Aaron Burr arrested for alleged treason

Aaron Burr arrested for alleged treason


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Aaron Burr, a former U.S. vice president, is arrested in Alabama on charges of plotting to annex Spanish territory in Louisiana and Mexico to be used toward the establishment of an independent republic.

In November 1800, in an election conducted before presidential and vice-presidential candidates shared a single ticket, Thomas Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, defeated Federalist incumbent John Adams with 73 electoral votes each. The tie vote then went to the House to be decided, and Federalist Alexander Hamilton was instrumental in breaking the deadlock in Jefferson’s favor. Burr, because he finished second, became vice president.

READ MORE: Aaron Burr's Notorious Treason Case

During the next few years, President Jefferson grew apart from his vice president and did not support Burr’s renomination to a second term in 1804. A faction of the Federalists, who had found their fortunes drastically diminished after the ascendance of Jefferson, sought to enlist the disgruntled Burr into their party. However, Alexander Hamilton opposed such a move and was quoted by a New York newspaper saying that he “looked upon Mr. Burr to be a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government.” The article also referred to occasions when Hamilton had expressed an even “more despicable opinion of Burr.” Burr demanded an apology, Hamilton refused, so Burr challenged his old political antagonist to a duel.

On July 11, 1804, the pair met at a remote spot in Weehawken, New Jersey. Hamilton, whose son was killed in a duel in 1801, deliberately fired into the air, but Burr fired with intent to kill. Hamilton, fatally wounded, died in New York City the next day. The questionable circumstances of Hamilton’s death effectively brought Burr’s political career to an end.

Fleeing to Virginia, he traveled to New Orleans after finishing his term as vice president and met with U.S. General James Wilkinson, who was an agent for the Spanish. The exact nature of what the two plotted is unknown, but speculation ranges from the establishment of an independent republic in the American Southwest to the seizure of territory in Spanish America for the same purpose.

In the fall of 1806, Burr led a group of well-armed colonists toward New Orleans, prompting an immediate investigation by U.S. authorities. General Wilkinson, in an effort to save himself, turned against Burr and sent dispatches to Washington accusing Burr of treason. On February 19, 1807, Burr was arrested in Alabama for alleged treason and sent to Richmond, Virginia, to be tried in a U.S. circuit court.

On September 1, 1807, he was acquitted on the grounds that, although he had conspired against the United States, he was not guilty of treason because he had not engaged in an “overt act,” a requirement of treason as specified by the U.S. Constitution. Nevertheless, public opinion condemned him as a traitor, and he spent several years in Europe before returning to New York and resuming his law practice.

READ MORE: Aaron Burr's Political Legacy Died in the Duel with Alexander Hamilton


Here's Why Aaron Burr Might Have Committed Treason

"Hamilton" has been out for a decent amount of time, not to mention the musical's more recent release on Disney+. It's been all over the internet, but in case you somehow haven't seen or heard of it, here's the primer. Basically, the musical follows the titular Alexander Hamilton before, during, and after the Revolutionary War, highlighting various different highs and lows in his life, including his long-time rivalry with Aaron Burr. It ends with the famous duel between the two which ended in Hamilton's death, and the entire sequence is played out beautifully.

In real history, though, Burr's story didn't end there. Sure, it's narratively satisfying for the purposes of the stage, but Burr still had quite a few more years ahead of him. And, in all honesty, those years post-duel, especially immediately post-duel, are absolutely wild. The man who was apparently willing to "wait for it" gave up on that policy entirely and went off to really make his mark in the most dramatic way possible. Even if those plans to do so involved potential secession, war, and treason, only to end in years of self-imposed exile.

Again, it's a whole, weird story, and one that sounds ridiculous when summarized, and maybe even more ridiculous when expanded upon.


Aaron Burr Revised: Conspiracy, Treason and Justice

Who remembers Aaron Burr as anything more than Quick Draw McGraw shooting down the near-sighted Alexander Hamilton at dawn in 1804? But there is much more to the man, as Gore Vidal revealed in his intriguing 1973 historical novel, and other subsequent scholarship.

Two aspects of Burr’s varied career stand out in today’s world. First, his treason trial that closely examined issues of what counts as an act of war against one’s own government. And second, his relationships with a series of highly intelligent and accomplished women, reflecting his high opinion of the female sex and its potential.

