Aaron Burr (United States, 1756-36)

Figure 1.--.

Aaron Burr was the second vice-president of the United States. He surely is the most enigmatic figure in American history. Some describe him as the most dangerous man in American industry. He was a war hero and brilliant lawyer. He became influential in the New York Democratic-Republican Party where he contested elections with Federalist leader Alexander Hamilton. He was elected New York senator (1791). A defect in the Constitution provide him an opportunity to seize the presidency from Democratic Republican presidential candidate Thomas Jefferson in one of the key elections in American history (1800). He was twarted when Federalist leader Alexander Hamilton threw his support to Jffereson--his great rival. The simmering dispute between Burr and Hamilton, led Burr to challenge Hamiltin to a duel resulting in Hamilton's death (1804). A plan to seize Spanish North America led to one of the most famous trials in American history--the Burr Treason trial (1807). He was acquitted and lived in England for a time. He eventually returned to New York to practice law (1812).


aron Burr came from a well-established and educated family. His father was Reverend Aaron Burr, Sr., not only a Presbyterian minister, but the second second president of the College of New Jersey in Newark. This rapidly became one of the most prestigious educational institutions in colonial America. The College moved to Princeton, the year Aaron was born (1756). We know the school today as Princeton University. His mother was Esther Edwards, a well-educated woman in her own right. He father was Jonathan Edwards, the noted Calvinist theologian.


Aaron was born in Newark, New Jersey (1756), We know very little about his childhood, except that he would have grown up in a family with highly educated and religious parents. He had a sister, Sarah, who would eventually marry Tapping Reeve, the founder of the Litchfield Law School in Litchfield, Connecticut. Tragedy struck the young family. Aaron's father died before the boy was 2 years old (1757). His mother died a year later (1758). This left Aaron and Sarah orphans. Their grandfather, Jonathan Edwards and his wife Sarah, also died in that same year. The children temprarily lived with the William Shippen family in Philadelphia. Timothy Edwards, their uncke, finally took in Aaron and his sister. That must have been quite a life change for a 21-year old bachelor. Edwards married Rhoda Ogden the following year and moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey (1760). Rhoda brought with her a younger brother, Matthias. Aaron and Matthias soon became fast playmates and lifelong friends.


We do not know much about Aaron's early education, but he was clearly a clever boy. He was admitted to the College of New Jersey in Princeton at age 13 years. Thatws a little young, but the modern age conventions were not established at the time. He was awarded Bachelor of Arts degree just beforecthe Revolutionary War (1772). He decided to study law with Tapping Reeve who had marrued his sister (1774). At the time, law schools were not well established. Prospector lawyers would stufy la and work as clerks with established lawyers. It is at this time that reports were published in the Litchfield papers about clashes between militias and Britishj soldiers at Lexington and Concord in nearby Massachusetts. As soon as he learned that George Washington was organizing a Continental Army, the young Burr enlisted.


After enlisting in the Continental Army, Burr was part of Colonel Benedict Arnold's epic expedition to Quebec. This was one of the most demanding American operations of the War. The Americans at the time assumed that the Canadians were also disenchanted with the British and ready go join the Revolution. Arnold's invasion of Quebec involved crissing through 300 miles of wilderness (morthern Maine). When they reached Quebec City, Arnold ordred Burr to move up the Saint Lawrence River and make contact with General Richard Montgomery, who had taken Montreal. The two joined firces and returned to uebec. Montgomery was impressed with Burr and promoted him to captain and made the young vofficer his aide-de-camp. Montgomery was killed in the attempt during a driving snow storm to seize Quebec City (December 31, 1775). Burr distinguished himself in the action. The defeated army somehow manage a trek back to America in the dead oif winter. Report's of Burr's courage made him a national hero. General Washington added him to his staff in Manhattan before the British launched their offensive (1776). That did not last long. Burr resigned after only 2 weeks. He explained he wanted a battlefield position. Some believed the hot-headed Burr may have been to assertive and irritated Washington. There is, however, no documented evidence that Washington then distrusted him. General Israel Putnam took Burr under his command. Again Burr destinguished himself, saving an entire brigade when the Continental Aemy vretreated from lower Manhattan to Harlem. (Ironically Alexander Hamilton was one of the officers under his command in that brigade.) Washington did not commend Burr's actions in the next day's General Orders. Such commendations were how Continental officers often rose in rank. Burr was already a national hero, but never was commended by Washington. Burr was reportedly infuriated which may have been a factor in the estrangement between him and General Washington.


