Thirteen years after the ratification of the United States Constitution, Aaron Burr became the third man to take on the role of vice president. But despite having held this patriotic position, he eventually plotted against the country that he’d helped to found. By the end of his scheming, this once powerful politican’s career was in tatters. So what is the real story of Aaron Burr?
Initially running as a Democratic-Republican Party presidential candidate alongside Thomas Jefferson, Burr found himself unexpectedly tied for the role. And even though Jefferson eventually won, the relationship between the two men was characterized by unease. Yes, for four years Burr served as Jefferson’s vice – a tenure fraught with drama and dissent.
Distrustful of his ambitious second-in-command, Jefferson shut Burr off from party affairs. And despite winning praise in the courtroom, he was viewed as dangerous and untrustworthy by some fellow politicians. Then, in July 1804, he shot a rival dead in a duel, bringing his time in office to an abrupt end.
Today, Burr is mostly remembered for his role in the untimely death of founding father Alexander Hamilton. But in the following years, he became involved in a treacherous plot that caused even more scandal than the murderous duel. And in 1807 he appeared in court accused of treason, one of the first to face these charges in the United States.
So how did Burr’s political career come to such an acrimonious end? Like many of his peers, the future vice president enjoyed a relatively privileged start in life. Born in 1756, he was the son of the College of New Jersey president Aaron Burr Sr. and his wife, Esther. And while his father worked as a Presbyterian minister, his mother was the daughter of Jonathon Edwards, a respected theologian.
Tragically, however, Burr and his sister were orphaned at a young age and spent their youth being passed between different homes. Then, at just 13, the future vice president was accepted into Princeton University. Three years later, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree, initially deciding to pursue a career in theology.
At the age of 19, Burr began to focus on law instead, relocating to Connecticut in order to further his studies. And it was there that he first heard whispers of the Revolutionary War. So in 1775 the aspiring lawyer decided to put his career on hold and join the Continental Army, fighting for the independence of the United States.
Before long, Burr had proved himself to be an honorable and brave man on the battlefield, choosing the frontline over a cushy job on George Washington’s staff. And in July 1777 he was promoted to colonel, often in charge of some 300 men. But despite some successes, his regiment was decimated by British forces the following year.
Around the same time, Burr fell ill with heat stroke, and his poor health eventually forced him to resign in March 1779. Shifting his focus back to his legal career, he passed the bar in 1782, the same year that he married his wife, Theodosia. The following year, Britain lost the war, and Burr started out as a lawyer in New York City.
Then, in 1784, Burr got his first taste of politics, serving in the New York State Assembly for one year. Subsequently, in 1789, he was appointed as attorney general, the chief legal officer of the entire state. And two years later, he was elected as a senator, a role that he would hold for the next six years.
While serving as a senator, Burr also ran for president in the 1796 election. However, he ultimately lost out to John Adams, with both Jefferson and Thomas Pinckney also winning more votes. But this did not deter the future vice president from pursuing politics. And in 1799 he made a bold move that won him both power and mistrust.
At the time, the Federalist party had a monopoly on banking in New York City. Keen to wield the influence associated with the industry, however, Burr tricked his rivals into supporting the establishment of a water company. At the last minute, he changed the organization’s remit, and the Bank of Manhattan Company was born. While effective, it was a move that won him a number of enemies, including Hamilton.
With his newfound influence, Burr was able to secure support for Jefferson and the Democratic-Republican party in New York. And at the 1800 election, he appeared alongside the future president on the ballot paper. At the time, candidates simply went for the presidency, and the runner up would become vice president. Of course, Jefferson was the party’s preferred man for the top job.
In any case, Jefferson and Burr ended up in a tie. And while it was clear that the party intended for the latter to take on the role of vice president, Burr refused to budge. So the election was passed to the House of Representatives, while rumors began to spread that Burr was part of a Federalist conspiracy.
Ultimately, this conspiracy was never proved, and Jefferson was inaugurated as president in 1801. However, the drama of the election meant that he had been left with little trust in Burr. Alienated from party affairs, the vice president nevertheless proved himself skilled at a number of roles, including presiding over the Senate.
But behind the scenes, Burr’s enemies were still bitter. And chief among them was Hamilton, who was apparently outspoken about his feelings toward his rival. In fact, he warned his fellow Federalists that the vice president was an unscrupulous politician happy to change his alignment in order to further his career.
In April 1804 The Albany Register intercepted and published a letter from the Democratic-Republican politician Charles D. Cooper. “I assert that Gen. Hamilton and Judge Kent have declared, in substance, that they looked upon Mr. Burr to be a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reigns of government,” it read.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the article also implied that Hamilton himself held an even lower opinion of Burr. And after its publication, the vice president wrote to his Federalist rival demanding a retraction of the slanderous statements. Meanwhile, for his part, Hamilton claimed that it was the author of the letter, rather than himself, who had made the comments.
Eventually, when no apology was forthcoming, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Because the practice was illegal in New York, however, they arranged to meet in the neighboring state of New Jersey instead. Apparently, duelling was also against the law there, but the punishments were not so severe. And so, on July 11, 1804, the two men met outside the town of Weehawken.
Within seconds, the duel was over. While Hamilton’s bullet had missed his opponent, Burr’s shot had pierced his rival’s abdomen and damaged his internal organs. Mortally wounded, the Federalist was whisked to a friend’s home in Manhattan, where he was baptized. The following day, he succumbed to his injuries and died.
