Aaron Burr Biography: Third Vice President of the United States
Arron Burr was born in Newark, New Jersey, on February 6, 1756, with an illustrious lineage. Burr’s father, a Presbyterian minister and second president of the College of New Jersey, came from a long line of English gentry. Burr’s mother was Ester Edwards, daughter of the esteemed Calvinist theologian and New England’s foremost cleric, Jonathan Edwards. Though his upbringing was that of privilege, tragedy came early as he lost his parents at age two and, along with this sister, went to live with his uncle, the Reverend Timothy Edwards, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
Burr was a very bright young man and at the age of 13 he enrolled at the College of New Jersey, which is now Princeton University. After only three years, he graduated summa cum laude with a degree. After college, he briefly studied for the ministry and realized that wasn’t his calling; instead, he attended Litchfield Law School in Connecticut.
The outbreak of the Revolutionary War interrupted his studies and in 1775 Burr joined the Continental Army where he served under Benedict Arnold in their expedition to Quebec. Advancing quickly through the ranks, he achieved the rank of major by the spring of 1776. He was assigned to serve under George Washington at his home in New York. In June of 1776, Burr became the aide-de-camp to General Israel Putnam, at which he conducted himself admirably in the battle of Long Island and the evacuation of New York City. The following year, Burr joined William Malcolm’s “additional” regiment in the Hudson Valley and spent the cold winter at Valley Forge before returning north to guard the American border against the British and their loyalist allies. After four years of service, Burr resigned as a lieutenant colonel due to his failing health in March 1779.
In the fall of 1780 he had recovered his health and returned to school to finish his degree in law. By 1782, he had become a licensed attorney and was admitted to the bar. Shortly after being admitted to the bar in New York, he married a widow named Theodosia Prevost. She was ten years his senior and had five children from a previous marriage. The following year, Theodosia gave birth to the couple’s only child, named after her mother.
Lawyer and Politician
Burr initially set up his law practice in Albany, New York, and then moved to New York City, where he would practice law for the next six years. Legal work was plentiful for Burr during the period following the war, as many legal documents had to be revised to comply with new American laws. In New York City, Burr had to vie for prime clients with a prominent young lawyer named Alexander Hamilton. Burr was a proficient lawyer, a man who went straight to the nub of the matter. “As a lawyer and scholar Burr was not inferior to Hamilton,” insisted their mutual acquaintance General Erastus Root. “His reasoning powers were at least equal. Their modes of argument were very different…I used to say of them, when they were rivals at the bar, that Burr would say as much in half an hour as Hamilton in two hours. Burr was terse and convincing, while Hamilton was flowing and rapturous.” Though Burr earned a very comfortable living as one of the city’s top lawyers, he had a bad habit of squandering his money and constantly found himself involved in some sort of speculative schemes to pay for his self-indulgences.
At the time, New York politics was dominated by two groups, the anti-Federalists or Republicans led by George Clinton, the governor of the state, and the opposing faction, the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton. Burr aligned himself with Clinton and was appointed attorney general of New York. Seeking a more powerful office, Burr defeated General Philip Schuyler, Alexander Hamilton’s father-in-law, for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1791. This marked the beginning of a rivalry between Hamilton and Burr that would go on for over a decade. After Burr’s six-year term in the Senate was complete, he ran again against Schuyler but lost this time. Burr accused Hamilton of ruining his reputation and turning voters against him.
In 1794, Burr would suffer a tragedy when his wife died after a two-year long illness. Her death left Burr to care for their ten-year-old daughter.
Returning to New York and politics, he won a seat in the state assembly, only to lose it when his financial speculations became public. During his time in politics, Burr was able to build a powerful political group of supporters centered around the St. Tammany Society of city mechanics, and a small group of well-to-do young men were attached to his political views and his personal charisma. His political maneuverings allowed him to secure the position as Jefferson’s vice-presidential candidate in the election of 1800.
The election of 1800 exposed one of the flaws in the original Constitution, where members of the Electoral College were authorized to vote for two names for president to avoid a tie. The Democratic-Republicans had planned for one of the electors to abstain from casting his second vote for Aaron Burr, which would give Thomas Jefferson an additional vote. Their plan went astray and each elector who voted for Jefferson also voted for Burr, resulting in a tie between Jefferson and Burr. In 1804, the problem with the election method was resolved by the Twelfth Amendment, which allowed separate votes for the vice president and president.
Without a clear winner, the vote was thrown into the Federalist-controlled House of Representatives. After a lot of debate and trickery, and thirty-five tie ballots, Hamilton, who viewed Burr as an unprincipled rogue, convinced some Federalists who had supported Burr to turn in blank ballots rather than vote for either candidate on the Republican side. This move on Hamilton’s side gave the victory to Jefferson, which enraged Burr.
Burr’s term as vice president didn’t start well as his personal, financial, and political problems caused him to miss the first weeks of the opening session of the Seventh Congress and his initiation as presiding officer of the Senate. In New York, Burr’s old adversary George Clinton was elected to another term as governor in May 1801. His personal life would suffer another blow as his beloved daughter Theodosia was married to Joseph Alston, a wealthy young planter who took her away to his home in South Carolina. His financial situation wasn’t any better, and by November, he was looking for a buyer for his Manhattan estate, Richmond Hill.
