The Strange Legacy of Aaron Burr
Dan Bryan, May 2 2012
None of the founders have been pushed closer to the margins of our nation's early story than Aaron Burr. The Federalists despised him after he shot Alexander Hamilton to death. The Democratic-Republicans mistrusted him after his electoral tie with Thomas Jefferson, and suspected attempt to steal the presidency in 1800. Everyone seemed to agree that he was megalomaniacal after his alleged attempts to form an independent empire in the West. But was naked ambition all that defined this man?
Burr's political philosophy was much more democratic than that of either Hamilton or Jefferson. He advocated for an end to slavery before the turn of the 19th century. He ate in his dining room with a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft on the wall. And he supported more than one plan to spread land ownership (and consequently, the right to vote) to the multitudes of the population.
The early career of Aaron Burr
Burr was a veteran officer of the Revolutionary War, though he was quite young when the conflict began. His record in that struggle seems to straddle that broad middle ground between the incompetent and the brilliant. He was noted for his bravery in certain engagements, given command in others, and eventually dropped out of the war altogether due to health issues. George Washington mistrusted him in those times, and never changed his opinion thereafter.
During the era of the Confederation, Burr became a very successful lawyer. Like many adept politicos who have become champions of the lower classes, he spared no expense in his personal life. He and his wife and daughter wore the finest clothes and lived in a capacious New York home, while his legal fees just barely kept his creditors at bay.
In the 1790s, Burr became a U.S. Senator, and his real antagonism with Alexander Hamilton began. Not only were the two men political opposites, but Burr had unseated Hamilton's own father-in-law from the Senate. This enmity would have fatal consequences.
Burr's controversial place in the "Revolution of 1800"
As first written, the Constitution allowed for a curious method of Presidential election within the Electoral College. Each delegate would cast two votes -- the President would be the man with the highest total, and the runner-up would be the Vice President. This became a surprisingly relevant process in the Election of 1800.
With Burr standing as Thomas Jefferson's running mate, there was somehow a confusion in the voting that led to a perfect tie between Burr and Jefferson. By default, the election was thrown to a Federalist controlled House of Representatives, who had a golden opportunity to deal a crippling blow to the hated Jefferson.
This episode is the first prominent one that has spawned questions about Burr's character. How did the tie come about? Did Burr instigate it with some behind the scenes maneuvering? Had he hoped to usurp Jefferson in the electoral process? What would he hope to achieve with this power if he had alienated his entire party?
Even Alexander Hamilton, who was as much an enemy of Jefferson as of Burr, reluctantly put his weight behind Jefferson in the crisis that ensued. In this manner Jefferson was elected President, suspicion towards Burr increased, and the relationship between Burr and Hamilton deteriorated even further.
An infamous duel
The duel with Alexander Hamilton has been the most enduring memory of Aaron Burr.
There were many causes of this confrontation. Not only had the two men clashed incessantly on the national scene, but they were rivals in New York politics as well:
- Aaron Burr defeated Alexander Hamilton's father-in-law for a U.S. Senate seat.
- Burr was suspected of leaking an embarrassing, fifty-four page letter written by Hamilton in which he angrily denounced John Adams. This was written before the 1800 election and divided the Federalists in that crucial election.
- Hamilton worked for Burr's defeat in the 1801 selection of the President by Congress.
- Hamilton and Burr had opposite political philosophies. Burr was an advocate of direct democracy and decentralization, while Hamilton supported limited suffrage and a strong central government.
- Hamilton publicly accused Burr of corruptly advancing the interests of the Holland Land Company. To Burr these new settlers (of common background) were potential voters and allies.
- Hamilton worked tirelessly for Burr's defeat in the 1804 gubernatorial election in New York -- the last straw and immediate catalyst for the challenge.
The site of the duel was Weehawken, New Jersey. It was July 11, 1804. In front of several spectators, the two men marked off their paces and fired their shots. Hamilton collapsed to the ground -- mortally wounded.
To this day, Burr remains the only sitting Vice President to kill a man. There are questions as to the intent of both men. Did Burr aim for the torso as many alleged, did the bullet ricochet, or did the gun misfire completely? For his part, did Hamilton miss on purpose or was he simply a poor shot? Conflicting accounts gained their different followers, and there never was agreement amongst the witnesses to this event.
A plan for "empire" in the west
The aftermath of the duel ruined Aaron Burr's career. He was effectively shunned from polite society, and neither political party would have anything to do with him. Jefferson replaced him as Vice President in the 1804 election, and he found himself without a position.
His actions in 1805 and beyond are perhaps the least understood and -- on the face of it -- the most bizarre. For it seems that Burr entangled himself in a grandiose scheme to carve out a section of the Louisiana Purchase and/or Mexico and create a personal empire.
Men had carved out their own societies on the frontier -- John Sevier for instance -- and the idea wasn't unprecedented. But to implement an "empire" on the scale that Aaron Burr supposedly envisioned would be a different matter altogether. However, there is a great deal of evidence that he intended to do just that, including conversations where he explored the possibility of inciting an insurrection in Mexico.
Burr traversed the western frontier from Pittsburgh to New Orleans and back. At Nashville he stayed at the home of Andrew Jackson for several days. Jackson was delighted both with Burr's willingness to duel, and with his removal of Alexander Hamilton from the political scene, and the two men found a ready friendship with each other.
Burr spent his time in the west raising a private army, seeking allies, and procuring supplies. Eventually, word of what he was doing made its way to Washington D.C. Thomas Jefferson exploded into a rage and demanded that Burr be hung for treason.
Burr always maintained that letters had been taken out of context, that enemies had distorted his intentions, and that he never had dishonorable designs on the Louisiana Territory. Whether it was treasonous or not, one could argue that Burr's supposed plan was carried out by the founders of Texas, decades later. The only difference is that the Texans were widely supported and eventually accepted into the United States.
Arrested and sent to Virginia for trial, Burr was eventually acquitted. A disgraced man, he lived until 1836 on modest means, removed from the public eye. The death of his only daughter in a shipwreck was his final torment. It was said that he waited at the docks for weeks, sadly scanning the horizon for a ship that never came.
A lasting reputation in American history
The legacy of Aaron Burr leaves many questions. Was he really quite the villain that his image would suggest? It is said in life that the winners write the history, and if that is true, there was no bigger "loser" in the early 1800s than Burr. His name has been nearly omitted from the American story -- outside of his most notorious incidents -- even though by political and social views he was a more progressive man than even Jefferson was (for example, Burr invited 20 free blacks into his own home for dinner during the 1804 gubernatorial campaign, triggering a frenzy in the press).
Had a couple things went differently, we might today be looking at Burr as one of our first Presidents and as a champion of the common man and of women's rights.