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Aaron Burr

Aaron Burr (1756-1836) and Thomas Jefferson met in 1791, when Burr became a member of the United States Senate. A decade later, Jefferson candidly wrote that “there had never been an intimacy” between himself and Burr, “and but little association.”1 By then, however, the course of history had permanently entwined their names.

Born in Newark, New Jersey, Burr was the son of a Presbyterian minister and grandson of Jonathan Edwards, colonial America’s premiere theologian. Both father and grandfather served as president of the College of New Jersey at Princeton. Burr himself would graduate from that institution and would study theology before turning to law. In the eighteenth century, the leaders of society were men with Burr’s lineage, education, and manners.

When the Revolutionary War broke out, the nineteen-year-old Burr volunteered for service. William Livingston brought the young soldier to the attention of General George Washington in glowing terms: “May I ... take the Liberty to mention to your Excellency Major Burr Aid deCamp to General Putnam? I think him a most promising youth, & like to do Honour to his Country.”2

When the war ended in 1783, Burr moved to New York City to practice law and, in the following year, he was elected to the New York State Assembly. Politics in New York revolved around family-based factions — the Schuyler, Livingston, and Clinton families. Burr had no binding ties to any family faction and pursued a moderate course in the assembly. In 1791, the Livingston and Clinton factions joined forces to support Burr for the U.S. Senate. Burr’s elevation to the national level came at the expense of incumbent Philip Schuyler, the father-in-law of Alexander Hamilton.

When Burr reached Philadelphia to assume his position, political parties on a national scale were just beginning to emerge. Alexander Hamilton was assuming leadership of the “Federalists,” those who supported a strong national government; “Republican” politicians, who feared the government’s growing power, rallied themselves around Thomas Jefferson. Senator Burr’s political position was not immediately apparent. Unlike other Revolutionary statesmen, Aaron Burr had produced no essays on governmental forms, nor had he gone on record concerning the Constitution of 1787. A New York Federalist observed that Burr maintained a “cautious distance ... towards all parties.”3

In 1795, during debate on the Jay Treaty with Great Britain, Burr’s alignment with the Republican party became more pronounced. Taking a leadership role, Burr advocated renegotiation of controversial provisions before voting on the treaty. “I am told that Burr made a most excellent speech,” wrote Republican Albert Gallatin.4

In an era when actively seeking office was considered ungentlemanly, Burr campaigned openly. Before the New York elections of 1795, Burr absented himself from the Senate to assess the political climate in upstate New York. In the following autumn, he ventured beyond New York to meet with fellow Republicans and establish himself nationwide.5 During a sweep of New England and the southern states, Burr spent a day at Monticello, though no record exists of the conversation between Burr and Thomas Jefferson.6

Upon the retirement of George Washington, the presidential election of 1796 would be the first with two candidates vying for the top office. Under the existing system, the man who received the most votes would be president and the man with the second highest vote count would be vice president. Though each party would offer a candidate for each office, and every elector would submit two votes, the voting process did not distinguish between president and vice president. The Federalist ticket for 1796 named John Adams and Thomas Pinckney for the nation’s highest posts.

The Republican party supported Thomas Jefferson as Washington’s successor. Jefferson, who had retired to Monticello, was not consulted and had no apparent role in choosing a running mate. Confident that Jefferson would win the southern vote, Republicans looked to the northern states for a vice presidential candidate. Burr’s recent leadership in the Senate and his energetic campaign tactics had not gone unnoticed. John Beckley, Clerk of the House of Representatives, reported that Burr was supported by “the whole body of Republicans” in Pennsylvania and was also the favorite in Kentucky and Tennessee.7 Not everyone, however, had confidence in the New Yorker. “I consider Burr as a man to be shunned,” declared James Monroe, “ ... an unprincipled adventurer ....”8 When a Republican caucus met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1796, differences were overcome and Burr was drafted as the party’s second candidate.

As the autumn elections approached, Burr campaigned throughout the northern states. “Burr has been out electioneering these six weeks,” Beckley notified James Madison, “... but I doubt his efforts are more directed to himself than any body else. You well know him; would it not be prudent to vote one half of Virga. for Clinton?”9 Beckley may have been concerned that Burr would earn more votes than Jefferson. Whether Virginia electors shared that concern, or had separate reservations, twenty Virginia electors cast one of their two votes for Jefferson, but only one elector voted for Burr. “The party with which [Burr] has generally acted ...,” concluded Massachusetts Representative Theodore Sedgwick, “covet the aid of his character & talents, [but] have not the smallest confidence in his hearty union to their cause. ...  they dread his independence of them.”10 In the final tally, John Adams was elected president and, with the second highest vote count, his opponent, Thomas Jefferson, became vice president.

After the election, Burr turned his back on national politics. Reelected to the New York State Assembly, he supported a progressive commercial agenda that included road and bridge charters, tax reform, liberal banking practices, and debtor relief.

