Aaron Burr Jr.
a revisionist point of view
1756 - 1836
Information from the Princeton Companion
Aaron Burr Jr. was thought to be one of the most brilliant students graduated from Princeton in the eighteenth century. Woodrow Wilson said he had genius enough to have made him immortal, and unschooled passion enough to have made him infamous. His father was Princeton's second president; his maternal grandfather, Jonathan Edwards, was Princeton's third president. The younger Aaron Burr was left an orphan when he was two years old, his father and mother (and both maternal grandparents) having died within a year. He did not respond well to the discipline of his austere uncle, Timothy Edwards, several times running away from home and attempting to go to sea. He entered the sophomore class at Princeton at the age of thirteen and graduated with distinction at sixteen in 1772, a year after James Madison and Philip Freneau. He was a member of the Cliosophic Society and for his Commencement Oration chose the prophetic topic On Castle Building.
Burr studied theology for a while and then law. After the Revolutionary War, in which he served with distinction as a field officer, he took up the practice of law in New York City and entered politics, serving as a member of the New York state assembly, attorney general of New York, and United States senator. In the presidential election of 1800, he received the same number of electoral votes as Thomas Jefferson, but the tie was broken in the House of Representatives in Jefferson's favor, and Burr became vice-president.
Four years later, on July 11, 1804, in the historic duel at Weehawken, New Jersey, Burr mortally wounded his professional rival and political enemy, Alexander Hamilton. Thereafter came his errant political adventures in the West, his trial for treason, and his acquittal.
Burr's chief counsel at the trial was Luther Martin, a fellow member and one of the founders of the Cliosophic Society. A few years before his death, the society invited Burr to preside at its commencement meeting, and its members took part in the procession at Burr's funeral in Princeton in 1836. President Carnahan preached the funeral sermon in Nassau Hall (in which he decried the evils of dueling). Escorted to the Princeton Cemetery by members of the faculty, students, alumni, a military band, and the Mercer Guards, Burr was buried with full military honors at the foot of his father's and grandfather's graves.
A brief biography
Aaron Burr was born February 6, 1756, in Newark, New Jersey. When he arrived, a little sister, named Sally, had already preceded him. Their father was the Rev. Aaron Burr; their mother, Esther Edwards Burr, daughter of the famous Jonathan Edwards, a noted divine of the Calvin school. He represented all that was austere and hopeless in Puritanism. But Aaron, Jr. inherited only one tenet out of all the rigorous dogma into which he had been born: belief in predestination! Without such belief, he must early have succumbed to malign and bitter fortune.
Aaron was a sickly baby. Twice, before he was two years old, he narrowly escaped death. A fever seized him and his mother thought of him "as one given to me from the dead." On account of this miraculous recovery, she felt that the child should be brought up "in a peculiar manner for God!" Despite plans, however, the evidence reveals that, when Aaron was left to his own devices, he proved to be a real boy: "a little, dirty, noisy boy sly and mischievous," and required "a good governor to bring him to terms." He was small in stature, active, handsome: very much after the mould of his father, who, at this juncture, was called to be the second president of the College of New Jersey, then located in Newark. Aaron Burr, the father, taught mathematics, ancient languages, and busied himself with raising funds for the college, whidh was shortly (Nov., 1756) to be moved to Princeton, and thither also went the Burr family. Aaron Burr, pere, was unusually successful in all his activities. He even raised money in Scotland for his college. But his career, through his extraordinary exertions, was soon to end. He was seized with a fever and passed away September 24, 1757.
Thus, Esther Burr was left with Sally and Aaron, three and one, respectively. She tried hard to reconcile her desolate state to the harsh Calvinistic philosophy; and, apparently, had succeeded when she came down with the smallpox and soon followed her husband into the grave.
