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Aaron Burr’s Notorious Treason Case


In the summer of 1807, the city of Richmond, Virginia, played host to one of the most remarkable trials in early American history. The case involved several legal luminaries, but its undisputed star was the defendant, 51-year-old Aaron Burr. The New Jersey native had only recently served as Thomas Jefferson’s vice president, but since then his reputation had been marred by political intrigue and his participation in a duel that had left Alexander Hamilton dead. Burr now stood accused of one of the gravest crimes in American law: treason. According to one account, he had been at the heart of a “deep, dark, and wicked conspiracy” against the young United States.

What was the nature of the plot that had seen Burr charged with treason? Even today, many details of the scheme remain hazy. “Too many people told too many different stories, and too many people had things to hide,” historian Buckner F. Melton has written. What is known is that Burr worked to raise a small army on the American frontier. He may have hoped to lead an independent campaign against Spanish-held territories in Texas and Mexico, but it’s also possible that he planned to wrest a portion of the newly acquired frontier from the United States. According to some contemporaries, Burr had designs on founding a new western nation with himself as its emperor.

Burr’s enigmatic conspiracy appears to have originated in 1804—the same year that he shot Alexander Hamilton dead in Weehawken, New Jersey. At the time, Burr’s career was in shambles. Political parties had shunned him, Thomas Jefferson had dropped him as vice president, and the Hamilton duel had left him with potential murder indictments hanging over his head. Desperate to remake his name, the former Continental Army colonel began plotting a grand military enterprise on the American frontier. After making contact with a British foreign minister named Anthony Merry, Burr floated the idea that Louisiana and other territories west of the Appalachians might be persuaded to secede from the United States. That August, Merry sent a dispatch to London in which he reported that Burr had offered “to lend his assistance to His Majesty’s Government in any manner in which they may think fit to employ him, particularly in endeavoring to effect a separation of the Western part of the United States from that which lies between the Atlantic and the mountains.”

Britain never took Burr up on his offer—Merry’s letter wouldn’t resurface for decades—but the former vice president continued to plot. In early 1805, he journeyed west and spent several months traveling the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers while scouting territory and recruiting supporters. During one stopover, he met with Harman Blennerhassett, a wealthy Irish immigrant who owned an island in the Ohio River. Upon reaching New Orleans, he made contact with a society of businessmen who favored the annexation of Mexico. Burr’s allies eventually included dozens of frontier politicians and adventurers, but his most important co-conspirator was General James Wilkinson, the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. Army. Wilkinson had a reputation for duplicity—it would later come to light that he was a paid agent for the Spanish—but he also had vast resources at his disposal. With his frontier troops, he could serve as official cover for any military operations in Mexico or the West.

Burr was careful not to reveal the full extent of his plans to any of his potential recruits, but his movements didn’t go unnoticed. He had attracted attention wherever he traveled on the frontier, and by the time he returned to the East Coast in late 1805, the media was abuzz with rumors. One Philadelphia paper speculated that Burr would soon be “at the head of a revolution party.” It also referenced reports that he planned to “engage in the reduction of Mexico” with the aid of “British ships and forces.”

Despite the controversy beginning to swirl around him, Burr forged ahead with his mysterious plan. In August 1806, he struck out for the frontier a second time and made his way to Blennerhassett’s island, which he intended to use as a rallying point for his forces. Around that same time, he allegedly sent a coded letter to General Wilkinson. “I have at length obtained funds,” it read, “and have actually commenced.”

Wilkinson received the letter that October, but unfortunately for Burr, the general had lost his nerve. Convinced the scheme would fail, Wilkinson betrayed the plot and sent warning to President Thomas Jefferson that a vast conspiracy was brewing in the West. Jefferson was left fuming. He immediately issued a proclamation instructing government officials to quash the frontier plot and arrest its ringleaders.

By December 1806, the noose had begun to tighten around Burr. Militia groups raided his outpost at Blennerhassett’s island while he was away on business, and many of his supporters abandoned the enterprise. Burr had hoped to raise an army of volunteers, but when he finally rendezvoused with his force, it numbered fewer than 100 men. Undeterred, the former vice president packed the adventurers into flatboats and set out down the Mississippi. He intended to reach New Orleans, but as he neared the city in early 1807, he learned of Wilkinson betrayal and Jefferson’s calls for his arrest. Following a last-ditch attempt to flee, Burr was captured in February near present day Mobile, Alabama. By late March, a posse of guards had brought him to Virginia to face trial.

Almost no one in 1807 knew for sure what Burr had been up to on the frontier, but President Jefferson demanded that he be charged with treason—a crime punishable by death. The case of United States v. Aaron Burr commenced that summer in Richmond. With Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall presiding, prosecutors spent several months presenting witnesses against the former vice president. The accounts were often muddled and contradictory, but the prosecution maintained that Burr had been the mastermind behind an attempt to levy war against the United States. “He was the Alpha and Omega of this treasonable scheme,” lawyer Alexander MacRae proclaimed during one speech, “the very body and soul, the very life of this treason.”

Burr and his team of lawyers—which included two former U.S. attorneys general—mounted a robust defense against the charges. Not only did they prove that Wilkinson had doctored the cipher letter he allegedly received from Burr, they argued that the definition of treason outlined in the Constitution required evidence of an “overt act” from the accused. When Chief Justice Marshall ruled in favor of this interpretation of the law, the prosecution’s case crumbled. Burr had repeatedly spoken about various illegal schemes, but since he had been absent when his troops gathered on Blennerhassett’s island—the only “overt act” that could be proved—there was no evidence that he had taken up arms against the government. With this in mind, the jury found him not guilty of treason.

Burr walked free in October 1807, but the debate surrounding his actions in the West has continued ever since. Some historians believe he was mounting a filibustering expedition against Mexico and Texas, while others contend that he had more sinister hopes of fomenting a revolution on the frontier. Burr’s own claim at trial was that he was planning to colonize a tract of land in Louisiana, but given his intense secrecy, his true motives may never be known for certain. “Reaching a final judgment on Burr is difficult,” author David O. Stewart has written. “The confusion has persisted because he had several alternative goals, and because he said so many different things to so many different people.”

Despite his victory in court, Burr was branded a villain in the United States and hanged in effigy in several cities. The disgraced political titan later spent a few years in self-imposed exile in Europe, but returned home in 1812 and established a legal practice in New York, where he lived until his death in 1836. To this day, he remains one of the only major American politicians to have been tried for treason.


Aaron Burr’s Notorious Treason Case

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On May 22, 1807, former US Vice President Aaron Burr was tried for treason in Richmond, Virginia (acquitted). From the article:

"Aaron Burr’s Notorious Treason Case
In the summer of 1807, the city of Richmond, Virginia, played host to one of the most remarkable trials in early American history. The case involved several legal luminaries, but its undisputed star was the defendant, 51-year-old Aaron Burr. The New Jersey native had only recently served as Thomas Jefferson’s vice president, but since then his reputation had been marred by political intrigue and his participation in a duel that had left Alexander Hamilton dead. Burr now stood accused of one of the gravest crimes in American law: treason. According to one account, he had been at the heart of a “deep, dark, and wicked conspiracy” against the young United States.

What was the nature of the plot that had seen Burr charged with treason? Even today, many details of the scheme remain hazy. “Too many people told too many different stories, and too many people had things to hide,” historian Buckner F. Melton has written. What is known is that Burr worked to raise a small army on the American frontier. He may have hoped to lead an independent campaign against Spanish-held territories in Texas and Mexico, but it’s also possible that he planned to wrest a portion of the newly acquired frontier from the United States. According to some contemporaries, Burr had designs on founding a new western nation with himself as its emperor.

Burr’s enigmatic conspiracy appears to have originated in 1804—the same year that he shot Alexander Hamilton dead in Weehawken, New Jersey. At the time, Burr’s career was in shambles. Political parties had shunned him, Thomas Jefferson had dropped him as vice president, and the Hamilton duel had left him with potential murder indictments hanging over his head. Desperate to remake his name, the former Continental Army colonel began plotting a grand military enterprise on the American frontier. After making contact with a British foreign minister named Anthony Merry, Burr floated the idea that Louisiana and other territories west of the Appalachians might be persuaded to secede from the United States. That August, Merry sent a dispatch to London in which he reported that Burr had offered “to lend his assistance to His Majesty’s Government in any manner in which they may think fit to employ him, particularly in endeavoring to effect a separation of the Western part of the United States from that which lies between the Atlantic and the mountains.”

Britain never took Burr up on his offer—Merry’s letter wouldn’t resurface for decades—but the former vice president continued to plot. In early 1805, he journeyed west and spent several months traveling the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers while scouting territory and recruiting supporters. During one stopover, he met with Harman Blennerhassett, a wealthy Irish immigrant who owned an island in the Ohio River. Upon reaching New Orleans, he made contact with a society of businessmen who favored the annexation of Mexico. Burr’s allies eventually included dozens of frontier politicians and adventurers, but his most important co-conspirator was General James Wilkinson, the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. Army. Wilkinson had a reputation for duplicity—it would later come to light that he was a paid agent for the Spanish—but he also had vast resources at his disposal. With his frontier troops, he could serve as official cover for any military operations in Mexico or the West.

Burr was careful not to reveal the full extent of his plans to any of his potential recruits, but his movements didn’t go unnoticed. He had attracted attention wherever he traveled on the frontier, and by the time he returned to the East Coast in late 1805, the media was abuzz with rumors. One Philadelphia paper speculated that Burr would soon be “at the head of a revolution party.” It also referenced reports that he planned to “engage in the reduction of Mexico” with the aid of “British ships and forces.”

Despite the controversy beginning to swirl around him, Burr forged ahead with his mysterious plan. In August 1806, he struck out for the frontier a second time and made his way to Blennerhassett’s island, which he intended to use as a rallying point for his forces. Around that same time, he allegedly sent a coded letter to General Wilkinson. “I have at length obtained funds,” it read, “and have actually commenced.”

Wilkinson received the letter that October, but unfortunately for Burr, the general had lost his nerve. Convinced the scheme would fail, Wilkinson betrayed the plot and sent warning to President Thomas Jefferson that a vast conspiracy was brewing in the West. Jefferson was left fuming. He immediately issued a proclamation instructing government officials to quash the frontier plot and arrest its ringleaders.

By December 1806, the noose had begun to tighten around Burr. Militia groups raided his outpost at Blennerhassett’s island while he was away on business, and many of his supporters abandoned the enterprise. Burr had hoped to raise an army of volunteers, but when he finally rendezvoused with his force, it numbered fewer than 100 men. Undeterred, the former vice president packed the adventurers into flatboats and set out down the Mississippi. He intended to reach New Orleans, but as he neared the city in early 1807, he learned of Wilkinson betrayal and Jefferson’s calls for his arrest. Following a last-ditch attempt to flee, Burr was captured in February near present day Mobile, Alabama. By late March, a posse of guards had brought him to Virginia to face trial.

Almost no one in 1807 knew for sure what Burr had been up to on the frontier, but President Jefferson demanded that he be charged with treason—a crime punishable by death. The case of United States v. Aaron Burr commenced that summer in Richmond. With Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall presiding, prosecutors spent several months presenting witnesses against the former vice president. The accounts were often muddled and contradictory, but the prosecution maintained that Burr had been the mastermind behind an attempt to levy war against the United States. “He was the Alpha and Omega of this treasonable scheme,” lawyer Alexander MacRae proclaimed during one speech, “the very body and soul, the very life of this treason.”

Burr and his team of lawyers—which included two former U.S. attorneys general—mounted a robust defense against the charges. Not only did they prove that Wilkinson had doctored the cipher letter he allegedly received from Burr, they argued that the definition of treason outlined in the Constitution required evidence of an “overt act” from the accused. When Chief Justice Marshall ruled in favor of this interpretation of the law, the prosecution’s case crumbled. Burr had repeatedly spoken about various illegal schemes, but since he had been absent when his troops gathered on Blennerhassett’s island—the only “overt act” that could be proved—there was no evidence that he had taken up arms against the government. With this in mind, the jury found him not guilty of treason.

Burr walked free in October 1807, but the debate surrounding his actions in the West has continued ever since. Some historians believe he was mounting a filibustering expedition against Mexico and Texas, while others contend that he had more sinister hopes of fomenting a revolution on the frontier. Burr’s own claim at trial was that he was planning to colonize a tract of land in Louisiana, but given his intense secrecy, his true motives may never be known for certain. “Reaching a final judgment on Burr is difficult,” author David O. Stewart has written. “The confusion has persisted because he had several alternative goals, and because he said so many different things to so many different people.”

Despite his victory in court, Burr was branded a villain in the United States and hanged in effigy in several cities. The disgraced political titan later spent a few years in self-imposed exile in Europe, but returned home in 1812 and established a legal practice in New York, where he lived until his death in 1836. To this day, he remains one of the only major American politicians to have been tried for treason."


Contents

Early life

Aaron Burr Jr. was born in 1756 in Newark, New Jersey, as the second child of the Reverend Aaron Burr Sr., a Presbyterian minister and second president of the College of New Jersey, which became Princeton University. His mother Esther Edwards Burr was the daughter of noted theologian Jonathan Edwards and his wife Sarah. [2] [3] Burr had an older sister Sarah ("Sally"), who was named for her maternal grandmother. She married Tapping Reeve, founder of the Litchfield Law School in Litchfield, Connecticut. [4]

Burr's father died in 1757 while serving as president of the college at Princeton. Burr's grandfather, Jonathan Edwards, succeeded Burr's father as president and came to live with Burr and his mother in December 1757. Edwards died in March 1758 and Burr's mother, and grandmother also died within the year, leaving Burr and his sister orphans when he was two years old. [2] [3] Young Aaron and Sally were then placed with the William Shippen family in Philadelphia. [5] In 1759, the children's guardianship was assumed by their 21-year-old maternal uncle Timothy Edwards. [2] [3] The next year, Edwards married Rhoda Ogden and moved the family to Elizabeth, New Jersey. Burr had a very strained relationship with his uncle, who was often physically abusive. As a child, he made several attempts to run away from home. [3] [6]

At age 13, Burr was admitted to Princeton as a sophomore, where he joined the American Whig Society and the Cliosophic Society, the college's literary and debating societies. [7] In 1772, he received his Bachelor of Arts degree at age 16, but continued studying theology at Princeton for an additional year. He then undertook rigorous theological training with Joseph Bellamy, a Presbyterian, but changed his career path after two years. At age 19, he moved to Connecticut to study law with his brother-in-law Tapping Reeve. [8] In 1775, news reached Litchfield of the clashes with British troops at Lexington and Concord, and Burr put his studies on hold to enlist in the Continental Army. [9]

Revolutionary War

During the American Revolutionary War, Burr took part in Colonel Benedict Arnold's expedition to Quebec, an arduous trek of more than 300 miles (480 km) through the frontier of Maine. Arnold was impressed by Burr's "great spirit and resolution" during the long march. He sent him up the Saint Lawrence River to contact General Richard Montgomery, who had taken Montreal, and escort him to Quebec. Montgomery then promoted Burr to captain and made him an aide-de-camp. Burr distinguished himself during the Battle of Quebec on December 31, 1775, where he attempted to recover Montgomery's corpse after he had been killed. [10]

In the spring of 1776, Burr's stepbrother Matthias Ogden helped him to secure a position with George Washington's staff in Manhattan, but he quit on June 26 to be on the battlefield. [11] General Israel Putnam took Burr under his wing, and Burr saved an entire brigade from capture after the British landing in Manhattan by his vigilance in the retreat from lower Manhattan to Harlem. Washington failed to commend his actions in the next day's General Orders, which was the fastest way to obtain a promotion. Burr was already a nationally known hero, but he never received a commendation. According to Ogden, he was infuriated by the incident, which may have led to the eventual estrangement between him and Washington. [12] [13] Nevertheless, Burr defended Washington's decision to evacuate New York as "a necessary consequence." It was not until the 1790s that the two men found themselves on opposite sides in politics. [14]

Burr was briefly posted in Kingsbridge during 1776, at which time he was charged with protecting 14-year-old Margaret Moncrieffe, the daughter of Staten Island-based British Major Thomas Moncrieffe. Miss Moncrieffe was in Manhattan "behind enemy lines" and Major Moncrieffe asked Washington to ensure her safe return there. Burr fell in love with Margaret, and Margaret's attempts to remain with Burr were unsuccessful. [15]

In late 1776, Burr attempted to secure Washington's approval to retake fortifications held by the British on Staten Island, citing his deep familiarity with the area. Washington deferred taking such actions until possibly later in the conflict (which ultimately were not attempted). The British learned of Burr's plans and afterwards took extra precautions. [16]

Burr was promoted to lieutenant colonel in July 1777 and assumed virtual leadership of Malcolm's Additional Continental Regiment. [17] There were approximately 300 men under Colonel William Malcolm's nominal command, but Malcolm was frequently called upon to perform other duties, leaving Burr in charge. [17] The regiment successfully fought off many nighttime raids into central New Jersey by Manhattan-based British troops who arrived by water. Later that year, Burr commanded a small contingent during the harsh winter encampment at Valley Forge, guarding "the Gulph," an isolated pass that controlled one approach to the camp. He imposed discipline and defeated an attempted mutiny by some of the troops. [18]

Burr's regiment was devastated by British artillery on June 28, 1778, at the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey, and Burr suffered heatstroke. [19] In January 1779, he was assigned to Westchester County, New York in command of Malcolm's Regiment, a region between the British post at Kingsbridge, Bronx and that of the Americans about 15 miles (24 km) to the north. This district was part of the more significant command of General Alexander McDougall, and there was much turbulence and plundering by lawless bands of civilians and by raiding parties of ill-disciplined soldiers from both armies. [20]

In March 1779, due to continuing bad health, Burr resigned from the Continental Army. [21] He renewed his study of law. Technically, he was no longer in the service, but he remained active in the war he was assigned by General Washington to perform occasional intelligence missions for Continental generals, such as Arthur St. Clair. On July 5, 1779, he rallied a group of Yale students at New Haven, Connecticut, along with Captain James Hillhouse and the Second Connecticut Governor's Guards, in a skirmish with the British at the West River. [22] The British advance was repulsed, forcing them to enter New Haven from Hamden, Connecticut. [22]

Marriage to Theodosia Bartow Prevost

Burr met Theodosia Bartow Prevost in August 1778 while she was married to Jacques Marcus Prevost, a Swiss-born British officer in the Royal American Regiment. [23] In Prevost's absence, Burr began regularly visiting Theodosia at The Hermitage, her home in New Jersey. [24] Although she was ten years older than Burr, the constant visits provoked gossip, and by 1780 the two were openly lovers. [25] In December 1781, he learned that Prevost had died in Jamaica of yellow fever. [26]

Theodosia and Aaron Burr were married in 1782, and they moved to a house on Wall Street in Lower Manhattan. [27] After several years of severe illness, Theodosia died in 1794 from stomach or uterine cancer. Their only child to survive to adulthood was Theodosia Burr Alston, born in 1783.