The military phase of the Revolutionary War ended at Yorktown (1781). The following year Burr married Theodosia Bartow Prevost, the widow of Jacques Marcus Prevost (1782). Her former husband was a British army officer who had died in the West Indies during the Revolutionary War. Burr and his new wife moved to New York City, where he soon developed the reputation as a brilliant trial lawyer. Theodosia's died stomach cancer (1794). Only one of their children survived birth--a daughter named Theodosia (1783- ). Burr was devoted to her. He also was a strong believer in gender equality, a rare view at the time. As a result, Theodosia was give a strong classical education. She learned the classics, foreign languages, horsemanship and music. Theodosia became something of a celeberity as a result of her education and accomplishments. She married Joseph Alston of South Carolina (1801). They had a son who tragically died of fever at the age od 10 years. Theodosia died under mysterious circumstances (winter 1812-13). This was of course during the War of 1812. American shipping had tonoperate under dangerous conditions to evade the Royal Navy. Accounts vary, some believe there was a shipwreck and others allege piracy. Burr's devotion to Theodosia was probably a factor in the Duel with Hamilton. It is widely believed that Hamilton made scandelous charges about the relationship between Burrn and his daughter. This was why Burr was outraged and demanded satisfaction in duel. It is now believed that Burr had two illegitimate children with Mary Emmons, a servant who he never married. The children were Louisa Charlotte (1788- ) and John Pierre Burr (1792- ). His wife Theodosia was still alive at the time. Burr at the time was living away from his wife while serving in the state assembly located in Albany.

Law pracice

Burr practiced Law in New York and acuired a reputation as a highly comptent trial lawyer.

Political Beliefs

Hamilton believed Burr to be a dangerous man without honor or morl coinviction. We are not sure just why he belived this. As fr as we know he never subtantuiated such charges, but instead made scabndolus ccusatiins. Of course Burr's subsequent behavior adds some substabce to the charges. It is also true, however, tht he w a man before his times. He was an early proponent iof gender equality which we can see in his family life. He was also an outspoken opponent of slavery. Neither of these position were common at the time and oukd not have auded him politically.

New York Politics

Burr like many other lkawyers gravitated toward politics. His status as a war herobenhanced his political appeal. He became influential in the New York Democratic-Republican Party where he contested elections with Federalist leader Alexander Hamilton. He was elected New York senator (1791). He ws both brilliant and charismatic. He had a meteric rise in Republican politics. It is here that he first became involved in bitter political disputes with Alexander Hamilton, a fixture in the Ne York Federalist Party. Burr had a fairly conventionl political record until he was chosen by The Republicans to run for vice-president. His ability to help win New York's electoral votes was a major factor. It was also the beginning of a serioes of dishonorable exploits.

Presidential Election (1800)

The election of 1800 between incumbent Federalist President John Adams and Democratic-Republican Leader Thomas Jefferson was one of the critical elections in American history. It was the first change of power from one party to another which is a defining moment in an republic. It is one of the reasons why monarchy survived for so long. It provided a regulrized way of transferring power. Burr emerged as one of the most enigmatic figure in American history during the election. He played a key role in the election as New York was such an important state. A defect in the Constitution, however, provide him an opportunity to seize the presidency from Democratic Republican presidential candidate Thomas Jefferson in one of the key elections in American history (1800). Burr who was nominated the Democratic-Republican vice presidetial candidated, declined to defer to Jefferson, the party's presidential candidate. In essence through a flaw in the Constitution Later rectified by the 12th amendment) was trying to cheat Jefferson out of the presidency, He was twarted when Federalist leader Alexander Hamilton threw his support to Jeffereson--his great rival. Burr as a result was selected by the House of Represenatives as the second vice-president of the United States, what the Democratic-Republicans had intended.

Vice President (1801-05)

President Jeffereson, as a result of the Electorl College affair, oustrasized Vice President Burr and refused to allow him to play any role in the new administration. The Constitution gives the Vice President virtually no responsibilities other than presiding over the Seante. But as the Democratic-Republicans had a commanding majority, this responsibility was of little importance. A biographer writes, "Burr's joy is Theo and Aaron: his joy is politics. And his political fortunes are declning, from causes he cnnot control. Jeffersob once assailed political parties as inimical to the public interest, but the Virgiian has proven himselfan adept, even ruthless, party leader. He exploits Burr's deftness in delivering New York in the 1800 election, but now prefers Madison, a man more after his on tastes and over whom he expects to wiekd more influence. Though relations between Jefferson and Burr remain personally polite, the president employs the patrinage and other perquisites of office to advance Madison's prospects and retard Burrs." [Brands] Burr as a result of the Electoral College affair had also lost any influence in the New York state Democratic-Republican Party. His political career was thus ruined.