Despite the ’96 election, Jefferson and others continued to recognize Burr’s importance to the Republican cause. Burr had the connections and the political savvy to mobilize support in the northern states. Soon after assuming office, the new vice president wrote his Republican colleague a long, confidential letter. Jefferson wanted, he wrote, “an opportunity of recalling myself to your memory, and of evidencing my esteem for you.” He described the political climate in Philadelphia and, appealing to Burr’s geographic connections, expressed hope for the “penetration of truth into the Eastern states.”11 Burr promptly arranged a meeting with Jefferson.12 Over the next three years, the two men exchanged several letters and occasionally met in Philadelphia.

In the spring of 1800, elections were held for the New York State Assembly. Assemblymen were responsible for choosing presidential electors; thus, the majority party would be ensured of the state’s twelve electoral votes. Aaron Burr took charge of the Republican campaign and developed a well-balanced slate of candidates. Commodore James Nicholson praised Burr’s efforts. “His generalship, perseverance, industry, and execution exceeds all description,” announced Nicholson.13 Burr himself reported directly to Jefferson that the “Victory is complete and the Manner of it highly honorable—On the part of the Republicans there has been no indecency, no unfairness, no personal abuse.”14

When a Republican caucus met on May 11, 1800, Jefferson and Burr were the unanimous nominees for president and vice president. Remembering Virginia’s electoral vote in 1796, Jefferson took “some measures to procure for [Burr] the unanimous vote” in that state, supposing that “any failure there might be imputed” to himself. As Jefferson later recalled, “When I destined him for a high apptmt, it was out of respect for the favor he had obtained with the republican party by his extraordinary exertions and successes in the N. Y. election in 1800.”15

When the national vote reached Philadelphia during the final months of 1800, the Republican party had captured the presidency and the vice presidency, but their two candidates were tied. Jefferson and Burr had each received 73 electoral votes, with no specification as to office. Consequently, the election was turned over to the House of Representatives, where lame-duck Federalists would control the outcome. Some Federalists wanted to bargain with Burr and make him the new president. Theodore Sedgwick contended that Burr held “no pernicious theories” and his “very selfishness” would secure his support for Federalist commercial systems.16 Alexander Hamilton disagreed. Though he had long objected to Jefferson’s politics, Hamilton feared that Burr was a far more dangerous choice. “For heaven’s sake,” he begged his colleagues, “let not the Federal party be responsible for the elevation of this Man.”17

During the months pending a decision, Jefferson engaged in amicable correspondence with Burr. “It was to be expected,” he conceded, “that the enemy would endeavor to sow tares between us .... every consideration satisfies me you will be on your guard ....”18 To his daughter, Jefferson expressed approval of Burr’s behavior. “[T]he Federalists,” he remarked, “were confident at first they could debauch Colo. B. from his good faith by offering him their vote to be President, and have seriously proposed it to him. his conduct has been honorable & decisive, and greatly embarrasses them.”19

Meanwhile, Burr did not openly campaign for the presidency, nor did he reject the higher office. He abhorred the suspicion that he was “instrumental in Counteracting the wishes” of the voters, but seemed prepared to assume the presidency if necessary.20 Albert Gallatin was sure that Burr “sincerely opposed the [Federalist] design, and will go any lengths to prevent its execution.”21 Delaware’s James Bayard had heard other reports. “By persons friendly to Mr. Bur,” he confided to Hamilton, “it is distinctly Stated that he is willing to consider the Federalistes as his friends & to accept the office of President as their gift. I take it for granted that Mr. B would not only gladly accept the office, but will neglect no means in his power to secure it.”22

The House of Representatives voted in February 1801. Nine states were needed for an absolute majority. The first ballot produced eight states for Jefferson and six states for Burr. Delegates from two states were divided among themselves and submitted no votes. The same pattern continued until the thirty-sixth ballot, when Federalists from four states abstained from voting and Jefferson earned the majority that he needed for election.

In March 1801, Jefferson and Burr were inaugurated as president and vice president. The protracted election, and Burr’s passive behavior throughout the process, had undermined Republican support for their second-in-command. In faction-ridden New York, “Mr. B’s Republicanism has been and still is questioned by many,” wrote Assemblyman Samuel Osgood.23 President Jefferson proceeded to disregard the vice president’s recommendations for executive appointments, and instead turned for advice to George Clinton, newly reelected governor of New York.24 By September 1801, when Jefferson retained a Federalist incumbent rather than appoint Burr’s associate Matthew Davis, Gallatin warned that Burr would see the decision “as a declaration of war.”25

As Burr’s ties to the Republican party unraveled, he gained the attention of Federalist politicians. Burr appeared at an 1802 Federalist dinner celebrating Washington’s birthday, and offered a toast to the “union of all honest men.”26 Federalist leaders were keenly aware of the executive rift. “There is certainly a most serious seism between the chief and his heir apparent,” commented Alexander Hamilton, “... ripening into a ... bitter animosity ....”27

In December 1801, newspaper editor James Cheetham wrote to President Jefferson, accusing Burr of scheming to win the presidency for himself in 1800.28 Cheetham then repeated his accusations for public consumption. In January 1804, Burr met with Jefferson to defend himself and to request “some mark of favor” that would demonstrate Jefferson’s confidence. Jefferson maintained his “duty to be merely passive” in the selection of party candidates for the autumn presidential election. In recording the meeting, Jefferson remembered his early encounters with Burr. “His conduct very soon inspired me with distrust,” he wrote. “I habitually cautioned Mr. Madison against trusting him too much.”29 At a caucus of Republican congressmen in February 1804, Jefferson was nominated for president, Burr was abandoned, and George Clinton was nominated for vice president.