Burr became Vice-President after a bitter contested fight over the presidency when he tied with Jefferson in the election of 1800. When Jefferson who disliked his rival booted him as VP for the 1804 run, Burr thought he would be a natural for the governorship of New York. But his political enemies from both sides of the emerging party system of Federalists (Hamilton et al.) and Republicans (Jefferson et al.) joined to deny him that post, too, as they had earlier in the 1792 race. It was political gossip connected to the gubernatorial contest that led to the duel with Hamilton.

The story we now know, due to the uncovering of diplomatic documents then unavailable lets us know that Burr did indeed become an adventurer. After fleeing from the Northeast to escape indictment for the death of Hamilton, Burr hatched other grand plans to achieve the power constantly eluding him in US politics. He was scheming with US General James Wilkinson to annex southwestern territories and conquer Mexico, and possibly Florida. The two men were negotiating with both the British and Spanish. Wilkinson, although an US Army officer, had been a paid Spanish spy for years. Wilkinson, who avoided damage to his reputation and kept his army post, was actual the more treasonous of the two, betraying both the Americans and the Spanish in a complicated double game. So, the Burr-Wilkinson conspiracy was real, the plans were real, but the whole scheme took place over such an extended period and far-flung territory around and about the new Louisiana Purchase, that it was revealed in bits and pieces, long before any military action occurred.

Although history has enshrined Burr as the great traitor, Chief Justice John Marshall did not convict him, despite enormous pressure from President Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s Vendetta: The Pursuit of Aaron Burr and the Judiciary help to explain why. Author Joseph Wheelan writes, “that Marshall was “troubled by Jefferson’s obsessive pursuit of Burr and alarmed at how easily treason law could be forged into a weapon of repression.” And thus Marshall “defended individual rights but balanced them with society’s welfare.” Burr was accused of levying war against the United States. But he was not present on the island where the military force was assembled, it was unclear if such a force was assembled, there were no witnesses to acts of war, and it could not be established that there were any acts of war. And when the Ohio militia came, since the island in the Ohio River actually lay within Virginia’s territory, the Ohio militia had no legal authority to act anyway.

What’s fascinating about the case, is that the Supreme Court under Marshall was so closely in touch with the intentions of the founders who worried about making laws that criminalized even thinking about waging war on the King, rather than sticking to overt acts of war. Keeping the distinction between treasonous thoughts and treasonous acts in mind, Marshall felt he could not find anything in the many witnesses’ testimony that could satisfy this distinction. So the Chief Justice instructed the jury to pay attention to those very facts. It helped that Burr one of the finest litigators in the country, had an extraordinary legal team to make his case. And in today’s climate of the endless war on terror with proliferating court cases focused on defining ever more subtle versions of treason, it is fascinating to watch the earliest Supreme Court celebrity treason trial argue the issues.

The other feature of Burr’s career that somehow did not seem to matter in the customary assessments of the founding years was his interest in women’s rights. He, like Jefferson and Hamilton, was a prodigious reader, a quick study and a precocious student. To the end of his life he could not stop buying books. And part of his intellectual armature included the latest modern thinking about women’s potential, the need for equal education, and the glaring disparities and legal disabilities that afflicted the “fair sex.”

Burr read Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” and hung her portrait in his mansion. He had his daughter learn to ride, fence and shoot a pistol. Although part of the Burr legacy has been to paint him as a womanizer, a closer look at whom he chose to love reveals more than a salivating wolf.

Illustration: Aaron Burr by John Vanderlyn in 1809. Courtesy of New-York Historical Society.


Aaron Burr is arrested for treason

On this day in history, February 19, 1807, Aaron Burr is arrested for treason. Aaron Burr was America’s third Vice-President under Thomas Jefferson. He is best-known today for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel after some private comments Hamilton made disparaging Burr’s character were made public and Hamilton refused to retract the statements.

Less known is an incident Burr was involved in after his term as vice-president ended along with his political career due to the Hamilton incident. After his term, Burr went west to the American frontier and purchased land in the newly purchased Louisiana Territory, where he became involved in a scheme to either develop a new state in Louisiana or, more seriously, to conquer part of Mexico, apparently hoping to revive his political career.

This was illegal because Mexico was still a Spanish possession and only the United States government had the authority to make war or negotiate with foreign governments. Burr worked together with US General James Wilkinson who was the US Army Commander at New Orleans and the Governor of the Louisiana Territory. Together they developed their plans and raised a small privately funded army to accomplish their ends. They even negotiated with Great Britain, which considered aiding their plans, but eventually pulled out.

