Aaron Burr is remembered chiefly for a single violent act, the fatal shooting of Alexander Hamilton in their famous duel in New Jersey on July 11, 1804. But Burr was also involved in a number of other controversial episodes, including one of the most disputed elections in American history and a peculiar expedition to the western reaches of America that resulted in Burr being tried for treason.
Burr is a puzzling figure in history. He has often been portrayed as a scoundrel, a political manipulator, and a notorious womanizer.
Yet during his long life Burr had many followers who considered him a brilliant thinker and a gifted politician. His considerable skills allowed him to prosper in a law practice, win a seat in the US Senate, and nearly attain the presidency in a startling feat of deft political gamesmanship.
After 200 years, Burr’s complicated life remains contradictory. Was he a villain, or simply a misunderstood victim of hardball politics?
Early Life of Aaron Burr
Burr was born in Newark, New Jersey, on February 6, 1756. His grandfather was Jonathan Edwards, a famous theologian of the colonial period, and his father was a minister. Young Aaron was precocious, and entered the College of New Jersey (present day Princeton University) at the age of 13.
In the family tradition, Burr studied theology before becoming more interested in the study of law.
Aaron Burr in the Revolutionary War
When the American Revolution broke out, the young Burr obtained a letter of introduction to George Washington, and requested an officer's commission in the Continental Army.
Washington turned him down, but Burr enlisted in the Army anyway, and served with some distinction in a military expedition to Quebec, Canada. And Burr did later serve on Washington’s staff. Burr was charming and intelligent, but clashed with Washington’s more reserved style.
In ill health, Burr resigned his commission as a colonel in 1779, before the end of the Revolutionary War. He then turned his full attention to the study of the law.
Aaron Burr’s Personal Life
As a young officer Burr began a romantic affair in 1777 with Theodosia Prevost, who was ten years older than Burr and also married to a British officer. When her husband died in 1781, Burr married Theodosia. They had a daughter, also named Theodosia, born in 1783, to whom Burr was very devoted.
Burr’s wife died in 1794. Accusations always swirled that he was involved with a number of other women during his marriage.
Early Political Career of Aaron Burr
Burr began his law practice in Albany, New York before moving to New York City to practice law in 1783. He prospered in the city, and established numerous connections that would prove useful in his political career.
In the 1790s Burr advanced in New York politics. During this period of tension between the ruling Federalists and the upstart Republicans, Burr tended not to align himself too much with either side. He was thus able to present himself as something of a compromise candidate.
In 1791, Burr had won a seat in the US Senate by defeating Philip Schuyler, a prominent New Yorker who happened to be the father in law of Alexander Hamilton. Burr and Hamilton had already been adversaries, but Burr’s victory in that election caused Hamilton to hate him.
As a senator, Burr generally opposed the programs of Hamilton, who was serving as secretary of the treasury.
Burr’s Controversial Role in the Deadlocked Election of 1800
When the electoral vote produced a deadlock, the election had to be decided in the House of Representatives. In the prolonged balloting, Burr’s utilized his considerable political skills and nearly pulled off the feat of bypassing Jefferson and gathering enough votes to win the presidency for himself.
Jefferson finally won after days of balloting. And in accordance with the Constitution at the time, Jefferson became president and Burr became vice president. Jefferson thus had a vice president he didn’t trust, and he gave Burr virtually nothing to do in the job.
Following the crisis, the Constitution was amended so the scenario of the 1800 election could not occur again.
Burr was not nominated to run with Jefferson again in 1804.
Aaron Burr and the Duel with Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr had been conducting a feud since Burr’s election to the Senate more than ten years earlier, but Hamilton’s attacks on Burr became more intense in early 1804. The bitterness reached its climax when Burr and Hamilton fought a duel.
On the morning of July 11, 1804 the men rowed across the Hudson River from New York City to a dueling ground at Weehawken, New Jersey. Accounts of the actual duel have always differed, but the result was that both men fired their pistols. Hamilton’s shot did not strike Burr.
Burr's shot struck Hamilton in the torso, inflicting a fatal wound. Hamilton was brought back to New York City and died the next day. Aaron Burr was portrayed as a villain and actually fled into hiding for a time, as he feared being charged with murder.
Burr’s Expedition to the West
The once-promising political career of Aaron Burr had been stalled while he served as vice president, and the duel with Hamilton effectively ended any chance he may have had for political redemption.
In 1805 and 1806 Burr plotted with others to create an empire consisting of the Mississippi Valley, Mexico, and much of the American west. The bizarre plan had little chance for success, and Burr was charged with treason against the United States.
At a trial in Richmond, Virginia, which was presided over by Chief Justice John Marshall, Burr was acquitted. While a free man, his career was in ruins, and he moved to Europe for several years.
Burr eventually returned to New York City and worked at a modest law practice. His beloved daughter Theodosia was lost in a shipwreck in 1813, which further depressed him.
In financial ruin, he died in 1836 while living with a relative on Staten Island in New York City.
Portrait of Aaron Burr courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Collections.