Law and politics

Despite his wartime activities, Burr finished his studies and was admitted to the bar at Albany, New York in 1782, the year of his marriage. He began practicing law in New York City the following year after the British evacuated the city. [27]

Burr served in the New York State Assembly from 1784 to 1785. In 1784 as an assemblyman, Burr unsuccessfully sought to abolish slavery immediately following the American Revolutionary War. [28] Also, he continued his military service as a lieutenant colonel and commander of a regiment in the militia brigade commanded by William Malcolm. [29] He became seriously involved in politics in 1789, when George Clinton appointed him as New York State Attorney General. He was also Commissioner of Revolutionary War Claims in 1791. In 1791, he was elected by the legislature as a Senator from New York, defeating incumbent General Philip Schuyler. He served in the Senate until 1797.

Burr ran for president in the 1796 election and received 30 electoral votes, coming in fourth behind John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Pinckney. [30] He was shocked by this defeat, but many Democratic-Republican electors voted for Jefferson and no one else, or for Jefferson and a candidate other than Burr. [31] (Jefferson and Burr were again candidates for president and vice president during the election of 1800. Jefferson ran with Burr in exchange for Burr working to obtain New York's electoral votes for Jefferson. [31] )

President John Adams appointed Washington as commanding general of U.S. forces in 1798, but he rejected Burr's application for a brigadier general's commission during the Quasi-War with France. Washington wrote, "By all that I have known and heard, Colonel Burr is a brave and able officer, but the question is whether he has not equal talents at intrigue." [32] Burr was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1798 and served there through 1799. [33] During this time, he cooperated with the Holland Land Company in gaining passage of a law to permit aliens to hold and convey lands. [34] National parties became clearly defined during Adams' Presidency, and Burr loosely associated himself with the Democratic-Republicans. However, he had moderate Federalist allies such as Senator Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey.

New York City politics

Burr quickly became a key player in New York politics, largely due to the power of the Tammany Society (which became Tammany Hall). Burr converted it from a social club into a political machine to help Jefferson reach the presidency, particularly in crowded New York City. [35]

In September 1799, Burr fought a duel with John Barker Church, whose wife Angelica was the sister of Alexander Hamilton's wife Elizabeth. Church had accused Burr of taking a bribe from the Holland Company in exchange for his political influence. Burr and Church fired at each other and missed, and afterward, Church acknowledged that he was wrong to have accused Burr without proof. Burr accepted this as an apology, and the two men shook hands and ended the dispute. [36]

In 1799, Burr founded the Bank of the Manhattan Company, and the enmity between him and Hamilton may have arisen from how he did so. Before the establishment of Burr's bank, the Federalists held a monopoly on banking interests in New York via the federal government's Bank of the United States and Hamilton's Bank of New York. These banks financed operations of significant business interests owned by aristocratic members of the city. Hamilton had prevented the formation of rival banks in the city. Small businessmen relied on tontines to buy property and establish a voting voice (at this time, voting was based upon property rights). Burr solicited support from Hamilton and other Federalists under the guise that he was establishing a badly needed water company for Manhattan. He secretly changed the application for a state charter at the last minute to include the ability to invest surplus funds in any cause that did not violate state law, [37] and dropped any pretense of founding a water company once he had gained approval. Hamilton and other supporters believed that he had acted dishonorably in deceiving them. Meanwhile, construction was delayed on a safe water system for Manhattan, and writer Ron Chernow suggests that the delay may have contributed to deaths during a subsequent malaria epidemic. [38]

Burr's Manhattan Company was more than a bank it was a tool to promote Democratic-Republican power and influence, and its loans were directed to partisans. By extending credit to small businessmen, who then obtained enough property to gain the franchise, [ clarification needed ] , the bank was able to increase the party's electorate. Federalist bankers in New York responded by trying to organize a credit boycott of Democratic-Republican businessmen. [ citation needed ]

1800 presidential election

In the 1800 city elections, Burr combined the political influence of the Manhattan Company with party campaign innovations to deliver New York's support for Jefferson. [39] In 1800, New York's state legislature was to choose the presidential electors, as they had in 1796 (for John Adams). Before the April 1800 legislative elections, the State Assembly was controlled by the Federalists. The City of New York elected assembly members on an at-large basis. Burr and Hamilton were the key campaigners for their respective parties. Burr's Democratic-Republican slate of assemblymen for New York City was elected, giving the party control of the legislature, which in turn gave New York's electoral votes to Jefferson and Burr. This drove another wedge between Hamilton and Burr. [40]

Burr enlisted the help of Tammany Hall to win the voting for selection of Electoral College delegates. He gained a place on the Democratic-Republican presidential ticket in the 1800 election with Jefferson. Though Jefferson and Burr won New York, he and Burr tied for the presidency overall, with 73 electoral votes each. Members of the Democratic-Republican Party understood they intended that Jefferson should be president and Burr vice president, but the tied vote required that the final choice be made by the House of Representatives, with each of the 16 states having one vote, and nine votes needed for election. [41]

Publicly, Burr remained quiet and refused to surrender the presidency to Jefferson, the great enemy of the Federalists. Rumors circulated that Burr and a faction of Federalists were encouraging Republican representatives to vote for him, blocking Jefferson's election in the House. However, solid evidence of such a conspiracy was lacking, and historians generally gave Burr the benefit of the doubt. In 2011, however, historian Thomas Baker discovered a previously unknown letter from William P. Van Ness to Edward Livingston, two leading Democratic-Republicans in New York. [42] Van Ness was very close to Burr—serving as his second in the next duel with Hamilton. As a leading Democratic-Republican, Van Ness secretly supported the Federalist plan to elect Burr as president and tried to get Livingston to join. [42] Livingston agreed at first, then reversed himself. Baker argues that Burr probably supported the Van Ness plan: "There is a compelling pattern of circumstantial evidence, much of it newly discovered, that strongly suggests Aaron Burr did exactly that as part of a stealth campaign to compass the presidency for himself." [43] The attempt did not work, due partly to Livingston's reversal, but more to Hamilton's vigorous opposition to Burr. Jefferson was elected president, and Burr vice president. [44] [45]

Vice presidency

Jefferson never trusted Burr. He was effectively shut out of party matters. As Vice-President, Burr earned praise from some enemies for his even-handed fairness and his judicial manner as President of the Senate he fostered some practices for that office that have become time-honored traditions. [46] Burr's judicial manner in presiding over the impeachment trial of Justice Samuel Chase has been credited as helping to preserve the principle of judicial independence that was established by Marbury v. Madison in 1803. [47] One newspaper wrote that Burr had conducted the proceedings with the "impartiality of an angel, but with the rigor of a devil". [48]

Burr's farewell speech on March 2, 1805 [49] moved some of his harshest critics in the Senate to tears. [50] But the 20-minute speech was never recorded in full, [ citation needed ] and has been preserved only in short quotes and descriptions of the address, which defended the United States of America's system of government. [49]

Duel with Hamilton

When it became clear that Jefferson would drop Burr from his ticket in the 1804 election, the Vice President ran for Governor of New York instead. Burr lost the election to little known Morgan Lewis, in what was the most significant margin of loss in New York's history up to that time. [51] Burr blamed his loss on a personal smear campaign believed to have been orchestrated by his party rivals, including New York governor George Clinton. Alexander Hamilton also opposed Burr, due to his belief that Burr had entertained a Federalist secession movement in New York. [52] In April, the Albany Register published a letter from Dr. Charles D. Cooper to Philip Schuyler, which relayed Hamilton's judgment that Burr was "a dangerous man and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government," and claiming to know of "a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr". [53] In June, Burr sent this letter to Hamilton, seeking an affirmation or disavowal of Cooper's characterization of Hamilton's remarks. [54]

Hamilton replied that Burr should give specifics of Hamilton's remarks, not Cooper's. He said he could not answer regarding Cooper's interpretation. A few more letters followed, in which the exchange escalated to Burr's demanding that Hamilton recant or deny any statement disparaging Burr's honor over the past 15 years. Hamilton, having already been disgraced by the Maria Reynolds adultery scandal and mindful of his reputation and honor, did not. According to historian Thomas Fleming, Burr would have immediately published such an apology, and Hamilton's remaining power in the New York Federalist party would have been diminished. [55] Burr responded by challenging Hamilton to a duel, personal combat under the formalized rules for dueling, the code duello.

Dueling had been outlawed in New York the sentence for conviction of dueling was death. It was illegal in New Jersey as well, but the consequences were less severe. On July 11, 1804, the enemies met outside Weehawken, New Jersey, at the same spot where Hamilton's oldest son had died in a duel just three years prior. Both men fired, and Hamilton was mortally wounded by a shot just above the hip. [56]

The observers disagreed on who fired first. They did agree that there was a three-to-four-second interval between the first and the second shot, raising difficult questions in evaluating the two camps' versions. [57] Historian William Weir speculated that Hamilton might have been undone by his machinations: secretly setting his pistol's trigger to require only a half-pound of pressure as opposed to the usual 10 pounds. Weir contends, "There is no evidence that Burr even knew that his pistol had a trigger set". [58] Louisiana State University history professors Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein concur with this. They note that "Hamilton brought the pistols, which had a larger barrel than regular dueling pistols, and a secret hair-trigger, and were therefore much more deadly," [59] and conclude that "Hamilton gave himself an unfair advantage in their duel, and got the worst of it anyway." [59]

David O. Stewart, in his biography of Burr, American Emperor, notes that the reports of Hamilton's intentionally missing Burr with his shot began to be published in newspaper reports in papers friendly to Hamilton only in the days after his death. [60] [ page needed ] But Ron Chernow, in his biography, Alexander Hamilton, states Hamilton told numerous friends well before the duel of his intention to avoid firing at Burr. Additionally, Hamilton wrote several letters, including a Statement on Impending Duel With Aaron Burr [61] and his last missives to his wife dated before the duel, [62] which also attest to his intention. The two shots, witnesses reported, followed one another in close succession, and none of those witnesses could agree as to who fired first. Before the duel proper, Hamilton took a good deal of time getting used to the feel and weight of the pistol (which had been used in the duel at the same Weehawken site in which his 19-year-old son had been killed), as well as putting on his glasses to see his opponent more clearly. The seconds placed Hamilton so that Burr would have the rising sun behind him, and during the brief duel, one witness reported, Hamilton seemed to be hindered by this placement as the sun was in his eyes. [ citation needed ]

Each man took one shot, and Burr's shot fatally injured Hamilton, while Hamilton's shot missed. Burr's bullet entered Hamilton's abdomen above his right hip, piercing Hamilton's liver and spine. Hamilton was evacuated to the Manhattan home of a friend, William Bayard Jr., where he and his family received visitors including Episcopal bishop Benjamin Moore, who gave Hamilton Holy Communion. Burr was charged with multiple crimes, including murder, in New York and New Jersey, but was never tried in either jurisdiction. [ citation needed ]

He fled to South Carolina, where his daughter lived with her family, but soon returned to Philadelphia and then to Washington to complete his term as vice president. He avoided New York and New Jersey for a time, but all the charges against him were eventually dropped. In the case of New Jersey, the indictment was thrown out on the basis that, although Hamilton was shot in New Jersey, he died in New York. [ citation needed ]

Conspiracy and trial

After Burr left the vice-presidency at the end of his term in 1805, he journeyed to the Western frontier, areas west of the Allegheny Mountains and down the Ohio River Valley eventually reaching the lands acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. Burr had leased 40,000 acres (16,000 ha) of land—known as the Bastrop Tract—along the Ouachita River, in present-day Louisiana, from the Spanish government. Starting in Pittsburgh and then proceeding to Beaver, Pennsylvania, and Wheeling, Virginia, and onward he drummed up support for his planned settlement, whose purpose and status was unclear. [63]

His most important contact was General James Wilkinson, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Army at New Orleans, and Governor of the Louisiana Territory. Others included Harman Blennerhassett, who offered the use of his private island for training and outfitting Burr's expedition. Wilkinson would later prove to be a bad choice. [64]

Burr saw war with Spain as a distinct possibility. In case of a war declaration, Andrew Jackson stood ready to help Burr, who would be in a position to join in immediately. Burr's expedition of about eighty men carried modest arms for hunting, and no war materiel was ever revealed, even when Blennerhassett Island was seized by Ohio militia. [65] The aim of his "conspiracy," he always avowed, was that if he settled there with a large group of armed "farmers" and war broke out, he would have a force with which to fight and claim land for himself, thus recouping his fortunes. [ citation needed ] However, the war did not come as Burr expected: the 1819 Adams–Onís Treaty secured Florida for the United States without a fight, and war in Texas did not occur until 1836, the year Burr died.

After a near-incident with Spanish forces at Natchitoches, Wilkinson decided he could best serve his conflicting interests by betraying Burr's plans to President Jefferson and his Spanish paymasters. Jefferson issued an order for Burr's arrest, declaring him a traitor before any indictment. Burr read this in a newspaper in the Territory of Orleans on January 10, 1807. Jefferson's warrant put Federal agents on his trail. Burr twice turned himself into Federal authorities, and both times judges found his actions legal and released him. [66]

Jefferson's warrant, however, followed Burr, who fled toward Spanish Florida. He was intercepted at Wakefield, in Mississippi Territory (now in the state of Alabama), on February 19, 1807. He was confined to Fort Stoddert after being arrested on charges of treason. [67]

Burr's secret correspondence with Anthony Merry and the Marquis of Casa Yrujo, the British and Spanish ministers at Washington, was eventually revealed. He had tried to secure money and to conceal his true design, which was to help Mexico overthrow Spanish power in the Southwest. Burr intended to found a dynasty in what would have become former Mexican territory. [46] This was a misdemeanor, based on the Neutrality Act of 1794, which Congress passed to block filibuster expeditions against U.S. neighbors, such as those of George Rogers Clark and William Blount. Jefferson, however, sought the highest charges against Burr.