General Wilkinson eventually became nervous that the plans would fail and he could be implicated in a crime. He turned on Burr and wrote to President Thomas Jefferson about Burr’s plan and accused him of treason. In addition, some of Jefferson’s slave-holding supporters demanded that he do something about Burr because whatever territory Burr ended up controlling would be slave-free, since he was firmly against slavery. They did not want a slave-free territory in the south. Jefferson eventually charged Burr with treason, a charge which didn’t exactly fit the crime. Burr tried to escape to Spanish Florida, but was caught at Wakefield in the Mississippi Territory on February 19, 1807.

Burr was tried in a sensational trial in Richmond, Virginia beginning on August 3. He was represented by Edmund Randolph and Luther Martin, both former members of the Continental Congress. The evidence was so flimsy against Burr that four grand juries had to be convened before the prosecution could get an indictment. General Wilkinson, the chief witness for the prosecution, was found to have forged a letter, allegedly from Burr, stating his plans to steal land from Louisiana. This weakened the prosecution’s case and left Wilkinson in disgrace.

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, oversaw the case and was pressured by Thomas Jefferson to make a conviction. Marshall, however, did not find Burr guilty of treason and he was acquitted on September 1. He was then tried on a more reasonable misdemeanor charge, but was acquitted of this charge as well.

After the trial, Burr’s hopes of reviving his political career were dead and he fled to Europe. For several years, he attempted to talk various European governments into cooperating with his plans to conquer Mexico, but he was rebuffed by all. Eventually he returned to the United States and resumed his law practice in New York, where he maintained a relatively low profile for the rest of his life.

National Society Sons of the American Revolution

"A right to property is founded in our natural wants, in the means with which we are endowed to satisfy these wants, and the right to what we acquire by those means without violating the similar rights of other sensible beings."
Thomas Jefferson


This week in history: Aaron Burr is arrested for treason

On the night of Feb. 18-19, 1807, former vice president of the United States Aaron Burr was arrested on charges of treason. Burr supposedly had been involved in a plan to detach part of the Louisiana Territory from the United States, or possibly provoke a war with Spain in order to create a new nation in what was then the American Southwest.

Burr's grandfather had been Massachusetts Congregationalist minister Jonathan Edwards, one of the men who had sparked the colonies' Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s. Burr himself had been an officer during the American Revolution, seeing action at Quebec in 1775 and sharing in the Continental Army's cold and misery at Valley Forge in 1777. The next year, he resigned from the Army due to ill health.

As the war wound down, Burr became a lawyer and eventually a successful New York state politician. Burr had become such an influential figure in the New York state Democratic-Republican Party that when Thomas Jefferson ran for president in 1800, he needed Burr's help to carry New York. Burr's price was the vice presidential slot. In 1800, however, the Constitution stated that the candidate with the most electoral votes would become president, while the candidate who received the second most votes would become vice president.

Wishing to avoid a repeat of the 1796 election, in which Federalist leaning John Adams won the presidency while Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson won the vice presidency, Democratic-Republican electors were given explicit instructions on how to cast each of their two electoral votes — all would vote for Jefferson with their first vote, all but one would vote for Burr with their second. The belief was this would be enough votes to sideline incumbent President John Adams' re-election bid.

When the votes were cast however, both Burr and Jefferson each received the exact same amount of electoral votes. Rather than step down, Burr pressed his case, much to the anger of Jefferson. The matter was decided by the House of Representatives, which ultimately decided in Jefferson's favor. Burr got the vice presidency, and Jefferson never forgot or forgave what he considered Burr's treachery.

Jefferson excluded Burr from important decisions, and Burr, feeling useless as vice president, campaigned for an ambassadorship to Britain or France. Jefferson, however, did not feel like doing Burr any favors, and likewise had no plans to keep him on the 1804 presidential ticket (which had been modified in the 12th Amendment to the Constitution that year). In early 1804, Burr decided to run for governor of New York, but was defeated by Morgan Lewis. Burr grew desperate.

By the summer of 1804, Burr had caught wind of rumors that Alexander Hamilton, former secretary of the treasury and a fellow New York lawyer, had slandered and insulted him during the gubernatorial campaign. Hamilton, who had been out of the national political spotlight since the 1800 election, accepted Burr's challenge to duel, largely because he believed it was a great piece of political theater. When the two men met on the New Jersey shore (dueling was illegal in New York), on July 11, 1804, Burr fatally shot Hamilton.

