After losing his Senate seat, Burr served a short time in the New York assembly, before entering the presidential race of 1800. He and his opponent, thomas jefferson, received the same number of votes in the electoral college, and the election went to the House of Representatives for resolution. Burr and his supporters were unabashedly ambitious in their zeal to win the office. Burr's nemesis Hamilton stepped into the fray, announcing his support for Jefferson and criticizing Burr. Finally, through clever manipulation of the voting process, Hamilton secured the presidency for Jefferson and Burr automatically became vice president. As a result of this peculiar election Congress passed the twelfth amendment,

which mandated separate balloting for president and vice president.

"Law is whatever is boldly asserted and plausibly maintained."
—Aaron Burr

Burr's ruthless and opportunistic ambition caused many of his colleagues to shun him both professionally and socially. President Jefferson held him at arm's length, and others in the administration treated him like an outsider. Burr blamed his failure to secure the top office largely on Hamilton and he brooded over perceived injustices. Having lost his beloved wife in 1794, Burr was left with only his daughter, whom he idolized. He devoted as much time and energy as possible to her education and her grooming. However, the young lady was moving into adulthood and a life of her own. In 1801,

United States v. Aaron Burr

In 1807 Aaron Burr was prosecuted for treason and high misdemeanor in the federal circuit court in Richmond, Virginia, with U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice john marshall presiding as a trial judge. Despite evidence that Burr had been plotting to raise a rebellion and overtake a portion of the western territories in the United States and other evidence that Burr was planning to lead an unauthorized invasion of Mexico, the defendant was acquitted by a jury on both the treason and high misdemeanor charges.

Aaron Burr served as the nation's third vice president from 1801–1805, having lost the 1800 presidential election after the U.S. House of Representatives broke an electoral deadlock by naming thomas jefferson president and Burr vice president. Although Burr contemplated running for president again four years later, those ambitions came to an end when he was indicted for murdering alexander hamilton in a duel on July 11, 1804.

Later that same month, Burr, now disaffected with American politics, met with Britain's minister to the United States, Anthony Merry, who subsequently reported to his government that Burr "was endeavoring to effect a separation of the western part of the United States" via military action. In early 1805 Burr, while still acting as the vice president of the United States, contacted Spanish minister, Marques de Casa Yrujo, to discuss the same subject. The governments of both Great Britain and Spain declined to offer Burr any financial or military assistance.

When his term as vice president expired, Burr headed west to raise a military force that would either invade Mexico or forcefully sever the southwestern United States into an independent nation led by Burr himself. The former vice president first met with another malcontent, Herman Blennerhassett, on Blennerhassett Island, located in the Ohio River, then part of Virginia. A year later Burr joined forces with General James Wilkinson on Blennerhassett Island, where they assembled a force of unknown size to carry out Burr's plan. Burr left the island before any actions were taken to implement the plan.

After Burr departed, Wilkinson had second thoughts about the plan and informed President Jefferson of their rebellious preparations. Jefferson issued a proclamation calling for the suppression of the conspiracy. Federal authorities arrested Burr in March 1807 while he was trying to flee into Spanish Florida. The former vice president was brought back to Virginia where he stood trial before Chief Justice John Marshall (early Supreme Court justices performed double duty as appellate judges on the nation's high court and as trial judges in their designated circuit court) and state trial judge Cyrus Griffin. Bail was set at $5,000.

After hearing testimony from Wilkinson, the grand jury for the Virginia federal circuit court indicted Burr on June 24, 1807. The indictment charged him with one count of treason and one count of high misdemeanor for "unlawfully, falsely, maliciously, and traitorously … intending to raise and levy war" against the United States.

The trial began on August 10, 1807, and ended less than a month later, on September 1, 1807. Jefferson, motivated in part by personal vindictiveness against Burr, declared in a special message to Congress during the trial that Burr's guilt had been "placed beyond question." Jefferson then gave George Hay, the U.S. attorney in charge of the prosecution, incriminating evidence to offer against Burr. Jefferson also dangled pardons as enticements to any co-conspirators who agreed to turn state's evidence.

