Aaron Burr Biography

A biography on the first vice president of the United States.

Aaron Burr was what passes for an American aristocrat, even now: not a lot of money, but a highly respected family with longevity in the English colonies. His maternal grandfather was the New England theologian, Jonathan Edwards, who became president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton). Burr's father, Aaron Burr, was also a Yale-educated minister and president of Princeton. From his mother, Esther Edwards Burr, Aaron inherited good looks, wit, and vivacity.

By the time Aaron was two years old in 1758 both his parents were dead within a month of each other. He was raised by relatives in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and entered Princeton College at 13, graduating in 1772. After trying a stint as a divinity student, Aaron decided on law, but in 1775, with the news of the Battle of Bunker Hill, he dropped his studies and joined the Revolutionary forces in Boston.

By 1776, Burr had already been with Montgomery in the attack on Quebec, holding the rank of captain and aide-de-camp; he was a major by the time he was 20 years old. Burr had a very brief (10 days) service as an aide to George Washington before being attached to General Israel Putnam in Brooklyn. Burr led a company to safety on the retreat through British lines to upper Manhattan. He fought at Harlem Heights and crossed the Delaware. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel and believed he deserved better, but was blocked from advancing in a military career, and practiced law and politics instead.

After Burr's brief tenure as Washington's aide, Washington never trusted Burr. In 1798 during John Adams's presidency, when Burr was up for consideration as a brigadier general, Washington rejected his appointment. Burr believed Alexander Hamilton had influenced this decision, although probably Washington's dislike of Burr could have stood on its own. But Burr believed, and he was right, that Hamilton worked against him since their time in the Revolution.

Aaron Burr's career in war and politics would always be overshadowed by his personal reputation as a libertine and womanizer, although there is no evidence he ever engaged in adultery as a married man. But, for his lifetime before and after his marriage, he was one of the great lovers of his day.

For all his Puritanical background, Burr was remarkably unaffected by it. Perhaps because of his aristocratic background, he did not trouble himself with bourgeois moral principles. His approach to his love life and that of others might not have been out of place in the 1970s. Burr had deeply held convictions on personal freedoms. He aligned himself philosophically with Jeremy Bentham, with whom he met personally in London, whose views on sex and love were that both were necessary for good health.

Burr's views on women were enlightened and advanced. On Mary Wollstonecraft's "Vindication of the Rights of Women," he wrote to his wife, "Be assured that your sex has in her a noble advocate. It is, in my opinion, a work of genius." Believing the formal education of girls in his day led to the stifling of "female intellectual powers," Burr took personal charge of his daughter's course of study, insisting she learn Greek, Latin, and French, along with literature, philosophy and sciences.

Again writing to his wife, of their daughter, Theodosia, "If I could foresee that Theo would become a mere fashionable woman, with all the attended frivolity and vacuity of mind, adorned with whatever grace and allurement, I would earnestly pray God to take her forthwith." This is extreme, yes. But compare it to Jefferson, who did not believe in "systemized schooling for women," or to Hamilton, whose idea of education for his daughters was that they learn the harp and pianoforte.

Following the Revolution, Burr entered politics in New York and on a national level.

The Burrite Republican Party faction in New York was the Democratic-Republicans. Its membership, largely artisans, mechanics, tradesmen, and apprentices, favored the French. Hamilton's New York Federalists, large landholders, merchants and lawyers, were, in the words of its party's own President John Adams, that "damned faction of British partisans." The two groups often quarreled and brawled in the streets of New York, and Hamilton and Burr had more than one public confrontation.

Hamilton went so far as to try and get John Jay to foster legislation that would undo the state elections of 1800, writing Jay, "It will not do to be overscrupulous." Jay refused, and perhaps it was, in part, this incident that turned Jay away from Hamilton's influence to support Burr in 1804. It was the resulting electoral vote of the New York State elections in 1800 that opened the way for the first Jeffersonian presidency in 1801. The man credited by both parties (and the entire country) with this victory for Republicans and total defeat of Federalists was the master politician, Aaron Burr.