Burr completed his term as vice president with a cloud over his head. Despite the fact that the duel had been an honest and agreed-to affair, Burr was indicted in both New York and New Jersey for murder. When federal judge Samuel Chase was impeached, Burr, who as vice president served as the president of the Senate, oversaw the trial.

Jefferson saw the trial as a way to prove his theory that the judiciary branch was beneath the other two branches of the federal government, the executive and the legislative. Jefferson instructed Burr to treat the proceedings as no big deal, as though trying and removing federal judges was to be a common occurrence. In fact, Burr treated the event with great solemnity, noting that the impeachment of a federal judge was a rare and uncommon thing. Chase was acquitted in early 1805.

When his term expired in March 1805, Burr fled west, eventually claiming that he was going to take possession of land in Texas that he had leased from the Spanish government. In fact, Burr had been meeting with various shady figures throughout the country, and rumors began to swirl that a conspiracy was afoot. One of the figures that Burr was in cahoots with was James Wilkinson, America's highest ranking general as well as Agent 13, a spy for the Spanish crown.

Traveling throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio and the Louisiana Territory, Burr did indeed begin to recruit men and stockpile weapons. Historians are unclear as to exactly what Burr's intentions were at this time. Was Burr planning on carving out of the Louisiana Territory a new nation? Was he planning on fomenting a war with Spain, in the hopes of capturing Spanish territory for himself? His ultimate goals remain murky. Wilkinson, however, had been a major partner in Burr's plans.

In the book “Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the Future of America,” historian Thomas Fleming wrote: “But General Wilkinson was still Agent 13, on the Spanish payroll. … Wilkinson sent a message to President Jefferson, announcing he had just uncovered a nefarious plot to revolutionize the West and start a war with Spain. The general also rushed letters to the Spanish governor of Florida and the imperial viceroy in Mexico City, telling them of his good deed on Spain's behalf and demanding an appropriate reward.”

With no hard evidence of any crime other than Wilkinson's letter, Jefferson jumped on the opportunity to sideline his old nemesis once and for all. He ordered that Burr be arrested and brought to trial (though for just what charge, no one yet knew).

The National Center for Constitutional Studies book, “The Real Thomas Jefferson: The True Story of America's Philosopher of Freedom,” includes Jefferson's message to Congress, justifying his actions: “(Burr) collected … all the ardent, restless, desperate and disaffected persons who were ready for any enterprise analogous to their characters. He seduced good and well-meaning citizens, some by assurances that he possessed the confidence of the government and was acting under its secret patronage, a pretense which obtained some credit from the state of our differences from Spain.”

Many of the figures Burr “seduced” had been those disaffected by Jefferson's presidency. Fearing that the Federalists had politicized the Army, Jefferson had purged the American military for those he suspected of political disloyalty. With Congress he had created the military academy at West Point, which left many existing Army officers without prospects for promotion now that new recruits — supposedly educated in military matters — were expected to be the backbone of America's defense. Also, Jefferson's weak response to the British practice of impressment — stealing sailors off of American ships for use in the Royal Navy — bred resentment among many citizens and military men.

Jefferson's order to capture Burr soon made its way west, however. In January 1807, after supposedly plotting treason and setting out from Blennerhassett Island on the Ohio River, Burr surrendered his small force of 60 men to authorities, was arraigned in a court, and released. This did not stop Jefferson's order to capture him, however. Burr then attempted to make for Spanish Florida, but on the night of Feb. 18-19, 1807, he was finally captured in Wakefield, Mississippi Territory (today Alabama), by Edmund Pendleton Gaines of the U.S. Army. Gaines held Burr at Fort Stoddert, before he was eventually tried in Richmond, Virginia.

In the book “The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln,” historian Sean Wilentz wrote: “Jefferson, in one of his rash moments, publicly proclaimed Burr's guilt and then plunged into trying to ensure his conviction. The trial — in which Burr retained a team that included none other than Samuel Chase's defender, Luther Martin — became a political imbroglio. Federalists, including presiding Justice (John) Marshall, used the occasion to embarrass Jefferson, going so far as to issue a subpoena to the president.”

Ultimately, Burr was acquitted of treason. Though the verdict was officially “Not proven,” Marshall recorded it as “Not guilty.” Burr, however, was almost certainly guilty of some form of treason, though exactly what his aims were will almost certainly never be known. The event also proved to be less than Jefferson's finest hour, as he was consistently willing to trample on Burr's civil rights and make proclamations regarding his guilt before the trial began. His hatred for his rival trumped his famed (and perhaps falsely magnified with time) liberality.