In the following days, a number of stories began to spread that questioned the fairness of the duel. On one side, there were claims that the guns, provided by Hamilton, had been rigged in the Federalist’s favor. However, others argued that Burr had enjoyed an unfair advantage due to the location of the sun.
Moreover, there were others who claimed that Hamilton had never intended to actually shoot Burr during the duel. And while this story was initially spread by media outlets that supported the deceased, it was corroborated by witnesses and in letters penned by the Federalist before the face-off took place.
Charged with murder in both the states of New York and New Jersey, Burr initially fled to his daughter’s home in South Carolina. However, he was still technically the vice president of the United States and soon returned to Washington to fulfill his duties. But the scandal of the duel followed him, and his political career soon came to an end.
You see, when Jefferson campaigned for re-election in 1804, he chose to share a ballot with George Clinton rather than Burr. And in March 1805, the vice president was removed from office. But despite his role in Hamilton’s death, he would never face prosecution. Instead, he made his way west, where destiny was waiting in a different form.
The year that he left office, Burr traveled first to Virginia and then southwest to what is now Louisiana. Now, just two years previously, the United States had forked out some $15 million to acquire this French territory. And there, Burr leased a large tract of land from the Spanish, who also controlled some parts of the region.
What Burr did next, like his battle with Hamilton, remains a matter of some mystery. According to some reports, he hoped to establish a large settlement on his land. Was it possible that the former vice president had set his hopes on an empire of his own? Or was he simply seeking a means of making his fortune?
Well, at the time it looked like the relationship between the United States and Spain, which then ruled Mexico, might descend into war. And some believed that Burr’s presence in Louisiana was intended to provoke such a conflict. In fact, it later emerged that Burr had been plotting to join the southwestern states with Mexico and create a new republic in their place.
According to History.com, Burr floated the idea of a western “separation” in America with the British, who were still hurting from U.S. independence. But they didn’t go for the deal. For his part, Burr always denied having made any nefarious plans. Instead, he claimed his “settlement” in Louisiana was intended to provide a force of armed men in case of any upcoming Spanish conflict. If war broke out, he would be well placed to stake a claim and keep his lands.
Whatever Burr was plotting, he enlisted the help of General James Wilkinson, the Governor of the Louisiana Territory and Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Army at New Orleans. However, this relationship would prove to be the former vice president’s undoing. You see, in 1806 trouble brewed when Burr’s armed men drew the attention of the authorities while en route to New Orleans.
Keen to save his own skin, Wilkinson turned informant against Burr and sent word of his activities to Jefferson. Two days later, the president made an announcement, although he did not identify his former second-in-command by name. Instead, he stated that he had uncovered a plot of treason and encouraged any guilty parties to lay aside their plans.
But this anonymity did not last. And on January 22, 1807, Jefferson issued a statement claiming that Burr was guilty of treason – before any trial had taken place. Almost immediately, this decision drew criticism from other politicians, including the president’s predecessor John Adams. Nevertheless, Burr was arrested the following month.
During the investigation, evidence came to light to support the claims that Burr had planned to support Mexico in overthrowing Spanish rule. Moreover, there was also some proof that he intended to establish a dynasty in the Central American country. If true, these actions would have constituted a misdemeanour, but Jefferson decided to pursue a charge of treason instead.
However, Jefferson’s determination to see his former vice president locked up for treason hit a snag when the case went to court. Presiding over the proceedings was John Marshall, the Supreme Court Chief Justice of the United States. And although the two men were cousins, they held greatly opposing views – and fostered a relationship characterized by dislike.
Previously, Marshall had already dismissed a case against Burr’s associates on the grounds that they had not committed any crime in Washington D.C. However, Jefferson continued to pursue the traitor, and he was eventually sent to stand trial in Richmond, VA. Meanwhile, the president dedicated a huge amount of time and resources to stacking the odds against Burr.
On August 3, 1807, Burr’s trial began. However, it didn’t take long for Marshall to dismiss the case once more. You see, the U.S. Constitution states that to be guilty of treason one of two circumstances must apply. Yes, either the accused confesses, or two people must testify to witnessing the alleged act.
Unfortunately, there were no witnesses to any acts of treason on Burr’s behalf. And as such, he was acquitted less than a month after the trial began. Afterwards, Jefferson was so furious with the outcome that he attempted to get the very Constitution itself amended. From his perspective, Marshall had allowed treasonous behavior to go unpunished, and as president he should have been able to intervene.
Unsurprisingly, this proposed amendment to the Constitution never materialized. Meanwhile, although he was technically found not guilty, Burr’s political career was ruined. Wanting to leave the rumors behind, he caught a ship to Europe where he spent four years in exile. Ultimately, however, he returned to New York and his first passion of law.
Today, Burr is remembered in a number of different ways. According to some, the lack of evidence presented in court proves that the former vice president was never guilty of treason. In fact, there are historians who paint Burr as an unsung hero, championing his progressiveness and support of women’s rights.
However, others have viewed Burr in a less sympathetic light, somewhat of a rogue politician. After all, there seems to be plenty of evidence to suggest that he really had planned an invasion of Mexico. And while in exile in Europe, the wayward personality apparently sought funds to mount a second attempt to seize power in the Central American country.
Whatever the truth, Burr was never prosecuted for his alleged crimes. Instead, he lived out his final years in New York before dying at the age of 80 in 1836. Two centuries later, the former vice president is mostly remembered for his role in Hamilton’s dramatic death. But as one of only a handful of people to ever be tried for treason in the United States, he nearly left a very different legacy behind.