Sally and Aaron, little orphans, then went to live with Timothy Edwards, their uncle, at Elizabethtown. Timothy was a stern Puritan and Aaron got on badly with him; occasionally, he was "beaten like a sack." The boy was so unhappy, he tried on several occasions to run away. His life as a child was made livable only by the fact of the presence in the house of Timothy's young brotherin-law, Matthias Ogden, a lad of Burr's age. These boys ran the woods, fished, hunted, and studied under tutors, one of whom was the celebrated Tapping Reeve, who was later to marry Sally Burr.
Aaron was precocious. At eleven, he applied for admission to Princeton and was rejected on his too apparent youth. Two years later he applied again for admission; this time, to the junior class and was admitted to the sophomore class. One of the two leaders of his class, he was graduated in 1772. He was now sixteen, a lad with unforgettable hazel eyes, handsome features and irresistible charm.
In the tradition of the family, he was foreordained for the ministry. So, in the fall of 1773, he began the study of theology under the Rev. Joseph Bellamy. But it soon developed that Burr's nature did not lend itself to the constricted measure of Calvinistic dogma. He asserted that the road to Heaven was open to all alike, and, in the spring of 1774, he broke away from theology. He went at once to Litchfield, Conn., to the law school of Tapping Reeve, his brother-in-law, which was already becoming famous for its liberalism of thought.
Here Burr studied law and had his introduction to society. He had his flirtations; once a match was made for him with a wealthy young lady, which he spurned; and once he actually eloped, only to be balked by a ferry boat's failure to move on schedule. But law and love affairs were both to be interrupted, for in April, 1775, the thundering news of the battle of Lexington came rolling over the country.
In July, we find Burr, accompanied by Matthias Ogden, at Cambridge, near Boston. But there things were too quiet to suit the adventurous lads, and, when it was learned that Colonel Benedict Arnold was heading an expedition against Quebec, Burr volunteered, over the strenuous objections of his family. This ill-fated expedition across the wilds of Maine was calculated to try the mettle of any man, but courage and fortitude were ever the attributes of "little Burr." Added to the terrors of cold and ice was starvation. So well did the youth conduct himself that, once Arnold's forces were united with General Montgomery's before Quebec, Burr was made a captain on the headquarters' staff.
At length the day came for the assault on Quebec. From four sides the Americans advanced against the snowbound city. Arnold's division had already penetrated the city. The head of the column led by General Montgomery was nearing its goal, when a cannon shot fired from a blockhouse, which the British had abandoned, save for one man and shattered the advancing force. Only Burr and the Indian guide were left alive. Montgomery had fallen mortally wounded and died in Burr's arms, but he
was too heavy a man for Burr to bear from the field.
From Quebec Burr was sent to Montreal, thence to Camp Sorrel, and later to Fort Chambly. In May, he returned home, where his fame had preceded him. He was offered and accepted a place on the staff of General Washington, then busy with the defences of New York. This association, however, did not prove a happy one. In spite of his youth, Captain Burr was a cultured man, a college graduate, and a student of military tactics. He was, probably, critical of the Commander-in-Chief, who seemed to him only a Virginia planter and slave-owner: an Indian fighter with little military training, who, up to that time, had won no great battle. No two characters could have been at greater extremities in temperament and training. So, through John Hancock's intervention, Burr was transferred to another front. He became an aide-de-camp to General Israel Putnam, who was in command of lower Manhattan. In August, 1716, Major Burr was assigned to General McDougal at Brooklyn, but, after the evacuation of New York, returned to General Putnam's staff, where he remained until July, 1777, when he was appointed Lieutenant-Colonel of Malcolm's regiment. Under Colonel Burr, this regiment repulsed a raid of 2500 Tories into New York. In every way, Colonel Burr distinguished himself for valor, sound judgment and intelligent devotion to the cause of the Colonies. In spite of being a strict disciplinarian, he endeared himself to his men, never having permitted corporal punishment to be inflicted in his regiment.
In 1777-78, Colonel Burr was at Valley Forge, but never complained of the hardships of that terrible Winter. Perhaps, to a soldier who had marched through the trackless forests of Maine in '75 and who had endured the bitter cold, hunger, and dangers of the Canadian campaign, Valley Forge was not so frightful.