But the prosecution had two major problems. First, the linchpin of the treason charge was the alleged overt act of assembling a military force on Blennerhassett Island for the purpose of waging war against the United States. The indictment said this act occurred on December 10, 1806, a date on which all defense and prosecution witnesses agreed that Burr was not on the island, but instead hundreds of miles away.

Second, Chief Justice Marshall instructed the jurors that they could still convict Burr of treason for being a co-conspirator to the crime, so long as at least two witnesses provided testimony that some overt act was committed in furtherance of the conspiracy. But General Wilkinson was the only witness who testified as to Burr's involvement in the alleged crime. The jury returned a verdict of "not guilty" after deliberating for only 25 minutes.

On September 9, 1807, the trial for the high misdemeanor began, again with Chief Justice Marshall and Cyrus Griffin presiding. Prosecutor Hay called more than 50 witnesses to testify against the defendant. But the jury again acquitted Burr. Hay then filed a motion to prosecute Burr for treason in Ohio, alleging that the defendant conspired to levy war against the U.S. government in that jurisdiction as well. Marshall listened to five weeks of testimony concerning the motion and then on October 20 ruled that Burr could only be tried for misdemeanor charges in Ohio. Finally, Hay ceased efforts at prosecuting Burr any further.

further readings

Beirne, Francis. 1959. Shout Treason: The Trial of Aaron Burr. New York: Hastings House.

Melton, Bucker F., Jr. 2001. Aaron Burr: Conspiracy to Treason. New York: Wiley.

Vail, Philip. 1973. The Turbulent Life of Aaron Burr: The Great American Rascal. New York: Award Books.



against her father's wishes, she married Joseph Alston, of South Carolina, and moved to the Palmetto State, leaving Burr alone in Washington, D.C.

Toward the end of his term as vice president, Burr ran for governor of New York but was defeated. During the campaign Hamilton again expressed his distrust of Burr and made other disparaging comments about him. Feeling that his honor had been impugned, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Although Hamilton tried to defuse the conflict, Burr was determined to force a confrontation. The two men met at 7:00 a.m. on July 7, 1804. Burr was an excellent marksman, and he killed Hamilton with the first shot. In an ensuing public outcry, Burr was indicted for murder. He escaped to his daughter's home in South Carolina until the furor died down and eventually returned to Washington, D.C., to complete his term as vice president.

Burr came to realize that his aspirations to the presidency had been destroyed. His political career in ruins, he left Washington, D.C., and traveled west to explore frontier territory. He also concocted an elaborate conspiracy that was to be his final political undoing. Though complete details of the scheme have never been fully discovered, Burr apparently intended to lead the western states in an insurrection against the federal government. After the states seceded, he planned to install himself as the head of a newly created republic. He then intended to conquer Texas and Mexico. In October 1806, President Jefferson issued a proclamation denouncing Burr's venture. On January 14, 1807, Burr was arrested in Mississippi on a charge of treason. He escaped, but was later apprehended in Alabama. Burr's trial began in May 1807, and lasted six months. He was eventually acquitted but his political life was over.

Burr spent the next several years in exile in Europe, where he endured poverty, humiliation, and degradation. In 1812, he quietly returned to the United States, slipping into Boston wearing a disguise and using an assumed name. After a time he resumed a somewhat normal life and opened a law office in New York. Burr's prospects seemed to be brightening when he was dealt two crushing personal blows. First, he learned that his only grandchild, Aaron Burr Alston, had died before Burr returned to the United States. A few months later his beloved daughter perished in a shipwreck while traveling from South Carolina to New York to visit Burr.

