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Aaron Burr was a soldier, lawyer, and politician and the third vice president of the United States.
Burr was born February 6, 1756, in Newark, New Jersey. His family traced its ancestry to the Pilgrims and through hundreds of years of English gentry with many members who were prominent in government and politics. Both his parents died when he was young and he and his sister were raised in comfortable circumstances by their maternal uncle. Burr was a bright, charming, handsome, and witty boy who was gifted intellectually but decidedly mischievous and difficult to control. From earliest childhood he showed ambition, determination, and leadership.
Burr entered the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) as a sophomore in 1769 at the age of thirteen and graduated summa cum laude three years later. He then enrolled in Litchfield Law School (Connecticut), which was run by his brother-in-law and former tutor, Tapping Reeve. However, the Revolutionary War and his desire to be a part of it interrupted his studies.
Burr rose swiftly through the ranks of the revolutionary army, displaying daring, energy, courage, and imagination. His small stature and pampered upbringing belied an internal strength that surprised many who knew him. Accompanying Colonel Benedict Arnold's troops in their expedition to Quebec, he endured cold, hunger, and illness. He was made an officer in the Continental Army and soon served with General George Washington.
Burr resigned his Army commission in 1779. He resumed the study of law in 1780 and was admitted to the bar in 1782. Later in 1782 he married Theodosia Prevost, a widow ten years his senior, and the following year their only child, a daughter also named Theodosia, was born.
In 1789 Burr was appointed attorney general of the state of New York and in 1791 he was elected a U.S. senator, defeating General Philip Schuyler, the father-in-law of Alexander Hamilton. This was the beginning of a bitter rivalry with Hamilton that would come to a ruinous conclusion years later.
Burr served in the Senate for six years. In 1797, the voters turned against him and elected his former antagonist, General Schuyler. Burr attributed his loss to Hamilton's assiduous efforts to undermine his support and reputation.
After losing his Senate seat, Burr served a short time in the New York assembly, before entering the presidential race of 1800. He and his opponent, Thomas Jefferson, received the same number of votes in the Electoral College, and the election went to the House of Representatives for resolution. Burr and his supporters were unabashedly ambitious in their zeal to win the office. Burr's nemesis Hamilton stepped into the fray, announcing his support for Jefferson and criticizing Burr. Finally, through clever manipulation of the voting process, Hamilton secured the presidency for Jefferson and Burr automatically became vice president. As a result of this peculiar election Congress passed the Twelfth Amendment, which mandated separate balloting for president and vice president.
"Law is whatever is boldly asserted and plausibly maintained."
Burr's ruthless and opportunistic ambition caused many of his colleagues to shun him both professionally and socially. President Jefferson held him at arm's length, and others in the administration treated him like an outsider. Burr blamed his failure to secure the top office largely on Hamilton and he brooded over perceived injustices. Having lost his beloved wife in 1794, Burr was left with only his daughter, whom he idolized. He devoted as much time and energy as possible to her education and her grooming. However, the young lady was moving into adulthood and a life of her own. In 1801,
United States v. Aaron Burr
In 1807 Aaron Burr was prosecuted for Treason and high misdemeanor in the federal circuit court in Richmond, Virginia, with U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall presiding as a trial judge. Despite evidence that Burr had been plotting to raise a rebellion and overtake a portion of the western territories in the United States and other evidence that Burr was planning to lead an unauthorized invasion of Mexico, the defendant was acquitted by a jury on both the treason and high misdemeanor charges.
Aaron Burr served as the nation's third vice president from 1801–1805, having lost the 1800 presidential election after the U.S. House of Representatives broke an electoral deadlock by naming Thomas Jefferson president and Burr vice president. Although Burr contemplated running for president again four years later, those ambitions came to an end when he was indicted for murdering Alexander Hamilton in a duel on July 11, 1804.
Later that same month, Burr, now disaffected with American politics, met with Britain's minister to the United States, Anthony Merry, who subsequently reported to his government that Burr "was endeavoring to effect a separation of the western part of the United States" via military action. In early 1805 Burr, while still acting as the vice president of the United States, contacted Spanish minister, Marques de Casa Yrujo, to discuss the same subject. The governments of both Great Britain and Spain declined to offer Burr any financial or military assistance.
When his term as vice president expired, Burr headed west to raise a military force that would either invade Mexico or forcefully sever the southwestern United States into an independent nation led by Burr himself. The former vice president first met with another malcontent, Herman Blennerhassett, on Blennerhassett Island, located in the Ohio River, then part of Virginia. A year later Burr joined forces with General James Wilkinson on Blennerhassett Island, where they assembled a force of unknown size to carry out Burr's plan. Burr left the island before any actions were taken to implement the plan.
After Burr departed, Wilkinson had second thoughts about the plan and informed President Jefferson of their rebellious preparations. Jefferson issued a proclamation calling for the suppression of the conspiracy. Federal authorities arrested Burr in March 1807 while he was trying to flee into Spanish Florida. The former vice president was brought back to Virginia where he stood trial before Chief Justice John Marshall (early Supreme Court justices performed double duty as appellate judges on the nation's high court and as trial judges in their designated circuit court) and state trial judge Cyrus Griffin. Bail was set at $5,000.
