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Although he earned distinction as a general during the Revolutionary War, and as Vice-President of the United States, Burr is best known today for his duel with Alexander Hamilton.
Aaron Burr was born in Newark, New Jersey, on February 6, 1756. Orphaned as a child, he was raised by his uncle, Timothy Edwards. After graduating from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1772, he took up the study of theology, but soon abandoned it for the law.
Soon after the Revolutionary War broke out, Burr joined General George Washington's army at Cambridge. Impatient with Washington's inaction, however, he enlisted to accompany General Benedict Arnold on the march against Quebec. He distinguished himself so well during this campaign that Arnold recommended his being attached to General Richard Montgomery's staff. Upon his return from Canada he was given a place on Washington's staff, but differences with his commander led to his being transferred to the staff of General Israel Putnam. Burr was credited for saving an entire brigade during the retreat from Long Island, but he did so by defying the orders of his superiors. He passed the winter of 1777 at Valley Forge as a Lieutenant Colonel, and the next June he commanded a brigade and distinguished himself at the Battle of Monmouth. In January 1779 he assumed command of American troops that were scattered in a line from the Hudson River to the sound in Westchester County, New York, a region in which there was much lawlessness and plundering by ill-disciplined troops. Burr established a thorough patrol system and rigorously enforced martial law, thereby bringing order to the region and enforcing discipline upon the troops.
Ill health forced Burr to resign from the Army in 1779. He resumed the study of law and was admitted to the bar at Albany in 1782. That same year he married Theodosia Prevost, the widow of a British officer. In 1783 the newlyweds moved to New York City and established themselves in a mansion at Richmond Hill. Burr's political career began soon after this move.
Burr served in the New York State Assembly from 1784 to 1785, as Attorney General of New York from 1789 to 1790, as Commissioner of Revolutionary Claims in 1791, in the U.S. Senate from 1791 to 1797, again in the New York Assembly from 1798 to 1799, and president of the New York Constitutional Convention in 1801.
A power among the Democratic-Republicans of the North, Burr was placed on the presidential ticket with Thomas Jefferson in 1800. His personal canvassing of New York was a major contributor to that party's victory in that state. Burr was supposed to become Jefferson's Vice-President, but a major blunder resulted in both Jefferson and Burr receiving 73 votes in the Electoral College. The election had to be decided by the House of Representatives, which on the thirty-sixth ballot finally elected Jefferson President and Burr Vice-President. During the House debates, one of the most ardent and vocal speakers against Burr was Alexander Hamilton, and it was Hamilton who cast the deciding vote in favor of Jefferson. Although Burr made no effort to take the election from Jefferson, rumors to the contrary became so pervasive that Jefferson came to distrust him. However, as Vice-President, Burr presided over the Senate with such dignity that even his detractors could not help but admire him.
In 1804, Burr tried to revive his previous political position by running for the governorship of New York. Once again, however, Alexander Hamilton was his most vocal critic, calling Burr a "dangerous..." man of whom he "could detail ... a still more despicable opinion." Following his defeat, Burr demanded that Hamilton explain his words, but Hamilton refused. He finally challenged Hamilton to a duel of honor, and on July 11, 1804, the two men met at Weehawken, New Jersey, to "settle their differences." Although Hamilton refused to shoot to kill, Burr took direct aim and mortally wounded Hamilton. Burr was indicted for murder in both New York and New Jersey, but was never tried in either jurisdiction.
Although dueling was still considered an honorable way to settle differences between gentlemen, Burr's political career was all but destroyed by the shot fired at Weehawken, especially since Hamilton was a very popular figure in American culture at that time. After first escaping to South Carolina to avoid prosecution, Burr returned to Washington and completed his term as Vice-President.
Burr all but disappeared from public view after leaving the vice-presidency in 1805, only to reappear in 1807 as the instigator of a scheme that resulted in his being tried for treason. Burr had purchased a tract of land in Louisiana and hoped to profit by leading a colony of settlers on to it and establish an independent state. Furthermore, in event of a war with Spain, which at that time seemed certain, Burr intended to lead an expedition of his colonists into Mexico to win that country for himself. All of these plans were said to have been concocted at the Ohio estate of Harman Blennerhassett, who was also said to be one of the principal financial backers of the scheme. The only real problem with the entire "scheme," however, was that no one really knew if it existed. Rumors concerning Burr's activities were widespread, but proof was seldom offered. General James Wilkinson, then commanding officer of the army but really a traitor who had long been in the pay of Spain, told President Jefferson that Burr was raising an army to separate the western states from the union. Jefferson, who had never truly trusted Burr, sent federal troops to arrest Burr and Blennerhassett and had them charged with treason. A spectacular trial, with Chief Justice John Marshall presiding, was held at Richmond, Virginia. Despite the abundance of rumors and speculation, no real evidence of the conspiracy was ever presented and Burr was ultimately found "not guilty;" Blennerhassett was never formally tried.
The "not guilty" verdict notwithstanding, Burr's political and personal reputation were irreparably destroyed. He spent four years in Europe, where he was forced to live on borrowed funds. He returned to America in 1812, in answer to pleas from his daughter, but the ship bearing her to meet him was lost in a storm and never heard from again. He spent the next 22 years practicing law, and died at Port Richmond, Staten Island, New York, on September 14, 1836.
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This page was last updated on August 31, 2017.