In 1807, Burr was brought to trial on a charge of treason before the United States Circuit court at Richmond, Virginia. His defense lawyers included Edmund Randolph, John Wickham, Luther Martin, and Benjamin Gaines Botts. [68] Burr had been arraigned four times for treason before a grand jury indicted him. The only physical evidence presented to the Grand Jury was Wilkinson's so-called letter from Burr, which proposed the idea of stealing land in the Louisiana Purchase. During the Jury's examination, the court discovered that the letter was written in Wilkinson's handwriting. He said he had made a copy because he had lost the original. The Grand Jury threw the letter out as evidence, and the news made a laughingstock of the General for the rest of the proceedings. [ citation needed ]

The trial, presided over by Chief Justice of the United States John Marshall, began on August 3. Article 3, Section 3 of the United States Constitution requires that treason either be admitted in open court, or proven by an overt act witnessed by two people. Since no two witnesses came forward, Burr was acquitted on September 1, despite the full force of the Jefferson administration's political influence thrown against him. Burr was immediately tried on a misdemeanor charge and was again acquitted. [69]

Given that Jefferson was using his influence as president to obtain a conviction, the trial was a major test of the Constitution and the concept of separation of powers. Jefferson challenged the authority of the Supreme Court, specifically Chief Justice Marshall, an Adams appointee who clashed with Jefferson over John Adams' last-minute judicial appointments. Jefferson believed that Burr's treason was obvious. Burr sent a letter to Jefferson in which he stated that he could do Jefferson much harm. The case, as tried, was decided on whether Aaron Burr was present at certain events at certain times and in certain capacities. Thomas Jefferson used all of his influence to get Marshall to convict, but Marshall was not swayed. [ citation needed ]

Historians Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein write that Burr:

was not guilty of treason, nor was he ever convicted, because there was no evidence, not one credible piece of testimony, and the star witness for the prosecution had to admit that he had doctored a letter implicating Burr. [59]

David O. Stewart, on the other hand, insists that while Burr was not explicitly guilty of treason, according to Marshall's definition, evidence exists that links him to treasonous crimes. For example, Bollman admitted to Jefferson during an interrogation that Burr planned to raise an army and invade Mexico. He said that Burr believed that he should be Mexico's monarch, as a republican government was not right for the Mexican people. [70] Many historians believe the extent of Burr's involvement may never be known.

Exile and return

By the conclusion of his trial for treason, despite an acquittal, all of Burr's hopes for a political comeback had been dashed, and he fled America and his creditors for Europe. [71] Dr. David Hosack, Hamilton's physician and a friend to both Hamilton and Burr, loaned Burr money for passage on a ship. [72]

Burr lived in self-imposed exile from 1808 to 1812, passing most of this period in England, where he occupied a house on Craven Street in London. He became a good friend, even confidant, of the English Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and on occasion lived at Bentham's home. He also spent time in Scotland, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and France. Ever hopeful, he solicited funding for renewing his plans for a conquest of Mexico but was rebuffed. He was ordered out of England and Emperor Napoleon of France refused to receive him. [46] However, one of his ministers held an interview concerning Burr's goals for Spanish Florida or the British possessions in the Caribbean.

After returning from Europe, Burr used the surname "Edwards," his mother's maiden name, for a while to avoid creditors. With help from old friends Samuel Swartwout and Matthew L. Davis, Burr returned to New York and his law practice. Later he helped the heirs of the Eden family in a financial lawsuit. By the early 1820s, the remaining members of the Eden household, Eden's widow and two daughters, had become a surrogate family to Burr. [73]

Later life and death

Despite financial setbacks, after returning, Burr lived out the remainder of his life in New York in relative peace [74] until 1833.

On July 1, 1833, at age 77, Burr married Eliza Jumel, a wealthy widow who was 19 years younger. They lived together briefly at her residence which she had acquired with her first husband, the Morris-Jumel Mansion in the Washington Heights neighborhood in Manhattan. [75] Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is now preserved and open to the public. [76]

Soon after the marriage, she realized her fortune was dwindling due to Burr's land speculation losses. [77] She separated from Burr after four months of marriage. For her divorce lawyer, she chose Alexander Hamilton Jr., [78] and the divorce was officially completed on September 14, 1836, coincidentally the day of Burr's death. [79]

Burr suffered a debilitating stroke in 1834, [80] which rendered him immobile. On September 14, 1836, Burr died on Staten Island in the village of Port Richmond, in a boardinghouse that later became known as the St. James Hotel. [81] He was buried near his father in Princeton, New Jersey. [82]

In addition to his daughter Theodosia, Burr was the father of at least three other biological children, and he adopted two sons. Burr also acted as a parent to his two stepsons by his wife's first marriage, and he became a mentor or guardian to several protégés who lived in his home.

Burr's daughter Theodosia

Theodosia Burr was born in 1783, and was named after her mother. She was the only child of Burr's marriage to Theodosia Bartow Prevost who survived to adulthood. A second daughter, Sally, lived to the age of three. [83]

Burr was a devoted and attentive father to Theodosia. [83] Believing that a young woman should have an education equal to that of a young man, Burr prescribed a rigorous course of studies for her which included the classics, French, horsemanship, and music. [83] Their surviving correspondence indicates that he affectionately treated his daughter as a close friend and confidante as long as she lived.

Theodosia became widely known for her education and accomplishments. In 1801, she married Joseph Alston of South Carolina. [84] They had a son together, Aaron Burr Alston, who died of fever at age ten. During the winter of 1812–1813, Theodosia was lost at sea with the schooner Patriot off the Carolinas, either murdered by pirates or shipwrecked in a storm.

Stepchildren and protégés

Upon Burr's marriage, he became stepfather to the two teenage sons of his wife's first marriage. Augustine James Frederick Prevost (called Frederick) and John Bartow Prevost had both joined their father in the Royal American Regiment in December 1780, at the ages of 16 and 14. [23] When they returned in 1783 to become citizens of the United States, [23] Burr acted as a father to them: he assumed responsibility for their education, gave both of them clerkships in his law office, and frequently was accompanied by one of them as an assistant when he traveled on business. [85] John was later appointed by Thomas Jefferson to a post in the Territory of Orleans as the first judge of the Louisiana Supreme Court. [86]

Burr served as a guardian to Nathalie de Lage de Volude (1782–1841) from 1794 to 1801, during Theodosia's childhood. The young daughter of a French marquis, Nathalie had been taken to New York for safety during the French Revolution by her governess Caroline de Senat. [87] Burr opened his home to them, allowing Madame Senat to tutor private students there along with his daughter, and Nathalie became a companion and close friend to Theodosia. [88] While traveling to France for an extended visit in 1801, Nathalie met Thomas Sumter Jr., a diplomat and the son of General Thomas Sumter. [87] They married in Paris in March 1802, before returning to his home in South Carolina. From 1810 to 1821, they lived in Rio de Janeiro, [89] where Sumter served as the American ambassador to Portugal during the transfer of the Portuguese Court to Brazil. [90] One of their children, Thomas De Lage Sumter, was a Congressman from South Carolina. [87]

In the 1790s, Burr also took the painter John Vanderlyn into his home as a protégé, [91] and provided him with financial support and patronage for 20 years. [92] He arranged Vanderlyn's training by Gilbert Stuart in Philadelphia and sent him in 1796 to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris where he remained for six years. [93]

Adopted and acknowledged children

Burr adopted two sons, Aaron Columbus Burr and Charles Burdett, during the 1810s and 1820s after the death of his daughter Theodosia. Aaron (born Aaron Burr Columbe) was born in Paris in 1808 and arrived in America around 1815, and Charles was born in 1814. [73] [94] [95]

Both of the boys were reputed to be Burr's biological sons. A Burr biographer described Aaron Columbus Burr as "the product of a Paris adventure," conceived presumably during Burr's exile from the United States between 1808 and 1814. [95]

In 1835, the year before his death, Burr acknowledged two young daughters whom he had fathered late in his life, by different mothers. Burr made specific provisions for his surviving daughters in a will dated January 11, 1835, in which he left "all the rest and residue" of his estate, after other specific bequests, to six-year-old Frances Ann (born c. 1829 ), and two-year-old Elizabeth (born c. 1833 ). [96]

Unacknowledged children

In 1787 or earlier, Burr began a relationship with Mary Emmons, an East Indian woman who worked as a servant in his household in Philadelphia during his first marriage. [1] [97] [98] Emmons came from Calcutta to Haiti or Saint-Domingue, where she lived and worked before being brought to Philadelphia. [98] Burr fathered two children with Emmons, both of whom married into Philadelphia's "Free Negro" community in which their families became prominent:

  • Louisa Charlotte Burr (b. 1788) worked most of her life as a domestic servant in the home of Elizabeth Powel Francis Fisher, a prominent Philadelphia society matron, and later in the home of her son Joshua Francis Fisher. [97] She was married to Francis Webb (1788–1829), a founding member of the Pennsylvania Augustine Education Society, secretary of the Haytien Emigration Society formed in 1824, and distributor of Freedom's Journal from 1827 to 1829. [97] After his death, Louisa remarried and became Louisa Darius. [97] Her youngest son Frank J. Webb wrote the 1857 novel The Garies and Their Friends. [97] (c. 1792 –1864) became a member of Philadelphia's Underground Railroad and served as an agent for the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. He worked in the National Black Convention movement and served as chairman of the American Moral Reform Society. [98]

One contemporary of John Pierre Burr identified him as a natural son of Burr in a published account, [99] but Burr never acknowledged his relationship or children with Emmons during his life, in contrast to his adoption or acknowledgment of other children born later in his life. It is clear from letters, however, that Burr's three children (Theodosia, Louisa Charlotte, and John Pierre) developed a relationship that persisted to their adult life. [1]

In 2018, Louisa and John were acknowledged by the Aaron Burr Association as the children of Burr after Sherri Burr, a descendant of John Pierre, provided both documentary evidence and results of a DNA test to confirm a familial link between descendants of Burr and descendants of John Pierre. [100] [101] The Association installed a headstone at John Pierre's grave to mark his ancestry. Stuart Fisk Johnson, the president of the association, commented, "A few people didn’t want to go into it because Aaron’s first wife, Theodosia, was still alive, and dying of cancer. But the embarrassment is not as important as it is to acknowledge and embrace actual living, robust, accomplished children." [102]

Aaron Burr was a man of complex character who made many friends, but also many powerful enemies. He was indicted for murder after the death of Hamilton, but never prosecuted [103] he was reported by acquaintances to be curiously unmoved by Hamilton's death, expressing no regret for his role in the result. He was arrested and prosecuted for treason by President Jefferson, but acquitted. [104] Contemporaries often remained suspicious of Burr's motives to the end of his life, continuing to view him as untrustworthy at least since his role in the founding of the Bank of Manhattan. [ citation needed ]

In his later years in New York, Burr provided money and education for several children, some of whom were reputed to be his natural children. To his friends and family, and often to strangers, he could be kind and generous. The wife of the struggling poet Sumner Lincoln Fairfield recorded in her autobiography that in the late 1820s, their friend Burr pawned his watch to provide for the care of the Fairfields' two children. [105] Jane Fairfield wrote that, while traveling, she and her husband had left the children in New York with their grandmother, who proved unable to provide adequate food or heat for them. The grandmother took the children to Burr's home and asked his help: "[Burr] wept, and replied, 'Though I am poor and have not a dollar, the children of such a mother shall not suffer while I have a watch.' He hastened on this godlike errand, and quickly returned, having pawned the article for twenty dollars, which he gave to make comfortable my precious babes." [105]

By Fairfield's account, Burr had lost his religious faith before that time upon seeing a painting of Christ's suffering, Burr candidly told her, "It is a fable, my child there never was such a being." [106]

Burr believed women to be intellectually equal to men and hung a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft over his mantel. The Burrs' daughter, Theodosia, was taught dance, music, several languages, and learned to shoot from horseback. Until her death at sea in 1813, she remained devoted to her father. Not only did Burr advocate education for women, upon his election to the New York State Legislature, he submitted a bill, which failed to pass, that would have allowed women to vote. [107]

Conversely, Burr was considered a notorious womanizer. [ citation needed ] In addition to cultivating relationships with women in his social circles, Burr's journals indicate that he was a frequent patron of prostitutes during his travels in Europe he recorded brief notes of dozens of such encounters, and the amounts he paid. He described "sexual release as the only remedy for his restlessness and irritability". [108]

John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary when Burr died: "Burr's life, take it all together, was such as in any country of sound morals his friends would be desirous of burying in quiet oblivion." [109] Adams' father, President John Adams, had frequently defended Burr during his life. At an earlier time, he wrote, Burr "had served in the army, and came out of it with the character of a knight without fear and an able officer". [110]

Gordon S. Wood, a leading scholar of the revolutionary period, holds that it was Burr's character that put him at odds with the rest of the "founding fathers," especially Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton. He believed that this led to his personal and political defeats and, ultimately, to his place outside the golden circle of revered revolutionary figures. Because of Burr's habit of placing self-interest above the good of the whole, those men thought that Burr represented a serious threat to the ideals for which they had fought the revolution. Their ideal, as particularly embodied in Washington and Jefferson, was that of "disinterested politics," a government led by educated gentlemen. They would fulfill their duties in a spirit of public virtue and without regard to personal interests or pursuits. This was the core of an Enlightenment gentleman, and Burr's political enemies thought that he lacked that essential core. Hamilton thought that Burr's self-serving nature made him unfit to hold office, especially the presidency. [ citation needed ]

Although Hamilton considered Jefferson a political enemy, he also believed him a man of public virtue. Hamilton conducted an unrelenting campaign in the House of Representatives to prevent Burr's election to the presidency and gain election of his erstwhile enemy, Jefferson. Hamilton characterized Burr as exceedingly immoral, an "unprincipled . voluptuary" and deemed his political quest as one for "permanent power." He predicted that if Burr gained power, his leadership would be for personal gain, but that Jefferson was committed to preserving the Constitution. [111]

Although Burr is often remembered primarily for his duel with Hamilton, his establishment of guides and rules for the first impeachment trial set a high bar for behavior and procedures in the Senate chamber, many of which are followed today.

A lasting consequence of Burr's role in the election of 1800 was the Twelfth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which changed how vice presidents were chosen. As was evident from the 1800 election, the situation could quickly arise where the vice president, as the defeated presidential candidate, could not work well with the president. The Twelfth Amendment required that electoral votes be cast separately for president and vice president. [112]


Aaron Burr: Hero, Killer, Traitor?

May 22, 1807 marks the 211th anniversary of the indictment of Aaron Burr by a grand jury on charges of treason against the United States of America.

Given that nearly every day in 2018 several mainstream news outlets promote reasons why President Donald Trump should be tried for treason, the story of Aaron Burr, himself once a very popular politician, takes on added significance. Add to that Burr’s prominent role in the monster musical Hamilton, and this story deserves re-evaluation.

Aaron Burr, a hero of the War for Independence, former vice president of the United States, and famous killer of Alexander Hamilton, became disaffected with the federal government. It began six years before his arrest when he was denied the presidency by the House of Representatives.

After he finished equal to Thomas Jefferson in the delegate count in the electoral college (each received 73 electoral votes), the House of Representatives was required to fulfill its constitutional role of tie-breaker. After 36 attempts to break the tie, on February 17, 1801, the House finally declared Thomas Jefferson the winner by one vote, making Burr his vice president according to Article 2 of the Constitution (this awkward arrangement was altered by the 12th Amendment).

In March 1805, after four troubled years filled with partisan in-fighting and blossoming distrust among Burr and many of the leaders of the day — including the famous collaborators Thomas Jefferson and James Madison — Burr left the Jefferson administration and began preparing for an armed expedition in the West that has come to be known as the Burr Conspiracy. This was the foolhardy mission that would see him tried for treason against the country that once heralded him a hero.

The origins of the conspiracy are found in the increasingly close relationship that developed between Aaron Burr and General James Wilkinson. The two Revolutionary War veterans served together in the Canadian theater, principally at Quebec during the winter of 1804-1805.

Over the years the two communicated via a secret code, a cipher that was apparently invented by General Wilkinson. Already by 1804 Wilkinson was notorious for being a rabble-rouser, having advocated for a separate republic to be established in the west, independent of the new nation built along the Atlantic seaboard.

Upon departing the banks of the Potomac, the former vice president struck out for a tour of the western territories. His first stop was Philadelphia in March of 1805, where he secured an interview with Anthony Merry, the British ambassador to the United States.

Merry reported details of his conversation in a letter to London, wherein he wrote that Burr had mentioned to him that “the inhabitants of Louisiana seem determined to render themselves independent of the United States” and that they were hindered only by the necessity to obtain “an assurance of protection and assistance from some foreign power.”

After attempting to recruit England into the conspiracy, Burr moved to Pittsburgh, where on April 29, 1805, he intended to rendezvous with his right-hand man, General Wilkinson. Fortunately for Burr and the nascent scheme to separate the Louisiana Territory from the young American Republic, Wilkinson was now the governor of that same territory.

However, Wilkinson failed to show up on the appointed day, so Burr set off down the Ohio River, leaving a message for the general in Pittsburgh.

Early the next month, Burr arrived at Blennerhassett’s Island, a 300-acre tract in the middle of the Ohio River belonging to an Irish immigrant named Harman Blennerhassett. Blennerhassett saluted Burr and asked him to stay for dinner. After the feast provided by his host, Burr began chatting up the wealthy Irishman, regaling him until nearly midnight with the details of his plot.

Burr then set out for Cincinnati.

Here, Burr conversed with one of the most enigmatic of all the players in the drama, former senator from Ohio and delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 Jonathan Dayton. Tragically, Dayton soon would be dishonored by becoming one of Burr’s indicted co-conspirators, but years earlier he had earned the distinction of being the youngest man to sign the Constitution.

