Aaron Burr

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Burr, Aaron

Burr, Aaron, 1756–1836, American political leader, b. Newark, N.J., grad. College of New Jersey (now Princeton).

Political Career

A brilliant law student, Burr interrupted his study to serve in the American Revolution and proved himself a valiant soldier in early campaigns. In 1779 ill health forced him to leave the army. Upon admission (1782) to the bar, he plunged energetically into the practice of both law and politics. He served as a member (1784–85; 1797–99) of the New York assembly, as state attorney general (1789–91), and as U.S. Senator (1791–97).

Defeated for reelection to the assembly in 1799, he set about organizing the Republican (see Democratic party) element in New York City for the election of 1800, for the first time making use of the Tammany Society for political purposes. The result was an unexpected victory for the Republicans, who gained control of the state legislature. Since the legislature named presidential electors and New York was the pivotal state, Burr's victory insured the election of a Republican president.

The intention of the party was to make Thomas Jefferson president and Burr vice president, but confusion in the electoral college resulted in a tie vote. This threw the election into the House of Representatives. There, the Federalist Alexander Hamilton, who regarded Jefferson as the lesser evil of the two Republicans, helped to secure Jefferson the presidency, and on the 36th ballot Burr became vice president.

Burr presided over the Senate with a dignity and impartiality that commanded respect from both sides, and in 1804 his friends nominated him for the governorship of New York. Hamilton again contributed to his defeat, in part by statements reflecting on Burr's character. Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel and mortally wounded him.

Accusation of Treason

Soon after Hamilton's death, Burr left Washington on a journey to New Orleans, at that time a center of Spanish conspiring for possession of the lower Mississippi valley. Burr, unaware that Gen. James Wilkinson was in the pay of the Spanish, laid plans with him; what exactly Burr's aims were has never been made clear. Speculation ranges from the establishment of an independent republic in the American Southwest to seizure of territory in Spanish America.

With money secured from Harman Blennerhassett, Burr acquired the Bastrop grant on the Ouachita River in Louisiana to serve as a base of operations. In the autumn of 1806, he and a party of 60-odd colonists, well-armed and supplied, began the journey west from Blennerhassett Island. Burr's earlier trip to New Orleans had brought him under suspicion; now distrust became widespread. Wilkinson, in an effort to save himself, turned against Burr, and in dispatches to Washington accused Burr of treason.

Burr was arrested and tried for treason in the U.S. Circuit Court at Richmond, Va., Chief Justice John Marshall presiding, and found not guilty. Popular opinion nonetheless condemned him, and his remaining years were spent in private life. He was married in 1833 to the famous Madame Jumel (see Jumel Mansion); they were divorced in 1834.


See his correspondence with his daughter, Theodosia (ed. by M. Van Doren, 1929); biographies by N. Schachner (1937, repr. 1961), S. H. Wandell and M. Minnegerode (1925, repr. 1971), H. M. Alexander (1937, repr. 1973) P. Vail (1974), and N. Isenberg (2007); H. C. Syrett and J. G. Cooke, ed., Interview in Weehawken (1960); J. Daniels, Ordeal of Ambition (1970); T. Fleming, Duel (1999); R. G. Kennedy, Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson (1999); R. K. Newmyer, The Treason Trial of Aaron Burr (2012); J. Sedgwick, War of Two (2015).

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Burr, Aaron

(1756–1836) vice-president, politician, adventurer; born in Newark, N.J. After serving with distinction in the American Revolution, he became a lawyer, engaged himself in some dubious land speculation, and was chosen a U.S. senator (Dem.-Rep., N.Y.; 1791–97). He was nominated in 1800 by the Democratic-Republican Party for vice-president, but because of the process then dictated by the Constitution, he ended up tied with Thomas Jefferson for the presidency. Refusing to concede the election, he forced the House of Representatives to 36 ballots before Jefferson won; Burr received little attention from Jefferson during his vice-presidency (1801–05). Climaxing a 15-year public and private feud with Alexander Hamilton, Burr challenged, dueled with, and killed Hamilton in 1804; after first fleeing south to avoid indictments, he returned to Washington to finish his term as vice-president. He then became involved with James Wilkinson in a still little-understood conspiracy, the goal of which seemed to be to create a new country in the southwest, with New Orleans as its capital. After escaping indictments three times in Kentucky and Mississippi Territory, he was arrested and tried in Virginia for treason, Chief Justice John Marshall presiding. He was acquitted of treason and all other charges. Setting off for Europe in 1808, he continued to try to engage first Britain and then France in his schemes for "liberating" the Spanish colonies in Mexico and America; when this failed, he returned to New York in 1812 and took up the practice of law. Always needing more money, at age 77 he married a wealthy widow, but she divorced him a year later. The last years of this problematic man were spent in relative obscurity.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.