Burr lived to be 80 years old, and died from natural causes in New York in September 1836.


ost Vice Presidents of the United States both serve out their term and then die in obscurity. There are exceptions — fourteen became President, eight of them because the President died during their term. Some of the Veeps lived interesting lives — John Tyler, for instance, had opposite political convictions of his own party and became the original Dr. No by using the presidential veto against his own Whig-dominated Congress. Another, Theodore Roosevelt, became one of the most famous and powerful Presidents of American history. The life of Vice President, Aaron Burr, however, took a dramatic nose-dive after his considerable political successes. He was accused of murder by both New York and New Jersey for killing Founding Father Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Two years after his Vice Presidency, Burr was arrested for joining a conspiracy to lead a rebellion against the United States and he stood trial for treason. Former Vice President Aaron Burr died in New York City, remembered much more for vice than presidency.


Aaron Burr, Jr. (1756-1836), third Vice President of the United States (1801-1805) under President Thomas Jefferson

Aaron Burr, Jr., was born in Newark, New Jersey with all the advantages a son could have: his father was one of the foremost Presbyterian ministers in America and second president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton). His mother was Esther Edwards, the daughter of the famous preacher, Jonathan Edwards. His mother, father, and grandfather all died within a year of each other, leaving two-year-old Aaron an orphan. He was taken in by his twenty-one-year-old uncle, Timothy Edwards. Aaron entered Princeton as a sophomore at the age of thirteen, and excelled in all his classes. He then studied for two years for the Gospel ministry before giving that up to read law and enter that profession. He was well suited — a powerful orator and formidable intellect.


Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), maternal grandfather of Aaron Burr, Jr.


Aaron Burr, Sr. (1716-1757), Presbyterian minister and a founder of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University)


Esther Burr, née Edwards (1732-1758), third oldest of eleven children of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards

When the War for Independence began, he quickly joined the fight, eventually rising to the rank of Colonel for his zeal, courage, and perseverance on the battlefield. He began his political career as a New York State Assemblyman, then Attorney General and then Senator from New York. He ran for President in 1796, finishing fourth and again in 1800, when he received tying electoral votes with Thomas Jefferson. Congress chose Jefferson. Burr became Vice President, but now spurned by his political party for opposing Jefferson. By all accounts, he was a fair and impartial Senator and VP, but a man of decided opinions who made political enemies easily. He founded the Manhattan Company Bank and used it to finance Democratic-Republican Party candidates.

Burr fought two duels. In the second, while Vice President, he killed Alexander Hamilton, infuriating the Federalists. After leaving the Vice Presidency in 1805, under a cloud of debt for failed land speculation and a man without a political party, with murder charges hanging over him in New Jersey and New York for the death of Hamilton (he was never tried), Burr travelled to the western frontier. He organized a small expeditionary armed force with which he hoped to claim land for speculation, and with which he said he would be ready to fight if the United States went to war with Spain over Florida. He joined with General James Wilkinson, American commander in chief of American forces in New Orleans, an arch conspirator himself. Wilkinson told President Jefferson that Burr was up to no good, receiving pay from Spain and conspiring against the United States. Arrested and released twice by federal officers, Burr fled toward Florida but was arrested in the Mississippi Territory now a part of Alabama.


Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), third President of the United States (1801-1809)


Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton duel to the death, 1804

Evidence seemed to indicate that Burr had created a filibustering expedition to set up an independent country in Mexican territory, and tempt western states to join him — a misdemeanor violation of the Neutrality Act. President Jefferson, however, wanted a treason conviction, and, after four attempts, got a grand jury to agree to a trial to be held in Federal District Court in Richmond, Virginia. The treason trial was one of the first test cases of the Treason Clause in the Constitution, with all-star casts of lawyers on both sides, with Thomas Jefferson calling the shots for the prosecution from the White House. John Marshall, chief Justice of the Supreme Court presided. Despite complicated details of Burr’s movements and apparent plans for the future, Marshall declared, in a narrow ruling, that Burr’s case did not meet the Constitution’s definition of treason. Although acquitted, Burr fled to England to escape creditors, and traveled through many countries of Europe. He even tried to drum up support to overthrow the Mexican government. After four years and a rebuff from Napoleon Bonaparte, England sent him packing. He returned to New York under an assumed name and returned to his law practice. The colorful and enigmatic Aaron Burr did not live up to his family heritage, and he died virtually unknown and un-mourned.