In June, 1778, Colonel Burr led his regiment in the Battle of Monmouth, which proved so unfortunate for the American forces. Burr was most active, and suffered a slight sunstroke. In October, he requested a short leave of absence, which was granted, but which did not restore his much-impaired health.
In January, 1779, Colonel Burr was transferred to Westchester County, New York, under General McDougal, whose lines ran from the Hudson River to the Sound, a district greatly divided in sentiment between Whig and Tory. For many months Burr slept in his clothes, leading his men in surprise attacks on the enemy's lines during the night, clearing out raiders, and setting the district in order. He developed into an inspiring leader, but his health became so bad, he was obliged to resign his post.
March 10, 1779, General Washington accepted Colonel Burr's resignation with regrets, but Burr continued to help in military matters to the very end of the war, frequently carrying verbal orders and secret dispatches from Generals McDougal and St. Clair. For some months, however, while again studying law, he was practically invalid, and suffered from melancholia. Perhaps, as Vandell has suggested in his Life of Aaron Burr, the colonel's mind was further disturbed on account of his love for Mrs. Theodosia Prevost, widow of a former colonel in the British Army. He had met her on occasion and gossip had brought their names together. This fact has been exaggerated, and the loyalty of Mrs. Prevost brought into question. But there is no substantial bit of evidence to prove her untrue to the cause of the Colonies.
After about six months of study, Burr stood his bar examination in Albany and was admitted to practice as a counsellor in April, 1782. He then opened an office in Albany; and in July was married to Mrs. Prevost, ten years his senior and the mother of five children. Burr was but 26 years old. Despite the disparity in their years, they were happily mated.
This choice speaks well for Burr, who has been pictured a profligate, and who certainly was most popular with women. He was attracted to his wife he tells us himself, because of her charm and grace and because she had the truest heart and finest intellect of any woman he had ever met. Theirs was an ideal companionship. Up to the time of her death, "my Aaron," as his wife affectionately called him, was a faithful and exemplary husband.
In June, 1783, perhaps the most important event of Burr's life was recorded: the birth of Theodosia. The love he lavished upon this daughter lends a sublimity to Burr's character which all the detractors in the world cannot blur. His love for his two Theodosias was as nearly perfect as human relations ever can be.
When Theodosia was about six months old, peace with England was achieved and Burr made plans to leave Albany. He removed to New York City, then boasting a population of 22,000. He reached New York in November, 1783, in time to see the British troops depart.
During these years, with his wife practically an invalid, Colonel Burr was continuously embarrassed by debts. His fees were large, but he spent lavishly. There was always dearth of money in the bank, and negotiations for loans and adjustments of debt consumed no small portion of his time. But he was of such tireless energy, he seemed able always to meet every emergency.
He had been in the city but six months when he was elected to the State Assembly, though he had not sought public office. During the second session of the Assembly, he supported a motion for the abolition of slavery in New York, and was made chairman of a committee to revise the laws of the Empire State. But, at the expiration of his term, he returned to the practice of the law.
His chief rival before the bar was Alexander Hamilton, but, while they often clashed, each respected the other; and socially they were friendly, however much they might differ politically. Burr was a progressive, a liberal, a revolutionist who believed that America was our proper domain and that we should appropriate the whole of it to the Isthmus. He was so far ahead of his times in his thinking that he suffered isolation from the first. And it was this state of things which made him forever misunderstood.
In 1789, Burr was appointed Attorney General of the state of New York by Governor Clinton. In 1791, he became United States Senator from New York, defeating General Schuyler, Alexander Hamilton's father-in-law. Hamilton never forgave Burr this defeat and, from that moment, the feud between the two began a bitter rivalry which was only to end at Weehawken, though its after effects were to dog Burr's life and to prejudice posterity to the present time, so slow is history to revise its verdicts.