Once more, Burr turned to state politics to redeem his career. In the spring elections of 1804, he campaigned unsuccessfully for the governorship of New York. Burr learned afterwards that, during the course of the campaign, Alexander Hamilton had voiced a “despicable opinion” of Burr to a group of prominent men. Burr asked Hamilton for denial of the report and, when not satisfied, challenged Hamilton to a duel. On July 11, 1804, the two men met at a dueling ground in Weehawken, New Jersey. In the exchange of gunfire, Hamilton was fatally wounded. Under indictment in New York and charged with murder in New Jersey, Burr spent the next few months traveling quietly in the Deep South. Charges against Burr would later be dropped.

Vice President Burr returned to Washington in November to preside over the reconvened Senate. Federalist Senator William Plumer maintained that President Jefferson “has shewn more attention & invited Mr. Burr oftener to his house within this three weeks than ever he did in the course of the same time before.”30

The inauguration of March 1805 ended Aaron Burr’s formal connections with the Republican administration.31 With his political career destroyed and his personal finances in disarray, Burr boldly proceeded to reestablish himself. In April 1805, he launched the first of two journeys into the American West. Traveling down to New Orleans and then up to St. Louis, Burr met with leading citizens, recruited followers, and established supply lines. Significantly, he allied himself with General James Wilkinson, Senior Officer of the United States Army and Governor of the Louisiana Territory. In the summer of 1805, Philadelphia’s Gazette of the United States questioned the activities of the former vice president. Was he planning an invasion of Mexico, or perhaps plotting a revolution to separate the western states from the Union?32 Revolution would be treasonous; under the right conditions, however, the man who “liberated” Mexico from Spanish rule could become an American hero.

Late in 1805, Jefferson began receiving letters of warning about Burr’s maneuvers. He was reluctant to believe the letters. Not until the autumn of 1806 did Jefferson receive reports that caused serious concern. When Postmaster General Gideon Granger notified Jefferson in October of certain revelations concerning Burr, the president called a meeting of his department heads.33 Jefferson and his advisers agreed to send John Graham, secretary of the Orleans Territory, to follow Burr on his second trip into the western regions. The president also warned the governors of the southwestern territories to beware of Burr’s activities.34 In November, Jefferson heard from the double-dealing General Wilkinson, warning his superior of an expedition to seize New Orleans, incite an insurrection, and invade Mexico.35

On November 27, 1806, the president issued a proclamation announcing that “sundry persons” were “conspiring and confederating,” and warning citizens against participation in such unlawful enterprises.36 No conspirators were named. In January 1807, the House of Representatives called on the president for further information. Jefferson, in his statement to Congress, named Aaron Burr as the “prime mover” in the conspiracy and stated that his guilt was “placed beyond question.”37

Even before Jefferson’s statement to Congress, Burr knew that his plans were disintegrating. He surrendered himself to civil authorities in Mississippi on January 18, 1807. Absolved of charges by a Mississippi grand jury, but required to remain in the territory, Burr absconded and was retaken a month later in Alabama. Under escort, he was brought to Richmond, Virginia, for trial. Charged with treason, Burr was brought before the United States Court for the Fifth Circuit, with Chief Justice John Marshall presiding. Marshall immediately made clear that the burden of prosecution rested with the executive branch of the government. Accordingly, the Jefferson administration proceeded vigorously with the collection of evidence.38 Despite the efforts of the government prosecutors, credible witnesses and conclusive evidence were not forthcoming. For a conviction of treason, Chief Justice Marshall ruled that the accused must have committed an “overt act” of war and that two witnesses must testify to that act. The case presented by the government could not meet Marshall’s standard and Burr was acquitted on September 1, 1807.

American historians have questioned Burr’s activities in the western states, but there was no doubt in Thomas Jefferson’s mind. Writing the Marquis de Lafayette, Jefferson concisely summarized the facts as he saw them. Burr’s conspiracy, he asserted, “has been one of the most flagitious of which history will ever furnish an example. he meant to separate the Western states from us, to add Mexico to them, place himself at their head, establish what he would deem an energetic government, & thus provide an example & an instrument for the subversion of our freedom. ... there is not a man in the US. who doubts his guilt ....”39

After acquittal, Burr lived and traveled in Europe between 1808 and 1812. In 1812, he returned to New York and quietly practiced law until his death in 1836.

- Nancy Verell, 3/30/2015

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