On This Day Aaron Burr arrested for treason

On This Day, February 19th in 1807, Aaron Burr, a former U.S. vice president, is arrested in Alabama on charges of plotting to annex Spanish territory in Louisiana and Mexico to be used toward the establishment of an independent republic.

In November 1800, in an election conducted before presidential and vice-presidential candidates shared a single ticket, Thomas Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, defeated Federalist incumbent John Adams with 73 electoral votes each. The tie vote then went to the House to be decided, and Federalist Alexander Hamilton was instrumental in breaking the deadlock in Jefferson’s favor. Burr, because he finished second, became vice president.

During the next few years, President Jefferson grew apart from his vice president and did not support Burr’s renomination to a second term in 1804. A faction of the Federalists, who had found their fortunes drastically diminished after the ascendance of Jefferson, sought to enlist the disgruntled Burr into their party. However, Alexander Hamilton opposed such a move and was quoted by a New York newspaper saying that he “looked upon Mr. Burr to be a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government.” The article also referred to occasions when Hamilton had expressed an even “more despicable opinion of Burr.” Burr demanded an apology, Hamilton refused, so Burr challenged his old political antagonist to a duel.

On July 11, 1804, the pair met at a remote spot in Weehawken, New Jersey. Hamilton, whose son was killed in a duel in 1801, deliberately fired into the air, but Burr fired with intent to kill. Hamilton, fatally wounded, died in New York City the next day. The questionable circumstances of Hamilton’s death effectively brought Burr’s political career to an end.


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 is arrested for treason

On this day in history, February 19, 1807, Aaron Burr is arrested for treason. Aaron Burr was America’s third Vice-President under Thomas Jefferson. He is best-known today for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel after some private comments Hamilton made disparaging Burr’s character were made public and Hamilton refused to retract the statements.

Less known is an incident Burr was involved in after his term as vice-president ended along with his political career due to the Hamilton incident. After his term, Burr went west to the American frontier and purchased land in the newly purchased Louisiana Territory, where he became involved in a scheme to either develop a new state in Louisiana or, more seriously, to conquer part of Mexico, apparently hoping to revive his political career.

This was illegal because Mexico was still a Spanish possession and only the United States government had the authority to make war or negotiate with foreign governments. Burr worked together with US General James Wilkinson who was the US Army Commander at New Orleans and the Governor of the Louisiana Territory. Together they developed their plans and raised a small privately funded army to accomplish their ends. They even negotiated with Great Britain, which considered aiding their plans, but eventually pulled out.

General Wilkinson eventually became nervous that the plans would fail and he could be implicated in a crime. He turned on Burr and wrote to President Thomas Jefferson about Burr’s plan and accused him of treason. In addition, some of Jefferson’s slave-holding supporters demanded that he do something about Burr because whatever territory Burr ended up controlling would be slave-free, since he was firmly against slavery. They did not want a slave-free territory in the south. Jefferson eventually charged Burr with treason, a charge which didn’t exactly fit the crime. Burr tried to escape to Spanish Florida, but was caught at Wakefield in the Mississippi Territory on February 19, 1807.

Burr was tried in a sensational trial in Richmond, Virginia beginning on August 3. He was represented by Edmund Randolph and Luther Martin, both former members of the Continental Congress. The evidence was so flimsy against Burr that four grand juries had to be convened before the prosecution could get an indictment. General Wilkinson, the chief witness for the prosecution, was found to have forged a letter, allegedly from Burr, stating his plans to steal land from Louisiana. This weakened the prosecution’s case and left Wilkinson in disgrace.

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, oversaw the case and was pressured by Thomas Jefferson to make a conviction. Marshall, however, did not find Burr guilty of treason and he was acquitted on September 1. He was then tried on a more reasonable misdemeanor charge, but was acquitted of this charge as well.

After the trial, Burr’s hopes of reviving his political career were dead and he fled to Europe. For several years, he attempted to talk various European governments into cooperating with his plans to conquer Mexico, but he was rebuffed by all. Eventually he returned to the United States and resumed his law practice in New York, where he maintained a relatively low profile for the rest of his life.