Nearing the end of Burr’s term as vice president, Jefferson made it clear to him that he would not be running mate in the 1804 presidential election; rather, Jefferson had chosen George Clinton. With Clinton tied up running for vice president with Jefferson, this meant that Clinton could not seek another term as governor of New York. Burr set about attempting to restore his political reputation in New York and prepared for the gubernatorial race. Running against Burr was a fellow Jeffersonian, Judge Morgan Lewis, who billed himself as a “Genuine Republican.” The campaign was bitter, filled with maliciousness and insinuation. Burr suffered a bruising defeat in the May election. The following month, Burr, hearing rumors that Alexander Hamilton had espoused disparaging remarks during the election at his expense, demanded an expiation from Hamilton, which he refused. For ten days Burr and Hamilton exchanged notes via mutual friends, with no resolution. It soon became apparent that nothing but a duel would settle the matter of honor.
Duel with Alexander Hamilton
Dueling was illegal in many parts of the country but that didn’t stop Burr and Hamilton from meeting in Weehawken, New Jersey, on the morning of July 11, 1804. The two faced off and Hamilton deliberately shot high to avoid hitting Burr and to end the duel without bloodshed. Burr’s shot was dead on, however, hitting Hamilton in the abdomen. Hamilton was immediately rushed to a friend’s house in New York, where he died the next day. Burr, still the vice president of the United States, fled New York, taking refuge in Philadelphia with friends and then sailing to West Florida and South Carolina and staying into the late fall.
Returning north, Burr was in his chair in the Senate chamber for the opening day of business in November 1804. Federalists were furious at the sight of Hamilton’s killer presiding over the Senate, while his friends in Congress were circulating a letter to the governor of New Jersey asking that the state’s murder indictment against Burr be dropped. Burr finished his term as vice president with quiet dignity and gave his farewell address to the Senate on March 2, which would be his last public address as a government official.
The duel with Hamilton and the loss of the race for governor brought Burr’s political and legal career effectively to an end. After his retirement as vice president, Burr asked Jefferson for a position within the government, but Jefferson refused, claiming that the nation had lost confidence in him. With his financial and political career in shambles in the East, Burr had a vision of a new career in the recently purchased province of Louisiana. The French population in the region was unhappy under the American regime and war with Spanish-held Mexico was threatened over a boundary dispute.
One version of Burr’s scheme was to detach the states west of the Allegheny Mountains from the Union and join them to Louisiana and Mexico to form an empire with New Orleans as its capital and presumably Burr as the leader. Burr also sought aid from Britain and Spain, knowing that both countries would like to have a claim on the western United States. General James Wilkinson, commander of U.S. forces in the Southwest and governor of the Louisiana Territory, who had known Burr since their days serving in the Revolutionary War, was an early ally of Burr. The scheme was very elaborate and Burr was forced to tell many different versions of his plan; hence, the plot was never fully organized. In August 1806, Burr set out for the Kentucky frontier where a band of sixty men had gathered to sail down the Mississippi River to stir the Creoles in New Orleans into revolt. Wilkerson, already at New Orleans, apparently realized that conditions were not right and the venture was destined to fail. Not wanting to be drug further into this doomed scheme, Wilkinson turned on Burr and notified President Jefferson that he was leading his troops to New Orleans to stop Burr’s plot.
Once President Jefferson learned of Burr’s plans, he immediately called for his arrest. Burr was tracked down and arrested in Alabama and brought to trial on charges of treason in Virginia. Presiding over the trial was the chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall. Marshall was no fan of Burr, as Marshall and Hamilton had been friends years before. Since there was not enough evidence to convict Burr of treason, the charges were lowered to a high misdemeanor. Burr was found innocent and went free.
Between the duel with Hamilton and trial for treason, Burr became persona non grata in the United States and spent the next four years traveling throughout Europe. While in Europe, he attempted unsuccessfully to garner support for a revolution in Mexico and freeing the Spanish colonies. In 1812, Burr gave up his plans and returned to New York in defeat. This year would be exceptionally bad for him when in July he learned that his only grandchild, Theodosia’s son, had died. Stricken with grief, Theodosia set sail in December to be with her father—and was never heard from again.
By this point, Burr was in his mid-50s, broke, with few friends, and no direct family as he set about rebuilding his law career from scratch. Though he found some success in his law practice, he became increasingly financially dependent on this friends for support. Maybe for financial reasons or maybe for love, but late in life, Burr married a wealthy widow, Eliza Jumel. The marriage only lasted a year and after that his health began to fail. In 1836, he moved to a boarding home on Staten Island where his Edwards kin could supervise his care. He suffered multiple strokes that left him partially paralyzed and Aaron Burr died on September 14, 1836. He was buried next to his parents in the Princeton Cemetery.
Stewart, David O. American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. 2011.
Purcell, L. Edward (editor). Vice Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary, Updated Edition. Checkmark Books. 2001.
West, Doug Alexander Hamilton:A Short Biography. C & D Publications, 2016.