Satisfied with the results of his meeting with Dayton, Burr traveled to Louisville, disembarking there and setting off on foot for Nashville, where he would be an honored guest at the Hermitage — home of Andrew Jackson.

After bidding goodbye to Old Hickory, Burr finally met up with General Wilkinson at an old fort in southern Illinois. Here Burr procured from Wilkinson “an elegant barge, sails, colors, ten oars, with a sergeant and ten able, faithful hands,” and perhaps just as useful to the successful completion of the goal, Wilkinson provided Burr with a letter of introduction to a coterie of powerful associates in New Orleans, the city that would serve as the epicenter for the execution of the Burr Conspiracy.

Just when it seemed as if Burr was on the precipice of achieving his goal of separating much of the West from the United States and establishing himself as some sort of governor acting under the direction of the Spanish crown, the conspiracy began to unravel.

Inexplicably, General Wilkinson began to extricate himself from Burr’s web of treachery. Upon receipt of a coded message from Burr, Wilkinson ordered the militia to march into the Mississippi River valley and placed troops in New Orleans on alert, fearing an attack by Burr and his army.

Wilkinson then packaged an apparently condemning ciphered letter (propitiously decoded by Wilkinson himself), along with a similar missive penned by alleged co-conspirator Jonathan Dayton, and mailed them to President Thomas Jefferson. The Burr letter became an incriminating brick of evidence in what would become the wall of proof of the existence of the Burr Conspiracy.

President Jefferson responded to Wilkinson’s letter by issuing an order urging the armed forces and other associated government officials to devote themselves to “searching out and bringing to condign punishment all persons engaged or concerned in such enterprise.”

In order to uncover the details of the conspiracy supposedly concocted by his erstwhile rival and vice president, Jefferson sent an agent of the State Department to investigate the matter. After visits to Blennerhassett Island — where he tricked the owner into divulging the details known to him — the agent (surnamed Graham) traveled to the capital of Ohio and compelled the governor to deploy a detachment of the militia to seize boats scheduled to be delivered to Burr.

As Burr and his battalion were encamped across the river from Natchez, a contingent of about 30 militia men arrested Burr and took him to Mississippi, where he was to be interrogated by the territorial governor.

After the meeting, Burr surrendered himself.

After listening to the evidence presented against the accused, the first grand jury to hear the evidence against Aaron Burr refused to indict him. Members of the grand jury even suggested that Burr’s arrest was an unconstitutional usurpation of police power by the federal government and was nothing more than a cause for “the enemies of our glorious Constitution to rejoice.” Burr was released on his own recognizance, and he disguised himself as a riverboat worker and disappeared across the Mississippi River.

After receiving a report from Graham, Jefferson issued a new warrant, and Burr was arrested in what is today the state of Alabama and was taken by a military guard a thousand miles on horseback to Richmond, Virginia, where he was indicted — by the fourth grand jury to hear the evidence of treason — and subsequently tried. The trial featured the participation of a who’s who of the Founding Generation, including Edmund Randolph, Luther Martin, and John Marshall.

Burr was acquitted of treason, but his political career was destroyed. He left for Europe in a self-imposed exile, and later returned to the United States under a different name and deeply in debt. Burr died September 14, 1836.


14 Surprising Facts About Aaron Burr

It’s fair to say that no Founding Father has attracted more scorn than Aaron Burr, the tragic antagonist of a certain Broadway smash hit. Born on this date in 1756, Burr is mainly remembered for two things: killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel and later getting himself tried for treason under President Jefferson. Less attention is paid to Burr’s other major accomplishments. Did you know, for example, that he basically invented modern campaign organizing? Or that he helped Tennessee join the union? Or that he had a remarkably progressive outlook on women’s rights for a man of his time? If you love the Hamilton musical, these 14 facts should give you a whole new outlook on the show’s most compelling character.

1. HE GRADUATED FROM PRINCETON AT AGE 16.

Burr was left an orphan at the age of 2. The toddler and his sister Sally (then nearly 4) were taken in by their maternal uncle, Timothy Edwards. For two years, the youngsters lived in Stockbridge, Massachusetts before they relocated with Edwards to Elizabethtown, New Jersey. An intelligent, precocious boy, Burr submitted an application to Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) when he was just 11 years old. An examiner barred his admission, but that didn’t stop Burr from reapplying two years later. This time, Burr—now 13—was accepted into the university, which his late father had presided over. Four years younger than most of his classmates, he earned the affectionate nickname “Little Burr,” a reference to both the teen’s age and his short stature. He graduated with distinction in 1772.

2. DURING THE REVOLUTION, HE SERVED UNDER BENEDICT ARNOLD FOR A TIME.

Both of these guys would one day know how it felt to be the most notorious person in America. In 1775, Colonel Benedict Arnold led a contingent of patriot soldiers from Massachusetts to Quebec City by way of Maine. Altogether, some 1100 men made the journey Burr was one of them. En route, the impressed colonel remarked that this future vice president was “a young gentleman of much life and activity [who] has acted with great spirit and resolution on our fatiguing march.” Fatiguing march, indeed: Arnold had severely underestimated the severity of the trek, and around 500 of his men had run off, died, or been captured by the time they reached their destination.

Near the end of this northward trudge, Burr was sent to deliver a message to General Richard Montgomery who, having taken Montreal, was also on his way to Quebec City with his own force of 300 men. Montgomery took an instant liking to Burr and recruited him as his personal aide-de-camp—but their partnership would soon be cut short.

On December 31, in the midst of a snowy winter’s battle, the general was killed by a cannon blast on the outskirts of the city. Some eyewitnesses later reported that Burr tried in vain to retrieve his commander’s body from the battlefield, but historians have their doubts about this story.

3. BURR WILLINGLY LEFT GEORGE WASHINGTON’S MILITARY STAFF.

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In 1776, Burr received an invitation to join Washington’s staff, and that June—after he returned from fighting in Quebec—he met the general in person to accept the position. But he wouldn’t retain it for long not content to serve as “a practical clerk,” Burr began yearning for a job that would expose him to more combat action. Within a month, he requested and received a transfer to the staff of Major General Israel Putnam. From there, the relationship between Burr and Washington cooled. In 1798, the Virginian threw some shade on his one-time staffer, saying, “By all that I have known and heard, [Burr] is a brave and able officer, but the question is whether he has not equal talents at intrigue?” The tension was two-sided: According to John Adams, Burr once privately remarked that “he despised Washington as a man of no talents and one who could not spell a sentence of common English.”

4. HE ADMIRED MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Burr had feminist leanings. On July 2, 1782, he married his first wife, Theodosia Prevost Bartow. The two had much in common, including a deep admiration for women’s rights essayist Mary Wollstonecraft. (In fact, they even hung her portrait on their mantle.)

The mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, Wollstonecraft’s best-known writing is, by far, her 1792 manifesto A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Considered a watershed document in the history of feminism, it passionately argued that members of both sexes deserve the same fundamental rights, and denounced the educational systems of its era for failing to provide women with the opportunities afforded to men. The Burrs loved it: In 1793, Aaron described Wollstonecraft’s essay as “a work of genius.” To his dismay, however, his peers seemed to overwhelmingly disregard the text. “Is it owing to ignorance or prejudice that I have not yet met a single person who had discovered or would allow the merit of this work?” Burr once asked.

In keeping with Wollstonecraft’s philosophy, the Burrs saw to it that their daughter, also named Theodosia, received a top-notch education—the kind normally reserved for boys.

5. BURR FOUNDED WHAT LATER BECAME J.P. MORGAN CHASE & CO.

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Shortly after the war wrapped up, Burr established himself as one of New York City’s hottest lawyers—and its most prominent Democratic-Republican. For many years, his party found itself at a major disadvantage in the Big Apple. In the early 1790s, the city’s banks were all run by rich Federalists, and none of these establishments would lend money to Democratic-Republicans. So in 1798, Burr hatched a plot to get around this.

Taking advantage of a recent yellow fever epidemic, Burr asked the Federalist-controlled state legislature to give him a charter for what he called The Manhattan Company, a private organization that would provide New Yorkers with fresh, clean water. One of the most passionate supporters of Burr’s plan was none other than Mr. Federalist himself, Alexander Hamilton—though he would soon regret coming to his rival’s aid. In 1799, the legislature gave Burr that charter, which included a clause that allowed the Manhattan Company to employ “surplus capital” in any “monied transactions or operations not inconsistent with the constitution and laws of this state or of the United States.” Using this major loophole, Burr turned the Manhattan Company into a Democratic-Republican bank. It barely delivered water at all (although to keep the charter, a bank employee would ceremoniously pump water until 1923). Hamilton—along with the entire New York legislature—had been duped into helping Burr break the Federalist monopoly on banking in the city.

The Manhattan Company has since evolved into JP Morgan Chase & Co., one of the largest banking institutions in the world. It now owns the pistols that were used in the Burr-Hamilton duel.

6. IN THE SENATE, HE HELPED TENNESSEE ACHIEVE STATEHOOD.

Backed by New York Governor George Clinton and his family, Burr became a senator for the state of New York in 1791. Five years later, Senator Burr played a key role in Tennessee’s admission to the Union. Early in 1796, when the future state was still considered a federal territory, Governor William Blount spearheaded a constitutional convention at its voters’ behest. A constitution was drafted in Knoxville and then presented to both chambers of the U.S. Congress.

Upon reviewing the document, the House, with its Democratic-Republican majority, voted to grant Tennessee its statehood. However, the Senate was dominated by Federalists, who stalled—and a partisan gridlock ensued. As a manager of the bipartisan Senate committee that had been created to deal with this problem, Burr rallied most of his colleagues to Tennessee’s cause. In the end, the committee came out in favor of the territory’s bid for admission into the Union. Shortly thereafter, the Senate voted to give Tennessee statehood status. It officially became America’s 16th state on June 1, 1796.

Burr’s actions earned him the gratitude of many a prominent Tennessean. “I pronounce positively that Mr. Burr . may be ranked among [Tennessee’s] very warmest friends,” Governor Blount declared. And when Burr visited the Volunteer State in 1805, Andrew Jackson entertained him as his personal houseguest in Nashville. At one point, Old Hickory even suggested that Burr relocate to Tennessee—where both men were quite popular—and seek public office there.

7. HE ONCE KEPT ALEXANDER HAMILTON OUT OF A DUEL.

NYPL , Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The man on the $10 bill nearly traded gunfire with America’s fifth president. Here’s what happened: In 1792, then-senator James Monroe and two of his fellow Democratic-Republicans had accused Hamilton of illegally giving government money to a man named James Reynolds, who was in prison for committing forgery. When they confronted him, Hamilton revealed that he was having an affair with Reynolds’s wife Reynolds had demanded payment to keep quiet and to allow the affair to continue.

The investigation wrapped up shortly thereafter, but Hamilton wasn’t out of the woods yet: In 1797, muckraking journalist James Callender publicly exposed the affair. Convinced that Monroe must have leaked the story, Hamilton went to confront his longtime opponent. Angrily, the two politicians waged a shouting match. “Do you say I represented falsely? You are a scoundrel,” Monroe barked. “I will meet you like a gentleman,” Hamilton said. “I am ready,” Monroe replied, “get your pistols.”

Within a month, both founders were preparing themselves in earnest for a duel. But the showdown never came—and it was Burr who put an end it. Monroe picked Burr as his “second,” a designated go-between charged with negotiating the terms of this impending clash. For his part, Burr figured that both Hamilton and Monroe were being “childish,” and he did everything in his power to prevent them from squaring off. Eventually, he was able to calm both parties down: Thanks to Burr’s diplomacy, the duel went unfought.

8. HE LOVED CIGARS.

In Fallen Founder: the Life of Aaron Burr, historian Nancy Isenberg writes that John Greenwood, who served as Burr’s law clerk from 1814 to 1820, “knew Burr … as a constant cigar smoker, for instance—he had extra long cigars made especially for him.” Often, the law clerk would find his boss cloaked in a haze of tobacco smoke. During Burr’s travels in Europe, he’d sometimes burn through as many as six cigars a day. He also discovered that the choicer ones paired well with rancio wines, which he said “[recall] the spiciness of tobacco, and they are the ideal accompaniment for cigars, often complementing them better than brandies.”

9. HE’S ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT FIGURES IN THE HISTORY OF TAMMANY HALL.

To quote Gore Vidal, “Aaron Burr … professionalized politics in the United States.” Just look at Tammany Hall. Founded in 1788, this organization started out as the “Society of Saint Tammany,” a non-political New York City social club that appealed to immigrant and working families. But by the mid-19th century, it had been transformed into Gotham’s strongest political faction—and it was Burr who triggered the change.

During the election of 1800, Burr made it his mission to win New York’s 12 electoral votes for the Democratic-Republican party. To help him do so, he enlisted the Society of Saint Tammany. Though Burr never belonged to the club, he easily capitalized on the anti-Federalist sentiments of its immigrant members, who loathed the party of John Adams and his Alien & Sedition Acts. Under Burr’s leadership, Tammany volunteers campaigned door-to-door and raised money from local donors. All their hard work paid off in dividends when Thomas Jefferson and Burr carried New York en route to winning the White House.

10. AFTER BURR KILLED HAMILTON IN THAT DUEL, TWO DIFFERENT STATES INDICTED HIM FOR MURDER.

Internet Archive Book Images - Flickr, Wikimedia Commons

Like Washington, Jefferson eventually grew wary of Burr. Believing that the New Yorker had schemed to seize the presidency for himself in 1800, Jefferson resolved to drop his V.P. from the Democratic-Republican ticket in 1804. Realizing that he’d soon be out of the job, Burr made a bid to re-enter the arena of New York politics. In the spring of 1804, he ran for governor, but was roundly defeated by fellow Democratic-Republican Morgan Lewis.

It was during this campaign that Hamilton made the remarks that sealed his fate. While the race was going on, Hamilton vocally denounced Burr at a dinner party. Among those in attendance was Charles Cooper, a Democratic-Republican who sent off a letter to a friend describing Hamilton’s comments. Somehow, bits and pieces of the letter began appearing in local newspapers, prompting a stern denial from Hamilton’s father-in-law Philip Schuyler. An angry Cooper wrote a letter to Schuyler saying that Schuyler should be happy he had been “unusually cautious” and that “I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.” This letter too wound up in the press, and in June the relevant paper was sent to Burr, who wasted no time in contacting Hamilton. “You must perceive, Sir,” he wrote, “the necessity of a prompt and unqualified acknowledgement or denial of the use of any expressions which could warrant the assertions of Dr. Cooper.” Thus began an exchange of letters that culminated in the infamous duel of July 11, 1804.

As anyone who’s listened to the Hamilton soundtrack knows, Burr won. But what the show leaves out is the incident’s legal aftermath. That August, a New York coroner’s jury indicted him for murder. The following October, New Jersey—where the duel had been fought—did likewise. In a letter to his daughter, Burr explained his predicament thusly: “There is a contention of a singular nature between the two States of New York and New Jersey. The subject in dispute is which shall have the honor of hanging the Vice President. You shall have due notice of time and place.”

But Burr didn't hang. At the urging of Burr’s Democratic-Republican friends in the U.S. Senate, New Jersey dismissed its indictment against him in 1807 New York also dropped the murder charges.

11. BURR WAS FAMOUSLY TRIED FOR (AND ACQUITTED OF) TREASON.

Correctly assessing that the New York City area was no longer a safe place for him, Vice President Burr ran away to Georgia in August 1804, where he briefly stayed at the plantation of Major Pierce Butler. But as the sitting V.P., he couldn’t stay away from Capitol Hill for long. By November 4, he was back in Washington to preside over the impeachment trial of Samuel Chase, a Federalist Supreme Court Justice. The trial wrapped up on March 1, 1805 and Chase was acquitted. One day later, Burr gave a stirring farewell address to the Senate and took his leave. Soon, he would be replaced as Jefferson’s vice president by George Clinton. And yet, the administration hadn’t seen the last of Aaron Burr. Not by a long shot.

The word filibuster had a different meaning in the early 19th century. Back then, it was defined as “one who engages in unauthorized and irregular warfare against foreign states.” With his prospects on the east coast looking bleak, Burr headed westward to establish one in 1805. He attracted around 60 men to his cause and began arousing plenty of suspicion. His modern defenders argue that the former vice president was convinced there’d soon be a war between the U.S. and Mexico, and that he may have been planning to bide his time in the American south until said war broke out, at which point he’d lead his men into Spanish-controlled territory. But there were those who believed Burr wanted nothing less than to conquer America’s western holdings and create his own nation there.