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"It is in the interest of tyrants to reduce the people to ignorance and vice. For they cannot live in any country where virtue and knowledge prevail."
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A Belligerent President, Accusations of Treason, and a Stolen Supreme Court Seat

Wood engraving of Aaron Burr exhorting his followers at Blennerhassett Island, on the Ohio River, in 1806, where an uneventful but armed standoff took place between Burr's men and a state militia. Burr later would face trial for an alleged "overt act" of treason. "Parade of Burr's force." Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

By Jonathan W. White | March 6, 2017

What does treason mean in America?

One answer lies in our nation’s founding document. Treason is the only crime defined in the U.S. Constitution, which states: “Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”

The Founders borrowed this language from the law of King Edward III of England. Enacted in A.D. 1350, Edward III’s statute had also criminalized “compassing or imagining” the death of the king, sexually violating certain women in the royal household, counterfeiting the great seal or coinage of the realm, and murdering certain royal officials—offenses that would not make sense to consider treasonous in a republic.

The U.S. Constitution also requires “the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act” or “Confession in open Court” in order to obtain a conviction. The requirement of an “overt Act” was intended to preclude judges or politicians from using treason trials to go after political opponents, as had been common in early modern England. Indeed, for centuries British monarchs had coerced judges into condemning political opponents to death based on spurious evidence or flimsy allegations, often rooted in the claim that the “traitor” had compassed or imagined the death of the king.

In America, the Founders wished to hold government authorities to a higher evidentiary standard.

But defining treason in the Constitution was one thing. It took actual experience to give life and practical legal meaning to the American idea of treason.

Within a decade of the Constitution’s ratification, several groups of protestors in Pennsylvania were convicted of treason for violently resisting the enforcement of federal tax laws. Fortunately, Presidents Washington and Adams pardoned these “traitors” before any of them stepped foot upon the gallows. Their convictions had rested on an old English concept that “levying war” included violent resistance to a law. But the courts would soon begin to move away from this broad definition of treason. The first case to do so was the 1807 trial of Aaron Burr.

Burr had been Thomas Jefferson’s vice president from 1801 to 1805. A political chameleon, Burr would change party or office whenever he believed it to be most politically or financially advantageous. In 1800, Jefferson selected Burr as his running mate, hoping that Burr’s presence on the ticket would help carry northern states, like New York. In those days—prior to the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment in 1804—members of the Electoral College did not specify whether they were voting for president or vice president when they cast their ballots. So Jefferson and Burr tied in the Electoral College. Seeing this as an opportunity to slip his way into the presidency, Burr allowed the election to be thrown into the House of Representatives, where it took 37 ballots to decide that Jefferson was actually president-elect. This episode scarred Jefferson, teaching him that he could not trust his vice president.

Aaron Burr, who served as Thomas Jefferson’s vice president, is shown in an illustration on Oct. 4, 1956. Burr was indicted for murder in the duel slaying of Alexander Hamilton and later for treason in a plot to seize the new Louisiana Territory. Image courtesy of Associated Press.

In July 1804, Burr famously shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Later that year Jefferson ran for reelection with a different running mate, and by March 1805 Burr was out of office. Now a political exile and accused murderer, Burr turned his gaze toward the western frontier.

Although the details of his plans remain murky, Burr made visits to the frontier—perhaps to provoke war with Spain and liberate Mexico perhaps to separate the trans-Allegheny region from the United States and to set up his own empire or perhaps simply to see how he might strike it rich. Unfortunately for Burr, one of his accomplices in New Orleans began to have second thoughts and sent copies of some of Burr’s correspondence to Washington, D.C., revealing Burr’s plans to federal authorities.

When word of Burr’s alleged plots reached Jefferson on November 25, 1806, the president decided to stop him. Without mentioning Burr by name, Jefferson issued a proclamation two days later stating that a traitorous conspiracy had been uncovered and he called on “all persons whatsoever engaged or concerned in the same to cease all further proceedings therein as they will answer the contrary at their peril.”

The House of Representatives requested Jefferson to present evidence in support of his claims. Although he saw this request as an affront to his administration, Jefferson nevertheless complied on January 22, 1807, this time identifying Burr by name and stating that he was an “archconspirator” and traitor whose “guilt is placed beyond all question.”

Jefferson’s public declaration of Burr’s guilt—before Burr had even been arrested or indicted—was controversial. Writing from his home in Quincy, Massachusetts, ex-president John Adams declared that even if Burr’s “guilt is as clear as the Noon day Sun, the first Magistrate ought not to have pronounced it so before a Jury had tryed [sic] him.”