Burr was active in the Senate, making himself felt on important occasions. Unhappily, in 1794, his wife died, after a prolonged illness. He had wanted to resign his seat in Congress so as to be with her, but, evidently, she would not hear of it, for we find little Theo writing him that "Ma begs you will omit the thoughts of leaving Congress." After his wife's death, Burr and his daughter were drawn more closely together, so close, in fact, that she was to write in after years: "I had rather not live than not to be the daughter of such a man."
At her mother's death, Theodosia was eleven years old and already versed in philosophy and history. She had read Horace, Lucian and Terence, and was preparing to begin Homer and Virgil. She could speak German and French, and played the harp and pianoforte. Burr at once concentrated on an intensive program for her further education, which he contrived to supervise under all conditions. Whether the grandfather, the Rev. Aaron Burr, first President of Princeton, would have approved of such a course of education for a girl is doubtful, and certainly her great-grandfather, the celebrated Jonathan Edwards, would not have thought it proper for Theodosia to dance, skate and ride a horse. But her father was determined to make a prodigy of her in spite of her sex, for Burr was probably the first feminist in the United States. He applauded Miss Woolstonecraft's book entitled "Vindication of the Rights of Women," wherein it was argued that girls should receive the same kind of mental training as their brothers, women being not only the equal but the superior of men. And Burr was in position to establish the thesis, for, at fourteen, Theodosia had come to be the most cultured and charming woman in America. Burr idolized her and was proud of the encomiums paid her by all who came to know her.
Meantime, popular and clever politician that Burr was, he seemed to make as many powerful enemies as friends. From the beginning of his term in the United States Senate, a bitter conflict sprang up between Jefferson and Burr, a hostility fomented by Hamilton, and furthered by Monroe and Madison. The political situation was rendered more complicated by the rivalry between Jefferson and Hamilton, and then the French Revolution came along further to complicate matters. Obviously, the Federalist party, with Hamilton its ablest exponent, was on the decline, but the Republicans were not united so as to profit by their confusion. Burr's clear French sympathies were in conflict with Jefferson's pacifism, and, though Burr was selected by the Republicans as their candidate for the post of minister to France, Washington appointed Monroe, a fellow Virginian. The President also denied Burr the use of official documents which he wished to consult, preparatory to writing a history of the Revolutionary War. Nevertheless, Burr's abilities were recognized in New York, and Governor Clinton offered him a seat on the Supreme bench of that State. This Burr declined.
In the election for President in the fall of 1796, rather to his surprise, Burr received 30 electoral votes, Jefferson 68, John Adams 71. The Republicans had made great gains. But for the moment Burr was on the side-lines. His term in the Senate had expired, so he returned to his legal practice in New York City. However, he could not cease to be active in politics. Soon he was returned to the New York Assembly and was making plans for the future.
As the Presidential election of 1800 aproached, the matter of carrying New York State for the Republicans came to the fore. Burr took the lead and set up a splendid ticket, backed by Tammany. Burr was the first politician to appreciate the importance of party organization, and, when the votes were counted, it was found that New York City and the State had gone for the Republicans, and so had the country. This was a cruel blow to Hamilton, who was furious and proceeded to formulate plans to frustrate the electorate and to secure the defeat of the Republicans, for now it was obvious that either Jefferson or Burr would be President. The Federalists were divided between Adams and Pinckney. It was a hectic time, with conspiracies rife and unmitigated in bitterness.
The Electoral College convened and voted: 1 for Jay; 64 for Pinckney; 65 for Adams; 73 for Jefferson; 73 for Burr. There was no election! The matter had to be determined by the House of Representatives. Here again there developed confusion and cabals. Hamilton flung himself into the midst of the intrigues. He injected personalities, slandered Burr and did all in his power to bring bout his defeat.
On February 11, 1801, the House began to ballot as to whether Burr or Jefferson should be President. Only on the thirty-sixth ballot was Jefferson chosen President. Burr became Vice-President.