Burr had enemies in both parties. Many Republicans believed that Burr had connived with the Federalists in the 1801 presidential election, which resulted in a tie between Burr and Jefferson for presidential electoral votes. Conversely, many Federalists lost faith in Burr because he took no active advantage of the situation to make himself president in Jefferson's stead. If not for Burr's neutral response in 1801, Jefferson might not have succeeded Adams to the presidency.

It was Burr's innovation, the tontine -- enabling suffrage for un-propertied male citizens -- that obtained the vote for Jefferson among the New York mechanic class. Not that Jefferson was grateful; he never trusted Burr after. Once it was clear to Burr that he had no future with Jefferson, his only choice was the 1804 gubernatorial race. And Jefferson was already working secretly against Burr, as he had worked secretly to destroy Hamilton.

Burr had supporters in both political camps, as well. Between the radical Republicans led by Jefferson and the high Federalists led by Hamilton, were men who appreciated Burr's words in a toast made at a Washington fete, urging "a union of honest men." Burr was a politician with more interest in the system than in ideology; he disliked Republican radicalism as he did Federalist elitism. Part of Burr's appeal for Federalists was simply that he was not Thomas Jefferson. Theodore Sedgwick in justifying his support wrote that Burr was, "not a Democrat - He is not an enthusiastic theorist - He is not under the direction of Virginian Jacobists." Abigail Adams believed, "the bold, daring, and decisive Burr would serve the country better," simply because he was no doctrinaire.

New England Federalists were seriously considering forming a confederacy outside the union to get out from under Virginian power. They saw the head of this New England confederacy in Aaron Burr. Burr's popularity with migrant Yankee farmers in western New York State would bring New York into alliance with New England. But Burr did not commit himself, being more concerned with winning the governorship to strengthen his position for nomination to the vice presidency. If he won, his Federalist supporters and his wing of the Republican Party combined might gain him the presidency. If he lost, he had no political future.

With Washington dead and Hamilton fairly neutered, Jefferson was covertly backing a plot against Burr through political journalist James Cheetham, editor of the "American Citizen." This Republican paper was financially backed originally by Burr and now owned by DeWitt Clinton of New York. DeWitt Clinton's uncle, George Clinton, known as "Old Incumbent," was the governor and Jefferson's secret choice to replace Burr as vice president.

Editor Cheetham called Burr, "the most immoral, the most perfidious, the most unprincipled of men," who was, "possessed of an evil of great magnitude." Cheetham claimed to have the names of twenty prostitutes frequented by Burr and another list of married women who'd been divorced after seduction by Burr. He charged that Burr had hosted a ball for New York's free blacks at Richmond Hill in an attempt to buy that vote once Burr would have somehow succeeded in obtaining it for them.

Interestingly, for all the personal attacks on him, Burr never criticized anyone else's morals or took part in the private scandals of the day that so preoccupied the revolutionary generation. In his papers and letters, there is no mention of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, for example, or for that matter, of Alexander Hamilton and the Maria Reynolds affair.

Burr, ordinarily not a foolish man, had no clue Jefferson was behind the relentless calumny, thinking it was emanating from the Clinton-Livingston machine. But he did know soon enough, once he lost the governor's race, and Cheetham published a letter showing that Jefferson had not been neutral and had never thought of Burr's followers as "real Republicans." George Clinton would receive the Republican nomination for vice president; Aaron Burr would receive not one vote.

It was in this time of low fortune that Aaron Burr reacted to a personal remark against him made by Alexander Hamilton at a political dinner in Albany with a challenge to a duel. His fate was sealed when Hamilton died and Burr lived as a social and political outcast ever after. His vision of western expansion for the United States saw fruition, but not at his hands, and he was tried for treason for that very notion. He received no credit, except to be proven right, before he died in 1836, broken and poor, in a hotel room on Staten Island, New York.

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