Duel with Hamilton (1804)

The simmering conflict between Burr and Hamilton finally exploded. Articles about him by Hamilton pub;ished in newspapers led Burr to challenge Hamiltin to a duel. This resulting in Hamilton's death (1804). Hamilton was such an important figure in the American Revolution and as first Secretary of the TRreasury that Burr as villanized in the popular mind after the duel. This may be just and it reveals an aspect of Burrs character toward dealing with his rivals. In fainess though, journalistic ethics at the time were non-existant and Hamilton engaged in inflamatory personal attacks against Burr.

Western Military Expedition (1805-06)

With his reputation ruined and his political career in New York gone, Burr decided to seek his future in the West. Here historians can only speculate. Some believe that he was the most dangerous man in American history. The American Republic ws still very young and institutiins as wekl as acceopted conventions still developing. There is no doubt that Burr attempted to otganize a military expedition against Spain ans seize thenorthern portion of Spanish Mexico (the modern American Southwest). At the time, the United States had just purchased Louisana a few yeas earlier and the American presence beyond the Mississippi was virtually non existent. Spanin head norther Mexico very weakly. He discussed the expedition with American military officers like General Wilkinson. He also spoke with Andrew Jackson who was at the gime a rising star in Tennessee. What is in dispute, however, is just what his intentions were. He does not seem to have shared his full plan with anyone or set in down on paper. It is widely believed, however, that he was plotting a secession of western states and territories. He clerly had wanted to be president and might have been if he had not challenged Jefferson in 1800. Here was the opportunity to be the president of a new western republic if not emperor, but his true intentions are not known with any certainty. One historian writes, "While pirsuing these western dreams, Burr made conflicting statements about his intentions. A few times he said he wished to unseat Jeffersonas the hhead of the government. At other times , he said he aimed at the separation of the western states from the rest of the country. More odten, he said he intended to take control of New Orleansand 'revolutionize' Mexico and Spanish America. And when he faced the gallows in a Richmond courtroom, he insisted he was a simple settler of the American frointier." [Stewart] The truth will never be known with any certainty, but the most likely case is all were true. His intentions probably changed over time as events carened from one opportunity to another. One is clearly not true was that he was simple Western settler.

Treason Trial (1807)

The plan to seize Spanish North America led to one of the most sensational trials in American history--the Burr Treason trial (1807). The Jefferson Admiistration which despised Burr because of his attempt to seize the presidency in 1800 had ample reason to asuspect a plot that went far beyond invading Spanish Mexico. The Admonisration accused him of treson and chared hathecwas planning to foment rebellion in the Western states and declare himself king. Burr denied the accusations and charged that the Jefferson Administration was conducting a political vendetta against him. There were several problems in trying him for treson. First, he seems to have been careful to leac=ve a minimal pper trail. Second, while treason is an instanly recognizable term, it is not very clearly defined in the new Federal Constitution. And the trial trned on juust what treason meant. The Administration contended tht mere discussion and conspiracy constituted treason. Chief Justice John Marshall, another Jefferson opponent, found that conviction requied an overt act. Marshall was a Federalist appointment and after the 1800 electin, the Federalist dominated judiciary was the only important political opposition to the Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans. The trial proved to be a klandmark case in American jurisprudence. And the definition of treason was just one matter. American as a very new country. The law of evidence in trials was not well established. The procecutors along with documentary evidence, introduced hearsay, rumor, and questinable documents. Chief Justice Marshall's rulings on the admissability of ecidence the procecutors attempted to introduce would become the foundation on which modern rules of evidence are based. [Hoffer] This further fuled the animosity between President Jefferson and Chief Justice Marshall. Burr was acquitted.

Later Life

Burr moved to England after his trason trial and lived their for a time. He eventually returned to New York to practice law (1812).


Brands, H.W. The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr (2012), p. 192.

Hoffer, Peter Charles. The Treason Trials of Aaron Burr.

Stewart, David O. American Emperor: Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America (2011),, 432p.


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Created: 4:42 AM 10/24/2008
Last updated: 5:53 AM 5/6/2012