At once Cheatham and Duane, hireling pamphleteers, came out with scurrilous attacks on Burr. He was charged with having conspired with certain Federalists to wrest the Presidency from Jefferson, despite the fact that he was in Albany during the heated session. In all of this one detects the fine Italian hand of Alexander Hamilton, continuing to sow the seeds of distrust and hatred between the leaders of the Republican party, Jefferson and Burr. We now know that it was Jefferson who did the trading and made the promises, and that Burr might have won, had he resorted to bargaining. Nevertheless, Jefferson and his Virginia minions, either because they thought Burr guilty or because they feared his influence in politics, began to ignore him and to malign him. They set such hounds as Cheatham on his trail, yelping lies and digging up bones the gossips had buried, rotten bones of defamation and treachery. Burr made no effort to strike back. Never did he answer calumny with calumny, nor slander with slander.
While the excitement in Washington was at its height, on February second, Theodosia was married to Joseph Alston of Charleston, South Carolina, of which State he was soon to become Governor. For Burr this was an event of the gravest moment, his life centering in this daughter. The following year, on May 29, 1802, he was made happy by the birth of her son, Aaron Burr Alston, who came to be called "Gampy," and whom his grandfather expected at two years to be exploring the secrets of natural history!
Burr did not assume the office of Vice President until January 15, 1802. He won at once the esteem of the Senate as a presiding officer. He "states the question clearly and confines the speakers to the point," presiding with "great ease and dignity," wrote one senator. But nothing could save him from the combination of enemies. Jefferson completely ignored him as to patronage. He appointed Burr's rivals in New York to important posts. War was made on the Vice President from all sides. He was charged with having gone over to the Federalists, though such alliances at the time were not infrequent, but in Burr it amounted to betrayal of the President.
For two years the war of the pamphleteers continued, Burr caught between the barrage of both sides. And so it came on down to February, 1804, when a Republican caucus in Washington nominated Jefferson for President and George Clinton for Vice President. Burr was ignored, but already his friends had announced him for the governorship of New York. The political cauldron went boiling high, not only in the State but in the Nation at large. The Federalists of New England were talking of seceding from the Union: they could no longer tolerate Republican policies. The last and most horrible thing of all was the purchase of Louisiana! And so, possibly the rankest, most vilifying campaign in history came finally to a close April 25, 1804, when Burr was defeated for governor. None knew better than Burr that this meant his exit from the political stage.
In analyzing the causes for his defeat, he came finally to attribute it to the scurrilous attacks of Hamilton. From many sources it was patent that this prince of Federalists had lied about him endlessly. Burr had already declared that these deliberate defamations would have to cease, that he would call out the first man of any respectability that slandered him. So he wrote Hamilton to retract his charges. A number of letters passed between them, Hamilton ever evading the issue. At last a challenge was issued by Burr and accepted. The principals and seconds met at dawn on July 11, 1804, under the shadow of the Palisades at Weehawken, New Jersey.
Perhaps this duel is the most famous in history. Its results certainly meant the end of both Hamilton and Burr. They carried Hamilton from the field and the next day he died. Burr lived for years, but the shadow of his own doom was ever before him. It is reported that late in life he observed that, had he been wiser, he would have known that there was room enough in the world for both Hamilton and himself. Had Hamilton been equally wise, he would have known that calumnies and lies bring forth but bitter fruit.
When the news of Hamilton's death spread abroad, a thunderous hue and cry went up against Burr. He was a murderer, a criminal, in spite of the fact that all of the rules required under the duelling code had been observed. The Federalists set upon him. He was indicted forthwith for murder, both in New Jersey and New York, and, while he was never brought to trial, he had reason to fear facing a jury, so thoroughly had the public been prejudiced against him.
Presently he returned to Washington and took up his post as Vice President. His utter isolation was now even more apparent. But courageously, he went about his duties. He conducted himself before the Senate as though nothing had happened. It is recorded by some of his associates that he never appeared to better advantage. The last matter to come before the Senate was the impeachment of Justice Chase. This attack on the Federal judiciary was instigated by Jefferson and pressed to a conclusion and lost, Burr casting the deciding vote.
See The Trials of Aaron Burr
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