Aaron Burr

February 6, 1756–September 14, 1836

Aaron Burr (1756–1836) was a U.S. Senator and Vice President of the United States under Thomas Jefferson. Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in an infamous duel in 1804. He was also tried and acquitted of treason against the United States for allegedly trying to establish a separate empire in the southwest.

Aaron Burr. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

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Aaron Burr Quick Facts

  • Date of Birth: Burr was born on February 6, 1756, in Newark, New Jersey.
  • Parents: His parents were Aaron Burr Sr. and Esther Edwards.
  • Date of Death: Burr died on September 14, 1836, in Staten Island, New York.
  • Fun Fact: His maternal grandfather was the famous “fire and brimstone” preacher, Jonathan Edwards.

Who was Aaron Burr?

Aaron Burr was born on February 6, 1756, in Newark, New Jersey, His father, the Reverend Aaron Burr Sr., was a co-founder and then second president of the College of New Jersey — Princeton University. His mother,  Esther Edwards Burr was the daughter of the famous New England theologian Jonathan Edwards. Both of his parents died when Burr was just three years old, and he was raised by his uncle, the Reverend Timothy Edwards. Despite the loss of his parents, Burr rose to prominence following the American Revolutionary War and served as the third Vice President of the United States under President Thomas Jefferson. However, Burr’s career is mixed due to his political fighting with prominent men like Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Burr famously shot Hamilton in a duel in 1804, which led to Hamilton’s death. Burr was then involved in a conspiracy to form an independent government in the South. 

Early Life

Burr’s family moved from Newark to Princeton when his father was named president of the college. After his father died in 1757, his grandfather, Jonathan Edwards, came to live with the family. The famous pastor and orator died in 1758, as did Burr’s mother and grandmother. Burr enrolled at Princeton in 1769 at the age of 13 and graduated with honors in 1772. After studying theology for a time, Burr opted to study the law under Tapping Reeve, founder of the Litchfield Law School in Litchfield, Connecticut.

American Revolutionary War

Three years later, Burr’s studies were interrupted by the onset of the American Revolutionary War. He secured a letter of recommendation from John Hancock — who was President of the Continental Congress at the time — and joined the Continental Army.

Burr volunteered for Benedict Arnold’s Expedition to Quebec (September 13–November 9, 1775). During the brutal expedition, he served as a scout and messenger for General Arnold. According to most sources, Burr retrieved the body of General Richard Montgomery after he was killed in action in the early stages of the Battle of Quebec.

Battle of Quebec, Death of Richard Montgomery, Trumbull
This painting depicts the death of Richard Montgomery. Image Source: Wikipedia.

In 1776, Burr served on the staff of General George Washington while the Continental Army was in New York City. Burr was reassigned to the command of General Israel Putnam and served as an aide-de-camp. 

Burr saw action at the Battle of Long Island and the Battle of Monmouth. He was also with the Continental Army at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778. On January 4, 1777, he was commissioned as Lieutenant Colonel of Malcolm’s Regiment — at the age of 21. His regiment was stationed at Orange County, New York.

Resignation and Return to New York

Citing poor health and exhaustion, Burr resigned from the Continental Army on March 3, 1779. He resumed his legal studies and was admitted to the New York Bar in January 1782.

Marriage

A few months later, he married Theodosia Bartow Prevost, the widow of a British officer, who was 10 years older than him and also had five children. In 1782, he married Mrs. Theodosia Bartow Prevost, a widow who was ten years older than him. They were married for 12 years before she passed away. 

They had one daughter together, also named Theodosia. She was born in 1783 and died at sea in 1813. Although the fate of the ship she was on is not known, many theories speculate it was attacked by pirates.

New York Politics and Beginnings of the Feud with Hamilton

After establishing a successful legal practice in Albany, Burr moved to New York City in 1783 — after British forces evacuated — and gradually worked his way into New York politics. He gained a reputation for himself as a prominent lawyer and political figure and was associated with the Tammany Society — which eventually became the political machine known as Tammany Hall. 

In 1789, New York Governor, George Clinton named him Attorney General, launching his political career. Along the way, Burr developed a rivalry with Alexander Hamilton that may have started when Burr ran for the United States Senate against Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler. Burr won the election and served as New York’s Senator to the United States Congress from 1791 to 1797.

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Alexander Hamilton, Portrait
Alexander Hamilton. Image Source: Wikipedia.

In 1799, Burr founded the Bank of the Manhattan Company, which competed with Hamilton’s Bank of New York. While Hamilton was associated with the powerful Federalist Party, Burr was known to favor giving loans to supporters of the Democratic-Republican Party.