President Jefferson assumed the worst. In 1806, the commander-in-chief called for Burr’s arrest. He got his wish on February 19, 1807, when Burr was apprehended in present-day Alabama. Burr was subsequently charged with treason and taken to the United States Court for the Fifth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia. Presiding over the case was John Marshall, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who said that the prosecution failed to provide sufficient evidence with which to convict Burr—and he was acquitted. Once again, though, Burr sensed that public opinion had turned sharply against him. In 1808, the disgraced politician set sail for Europe and didn’t return to the States until 1812.

12. WHEN BURR’S SECOND WIFE LEFT HIM, SHE HIRED ALEXANDER HAMILTON JR. AS HER DIVORCE ATTORNEY.

Talk about courtroom drama! Burr’s first wife had passed away in 1794, a victim of stomach cancer. He didn’t remarry until 1833, when he exchanged “I dos” with a rich widow named Eliza Jumel. (In the interim, his beloved daughter, Theodosia, vanished forever at sea.) After two turbulent years, Jumel accused Burr of committing adultery and of trying to liquidate her fortune, and sued for divorce. Her attorney during the proceedings was Alexander Hamilton Jr. Yes, the son of the man Aaron Burr had shot in 1804 represented his estranged second wife in a highly-publicized divorce case that was derided by haughty Whig newspapers. Burr died on September 14, 1836—the day this divorce was made final.

13. MARTIN VAN BUREN WAS RUMORED TO BE BURR’S ILLEGITIMATE SON.

Mathew Brady, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

They shared a knack for growing sideburns, but no genes. “Old Kinderhook,” as Van Buren was sometimes known, first met Burr in 1803. The two became reacquainted after Jefferson’s former V.P. came back from his self-imposed European exile and resumed his New York law practice. Together, they ended up collaborating on a handful of legal cases. This gave rise to the absurd rumor—as recorded by John Quincy Adams in his diary—that Van Buren was Burr’s bastard child.

14. A WORK OF AARON BURR EROTICA WAS ANONYMOUSLY PUBLISHED IN 1861.

No really, this exists. Burr’s enemies—including Hamilton—were known to accuse him of rampant womanizing. Such rumors help explain what is quite possibly the strangest work in American literature: 1861’s The Amorous Intrigues and Adventures of Aaron Burr.

Presented as a novelized biography, the book (whose author is unknown) retells everything from Burr’s birth in 1756 to his death 80 years later. But it also includes lurid descriptions of fictitious sexual conquests in several different states, with virgins, young widows, and unhappy wives constantly throwing themselves at our protagonist. For those who might be looking for a less racy novel about Jefferson’s first vice president, there’s Gore Vidal’s 1973 bestseller, Burr.


1. He had lots of children.

Aaron Burr had four biological children, two stepsons, two adopted sons, several protégées, and rumors suggest he also fathered several illegitimate children. One of those illegitimate children was said to be Martin Van Buren—the eighth president of the United States. This rumor—which has no basis—was recorded by John Quincy Adams in his personal journal.

Rumors of other illegitimate children have more basis. Several families claim to be descendants of Burr. During his first marriage, a woman of Indian or Haitian descent was employed by the Burrs as a governess. He is said to have fathered two children by the woman.

One of Burr’s protégées was the daughter of a French marquis, who was sent to the U.S. for safe keeping during the French Revolution. The other was famed painter, John Vanderlyn. Burr supported him financially for over two decades, and paid for him to attend art school in Paris. Rumors of other illegitimate children have more basis.

2. President Jefferson had him tried for treason

After Burr delivered his farewell address to the Senate in 1805, he was replaced by George Clinton. He left Washington and headed east. At the time, this was considered a suspicious move, with many assuming Burr was planning to conduct hostile takeovers and create an independent state. President Jefferson was one of those people.

In 1806 the president ordered the arrest of his former VP, who was charged with treason and taken to Virginia for trial. The Supreme Court Justice who presided over the case said there was not sufficient evidence to convict, and acquitted Burr. Once the trial was over, Burr went into self-exile in Europe for the next 4 years, which is an interesting fact about Aaron Burr.

3. He was indicted for murder twice (for that duel)

Not only did the duel make Burr a social outcast, the legal fallout was devastating to his financial and political standing as well. A New York coroner’s jury indicted him for murder in August, and in the following October a New Jersey court followed suit. Writing to his daughter, Theodosia, Burr explained:

“There is a contention of a singular nature between the two States of New York and New Jersey. The subject in dispute is which shall have the honor of hanging the Vice President. You shall have due notice of time and place.”

Both charges were dropped, thanks to the few political friends Burr had left in the U.S. Senate.

4. Burr helped Tennessee join the Union

Back in 1796, Tennessee was still an independent federal territory. It’s governor, William Blount, drafted and presented a constitution to the U.S. Congress. There was friction between the House and the Senate, and a bipartisan Senate committee was put in place to address the issue and come to a resolution. Burr was appointed as manager of the committee. He used his considerable influence at the time to ensure the committee ruled in favor of Tennessee joining the Union, an excellent fact about Aaron Burr. Tennessee officially became the 16 th state of the Union in June 1796.

5. He liked a drink and a cigar

Aaron Burr’s law clerk, John Greenwood, recalled that Burr often ordered custom cigars, and liked to pair the best ones with fine wines. He enjoyed wine with his cigars, over the tipple of the time—brandy.

6. Burr stopped a duel between Alexander Hamilton and James Monroe

The story goes something like this:

Monroe called Hamilton out for giving government money to a man imprisoned for forgery. Hamilton explained that he had an affair with the imprisoned man’s wife, and that the funds were a blackmail payment.

A few years later, Hamilton’s affair was revealed publically, driving him to accuse Monroe of leaking the dirty secret as revenge. After months of bickering, the two agreed to a duel, with Monroe choosing Burr to negotiate the terms. Instead, Burr used his considerable diplomacy skills to talk both men out of the shoot-off.

Seven years later, Burr would shoot Hamilton himself.

7. He founded J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.

In the late 1700s, most established New York banks refused to lend money to Democratic-Republicans. Burr—one of the most well-known Democratic-Republicans—desperately needed a way around this issue.

He created the Manhattan Company under the guise of providing clean water, and then used a loophole in company legislation to turn it into a bank. Today, banking giant J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. owns and displays the pistols used in the Burr-Hamilton duel. That Burr founded J. P. Morgan is not a well-known fact about Aaron Burr.

8. He served under Benedict Arnold

Yes, the other notorious character in American history. Colonel Arnold led 1,100 soldiers—including Burr—from Massachusetts to Quebec in 1775. He grossly underestimated the length of the journey, and lost almost half his unit on the journey. Some deserted, some died, and many were captured by the enemy during their trek.

9. Aaron Burr was a smart kid

He applied to Princeton University for the very first time at just 11 years old. He was rejected, but applied again a couple of years later. This time he was accepted, at just 13 years old. He graduated at 16, an interesting fact about Aaron Burr.

Burr and his sister were orphaned young and raised by their uncle in Massachusetts and then New Jersey.

10. Burr believed in equality between men and women

Burr and his first wife hung a portrait of famed women’s rights writer, Mary Wollstonecraft, above their fireplace. They shared a love of promoting equal rights for both genders, and were motivated to provide their daughter with the kind of high-quality education that was reserved for males.

Conclusion

Burr died in September 1836 on Staten Island, following a stroke in 1834. Throughout his 80 years, Aaron Burr was a charismatic man who made many friends, and also many enemies. His lack of remorse over the death of Alexander Hamilton is well documented, and he continues to be one of the most controversial political figures in U.S. history.

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Contents

Early life

Aaron Burr Jr. was born in 1756 in Newark, New Jersey, as the second child of the Reverend Aaron Burr Sr., a Presbyterian minister and second president of the College of New Jersey, which became Princeton University. His mother Esther Edwards Burr was the daughter of noted theologian Jonathan Edwards and his wife Sarah. [2] [3] Burr had an older sister Sarah ("Sally"), who was named for her maternal grandmother. She married Tapping Reeve, founder of the Litchfield Law School in Litchfield, Connecticut. [4]

Burr's father died in 1757 while serving as president of the college at Princeton. Burr's grandfather, Jonathan Edwards, succeeded Burr's father as president and came to live with Burr and his mother in December 1757. Edwards died in March 1758 and Burr's mother, and grandmother also died within the year, leaving Burr and his sister orphans when he was two years old. [2] [3] Young Aaron and Sally were then placed with the William Shippen family in Philadelphia. [5] In 1759, the children's guardianship was assumed by their 21-year-old maternal uncle Timothy Edwards. [2] [3] The next year, Edwards married Rhoda Ogden and moved the family to Elizabeth, New Jersey. Burr had a very strained relationship with his uncle, who was often physically abusive. As a child, he made several attempts to run away from home. [3] [6]

At age 13, Burr was admitted to Princeton as a sophomore, where he joined the American Whig Society and the Cliosophic Society, the college's literary and debating societies. [7] In 1772, he received his Bachelor of Arts degree at age 16, but continued studying theology at Princeton for an additional year. He then undertook rigorous theological training with Joseph Bellamy, a Presbyterian, but changed his career path after two years. At age 19, he moved to Connecticut to study law with his brother-in-law Tapping Reeve. [8] In 1775, news reached Litchfield of the clashes with British troops at Lexington and Concord, and Burr put his studies on hold to enlist in the Continental Army. [9]

Revolutionary War

During the American Revolutionary War, Burr took part in Colonel Benedict Arnold's expedition to Quebec, an arduous trek of more than 300 miles (480 km) through the frontier of Maine. Arnold was impressed by Burr's "great spirit and resolution" during the long march. He sent him up the Saint Lawrence River to contact General Richard Montgomery, who had taken Montreal, and escort him to Quebec. Montgomery then promoted Burr to captain and made him an aide-de-camp. Burr distinguished himself during the Battle of Quebec on December 31, 1775, where he attempted to recover Montgomery's corpse after he had been killed. [10]

In the spring of 1776, Burr's stepbrother Matthias Ogden helped him to secure a position with George Washington's staff in Manhattan, but he quit on June 26 to be on the battlefield. [11] General Israel Putnam took Burr under his wing, and Burr saved an entire brigade from capture after the British landing in Manhattan by his vigilance in the retreat from lower Manhattan to Harlem. Washington failed to commend his actions in the next day's General Orders, which was the fastest way to obtain a promotion. Burr was already a nationally known hero, but he never received a commendation. According to Ogden, he was infuriated by the incident, which may have led to the eventual estrangement between him and Washington. [12] [13] Nevertheless, Burr defended Washington's decision to evacuate New York as "a necessary consequence." It was not until the 1790s that the two men found themselves on opposite sides in politics. [14]

Burr was briefly posted in Kingsbridge during 1776, at which time he was charged with protecting 14-year-old Margaret Moncrieffe, the daughter of Staten Island-based British Major Thomas Moncrieffe. Miss Moncrieffe was in Manhattan "behind enemy lines" and Major Moncrieffe asked Washington to ensure her safe return there. Burr fell in love with Margaret, and Margaret's attempts to remain with Burr were unsuccessful. [15]

In late 1776, Burr attempted to secure Washington's approval to retake fortifications held by the British on Staten Island, citing his deep familiarity with the area. Washington deferred taking such actions until possibly later in the conflict (which ultimately were not attempted). The British learned of Burr's plans and afterwards took extra precautions. [16]

Burr was promoted to lieutenant colonel in July 1777 and assumed virtual leadership of Malcolm's Additional Continental Regiment. [17] There were approximately 300 men under Colonel William Malcolm's nominal command, but Malcolm was frequently called upon to perform other duties, leaving Burr in charge. [17] The regiment successfully fought off many nighttime raids into central New Jersey by Manhattan-based British troops who arrived by water. Later that year, Burr commanded a small contingent during the harsh winter encampment at Valley Forge, guarding "the Gulph," an isolated pass that controlled one approach to the camp. He imposed discipline and defeated an attempted mutiny by some of the troops. [18]

Burr's regiment was devastated by British artillery on June 28, 1778, at the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey, and Burr suffered heatstroke. [19] In January 1779, he was assigned to Westchester County, New York in command of Malcolm's Regiment, a region between the British post at Kingsbridge, Bronx and that of the Americans about 15 miles (24 km) to the north. This district was part of the more significant command of General Alexander McDougall, and there was much turbulence and plundering by lawless bands of civilians and by raiding parties of ill-disciplined soldiers from both armies. [20]

In March 1779, due to continuing bad health, Burr resigned from the Continental Army. [21] He renewed his study of law. Technically, he was no longer in the service, but he remained active in the war he was assigned by General Washington to perform occasional intelligence missions for Continental generals, such as Arthur St. Clair. On July 5, 1779, he rallied a group of Yale students at New Haven, Connecticut, along with Captain James Hillhouse and the Second Connecticut Governor's Guards, in a skirmish with the British at the West River. [22] The British advance was repulsed, forcing them to enter New Haven from Hamden, Connecticut. [22]

Marriage to Theodosia Bartow Prevost

Burr met Theodosia Bartow Prevost in August 1778 while she was married to Jacques Marcus Prevost, a Swiss-born British officer in the Royal American Regiment. [23] In Prevost's absence, Burr began regularly visiting Theodosia at The Hermitage, her home in New Jersey. [24] Although she was ten years older than Burr, the constant visits provoked gossip, and by 1780 the two were openly lovers. [25] In December 1781, he learned that Prevost had died in Jamaica of yellow fever. [26]

Theodosia and Aaron Burr were married in 1782, and they moved to a house on Wall Street in Lower Manhattan. [27] After several years of severe illness, Theodosia died in 1794 from stomach or uterine cancer. Their only child to survive to adulthood was Theodosia Burr Alston, born in 1783.

Law and politics

Despite his wartime activities, Burr finished his studies and was admitted to the bar at Albany, New York in 1782, the year of his marriage. He began practicing law in New York City the following year after the British evacuated the city. [27]

Burr served in the New York State Assembly from 1784 to 1785. In 1784 as an assemblyman, Burr unsuccessfully sought to abolish slavery immediately following the American Revolutionary War. [28] Also, he continued his military service as a lieutenant colonel and commander of a regiment in the militia brigade commanded by William Malcolm. [29] He became seriously involved in politics in 1789, when George Clinton appointed him as New York State Attorney General. He was also Commissioner of Revolutionary War Claims in 1791. In 1791, he was elected by the legislature as a Senator from New York, defeating incumbent General Philip Schuyler. He served in the Senate until 1797.

Burr ran for president in the 1796 election and received 30 electoral votes, coming in fourth behind John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Pinckney. [30] He was shocked by this defeat, but many Democratic-Republican electors voted for Jefferson and no one else, or for Jefferson and a candidate other than Burr. [31] (Jefferson and Burr were again candidates for president and vice president during the election of 1800. Jefferson ran with Burr in exchange for Burr working to obtain New York's electoral votes for Jefferson. [31] )

President John Adams appointed Washington as commanding general of U.S. forces in 1798, but he rejected Burr's application for a brigadier general's commission during the Quasi-War with France. Washington wrote, "By all that I have known and heard, Colonel Burr is a brave and able officer, but the question is whether he has not equal talents at intrigue." [32] Burr was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1798 and served there through 1799. [33] During this time, he cooperated with the Holland Land Company in gaining passage of a law to permit aliens to hold and convey lands. [34] National parties became clearly defined during Adams' Presidency, and Burr loosely associated himself with the Democratic-Republicans. However, he had moderate Federalist allies such as Senator Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey.