After hearing testimony from Wilkinson, the Grand Jury for the Virginia federal circuit court indicted Burr on June 24, 1807. The indictment charged him with one count of treason and one count of high misdemeanor for "unlawfully, falsely, maliciously, and traitorously … intending to raise and levy war" against the United States.
The trial began on August 10, 1807, and ended less than a month later, on September 1, 1807. Jefferson, motivated in part by personal vindictiveness against Burr, declared in a special message to Congress during the trial that Burr's guilt had been "placed beyond question." Jefferson then gave George Hay, the U.S. attorney in charge of the prosecution, incriminating evidence to offer against Burr. Jefferson also dangled pardons as enticements to any co-conspirators who agreed to turn state's evidence.
But the prosecution had two major problems. First, the linchpin of the treason charge was the alleged Overt Act of assembling a military force on Blennerhassett Island for the purpose of waging war against the United States. The indictment said this act occurred on December 10, 1806, a date on which all defense and prosecution witnesses agreed that Burr was not on the island, but instead hundreds of miles away.
Second, Chief Justice Marshall instructed the jurors that they could still convict Burr of treason for being a co-conspirator to the crime, so long as at least two witnesses provided testimony that some overt act was committed in furtherance of the conspiracy. But General Wilkinson was the only witness who testified as to Burr's involvement in the alleged crime. The jury returned a verdict of "not guilty" after deliberating for only 25 minutes.
On September 9, 1807, the trial for the high misdemeanor began, again with Chief Justice Marshall and Cyrus Griffin presiding. Prosecutor Hay called more than 50 witnesses to testify against the defendant. But the jury again acquitted Burr. Hay then filed a motion to prosecute Burr for treason in Ohio, alleging that the defendant conspired to levy war against the U.S. government in that jurisdiction as well. Marshall listened to five weeks of testimony concerning the motion and then on October 20 ruled that Burr could only be tried for misdemeanor charges in Ohio. Finally, Hay ceased efforts at prosecuting Burr any further.
Beirne, Francis. 1959. Shout Treason: The Trial of Aaron Burr. New York: Hastings House.
Melton, Bucker F., Jr. 2001. Aaron Burr: Conspiracy to Treason. New York: Wiley.
Vail, Philip. 1973. The Turbulent Life of Aaron Burr: The Great American Rascal. New York: Award Books.
against her father's wishes, she married Joseph Alston, of South Carolina, and moved to the Palmetto State, leaving Burr alone in Washington, D.C.
Toward the end of his term as vice president, Burr ran for governor of New York but was defeated. During the campaign Hamilton again expressed his distrust of Burr and made other disparaging comments about him. Feeling that his honor had been impugned, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Although Hamilton tried to defuse the conflict, Burr was determined to force a confrontation. The two men met at 7:00 a.m. on July 7, 1804. Burr was an excellent marksman, and he killed Hamilton with the first shot. In an ensuing public outcry, Burr was indicted for murder. He escaped to his daughter's home in South Carolina until the furor died down and eventually returned to Washington, D.C., to complete his term as vice president.
Burr came to realize that his aspirations to the presidency had been destroyed. His political career in ruins, he left Washington, D.C., and traveled west to explore frontier territory. He also concocted an elaborate conspiracy that was to be his final political undoing. Though complete details of the scheme have never been fully discovered, Burr apparently intended to lead the western states in an insurrection against the federal government. After the states seceded, he planned to install himself as the head of a newly created republic. He then intended to conquer Texas and Mexico. In October 1806, President Jefferson issued a proclamation denouncing Burr's venture. On January 14, 1807, Burr was arrested in Mississippi on a charge of Treason. He escaped, but was later apprehended in Alabama. Burr's trial began in May 1807, and lasted six months. He was eventually acquitted but his political life was over.
Burr spent the next several years in exile in Europe, where he endured poverty, humiliation, and degradation. In 1812, he quietly returned to the United States, slipping into Boston wearing a disguise and using an assumed name. After a time he resumed a somewhat normal life and opened a law office in New York. Burr's prospects seemed to be brightening when he was dealt two crushing personal blows. First, he learned that his only grandchild, Aaron Burr Alston, had died before Burr returned to the United States. A few months later his beloved daughter perished in a shipwreck while traveling from South Carolina to New York to visit Burr.
Burr was devastated by these losses. A wave of sympathy tempered public opinion toward him, but he was still shunned by those in prominence. He continued his law practice, enjoyed a small circle of supportive friends, and even remarried, though the union was short-lived and unhappy. He quietly and unobtrusively engaged in numerous altruistic and philanthropic ventures, including providing for the education of young men and women of limited resources and adopting an orphan who lived with him until late adolescence.
During the last few years of his life, Burr suffered a series of strokes. At first, he rebounded completely, but each successive episode left him weaker. He died September 14, 1836, and was buried beside his parents and grandfather in Princeton, New Jersey.
Kennedy, Roger G. 2000. Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character. Oxford; New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Lomask, Milton. 1982. Aaron Burr. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Melton, Buckner F., Jr. 2001. Aaron Burr: Conspiracy to Treason. New York: Wiley.
Vail, Philip. 1973. The Great American Rascal. New York: Hawthorn Books.