Presidential Election of 1796

After one six-year term in the Senate, Burr ran for president in 1796 and again in 1800. At that time, political parties did not run campaigns for a full ticket — President and Vice-President. The person with the most Electoral Votes was the President and the runner-up was Vice-President — regardless of a political party. Founding Father John Adams won the 1796 election and Burr finished fourth, 

Presidential  Election of 1800

In 1800, the popularity of both Adams and the Federalist Party was waning. The Adams Administration was plagued by troubles with France that led to the XYZ Affair, the Quasi-War, the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the publication of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves, which laid the foundation for the concept of nullification.

The Election of 1800 introduced the ticket system, with one candidate for President and another for Vice-President. Thomas Jefferson ran for President, and Burr ran for Vice-President — both as members of the Democratic-Republican Party. 

However, the Electoral College system was not modified, so Electors still cast votes as though both were running for President. As a result, Jefferson and Burr tied for first place with 73 Electoral Votes each. Jefferson may have expected Burr to step aside and concede the Presidency, as the party intended. However, Burr stayed the course, and let the House of Representatives decide the outcome. After 35 votes, the tie was broken in the House of Representatives, which selected Jefferson as President, and Burr as Vice President. The incident led Jefferson to distrust Burr.

The 12th Amendment changed the electoral process, so Electoral College votes are cast for President and Vice President. The Amendment was passed by Congress on December 9, 1803, and ratified on June 15, 1804.

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Vice President

From that point on, Burr’s relationship with Jefferson was strained. As a result, Jefferson essentially pushed Burr off to the side. Burr was not consulted about political appointments or invited to participate in councils. As a result, he began to look to the Federalists for his own future. When Jefferson ran for reelection, Burr was dropped from the ticket and replaced by Governor George Clinton from New York. However, he was still determined to complete his term as Vice President.

Burr’s Duel with Hamilton

Still serving as Vice President, Burr ran for Governor of New York. During the campaign, Hamilton, Clinton, and other party leaders opposed him. Burr lost the election to Morgan Lewis, and he blamed his defeat on Hamilton.

In April, some letters were published in the Albany newspaper that printed some of the things Hamilton allegedly said about Burr. In response, Burr sent a letter to Hamilton, asking him to explain himself. Hamilton refused to deny or admit to anything, which infuriated Burr and led him to challenge Hamilton to a duel.

Dueling was outlawed in New York, so the two met at Weehawken, New Jersey, along the bank of the Hudson River on July 11, 1804. It was near to the spot where Hamilton’s son, Philip, had been killed in a duel in 1801. Both men fired on each other, and Hamilton was struck just above the hip. The wound was mortal.

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Historians disagree about the events of the duel. There are theories that Hamilton fired and missed on purpose. 

Regardless, Burr’s shot passed through Hamilton’s liver and spine, and he was paralyzed. Hamilton was taken to the home of William Bayard Jr. for medical attention. Hamilton died there on July 12, 1804, at 2:00 in the afternoon.

Burr fled to South Carolina at first and then made his way back to Philadelphia, before returning to Washington to finish his term as Vice President. He was charged with murder, but the charges were eventually dropped. 

The incident damaged Burr’s political career and reputation, however, he was not done doing damage to his aspirations.

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Hamilton Burr Duel, Illustration
This illustration depicts the duel between Burr and Hamilton. Burr is on the right. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Aaron Burr’s Conspiracy

After his term as Vice President ended in 1805, Burr began to scheme to invade Spanish territory in the Southwest and to separate certain western areas from the United States. He traveled throughout the country, possibly to find support for his scheme. Everywhere he went, rumors spread that he intended to form a separate government, but nothing was substantiated.

In May 1805, he met with Harman Blennerhassett, who owned a small island in the Ohio River that is near present-day Parkersburg, West Virginia. Blennerhassett apparently offered Burr financial support and the use of Blennerhassett Island as a place to keep men, supplies, and weapons. From there, Burr went to Nashville, where he spent four days as a guest of General Andrew Jackson.

By June, Burr was at Fort Massac in the Louisiana Territory. He met with the Governor, James Wilkinson. From that point on, Wilkinson was one of Burr’s most important contacts. What Burr was not aware of was Wilkinson was actually working as a spy for New Spain, collecting a monthly stipend.

In September 1806, Burr started storing supplies at Blennerhassett Island. From there, he returned to Nashville, met with Jackson, and then made an agreement to buy around 350,000 acres of land — known as the Bastrop Tract — in present-day Louisiana from Felipe Enrique Neri, a Dutch businessman who called himself Baron de Bastrop. 