New York City politics

Burr quickly became a key player in New York politics, largely due to the power of the Tammany Society (which became Tammany Hall). Burr converted it from a social club into a political machine to help Jefferson reach the presidency, particularly in crowded New York City. [35]

In September 1799, Burr fought a duel with John Barker Church, whose wife Angelica was the sister of Alexander Hamilton's wife Elizabeth. Church had accused Burr of taking a bribe from the Holland Company in exchange for his political influence. Burr and Church fired at each other and missed, and afterward, Church acknowledged that he was wrong to have accused Burr without proof. Burr accepted this as an apology, and the two men shook hands and ended the dispute. [36]

In 1799, Burr founded the Bank of the Manhattan Company, and the enmity between him and Hamilton may have arisen from how he did so. Before the establishment of Burr's bank, the Federalists held a monopoly on banking interests in New York via the federal government's Bank of the United States and Hamilton's Bank of New York. These banks financed operations of significant business interests owned by aristocratic members of the city. Hamilton had prevented the formation of rival banks in the city. Small businessmen relied on tontines to buy property and establish a voting voice (at this time, voting was based upon property rights). Burr solicited support from Hamilton and other Federalists under the guise that he was establishing a badly needed water company for Manhattan. He secretly changed the application for a state charter at the last minute to include the ability to invest surplus funds in any cause that did not violate state law, [37] and dropped any pretense of founding a water company once he had gained approval. Hamilton and other supporters believed that he had acted dishonorably in deceiving them. Meanwhile, construction was delayed on a safe water system for Manhattan, and writer Ron Chernow suggests that the delay may have contributed to deaths during a subsequent malaria epidemic. [38]

Burr's Manhattan Company was more than a bank it was a tool to promote Democratic-Republican power and influence, and its loans were directed to partisans. By extending credit to small businessmen, who then obtained enough property to gain the franchise, [ clarification needed ] , the bank was able to increase the party's electorate. Federalist bankers in New York responded by trying to organize a credit boycott of Democratic-Republican businessmen. [ citation needed ]

1800 presidential election

In the 1800 city elections, Burr combined the political influence of the Manhattan Company with party campaign innovations to deliver New York's support for Jefferson. [39] In 1800, New York's state legislature was to choose the presidential electors, as they had in 1796 (for John Adams). Before the April 1800 legislative elections, the State Assembly was controlled by the Federalists. The City of New York elected assembly members on an at-large basis. Burr and Hamilton were the key campaigners for their respective parties. Burr's Democratic-Republican slate of assemblymen for New York City was elected, giving the party control of the legislature, which in turn gave New York's electoral votes to Jefferson and Burr. This drove another wedge between Hamilton and Burr. [40]

Burr enlisted the help of Tammany Hall to win the voting for selection of Electoral College delegates. He gained a place on the Democratic-Republican presidential ticket in the 1800 election with Jefferson. Though Jefferson and Burr won New York, he and Burr tied for the presidency overall, with 73 electoral votes each. Members of the Democratic-Republican Party understood they intended that Jefferson should be president and Burr vice president, but the tied vote required that the final choice be made by the House of Representatives, with each of the 16 states having one vote, and nine votes needed for election. [41]

Publicly, Burr remained quiet and refused to surrender the presidency to Jefferson, the great enemy of the Federalists. Rumors circulated that Burr and a faction of Federalists were encouraging Republican representatives to vote for him, blocking Jefferson's election in the House. However, solid evidence of such a conspiracy was lacking, and historians generally gave Burr the benefit of the doubt. In 2011, however, historian Thomas Baker discovered a previously unknown letter from William P. Van Ness to Edward Livingston, two leading Democratic-Republicans in New York. [42] Van Ness was very close to Burr—serving as his second in the next duel with Hamilton. As a leading Democratic-Republican, Van Ness secretly supported the Federalist plan to elect Burr as president and tried to get Livingston to join. [42] Livingston agreed at first, then reversed himself. Baker argues that Burr probably supported the Van Ness plan: "There is a compelling pattern of circumstantial evidence, much of it newly discovered, that strongly suggests Aaron Burr did exactly that as part of a stealth campaign to compass the presidency for himself." [43] The attempt did not work, due partly to Livingston's reversal, but more to Hamilton's vigorous opposition to Burr. Jefferson was elected president, and Burr vice president. [44] [45]

Vice presidency

Jefferson never trusted Burr. He was effectively shut out of party matters. As Vice-President, Burr earned praise from some enemies for his even-handed fairness and his judicial manner as President of the Senate he fostered some practices for that office that have become time-honored traditions. [46] Burr's judicial manner in presiding over the impeachment trial of Justice Samuel Chase has been credited as helping to preserve the principle of judicial independence that was established by Marbury v. Madison in 1803. [47] One newspaper wrote that Burr had conducted the proceedings with the "impartiality of an angel, but with the rigor of a devil". [48]

Burr's farewell speech on March 2, 1805 [49] moved some of his harshest critics in the Senate to tears. [50] But the 20-minute speech was never recorded in full, [ citation needed ] and has been preserved only in short quotes and descriptions of the address, which defended the United States of America's system of government. [49]

Duel with Hamilton

When it became clear that Jefferson would drop Burr from his ticket in the 1804 election, the Vice President ran for Governor of New York instead. Burr lost the election to little known Morgan Lewis, in what was the most significant margin of loss in New York's history up to that time. [51] Burr blamed his loss on a personal smear campaign believed to have been orchestrated by his party rivals, including New York governor George Clinton. Alexander Hamilton also opposed Burr, due to his belief that Burr had entertained a Federalist secession movement in New York. [52] In April, the Albany Register published a letter from Dr. Charles D. Cooper to Philip Schuyler, which relayed Hamilton's judgment that Burr was "a dangerous man and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government," and claiming to know of "a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr". [53] In June, Burr sent this letter to Hamilton, seeking an affirmation or disavowal of Cooper's characterization of Hamilton's remarks. [54]

Hamilton replied that Burr should give specifics of Hamilton's remarks, not Cooper's. He said he could not answer regarding Cooper's interpretation. A few more letters followed, in which the exchange escalated to Burr's demanding that Hamilton recant or deny any statement disparaging Burr's honor over the past 15 years. Hamilton, having already been disgraced by the Maria Reynolds adultery scandal and mindful of his reputation and honor, did not. According to historian Thomas Fleming, Burr would have immediately published such an apology, and Hamilton's remaining power in the New York Federalist party would have been diminished. [55] Burr responded by challenging Hamilton to a duel, personal combat under the formalized rules for dueling, the code duello.

Dueling had been outlawed in New York the sentence for conviction of dueling was death. It was illegal in New Jersey as well, but the consequences were less severe. On July 11, 1804, the enemies met outside Weehawken, New Jersey, at the same spot where Hamilton's oldest son had died in a duel just three years prior. Both men fired, and Hamilton was mortally wounded by a shot just above the hip. [56]

The observers disagreed on who fired first. They did agree that there was a three-to-four-second interval between the first and the second shot, raising difficult questions in evaluating the two camps' versions. [57] Historian William Weir speculated that Hamilton might have been undone by his machinations: secretly setting his pistol's trigger to require only a half-pound of pressure as opposed to the usual 10 pounds. Weir contends, "There is no evidence that Burr even knew that his pistol had a trigger set". [58] Louisiana State University history professors Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein concur with this. They note that "Hamilton brought the pistols, which had a larger barrel than regular dueling pistols, and a secret hair-trigger, and were therefore much more deadly," [59] and conclude that "Hamilton gave himself an unfair advantage in their duel, and got the worst of it anyway." [59]

David O. Stewart, in his biography of Burr, American Emperor, notes that the reports of Hamilton's intentionally missing Burr with his shot began to be published in newspaper reports in papers friendly to Hamilton only in the days after his death. [60] [ page needed ] But Ron Chernow, in his biography, Alexander Hamilton, states Hamilton told numerous friends well before the duel of his intention to avoid firing at Burr. Additionally, Hamilton wrote several letters, including a Statement on Impending Duel With Aaron Burr [61] and his last missives to his wife dated before the duel, [62] which also attest to his intention. The two shots, witnesses reported, followed one another in close succession, and none of those witnesses could agree as to who fired first. Before the duel proper, Hamilton took a good deal of time getting used to the feel and weight of the pistol (which had been used in the duel at the same Weehawken site in which his 19-year-old son had been killed), as well as putting on his glasses to see his opponent more clearly. The seconds placed Hamilton so that Burr would have the rising sun behind him, and during the brief duel, one witness reported, Hamilton seemed to be hindered by this placement as the sun was in his eyes. [ citation needed ]

Each man took one shot, and Burr's shot fatally injured Hamilton, while Hamilton's shot missed. Burr's bullet entered Hamilton's abdomen above his right hip, piercing Hamilton's liver and spine. Hamilton was evacuated to the Manhattan home of a friend, William Bayard Jr., where he and his family received visitors including Episcopal bishop Benjamin Moore, who gave Hamilton Holy Communion. Burr was charged with multiple crimes, including murder, in New York and New Jersey, but was never tried in either jurisdiction. [ citation needed ]

He fled to South Carolina, where his daughter lived with her family, but soon returned to Philadelphia and then to Washington to complete his term as vice president. He avoided New York and New Jersey for a time, but all the charges against him were eventually dropped. In the case of New Jersey, the indictment was thrown out on the basis that, although Hamilton was shot in New Jersey, he died in New York. [ citation needed ]

Conspiracy and trial

After Burr left the vice-presidency at the end of his term in 1805, he journeyed to the Western frontier, areas west of the Allegheny Mountains and down the Ohio River Valley eventually reaching the lands acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. Burr had leased 40,000 acres (16,000 ha) of land—known as the Bastrop Tract—along the Ouachita River, in present-day Louisiana, from the Spanish government. Starting in Pittsburgh and then proceeding to Beaver, Pennsylvania, and Wheeling, Virginia, and onward he drummed up support for his planned settlement, whose purpose and status was unclear. [63]

His most important contact was General James Wilkinson, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Army at New Orleans, and Governor of the Louisiana Territory. Others included Harman Blennerhassett, who offered the use of his private island for training and outfitting Burr's expedition. Wilkinson would later prove to be a bad choice. [64]

Burr saw war with Spain as a distinct possibility. In case of a war declaration, Andrew Jackson stood ready to help Burr, who would be in a position to join in immediately. Burr's expedition of about eighty men carried modest arms for hunting, and no war materiel was ever revealed, even when Blennerhassett Island was seized by Ohio militia. [65] The aim of his "conspiracy," he always avowed, was that if he settled there with a large group of armed "farmers" and war broke out, he would have a force with which to fight and claim land for himself, thus recouping his fortunes. [ citation needed ] However, the war did not come as Burr expected: the 1819 Adams–Onís Treaty secured Florida for the United States without a fight, and war in Texas did not occur until 1836, the year Burr died.

After a near-incident with Spanish forces at Natchitoches, Wilkinson decided he could best serve his conflicting interests by betraying Burr's plans to President Jefferson and his Spanish paymasters. Jefferson issued an order for Burr's arrest, declaring him a traitor before any indictment. Burr read this in a newspaper in the Territory of Orleans on January 10, 1807. Jefferson's warrant put Federal agents on his trail. Burr twice turned himself into Federal authorities, and both times judges found his actions legal and released him. [66]

Jefferson's warrant, however, followed Burr, who fled toward Spanish Florida. He was intercepted at Wakefield, in Mississippi Territory (now in the state of Alabama), on February 19, 1807. He was confined to Fort Stoddert after being arrested on charges of treason. [67]

Burr's secret correspondence with Anthony Merry and the Marquis of Casa Yrujo, the British and Spanish ministers at Washington, was eventually revealed. He had tried to secure money and to conceal his true design, which was to help Mexico overthrow Spanish power in the Southwest. Burr intended to found a dynasty in what would have become former Mexican territory. [46] This was a misdemeanor, based on the Neutrality Act of 1794, which Congress passed to block filibuster expeditions against U.S. neighbors, such as those of George Rogers Clark and William Blount. Jefferson, however, sought the highest charges against Burr.

In 1807, Burr was brought to trial on a charge of treason before the United States Circuit court at Richmond, Virginia. His defense lawyers included Edmund Randolph, John Wickham, Luther Martin, and Benjamin Gaines Botts. [68] Burr had been arraigned four times for treason before a grand jury indicted him. The only physical evidence presented to the Grand Jury was Wilkinson's so-called letter from Burr, which proposed the idea of stealing land in the Louisiana Purchase. During the Jury's examination, the court discovered that the letter was written in Wilkinson's handwriting. He said he had made a copy because he had lost the original. The Grand Jury threw the letter out as evidence, and the news made a laughingstock of the General for the rest of the proceedings. [ citation needed ]

The trial, presided over by Chief Justice of the United States John Marshall, began on August 3. Article 3, Section 3 of the United States Constitution requires that treason either be admitted in open court, or proven by an overt act witnessed by two people. Since no two witnesses came forward, Burr was acquitted on September 1, despite the full force of the Jefferson administration's political influence thrown against him. Burr was immediately tried on a misdemeanor charge and was again acquitted. [69]

Given that Jefferson was using his influence as president to obtain a conviction, the trial was a major test of the Constitution and the concept of separation of powers. Jefferson challenged the authority of the Supreme Court, specifically Chief Justice Marshall, an Adams appointee who clashed with Jefferson over John Adams' last-minute judicial appointments. Jefferson believed that Burr's treason was obvious. Burr sent a letter to Jefferson in which he stated that he could do Jefferson much harm. The case, as tried, was decided on whether Aaron Burr was present at certain events at certain times and in certain capacities. Thomas Jefferson used all of his influence to get Marshall to convict, but Marshall was not swayed. [ citation needed ]

Historians Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein write that Burr:

was not guilty of treason, nor was he ever convicted, because there was no evidence, not one credible piece of testimony, and the star witness for the prosecution had to admit that he had doctored a letter implicating Burr. [59]

David O. Stewart, on the other hand, insists that while Burr was not explicitly guilty of treason, according to Marshall's definition, evidence exists that links him to treasonous crimes. For example, Bollman admitted to Jefferson during an interrogation that Burr planned to raise an army and invade Mexico. He said that Burr believed that he should be Mexico's monarch, as a republican government was not right for the Mexican people. [70] Many historians believe the extent of Burr's involvement may never be known.

Exile and return

By the conclusion of his trial for treason, despite an acquittal, all of Burr's hopes for a political comeback had been dashed, and he fled America and his creditors for Europe. [71] Dr. David Hosack, Hamilton's physician and a friend to both Hamilton and Burr, loaned Burr money for passage on a ship. [72]

Burr lived in self-imposed exile from 1808 to 1812, passing most of this period in England, where he occupied a house on Craven Street in London. He became a good friend, even confidant, of the English Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and on occasion lived at Bentham's home. He also spent time in Scotland, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and France. Ever hopeful, he solicited funding for renewing his plans for a conquest of Mexico but was rebuffed. He was ordered out of England and Emperor Napoleon of France refused to receive him. [46] However, one of his ministers held an interview concerning Burr's goals for Spanish Florida or the British possessions in the Caribbean.

After returning from Europe, Burr used the surname "Edwards," his mother's maiden name, for a while to avoid creditors. With help from old friends Samuel Swartwout and Matthew L. Davis, Burr returned to New York and his law practice. Later he helped the heirs of the Eden family in a financial lawsuit. By the early 1820s, the remaining members of the Eden household, Eden's widow and two daughters, had become a surrogate family to Burr. [73]

Later life and death

Despite financial setbacks, after returning, Burr lived out the remainder of his life in New York in relative peace [74] until 1833.

On July 1, 1833, at age 77, Burr married Eliza Jumel, a wealthy widow who was 19 years younger. They lived together briefly at her residence which she had acquired with her first husband, the Morris-Jumel Mansion in the Washington Heights neighborhood in Manhattan. [75] Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is now preserved and open to the public. [76]

Soon after the marriage, she realized her fortune was dwindling due to Burr's land speculation losses. [77] She separated from Burr after four months of marriage. For her divorce lawyer, she chose Alexander Hamilton Jr., [78] and the divorce was officially completed on September 14, 1836, coincidentally the day of Burr's death. [79]

Burr suffered a debilitating stroke in 1834, [80] which rendered him immobile. On September 14, 1836, Burr died on Staten Island in the village of Port Richmond, in a boardinghouse that later became known as the St. James Hotel. [81] He was buried near his father in Princeton, New Jersey. [82]

In addition to his daughter Theodosia, Burr was the father of at least three other biological children, and he adopted two sons. Burr also acted as a parent to his two stepsons by his wife's first marriage, and he became a mentor or guardian to several protégés who lived in his home.

Burr's daughter Theodosia

Theodosia Burr was born in 1783, and was named after her mother. She was the only child of Burr's marriage to Theodosia Bartow Prevost who survived to adulthood. A second daughter, Sally, lived to the age of three. [83]

Burr was a devoted and attentive father to Theodosia. [83] Believing that a young woman should have an education equal to that of a young man, Burr prescribed a rigorous course of studies for her which included the classics, French, horsemanship, and music. [83] Their surviving correspondence indicates that he affectionately treated his daughter as a close friend and confidante as long as she lived.

Theodosia became widely known for her education and accomplishments. In 1801, she married Joseph Alston of South Carolina. [84] They had a son together, Aaron Burr Alston, who died of fever at age ten. During the winter of 1812–1813, Theodosia was lost at sea with the schooner Patriot off the Carolinas, either murdered by pirates or shipwrecked in a storm.