Several of Burr’s associates were arrested and transported to Washington, D.C., for trial. In Washington, President Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison personally interrogated one of them, disingenuously telling him that anything he said would not be used against him in court (it later was).

Fortunately for the prisoners, their case came before U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall.

Marshall loathed Jefferson. Although the two men were both Virginians—and cousins—they had polar opposite views of what was best for the American republic. Throughout his tenure on the bench Marshall used his position as chief justice to articulate a nationalist view of the U.S. Constitution. Jefferson, an agrarian, generally opposed a strong central government. To make matters worse, Marshall had been appointed by lame duck president John Adams and confirmed by a lame duck Federalist Senate in early 1801, just weeks before Jefferson took office. Marshall, in effect, occupied a stolen seat on the Supreme Court that Jefferson believed he should have had the chance to fill.

In February 1807, Marshall ruled that Burr’s associates could not be tried in the nation’s capital since they had not committed any crime there. Much to Jefferson’s chagrin, they were released.

But that ruling wouldn’t spare Burr.

Burr was traveling down the Mississippi River on nine longboats with about 60 men when he learned that he might be assassinated in New Orleans. He tried to escape, making his way deep into the Mississippi Territory. But the U.S. military soon caught up with him and arrested him on February 19, 1807.

Burr was sent to Richmond for trial because his alleged “overt act” of treason had taken place on Blennerhassett Island, a small sliver of what was then Virginia, in the Ohio River, where, in December 1806, there had been an uneventful but armed standoff between some of Burr’s men and the Virginia state militia. (Of great significance to the eventual outcome of the case, Burr was not present at this standoff.)

Jefferson took an unhealthy interest in the prosecution of Burr’s case. The president sought to have a jury made up entirely of Jeffersonian Republicans. He also wanted the Treasury Department to pay the expenses of government witnesses. In an extraordinary delegation of executive authority, he sent his prosecutor “blank pardons … to be filled up at your discretion” should any of the other “offenders” be willing to testify against Burr. Finally, the president also supported a declaration of martial law in New Orleans, enabling military authorities to arrest civilians without warrants—including journalists—and to rifle through private mail at the post office in search of evidence.

Jefferson’s view of the evidence against Burr was highly problematic. “As to the overt acts,” he wrote, “were not the bundle of letters of information in Mr. [Attorney General Caesar] Rodney’s hands, the letters and facts published in local newspapers, Burr’s flight, and the universal belief or rumor of his guilt, probable ground for presuming … overt acts to have taken place?”

There was great irony in Jefferson’s attitude here, for when newspapers were unkind to his administration, he blasted them for their unreliability. “Nothing can now be believed which is in a newspaper,” he wrote in April 1807. “I will add, that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.”

Despite the weakness of the evidence, the trial began on August 3, 1807. The prosecution lined up more than 140 witnesses, but after several testified to Burr’s “evil intention,” Burr’s lawyers objected that the witnesses were not offering any evidence regarding any actual overt act of treason. Chief Justice Marshall, who was presiding over the trial as a circuit judge, ruled in favor of the defense, arguing that only witnesses who could testify about an “overt act” of “levying war” could take the stand. Since Burr had not been present at the standoff on Blennerhassett Island in December 1806, no further testimony would be admitted. The jury found him “not guilty by the evidence presented.”

President Jefferson was disgusted with the outcome of the trial, and he expressed his contempt for the courts as a result. In fact, Jefferson even advocated for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would enable the president to remove federal judges from office should both houses of Congress request it, claiming that the judicial branch was acting “independent of the nation” and that the courts were extending “immunity to that class of offenders which endeavors to overturn the Constitution, and are themselves protected in it by the Constitution.”

From Jefferson’s perspective, if judges were going to allow traitors to undermine the nation, then they should not receive the constitutional protection of life tenure. Fortunately, such a brazen assault on the federal judiciary by Jefferson and his followers in Congress did not become law.

Jefferson’s behavior in United States v. Aaron Burr reveals a president willing to allow his politics and personal vendettas to cloud his judgment. Hating both the defendant and the judge in this case, Jefferson personally inserted himself into a criminal prosecution in an unseemly way.

A controversial presidential election. A stolen Supreme Court seat. Allegations of treason. A president with open disdain for the courts and the press. The contest that defined treason in early America had elements familiar to Americans in 2017. And, as frustrated we now may be over today’s politics, perhaps we can take comfort in knowing that our Founding Fathers faced similar conflict—and yet the nation survived.


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