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Aaron Burr


BURR, AARON (1756-1836), American political leader, was born at Newark, (N.J.). His father, the Rev. Aaron Burr (1715-57), was the second president of the College of New Jersey, now Princeton university; his mother was the daughter of Jonathan Edwards, the well-known Calvinist theologian. Both his parents died when Aaron Burr was a small child, and his uncle, Timothy Edwards, became his guardian. Aaron Burr gradu ated from the College of New Jersey, now Princeton, in 1772 and began studying law in the celebrated law school conducted by his brother-in-law, Tappan Reeve, at Litchfield, (Conn.). When the Revolution broke out the youth joined Washington's army at Cambridge. Impatient with its inaction he enlisted to accompany Arnold on the long and arduous march against Quebec and so distinguished himself that, on Arnold's recommendation, he was attached to Gen. Montgomery's staff. Upon his return he was given a place on Washington's staff, but differences between him and his general soon resulted in his being transferred to the staff of Gen. Putnam. Burr is given credit for saving, by his vigilance, a whole brigade from capture during the retreat from Long Island, though in doing it he defied the orders of his superiors. As lieu tenant-colonel of a regiment, he passed the winter of 1777 at Val ley Forge guarding a pass commanding the approach to the camp, and the next June he commanded a brigade and distinguished himself at the battle of Monmouth. In Jan. 1779 he assumed command of the American lines stretching from the Hudson to the Sound in Westchester county (N.Y.), a region in which there was much lawlessness and plundering by ill-disciplined troops from both armies. Burr established a thorough patrol system, rigorously enforced martial law and restored order.

Aaron Burr

Because of ill-health Burr resigned from the army in 1779, re newed the study of law, and in 1782 was admitted to the bar at Albany. That year also witnessed his marriage to Theodosia Prevost, the fascinating and cultured widow of a British officer. The next year, upon the evacuation of New York city by the British, Burr and his wife removed to that city and established themselves in a beautiful mansion at Richmond Hill, just outside the town. The following ten years, when Burr was a leader both in his profession and in the political world and his home the centre of brilliant social gatherings, were doubtless the happiest of his life. He was elected to the State assembly in 1784, and in 1789 his legal talents were recognized by his appointment as attorney general of the State of New York. In 1791, at the age of 35, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, defeating Gen. Schuyler, father-in law of Alexander Hamilton, the future leader of the Federalist party. After his service as U.S. Senator he was again for two terms in the State assembly. He had become a power among the Demo cratic-Republicans of the North, and in 1800 was placed on the presidential ticket with Thomas Jefferson. In New York, recog nized as the pivotal State in the election, Burr's personal can vassing and admirable organization were responsible for a Demo cratic victory. Burr was, in this campaign, the first to organize and manipulate the Tammany society for political purposes, and is credited with starting that institution on its way to political in fluence. It had been intended that Burr should be vice-president, but through a blunder his name received as many electoral votes as Jefferson's, thus (according to the Constitution at that time) throwing the decision into the House of Representatives. Here a faction of Federalists, preferring Burr to Jefferson, attempted to secure his election and a deadlock for 35 ballots resulted. Hamil ton's determined opposition to Burr finally resulted in Jefferson's election.

Burr during the time remained quietly away. He made no effort in his own behalf, but rumours that he had tried to wrest the presidency from his chief became so strong that the loyalty of his party was lost to him, and Jefferson distrusted him. As vice president, however, he presided over the Senate with a fairness and dignity recognized even by his bitterest enemies. In 1804 he tried to retrieve his political fortunes by running for the gov ernorship of New York. Many of the declining Federalist party wished to support Burr, the latter having become somewhat Feder alist in his sympathies, but again Hamilton threw his influence against him as a "dangerous" man of whom he "could detail . . . a still more despicable opinion." Burr, smarting under this final defeat, and under many assaults upon his character, demanded an explanation of these words from Hamilton. Hamilton quibbled. Burr challenged, and the two met at ten paces at Weehawken. Burr's shot was fatal. But the shot in a sense also killed Burr for it made him an outcast from his country's social and political life. Bereft of all moorings, the man disappeared for some time only to reappear as the insti gator of a scheme so daring and exaggerated that it has become one of the legends of American history. Actually Burr had pur chased a tract of land in Louisiana and intended to profit by leading a colony of settlers on to it and establishing, perhaps, a new State. Furthermore, in event of a war with Spain, which at that time seemed certain, Burr intended to lead an expedition of his colonists and others into Mexico to win that country for the United States, or for himself. No one was quite sure. Rumours were wildly exaggerated. General James Wilkenson, commander of the army in the west, but really a traitor who had long been in the pay of Spain, told Jefferson that Burr was raising an army to separate the western States from the Union. Jefferson, always suspicious of Burr, had him arrested for treason. A spectacular trial, with John Marshall presiding, was held at Richmond. When the evidence was sifted nothing to prove treasonable actions was found. Though the court in a fair trial found him "not guilty," public opinion would not believe him so, and Burr fled to Europe for four years. Here he lived in pathetic circumstances on bor= rowed funds, and his morals reached their lowest ebb. He re turned to America in answer to the entreaties of his daughter, but the ship bearing her to meet him was lost in a storm and never heard from again. The lone man reopened his law office and for 22 more years gave himself to his profession. In 1833, at the age of 77, he married the wealthy widow Eliza B. Jumel, but the two soon separated. It was Burr's last adventure. He died at Port Richmond, Staten Island, (N.Y.) on Sept. 14, 1836.


H. Wandell and M. Minnigerode, Aaron Burr Bibliography.-S. H. Wandell and M. Minnigerode, Aaron Burr (1925) ; J. Parton, Life and Times of Aaron Burr (Boston, 1898) ; J. P. Brady, The Trial of Aaron Burr (1913) ; and The Private Journal of Aaron Burr (W. H. Sampson, ed., 1903) ; M. Van Doren, ed., Cor respondence of Aaron Burr and his daughter Theodosia (1929).

law, political, jefferson, time and army