Stepchildren and protégés

Upon Burr's marriage, he became stepfather to the two teenage sons of his wife's first marriage. Augustine James Frederick Prevost (called Frederick) and John Bartow Prevost had both joined their father in the Royal American Regiment in December 1780, at the ages of 16 and 14. [23] When they returned in 1783 to become citizens of the United States, [23] Burr acted as a father to them: he assumed responsibility for their education, gave both of them clerkships in his law office, and frequently was accompanied by one of them as an assistant when he traveled on business. [85] John was later appointed by Thomas Jefferson to a post in the Territory of Orleans as the first judge of the Louisiana Supreme Court. [86]

Burr served as a guardian to Nathalie de Lage de Volude (1782–1841) from 1794 to 1801, during Theodosia's childhood. The young daughter of a French marquis, Nathalie had been taken to New York for safety during the French Revolution by her governess Caroline de Senat. [87] Burr opened his home to them, allowing Madame Senat to tutor private students there along with his daughter, and Nathalie became a companion and close friend to Theodosia. [88] While traveling to France for an extended visit in 1801, Nathalie met Thomas Sumter Jr., a diplomat and the son of General Thomas Sumter. [87] They married in Paris in March 1802, before returning to his home in South Carolina. From 1810 to 1821, they lived in Rio de Janeiro, [89] where Sumter served as the American ambassador to Portugal during the transfer of the Portuguese Court to Brazil. [90] One of their children, Thomas De Lage Sumter, was a Congressman from South Carolina. [87]

In the 1790s, Burr also took the painter John Vanderlyn into his home as a protégé, [91] and provided him with financial support and patronage for 20 years. [92] He arranged Vanderlyn's training by Gilbert Stuart in Philadelphia and sent him in 1796 to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris where he remained for six years. [93]

Adopted and acknowledged children

Burr adopted two sons, Aaron Columbus Burr and Charles Burdett, during the 1810s and 1820s after the death of his daughter Theodosia. Aaron (born Aaron Burr Columbe) was born in Paris in 1808 and arrived in America around 1815, and Charles was born in 1814. [73] [94] [95]

Both of the boys were reputed to be Burr's biological sons. A Burr biographer described Aaron Columbus Burr as "the product of a Paris adventure," conceived presumably during Burr's exile from the United States between 1808 and 1814. [95]

In 1835, the year before his death, Burr acknowledged two young daughters whom he had fathered late in his life, by different mothers. Burr made specific provisions for his surviving daughters in a will dated January 11, 1835, in which he left "all the rest and residue" of his estate, after other specific bequests, to six-year-old Frances Ann (born c. 1829 ), and two-year-old Elizabeth (born c. 1833 ). [96]

Unacknowledged children

In 1787 or earlier, Burr began a relationship with Mary Emmons, an East Indian woman who worked as a servant in his household in Philadelphia during his first marriage. [1] [97] [98] Emmons came from Calcutta to Haiti or Saint-Domingue, where she lived and worked before being brought to Philadelphia. [98] Burr fathered two children with Emmons, both of whom married into Philadelphia's "Free Negro" community in which their families became prominent:

  • Louisa Charlotte Burr (b. 1788) worked most of her life as a domestic servant in the home of Elizabeth Powel Francis Fisher, a prominent Philadelphia society matron, and later in the home of her son Joshua Francis Fisher. [97] She was married to Francis Webb (1788–1829), a founding member of the Pennsylvania Augustine Education Society, secretary of the Haytien Emigration Society formed in 1824, and distributor of Freedom's Journal from 1827 to 1829. [97] After his death, Louisa remarried and became Louisa Darius. [97] Her youngest son Frank J. Webb wrote the 1857 novel The Garies and Their Friends. [97] (c. 1792 –1864) became a member of Philadelphia's Underground Railroad and served as an agent for the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. He worked in the National Black Convention movement and served as chairman of the American Moral Reform Society. [98]

One contemporary of John Pierre Burr identified him as a natural son of Burr in a published account, [99] but Burr never acknowledged his relationship or children with Emmons during his life, in contrast to his adoption or acknowledgment of other children born later in his life. It is clear from letters, however, that Burr's three children (Theodosia, Louisa Charlotte, and John Pierre) developed a relationship that persisted to their adult life. [1]

In 2018, Louisa and John were acknowledged by the Aaron Burr Association as the children of Burr after Sherri Burr, a descendant of John Pierre, provided both documentary evidence and results of a DNA test to confirm a familial link between descendants of Burr and descendants of John Pierre. [100] [101] The Association installed a headstone at John Pierre's grave to mark his ancestry. Stuart Fisk Johnson, the president of the association, commented, "A few people didn’t want to go into it because Aaron’s first wife, Theodosia, was still alive, and dying of cancer. But the embarrassment is not as important as it is to acknowledge and embrace actual living, robust, accomplished children." [102]

Aaron Burr was a man of complex character who made many friends, but also many powerful enemies. He was indicted for murder after the death of Hamilton, but never prosecuted [103] he was reported by acquaintances to be curiously unmoved by Hamilton's death, expressing no regret for his role in the result. He was arrested and prosecuted for treason by President Jefferson, but acquitted. [104] Contemporaries often remained suspicious of Burr's motives to the end of his life, continuing to view him as untrustworthy at least since his role in the founding of the Bank of Manhattan. [ citation needed ]

In his later years in New York, Burr provided money and education for several children, some of whom were reputed to be his natural children. To his friends and family, and often to strangers, he could be kind and generous. The wife of the struggling poet Sumner Lincoln Fairfield recorded in her autobiography that in the late 1820s, their friend Burr pawned his watch to provide for the care of the Fairfields' two children. [105] Jane Fairfield wrote that, while traveling, she and her husband had left the children in New York with their grandmother, who proved unable to provide adequate food or heat for them. The grandmother took the children to Burr's home and asked his help: "[Burr] wept, and replied, 'Though I am poor and have not a dollar, the children of such a mother shall not suffer while I have a watch.' He hastened on this godlike errand, and quickly returned, having pawned the article for twenty dollars, which he gave to make comfortable my precious babes." [105]

By Fairfield's account, Burr had lost his religious faith before that time upon seeing a painting of Christ's suffering, Burr candidly told her, "It is a fable, my child there never was such a being." [106]

Burr believed women to be intellectually equal to men and hung a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft over his mantel. The Burrs' daughter, Theodosia, was taught dance, music, several languages, and learned to shoot from horseback. Until her death at sea in 1813, she remained devoted to her father. Not only did Burr advocate education for women, upon his election to the New York State Legislature, he submitted a bill, which failed to pass, that would have allowed women to vote. [107]

Conversely, Burr was considered a notorious womanizer. [ citation needed ] In addition to cultivating relationships with women in his social circles, Burr's journals indicate that he was a frequent patron of prostitutes during his travels in Europe he recorded brief notes of dozens of such encounters, and the amounts he paid. He described "sexual release as the only remedy for his restlessness and irritability". [108]

John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary when Burr died: "Burr's life, take it all together, was such as in any country of sound morals his friends would be desirous of burying in quiet oblivion." [109] Adams' father, President John Adams, had frequently defended Burr during his life. At an earlier time, he wrote, Burr "had served in the army, and came out of it with the character of a knight without fear and an able officer". [110]

Gordon S. Wood, a leading scholar of the revolutionary period, holds that it was Burr's character that put him at odds with the rest of the "founding fathers," especially Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton. He believed that this led to his personal and political defeats and, ultimately, to his place outside the golden circle of revered revolutionary figures. Because of Burr's habit of placing self-interest above the good of the whole, those men thought that Burr represented a serious threat to the ideals for which they had fought the revolution. Their ideal, as particularly embodied in Washington and Jefferson, was that of "disinterested politics," a government led by educated gentlemen. They would fulfill their duties in a spirit of public virtue and without regard to personal interests or pursuits. This was the core of an Enlightenment gentleman, and Burr's political enemies thought that he lacked that essential core. Hamilton thought that Burr's self-serving nature made him unfit to hold office, especially the presidency. [ citation needed ]

Although Hamilton considered Jefferson a political enemy, he also believed him a man of public virtue. Hamilton conducted an unrelenting campaign in the House of Representatives to prevent Burr's election to the presidency and gain election of his erstwhile enemy, Jefferson. Hamilton characterized Burr as exceedingly immoral, an "unprincipled . voluptuary" and deemed his political quest as one for "permanent power." He predicted that if Burr gained power, his leadership would be for personal gain, but that Jefferson was committed to preserving the Constitution. [111]

Although Burr is often remembered primarily for his duel with Hamilton, his establishment of guides and rules for the first impeachment trial set a high bar for behavior and procedures in the Senate chamber, many of which are followed today.

A lasting consequence of Burr's role in the election of 1800 was the Twelfth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which changed how vice presidents were chosen. As was evident from the 1800 election, the situation could quickly arise where the vice president, as the defeated presidential candidate, could not work well with the president. The Twelfth Amendment required that electoral votes be cast separately for president and vice president. [112]


On Treason

Treason—the only crime specifically defined in the United States Constitution—is routinely described by judges as more heinous than murder. Today, the term is regularly tossed around by politicians and pundits on both sides of the aisle. But, as accusations of treason flood the news cycle, it is not always clear what the crime truly is, or when it should be prosecuted.

Carlton F. W. Larson, a scholar of constitutional law and legal history, takes us on a journey to understand the many subtleties of the Constitution’s definition of treason. With examples ranging from the medieval English Parliament to the accusations against Edward Snowden and Donald Trump, Larson brings to life not only the most notorious accused traitors, such as Benedict Arnold, Aaron Burr, and World War II’s “Tokyo Rose,” but also lesser-known figures, such as Hipolito Salazar, the only person ever executed by the federal government for treason, and Walter Allen, a labor union leader convicted of treason against the state of West Virginia in the early 1920s.

Grounded in over two decades of research, On Treason is an indispensable guide for anyone who wants to understand the role of treason law in our constitutional democracy. With this brisk, clear look at the law’s history and meaning, Larson explains who is actually guilty and when—and readers won’t need a law degree to understand why.

Critical Praise

“A fluent, case-rich examination of the laws governing treason and its punishment. . . . Larson examines the notion clearly and accessibly.” - Kirkus Reviews

"There have always been traitors in our midst, real and imagined. From Benedict Arnold to Aaron Burr to today's late-night Twitter rants, the history of treason has been the history of America's most perilous moments. At the intersection of law and lore, On Treason brings to life the thrilling stories of the patriots and poltroons who have grappled with the sin of all sins in American life." - Andrei Cherny, author of The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America's Finest Hour and president of Democracy Journal

"With clarity and grace, Carlton Larson reminds us that treason is a legal concept with an important history from the Revolution through the War on Terror. Engaging, elegant, and refreshingly sane, On Treason dares to suggest that the crime’s narrow contours and difficult evidentiary hurdles enhance our democracy. Our political opponents are almost certainly not traitors—Larson delivers this hard truth, which offers a first step to a more perfect Union." - Daniel J. Sharfstein, author of Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War

“Carlton Larson has pulled off a small miracle, writing a terrific and timely book that is both informative and a joy to read. He explains the law of treason in crystal-clear prose. And he brings the law to life with vivid and fascinating stories of America's most notorious traitors. On Treason is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand what treason means—and doesn't mean—in this fraught political moment.” - Thomas Healy, author of The Great Dissent: How Oliver Wendell Holmes Changed His Mindand Changed the History of Free Speech in America.

“In these hyperpartisan, polarized times, as charges of treason fly thick and fast, it’s essential to remember how the Framers of our Constitution defined that crime—and why. This indispensable book brings much-needed clarity to the subject and reaffirms a fundamental truth of our constitutional design: there is such a thing as the loyal opposition.” - Kermit Roosevelt, Professor of Law, University of Pennsylvania Law School and author of In the Shadow of the Law

Product Details

  • ISBN: 9780062996169
  • ISBN 10: 0062996169
  • Imprint: Ecco
  • On Sale: 09/29/2020
  • Trimsize: 5.500 in (w) x 8.200 in (h) x 1.000 in (d)
  • Pages: 304
  • List Price: ห.99
  • BISAC1 : LAW / Legal History
  • BISAC2 : HISTORY / United States / General
  • BISAC3 : LAW / Criminal Law / General

Carlton F. W. Larson

Biography

Carlton F.W. Larson is a Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of Law at the University of California, Davis, School of Law, where he teaches American constitutional law and English and American legal history. A graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School, Larson is one of the nation’s leading authorities on the law of treason. His scholarship has been cited by numerous federal and state courts, and has been highlighted in the New York Times and many other publications.  He is a frequent commentator for the national media on constitutional law issues and is the author of the book The Trials of Allegiance: Treason, Juries, and the American Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2019).

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Aaron Burr, Vice President, killer and traitor

Only one Vice President of the USA ever killed a man while in office. Only one ex-Vice President of the USA was ever tried for treason. Aaron Burr was so divisive a figure that after his vice presidency was ended the rules were changed to ensure that in future the Vice President would be more likely to support the President. He was a war hero, a notorious womanizer and an early exponent of female suffrage, yet now he is more remembered for the life he ended than the life he led.

Aaron Burr was born in 1756 in New Jersey. His father had been the second president of the College of New Jersey (which later became Princeton University), and his maternal grandfather had been its third president. By the time he was two years old, both his father, grandfather and mother were dead of various illnesses, leaving him to be raised by his mother’s brother, Timothy Edwards. Aaron did not get on well with his uncle, and ran away from home several times. On one occasion he had even signed on as a ship’s cabin boy by the time his uncle found him and took him home. As a teenager he studied at the College of New Jersey, naturally, where his classmates included several of the future founding fathers. Originally he studied to be a Calvinist minister as his father had been, but his natural rebellious streak along with the Enlightenment philosophy he absorbed left him ill-suited for that path, and he instead changed to studying law. Less than a year into his studies, however, the American Revolution broke out and Burr went to war.

Burr first served under Colonel Benedict Arnold, on his 300-mile march to invade Quebec. It was a brutal journey with many men turning back or perishing en route. Eleven hundred men set out but only six hundred, Burr among them, arrived at the gates of Quebec. Though Arnold’s men outnumbered the professional garrison four to one, they were supported by a local militia and had the advantage of their fortified position. At first Arnold tried to brazen it out and demanded their surrender, but they refused to rise to the bait. He was forced to pull back and regroup. He sent Burr off to make contact with General Richard Montgomery, commander of the other American force fighting in Canada at the time. Montgomery had just captured Montreal, and immediately came to Arnold’s aid. Burr, who had been promoted to Captain Burr for his successful delivery of the message, fought by Montgomery’s side in the Battle of Quebec.

Burr was thus one of those by Montgomery’s side when his attack on the city went disastrously wrong. There was a blizzard in full force at the time, and Montgomery’s forces had broken through the two palisades protecting the city (in fact, the defences being wooden, they had sawed through them). Montgomery led a group of fifty men into the city, but they managed to walk directly into a fortified British position. In the hail of bullets Montgomery and the bulk of his advance force were killed. Burr was one of the survivors and was forced to retreat, though he made enough of a showing to be commended for his courage. Arnold’s attack on the other side of the city was similarly repulsed, leading to the first serious defeat the Continental Army had suffered in the war. Arnold remained for an ultimately futile siege of the city, but Burr was recalled to Manhattan. Here he was given a place on Washington’s staff, but he resigned it two weeks later in order to return to the field. This slight may have turned Washington against him. Burr served under General Israel Putnam, a ferocious military veteran, and was responsible for saving an entire brigade of men from capture by the British after they were nearly cut off from the main force by a British landing. [1] Despite this heroism, Burr failed to receive a commendation from Washington. Whether this was an oversight or a response to his resignation of his staff position, Burr took it as a personal slight and never forgave Washington.

Despite this lack of recognition he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, and served in this position for two years. He was at Valley Forge during the long cold winter that the Continental Army endured there, and helped to prevent one of the many mutinies that nearly broke out. In 1779 ill health led him to resign his commission, and he returned to New York to continue studying law. He was not entirely idle in the remainder of the war though, and as well as performing occasional intelligence missions he helped rally the students at Yale together to form a militia and push back a raid by General William Tryon. In 1782 he graduated, and the same year he married a wealthy widow named Theodosia Prevost. Burr was not a faithful husband, in fact he was a notorious womaniser. He had multiple illegitimate children, including two with an East Indian servant named Mary Emmons, which were both born before Theodosia’s death in 1794. Burr had one legitimate child, a daughter also named Theodosia. She was well educated, in accordance with Burr’s belief in equality of the sexes. Sadly she died before her father, perishing during a sea voyage in 1812 when a schooner carrying her was lost at sea.

Theodosia Burr Alston, considered by some to be one of the most brilliant women of the age.

Burr, like many of his contemporaries, turned to politics after the war. He served on the state assembly from 1784 to 1785, but his main involvement in the political scene came when he was appointed Attorney General in 1789. In 1791 he was elected as a Senator for New York, defeating Philip Schuyler, the incumbent. Schuyler’s daughter was married to a man Burr had shared a legal practice with, Alexander Hamilton. The two men had been on social terms before this, but Burr’s defeat of Schuyler and conduct during the campaign set them at odds, and eventually a deep mutual dislike and distrust would develop between the two. Burr served as state senator for six years, and after he was defeated in 1797 he was immediately elected to the state assembly. In 1796 he had put his name into the Presidential race, aiming for the position of Vice President rather than President. At this time the electors each received two votes that they could cast for any man, and the candidate who came in second became Vice President. Burr had made a vote exchange pact with Thomas Jefferson, but many of Jefferson’s supporters in the developing Republican Party refused to honour the deal and failed to cast their second vote for Burr. As a result, though Jefferson came second (and became Vice President to John Adams), Burr only came fourth.

