Aaron Burr
1756 - 1836

Aaron Burr was born February 6, 1756, at Newark, New Jersey. His father was the second president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton university) and his mother was the daughter of the eminent Puritan clergyman Jonathan Edwards. Shortly after his birth he was taken to Princeton, New Jersey, where both his father and mother died while he was still an infant. With his sister Sarah he was placed in the Elizabethtown home of an uncle, the Reverend Timothy Edwards, and brought up under the care of a tutor, Tapping Reeve, who later married Sarah.

Aaron was a troublesome ward, but he entered the College of New Jersey at the age of thirteen and was graduated with distinction at sixteen. He spent the year after graduation in "busy idleness," reading and thinking. He was expected to follow in the steps of his forebears by becoming a torch-bearer of the Calvinistic faith, and, to satisfy his own mind, early in 1774 he undertook the study of theology. The result was that "completely and forever" he rejected the gospel according to Jonathan Edwards. But the times called for action rather than contemplation, and from the beginning of the colonies' dispute with England, young Burr espoused the patriot cause. He began the study of law at Litchfield, Conn., under his brother-in-law Tapping Reeve, but had made only slight progress when the call to arms sounded.

First joining Washington's army at Cambridge, Burr served as captain under Benedict Arnold on the ill-fated expedition against Quebec. Next he served on Washington's staff and then on the staff of General Israel Putnam during the New York campaign, and in 1777 was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Continental line. He fought at Monmouth, then resigned from the service in March 1779 because of ill-health. As a soldier his record was creditable but not distinguished. In accord with the custom of the times, he bore the title of "colonel" to the end of his life.

Soon after leaving the service, Burr resumed the study of law and in 1782 was licensed to practice. During the same year he married Theodosia Prevost, widow of a British officer and ten years his senior. Their only child was also named Theodosia. His mansion at Richmond Hill was the scene of brilliant social gatherings, but extravagance and carelessness in money matters were already in evidence. In 1784 Burr was elected to the state legislature and in 1789 became attorney general under Governor George Clinton. Finally, in 1791, at the age of 35, he defeated General Philip Schuyler, father-in-law of Alexander Hamilton, for a seat in the U.S. senate. He failed re-election in 1797 and spent the next two years in New York state politics. In 1800 he was named vice-presidential candidate on the Republican ticket headed by Thomas Jefferson. Using his Tammy Hall connection, Burr carried his state and thus helped bring about a national victory for his party. Under the procedures then prevailing the electors had cast their votes for both Jefferson and Burr without indicating which should be president and which vice-president. The ensuing deadlock resulted in a sharp contest in the house of representatives where, for 35 ballots, the pro-Burr Federalists, without Burr's aid, succeeded in stalling off the victory of Jefferson. But Alexander Hamilton's determined opposition to Burr finally resulted in Jefferson's election as president, whereupon Burr became vice-president.

In February 1804 Burr's friends in the New York legislature nominated him for the governorship of the state. Again Hamilton and his cohorts brought about Burr's defeat, and shortly thereafter George Clinton replaced him as vice-presidential candidate on the Republican ticket in the 1804 national election.

As a result of the charges Hamilton had made against Burr during that campaign, Burr demanded and explanation. He was not satisfied with Hamilton's response and the two men therefore fought a duel on July 11, 1804, at Weehawken, New Jersey, and Hamilton was killed. With warrants out for his arrest in both New York and New Jersey, Burr fled to Philadelphia, where he held conferences with his friend James Wilkinson. Though a general of the U.S. army, Wilkinson was a traitor in the pay of Spain. As war was expected to break out between the United States and Spain over boundary disputes, he and Burr planned an invasion of Mexico with the object of setting up an independent government there. Furthermore, because they overestimated the unrest of the western states, they hoped to foment a secession movement in that area and, joining it to Mexico, found an empire on the Napoleonic model with New Orleans as its capital. But Burr talked too much, Wilkinson became alarmed, and the general betrayed his fellow conspirator to President Jefferson. This resulted in Burr's arrest while he was trying to escape to Spanish territory, and he was sent to Richmond for trial before Chief Justice John Marshall. Though the evidence showed he had planned treason, his plot had been nipped in the bud before he had time to commit the treasonable act; consequently he was acquitted.

Shortly afterward he went to Europe and tried to enlist the aid of Napoleon in an effort to conquer Florida. Failing in this, he lived abroad in penury for four years. Finally, in response to entreaties of his daughter, he returned to America in 1812; but the ship bringing Theodosia to meet him in New York was lost at sea. Bereft and lonely, he reopened his law office in New York and for 22 years engaged in his profession. In 1833, at the age of 77, he married the wealthy widow Eliza Jumel, about 20 years his junior. The marriage was not a happy one and the couple were divorced on the day of Burr's death, September 14, 1836.


T.P. Abernethy, The Burr Conspiracy(1954)

M.L. Davis, Memoirs of Aaron Burr(1837)

J. Parton, The Life and Times of Aaron Burr(1858)

SOURCE: Encyclopędia Britannica

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