Burr was devastated by these losses. A wave of sympathy tempered public opinion toward him, but he was still shunned by those in prominence. He continued his law practice, enjoyed a small circle of supportive friends, and even remarried, though the union was short-lived and unhappy. He quietly and unobtrusively engaged in numerous altruistic and philanthropic ventures, including providing for the education of young men and women of limited resources and adopting an orphan who lived with him until late adolescence.

During the last few years of his life, Burr suffered a series of strokes. At first, he rebounded completely, but each successive episode left him weaker. He died September 14, 1836, and was buried beside his parents and grandfather in Princeton, New Jersey.

further readings

Kennedy, Roger G. 2000. Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character. Oxford; New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Lomask, Milton. 1982. Aaron Burr. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Melton, Buckner F., Jr. 2001. Aaron Burr: Conspiracy to Treason. New York: Wiley.

Vail, Philip. 1973. The Great American Rascal. New York: Hawthorn Books.

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Aaron Burr

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

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 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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Burr, Aaron

Aaron Burr

Born: February 6, 1756 Newark, New Jersey Died: September 14, 1836 Port Richmond, Staten Island, New York American vice president, lawyer, and politician

American lawyer and politician Aaron Burr (17561836) was vice president under Thomas Jefferson (17431826). Political conspiracy and his famous duel with Alexander Hamilton (17551804) secured Burr an unfavorable place in American history.

Early life, education, and revolution

Aaron Burr was born in Newark, New Jersey, on February 6, 1756, the son of a Presbyterian minister. His father died when Aaron was just nineteen months old, shortly after moving the family to Princeton, New Jersey. Within the year, his mother and grandparents died as well. Orphaned along with his older sister Sarah, Burr was placed in the care of his twenty-year-old uncle, Timothy Edwards.

Burr graduated from Princeton University at the age of seventeen. He studied religion for a while but eventually decided to study law instead. His studies were halted by the outbreak of the American Revolution (177583). Burr joined the Continental Army, fighting for American independence from Great Britain. He fought in the battles of New York, Quebec, and Monmouth. In 1779 Burr's health forced him to resign from the military, and he resumed his law studies in New York City.

In 1782 Burr was admitted to the New York Bar, an association for lawyers. The same year, he married Theodosia Bartow Prevost, a woman ten years older than him and the widow of a British army officer. Aaron and Theodosia had four children together. Tragically, only his daughter Theodosia lived to be an adult.

After establishing a successful law practice in Albany, New York, Burr returned to New York City in 1783, where he quickly gained a reputation as a superior lawyer. During his years as a New York City lawyer, Burr clashed with many other city lawyers, including Alexander Hamilton.

Moving into politics

In the 1790s Burr began a career in politics. A member of the Jeffersonian Party (a political party whose members supported a weak federal government and a strict interpretation of the Constitution), Burr also had close dealings with the opposing Federalist Party (a political party whose members supported a strong federal government and a loose interpretation of the Constitution). Working well between the era's two dominant political parties was beneficial to Burr, but it also created problems for him. On one hand, Burr worked well as a mediator, or middleman, between the two opposing parties. On the other hand, his failure to make a clear choice between political parties raised suspicion among other politicians.

In 1791 Burr won a seat in the U.S. Senate by defeating Philip Schuyler (17331804), Alexander Hamilton's father-in-law. This strengthened Hamilton's feelings of professional and personal hatred toward Burr.

During his term as senator, Burr's political uncertainties became more and more evident and resulted in several professional setbacks. In 1796 he lost his seat in the senate. From 1797 to 1799, Burr served in the New York legislature but was defeated for reelection.

Election and controversy

The presidential election of 1800 gave Burr the opportunity to develop his career in national politics. Running against the popular Thomas Jefferson, Burr convinced his Jeffersonian friends in Congress to support him as well as Jefferson. By doing this, Burr all but shut out the opposing Federalist candidates.

The presidential election ended in a tie, with both Burr and Jefferson winning the same number of votes. Congress, where rumors circulated about Burr's Federalist leanings, was then given the task of breaking the tie and choosing the next president. Meanwhile, Alexander Hamilton argued strongly that Jefferson should be elected the fifth president of the United States. In the end, Jefferson won the presidency. At that time, Burr, the runner-up for president, became vice president.