Over the next four years, the American political establishment began to develop, with the two party system (at this time, the Republicans and the Federalists) solidifying into place. In New York, two poles also started to develop. Alexander Hamilton had been using his contacts in the Society of Cincinnati to help further his political career, and in retaliation Burr took control of the Tammany Society, a local fraternal organisation. The society, known later as Tammany Hall, would continue to dominate and control New York’s politics until the 1960s. With this tight grip on the New York scene, Burr was in a far stronger position going into the election of 1800, and the new party system meant that Jefferson was more able to follow through on his pledge. The agreement was that all the Republican affiliates would vote for Jefferson, and all but one would vote for Burr. Whether through miscommunication or deliberate betrayal on Burr’s part, the man meant to cast only one vote cast two and they wound up tied with 73 votes each, joint first in the election. The decision thus had to be made by the House of Representatives, and Burr wound up allying with the Federalists in an attempt to take the Presidency. He had a powerful enemy in Hamilton however, who had become Burr’s bitter enemy the previous year when he had solicited a government grant with Hamilton’s support to set up a water company, and then used it instead to set up a bank after secretly editing the terms of the grant. The vote turned intensely personal, and both Jefferson and Burr’s reputations were severely sullied. In the end, it took 36 ballots before the matter was eventually decided in Jefferson’s favour.

Burr as Vice President, portrait from life by John Vanderlyn.

Burr’s enmity with the President made him a singularly ineffective Vice President, and in fact his term was so poor that it led to the rules being changed to cause there to be a totally separate vote for Vice President in future. The most notable feature of his term was his unsuccessful attempted impeachment of a Supreme Court Judge for failing to act impartially, which helped to establish the lack of power of the Executive Branch over the judiciary. Knowing that he stood no chance in the 1804 Presidential election, he instead ran for Governor of New York but lost, owing largely to the smears thrown at him during the 1800 vote being dragged up again. Burr was on the verge of losing all influence, and decided that only a duel could restore his honour. At the time duels were largely bloodless affairs, in which both participants would usually throw away their fire, simply demonstrating their courage. They did, however, sometimes turn deadly, and Alexander Hamilton’s son had been killed in one a few years earlier. This did not prevent Burr provoking Hamilton into a duel, however, through demanding (after suitable escalation) an apology for any remarks Hamilton had ever made defaming his character. Hamilton’s own reputation had suffered severely after an extramarital affair had come to light, and so he had no choice but to accept Burr’s challenge. The stage was set for the most famous duel in American history.

The exact mindset of Burr and Hamilton going into the duel is still a matter of intense debate. On the one hand, Hamilton had become opposed to duels after his son’s death, and had told friends of his intention to shoot to miss. On the other hand, he provided the weapons – hair trigger pistols of a deadlier than usual calibre, with which he was well practised. Burr, on the other hand, was almost certainly out for blood. Hamilton had made an offer before the duel to apologise for any specific insult, but Burr still demanded the general apology. Exactly what happened during the duel, however, is uncertain. As duelling was technically illegal, the two seconds stood in the woods with their backs to the action so they could afterwards swear to have “seen no shots fired”. What they heard, however, was one shot, then a second or so later another. What they returned to find was Burr standing, and Hamilton lying on the ground, mortally wounded.

A later illustration of the duel

Historians have different opinions on how the duel had gone. The first, and most common, is that Hamilton had fired first, aiming to miss, but not firing into the ground as was common in such a case. Burr, hearing the shot go past his head, had taken it for a miss and shot to kill. Others follow the same sequence, but say that Hamilton’s shot was meant to kill and missed. A third was that Burr fired first, and Hamilton, once hit, tried to return fire before he fell. Whichever of these was true, the result was the same. Hamilton died of his injuries, and Burr’s political career was effectively over. To take part in a duel was one thing – to kill a man in one was another. He was charged with murder in New York and New Jersey but avoided trial until the charges were dropped, heading first to South Carolina to lay low before returning to Washington to serve out his term. His farewell speech as Vice President was his farewell to American politics, and it is said to have moved his harshest critics to tears.

That was not the end of Burr’s impact on American history, however. Like so many who had burned their bridges in the civilised territories, Burr set off west to try to reclaim his destiny. He leased 40,000 acres in Louisiana, at the time in the hands of the Spanish, which he proclaimed his intention to farm. His true intentions, however, were much murkier. The same year, 1805, saw the territory first revert to the French and then be sold to the Americans in the famous “Louisiana Purchase”. Around the same time Burr had a series of meetings with Anthony Merry, the British ambassador to the US, where he offered to split Louisiana off from the Union and make it a British colony. At the same time Burr also met with the Mexican Associates, a group who were trying to raise support to invade Mexico and claim it for the US, and with the Spanish ambassador Carlos Martínez de Irujo. To the latter he declared his intention not only to secede, but to declare war on the US and march on Washington. Finally he recruited the Governor of Louisiana, General James Wilkerson. Burr had been responsible for Wilkerson being appointed Governor, [2] possibly due to Wilkerson having tried to get Kentucky and Tennessee to secede twenty years earlier. This turned out to be a mistake, as Wilkerson forwarded the letters to President Jefferson, and Burr was arrested for treason.

Exactly what Burr’s endgame plan was is hard to say, but one possibility was that he intended to provoke the secession of part of Mexico from Spanish control. This wouldn’t be so far-fetched – thirty years later the Republic of Texas would do exactly that. This would not qualify as treason in the eyes of many Americans, and in fact neither would (at the time) seceding from the Union. Legally, leading a military expedition into Mexico might have qualified, but Burr had been arrested before things had got that far. In fact, he was arrested three times, but the first two times, the judge refused to commit him for trial. The third time he was committed, but unsurprisingly he was acquitted – the matter was sealed when Wilkerson was forced to admit to altering the letters he forwarded to Jefferson to minimise his own guilt.

A drawing of an older Burr.

Burr was released, but any political capital he had was thoroughly spent. He travelled to Europe, trying first to gain British support and then French for fomenting a revolution in Mexico. (He also took advantage of the trip to visit dozens of European prostitutes, which he recorded in detail in his memoirs.) Unable to get the support he needed, he returned to America in 1812 – the same year that his daughter died. For a time he used his mother’s surname of Edwards to avoid his creditors, but eventually he was able to return to his own name and his legal practice in New York. There he lived out his days in relative obscurity, adopting two boys (one possibly his own illegitimate child) and even remarrying in 1833, at the age of 77, to a rich widow in her fifties. She divorced him shortly thereafter when she realised he was using her money to speculate on the land market. Three years later, after a long illness, he died. He had played a vital role in the founding of one republic, and nearly caused another to be founded thirty years before its time, but in the end it was as a duellist and killer he would be most remembered. Playing second fiddle to Hamilton, even after death – nothing would have annoyed him more.

[1] Among those he saved was Alexander Hamilton, of whom more later.

[2] Louisiana was not yet a state, and so its governor was appointed rather than elected.


Theodosia Burr Alston was born to Aaron Burr and Theodosia Bartow (Prevost) Burr in Albany, New York in 1783, a year after they married. Alston's mother was the widow of Jacques Marcus Prevost (1736-1781), a British Army officer who settled in New York City she had five other children from that marriage and was nine years Burr's senior. [1]

Alston was raised mostly in New York City. Her education was closely supervised by her father, who stressed mental discipline. In addition to the more conventional subjects such as French (the French textbook by Martel, Martel's Elements, published by Van Alen in New York in 1796, is dedicated to Theodosia), music, and dancing, the young "Theo" began to study arithmetic, Latin, Greek, and English composition. She applied herself to English in the form of letters to her father, which were responded to promptly, with the inclusion of detailed criticism. Their correspondence numbered thousands of letters. [1]

Theodosia Bartow Burr died when her daughter was eleven years old. After this event, her father closely supervised his daughter's social education, including training in an appreciation of the arts. By the age of fourteen, she began to serve as hostess at Richmond Hill, Burr's stately home in what is now Greenwich Village. Once, when Burr was away in 1797, his daughter presided over a dinner for Joseph Brant, Chief of the Six Nations. On this occasion, she invited physicians David Hosack and Samuel Bard, and Bishop Benjamin Moore, among other notables.

In 1801, Theodosia married Joseph Alston, a wealthy landowner from South Carolina who would become the 44th governor of that state. They honeymooned at Niagara Falls, the first recorded couple to do so. [2] It has been conjectured that there was more than romance involved in this union. Burr agonized intensely and daily about money matters, particularly as to how he would hold on to the Richmond Hill estate. It is thought that his daughter's tie to a member of the Southern gentry might relieve him of some of his financial burdens. The marriage to Alston meant that Theo would become prominent. Her letters to her father indicated that she had formed an affectionate alliance with her husband. The couple's son, Aaron Burr Alston, was born in 1802. [3]

Following the baby's birth, Alston's health became fragile. She made trips to Saratoga Springs, and Ballston Spa, New York, in an effort to restore her health. She also visited her father and accompanied him to Ohio in the summer of 1806, along with her son. There, Aaron met with an Irishman, Harman Blennerhassett, who had an island estate in the Ohio River in what is now West Virginia. The two men made plans which were later joined by General James Wilkinson however, what exactly those plans were is not definitively known due to lack of supporting evidence for any of the popular allegations.

In the spring of 1807, Burr was arrested for treason. During his trial in Richmond, Virginia, Alston was with him, providing comfort and support. Burr was acquitted of the charges against him but left for Europe, where he remained for a period of four years.

While her father remained in exile, Alston acted as his agent in the U.S., raising money which she sent to him, and transmitting messages. Alston wrote letters to Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin and to Dolley Madison in an effort to secure a smooth return for her father.

Alston's son succumbed to malaria and died on June 30, 1812, at age ten. The resulting anguish affected her health, to the point of preventing her from traveling to New York upon her father's return from Europe in July 1812. Unable to join him, she had to wait until December before she could make the journey.

Several months after the War of 1812 broke out, Alston's husband was sworn in as governor of South Carolina on December 10. As head of the state militia, he could not accompany her on the trip north. Burr sent Timothy Green, an old friend, to accompany her instead. Green possessed some medical knowledge.

On December 31, 1812, Alston sailed aboard the schooner Patriot from Georgetown, South Carolina. [4] : 265 The Patriot was a famously fast ship, which had originally been built as a pilot boat, and had served as a privateer during the war, when it was commissioned by the U.S. government to prey on English shipping. It had been refitted in December in Georgetown, its guns dismounted and hidden below decks. Its name was painted over and any indication of recent activity was entirely erased. The schooner's captain, William Overstocks, desired to make a rapid run to New York with his cargo it is likely that the ship was laden with the proceeds from its privateering raids.

The Patriot and all those on board were never heard from again.

Rumor and folklore Edit

Immediately following the Patriot ' s disappearance, rumors arose. The most enduring were that the Patriot had been captured by a pirate, that something had occurred near Cape Hatteras, notorious for wreckers who lured ships into danger.

Aaron Burr refused to credit any of the rumors of his daughter's possible capture, believing that she had died in a shipwreck. But the rumors persisted long after his death, and after around 1850, more substantial "explanations" of the mystery surfaced, usually alleging to be from the deathbed confessions of sailors and executed criminals. [5]

  • One story which was considered somewhat plausible was that the Patriot had fallen prey to the wreckers known as the Carolina "bankers," who operated near Nags Head, North Carolina and were known for pirating wrecks and murdering both passengers and crews. When the sea did not serve up wrecks for their plunder, they lured ships onto the shoals. On stormy nights the bankers would hobble a horse, tie a lantern around the animal's neck, and walk it up and down the beach. Sailors at sea could not distinguish the bobbing light they saw from that of a ship which was anchored securely. Often they steered toward shore to find shelter. Instead, they became wrecked on the banks, after which their crews and passengers were killed. In relation to this, a Mr. J.A. Elliott of Norfolk, Virginia, made a statement in 1910 that in the early part of 1813, the dead body of a young woman "with every indication of refinement" had been washed ashore at Cape Charles, and had been buried on her finder's farm. [5]
  • Writing in the CharlestonNews and Courier, Foster Haley claimed that documents he had discovered in the State archives in Mobile, Alabama said that the Patriot had been captured by a pirate vessel captained by John Howard Payne and that every person on board had been murdered by the pirates including "a woman who was obviously a noblewoman or a lady of high birth". However, Haley never identified or cited the documents he had supposedly found. [4] [page needed]
  • The most romantic legend involves piracy and a Karankawa Indian chief on the Texas Gulf Coast. The earliest American settlers to the Gulf Coast testified of a Karankawa warrior wearing a gold locket inscribed "Theodosia." He had claimed that after a terrible storm, he found a ship wrecked at the mouth of the San Bernard River. Hearing a faint cry, he boarded the hulk and found a white woman, naked except for the gold locket, chained to a bulkhead by her ankle. The woman fainted on seeing the Karankawa warrior, and he managed to pull her free and carry her to the shore. When she revived, she told him that she was the daughter of a great chief of the white men, who was misunderstood by his people and had to leave his country. She gave him the locket and told him that if he ever met white men, he was to show them the locket and tell them the story, and then she died in his arms.
  • Another myth traces its origin to Charles Gayarré's 1872 novel Fernando de Lemos: Truth and Fiction. Gayarré devoted one chapter to a fictional confession by the pirate Dominique Youx, admitting to having captured the Patriot after discovering it dismasted off Cape Hatteras following a storm. In Gayarré's account, Youx and his men murdered the crew, while Alston was made to walk the plank: "She stepped on it and descended into the sea with graceful composure, as if she had been alighting from a carriage," Gayarré wrote in Youx's voice. "She sank, and rising again, she, with an indescribable smile of angelic sweetness, waved her hand to me as if she meant to say: 'Farewell, and thanks again' and then sank forever." [4] : 293–294 Because Gayarré billed his novel as a mixture of "truth and fiction" there was popular speculation about whether his account of Youx's confession might be real, and the story entered American folklore. [6]
  • American folklorist Edward Rowe Snow later published an account in Strange Tales from Nova Scotia to Cape Hatteras incorporating the Gayarré story with later offshoots. For example, a woman named Harriet Sprague made a sworn statement before a Michigan notary on February 14, 1903, claiming to corroborate details in Gayarré's novel concerning Youx's confession. Sprague described the contents of an 1848 confession by pirate Frank Burdick, an alleged shipmate of Youx when the Patriot was attacked. [7][8] In Burdick's version, the pirates left most of Alston's clothing untouched, as well as a portrait of her. Later, "wreckers" (locals known for rifling stranded vessels in often-criminal fashion) discovered the deserted Patriot, and one of them carried the painting and clothing ashore. A legend later arose in Bald Head Island, North Carolina, that Theodosia roams the beaches searching for the painting. [9]
  • A popular (though very improbable) local story in Alexandria, Virginia, suggests that Alston may have been the Mysterious Female Stranger who died at Gadsby's Tavern on October 14, 1816. She was buried in St. Paul's Cemetery with a gravestone inscription that begins: "To the memory of a / FEMALE STRANGER / whose mortal sufferings terminated / on the 14th day of October 1816 / Aged 23 years and 8 months."

The Nag's Head Portrait Edit

  • In 1869, physician William G. Pool treated Polly Manncaring, an elderly woman in Nag's Head, and noticed an unusually expensive-appearing oil painting on her wall. Manncaring gave it to him as payment and claimed that when she was young, her first husband had discovered it on a wrecked ship during the War of 1812. [7] (Details of the painting in Sprague's story appears to be derived from a separate legend that first appeared in print in 1878.) [4] : 312 Pool became convinced the portrait was of Theodosia, and contacted members of her family, some of whom agreed, though Pool conceded that they "cannot say positively if it was her" because none of them had ever seen her. [4] : 315 Mary Alston Pringle, who had been Alston's sister-in-law, was the only person contacted by Pool who had actually known Theodosia, and Pringle could not recognize the painting as a portrait of her. [4] : 315–316 The portrait is now at Yale University's Lewis Walpole Library. [10]

Historical analysis Edit

A less romantic analysis of the known facts has led some scholars to conclude that the Patriot was probably wrecked by a storm off Cape Hatteras. Logbooks from the blockading British fleet report a severe storm which began off the Carolina coast in the afternoon of January 2, 1813, and continued into the next day.

James L. Michie, an archaeologist from South Carolina who studied the course of the storm, concluded that the Patriot was likely just north of Cape Hatteras when the storm was at its fiercest. "If the ship managed to escape this battering, which continued until midnight," Michie said, "it then faced near hurricane-force winds in the early hours of Sunday. Given this knowledge, the Patriot probably sank between 6:00 PM Saturday [January 2] and 8:00 AM Sunday [January 3]." [4] : 272–274


Watch the video: C-SPAN Cities Tour: Macon - Aaron Burr: Conspiracy to Treason (January 2022).