In November, Burr, Blennerhassett, and some of the other leaders of the conspiracy met in Lexington, Kentucky. Rumors were swirling in the Kentucky newspapers that many Democratic-Republicans, including U.S. Attorney General John Breckinridge and U.S. District Judge Harry Innes were involved in Burr’s plot. The local district attorney asked for a court order to have Burr appear before a Grand Jury to answer questions about his actions and intentions. Although the court refused to grant the order, Burr appeared before the Grand Jury voluntarily. Burr was represented during his questioning by a young lawyer — Henry Clay.

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General James Wilkinson, Illustration
James Wilkinson. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Soon after, Jefferson sent agents to investigate the rumors that were circling about Burr and his plot. Wilkinson saw his own scheme was in jeopardy, so he informed President Jefferson of Burr’s plan. Wilkinson’s messenger met with Jefferson on November 25, 1806. Following the meeting, Jefferson issued a proclamation that said a plot was being implemented to attack Spanish territories. He ordered all participants to be apprehended.

A week later, on December 5, the Grand Jury in Kentucky determined there was not enough evidence against Burr to charge him, and he was free to leave the state.

On December 9, Ohio Governor Edward Tiffin sent the Ohio Militia to raid the island. Blennerhassett and any conspirators on the island fled, leaving everything behind. 

Burr went on the run and was captured in late January 1807. However, a Grand Jury in the Mississippi Territory refused to bring charges against him. He was set free and fled to Alabama. He was arrested again on February 19 and eventually taken to Richmond where he appeared before Chief Justice John Marshall. Although Marshall believed there was probable cause that Burr was conspiring with a foreign nation, he did not think there was probable cause that he committed treason

Burr’s trial started on August 3, 1807. On September 1, he was acquitted of all charges against him. However, by 1808, Clay was convinced Burr had misled him, and that he was indeed guilty of the charges. Clay wrote “Col. Burr has supplied much fund of conversation. No doubt is now entertained here of his having engaged in schemes of the most daring and illegal kind. Having left Kentucky under a belief that he was innocent, it was with no little surprise upon my arrival here that I found that I had been deceived…”

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Henry Clay, Portrait, Brady
Henry Clay. Image Source: Library of Congress.

The entire incident is still controversial, and historians are not in agreement as to what Burr’s true intentions were. There have even been theories presented that Wilkson was actually working as a double agent with Jefferson on a scheme to spy on the Spanish in the southwest. Although that is also unproven, some historians point to an expedition led by Zebulon Pike as evidence. Wilkinson sent Pike to explore the Southwest and Pike and some of his men drifted into Spanish territory and were arrested. While Pike was held prisoner in the Chihuahua Province, he gathered intelligence. He studied maps and learned Mexico was unhappy with Spanish rule. This information may have been used by Burr or by the United States to seed dissension among Mexicans against the Spanish.

Later Years and Death

Following the trial, Burr then spent several years abroad, trying to rebuild his reputation and finances. He returned to the United States in 1812, but his reputation never fully recovered. He died in 1836, in obscurity.

Interesting Facts About Aaron Burr

  • Graduated from Princeton University in 1772.
  • Served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution.
  • Admitted to New York State bar in 1782.
  • Elected to United States Senate in 1791.
  • Tied Thomas Jefferson with 73 Electoral College votes in the presidential election of 1800.
  • Electoral College chose Jefferson over Burr as U.S. President on February 17, 1801.
  • Sworn in as U.S. Vice President on March 4, 1801.
  • Killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel at Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11, 1804.
  • Planned private military operations against Mexico from 1804 through 1806.
  • Tried and acquitted of treason in 1807 for attempting to form a republic in the southwest.
  • Buried at Princeton Cemetery, Princeton, N.J.

Aaron Burr’s Famous Quotes

“The rule of my life is to make business a pleasure, and pleasure my business.”

“Never do today what you can as well do tomorrow, because something may occur to make you regret your premature action.”

“Go West, young man.”

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Significance of Aaron Burr

Aaron Burr is important to United States history for his participation in the Patriot Cause of the American Revolution. However, he will always be most remembered for his role in the death of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton and his supposed plot to form an independent government.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Aaron Burr
  • Coverage February 6, 1756–September 14, 1836
  • Author
  • Keywords aaron burr, vice president, senator, revolutionary war officer, duel with alexander hamilton, senator
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date January 27, 2023
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 26, 2023

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