Burr had become vice president, but his political career was near its end. He soon began to lose support among the party loyalists. In 1804 the Jeffersonians did not renominate Burr for vice president.

The Hamilton-Burr duel

Although Burr's political career had ended, his story in American history was far from finished. In July 1804, Burr's legendary duel with Hamilton took place. For years, the two had built up a dislike for one another. Burr initially tried to avoid the duel, which at the time was legal in parts of the country, but Hamilton demanded it take place. His insistence on the duel brought about his own death, as Burr mortally wounded him with a pistol shot. News of Hamilton's death spread and Burr was forced to flee, fearing for his safety. By the time things calmed down, Burr had lost what remained of his political support in New York and within the Jeffersonian party.

Burr's plot

As if killing a political enemy was not enough, Burr continued his involvement in questionable activities. In 1806 his plot to gain power in western territories was uncovered. About a year before the duel with Hamilton, Burr had begun to plan to create an independent nation. Burr planned to do so either by invading and taking over Spanish territory near the area that would later become Florida or by separating the Mississippi Valley from the rest of America. Burr met with several political and military leaders in order to win support. He even tried to get funding from England, but failed and turned to private sources.

In August 1806 Burr began building support in the Ohio Valley. President Jefferson found out about Burr's activities and sent out a warning to western officials telling them to carefully watch Burr's moves. The president also warned American citizens not to participate in his plan. Meanwhile, Burr and about one hundred followers moved south along the Ohio River. The plot came to an end when Burr was trapped between the Ohio militia and forces in New Orleans. He fled to Mobile, Alabama, but was arrested a few miles from Spanish Florida.

A patriot on trial

For his plans in the west, Burr was charged with the high misdemeanor, or serious offense, of launching a military expedition against the Spanish Territory. For his attempt to separate parts of the United States, Burr was also charged with treason, the betrayal of one's own country. The high misdemeanor charge was dropped and Burr was found innocent of treason.

Although he was legally a free man and the charges against him had been dropped, Burr's political career was finished. For the next several years he wandered through Europe, where he tried without success to gain support for a revolution in Mexico, to free the Spanish colonies, and to start a war between England and the United States.

After Burr returned to America in 1812, ill and financially ruined, he attempted to reestablish his career in law. For a time he was moderately successful. Then a tragedy in his personal life occurred in December 1812, when his cherished daughter Theodosia died at sea.

The years passed, and by 1830 Burr was heavily dependent on friends for financial support. Over the next several years, a series of strokes left him paralyzed and completely dependent on his cousin's care. Burr died on Staten Island, New York, on Sept. 14, 1836.

For More Information

Kennedy, Roger G. Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Melton, Buckner F., Jr. Aaron Burr: Conspiracy to Treason. New York: Wiley, 2001.

Rogow, Arnold A. A Fatal Friendship: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. New York: Hill and Wang, 1998.

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Burr, Aaron

Burr, Aaron 1756-1836


Grandson of Jonathan Edwards and son of the second president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), Aaron Burr seemingly showed great promise. He sided with the revolutionary cause and served with courage and skill in various campaigns. The real leadership skills he displayed, however, were overshadowed by George Washingtons (and Alexander Hamiltons) distrust, which somehow Burr earned in his first contacts with Washington. After the American Revolution he began a career in law and quickly became immersed in politics. His political views, to the extent that they are known, tended toward radical republicanism. Burr was a vigorous opponent of slavery early in his career, and he supported expanding the rights of women. But his enlightened views were tarnished by his ambition and political opportunism. He was elected to the Senate in 1791, where he served one undistinguished term. He was included on the Republican ticket in 1800 in order to secure a victory in New York, where he had created an effective political machine. The outcome of the election plunged the nation into crisis because Burr received the same number of electoral votes as Jefferson. Rather than step aside, as might have been expected from someone who was almost universally held to be the vice-presidential candidate, Burr forced the election into the House of Representatives. Jefferson was eventually victorious in the House, but by then his suspicions of Burr had hardened into hatred and for the next four years he simply ignored his vice president. Burr did preside with competence and fairness over the Senate, including the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase.

Hamilton had thrown his political weight behind Jefferson in the struggle of 1800. Again in 1804 Hamilton worked actively to thwart Burrs campaign to become governor of New York. Burr had had enough. He and Hamilton met on the dueling field on July 11, 1804. Hamiltons death at Burrs hands was the death knell for Burrs conventional political career. He then embarked on the unconventional political career in the American Southwest that would see him charged with treason. The goals of Burrs extensive and well-documented efforts to put together a private military force remain unclear. Did he mean to dismember the Union? Or did he mean only to subvert Spains empire? Were his goals in some way republican? Or would he have preferred to become the Napoléon of the Southwest? Would he have liberated slaves in the territories he conquered? Was he indifferent among these alternatives?

Significant doubts remain regarding the answers to all of these questions. Burrs own most unequivocal statement as to his intentions came late in his life when, after the Battle of San Jacinto paved the way for an independent Texas, he is said to have remarked, I was only thirty years too soon. What was treason in me thirty years ago is patriotism today. Whatever the case, rumors of Burrs plans swept the country and, after a period of inaction, Jefferson pursued Burr ruthlessly. He had Burr captured and charged with the capital offense of treason. A spectacular and controversial trial followed. Chief Justice John Marshall strictly construed the constitutional provisions on treason. Only an overt act of levying war against the United States witnessed by two persons could amount to treason. The jury found that Burrs various plans and meetings fell short of this standard and rendered a verdict of not guilty. After the trial Burr left for Europe, where he spent four years and continued to seek support for his southern scheme.

The rest of Burrs life was sad and uneventful. Burr had admirers such as Andrew Jackson, and impressive figures such as Marshall and John Jay did not view Burr with the same hostility as did Jefferson and Hamilton. Yet it is hard not to conclude that Burr was an anomaly in his generation. When many Americans thought they were walking with history, Burr seemed strangely detached from the great republican experiment that was going on around him. This is perhaps one key reason why his life is full of extraordinary episodes but his lasting contributions are negligible.

SEE ALSO American Revolution; Hamilton, Alexander; Jefferson, Thomas; Nationalism and Nationality; Nation-State; Republicanism


Freeman, Joanne. 2001. Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Lomask, Milton. 19791982. Aaron Burr. 2 vols. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Melton, Buckner F., Jr. 2002. Aaron Burr: Conspiracy to Treason. New York: Wiley.

Rogow, Arnold. 1999. A Fatal Friendship: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. New York: Hill and Wang.

Peter McNamara

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Burr, Aaron

Aaron Burr, 1756–1836, American political leader, b. Newark, N.J., grad. College of New Jersey (now Princeton).

Political Career

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.

Accusation of Treason

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); R. K. Newmyer, The Treason Trial of Aaron Burr (2012).

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Burr, Aaron

Burr, Aaron (1756–1836) US statesman, vice president (1801–05). A veteran of the American Revolution, Burr was senator for New York (1791–97). His contribution to the formation of a Republican legislature in New York (1800), ensured the election of a Republican president. Burr was meant to become vice president, but confusion in the electoral college resulted in a tie for president between Burr and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was elected with the support of Alexander Hamilton. This mix-up led to the adoption of the 12th Amendment to the US Constitution. Burr proved an able vice president and was nominated for governor of New York. Hamilton led public attacks on Burr's suitability, which resulted in a duel (1804). Burr killed Hamilton and his political career was effectively ended. Embittered, he embarked on an apparent conspiracy to establish an independent republic in sw USA. Burr was tried for treason, but acquitted in 1807.

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