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Aaron Burr

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Aaron Burr

The Vice President of the United States killed the Secretary of the Treasury and later was accused of attempting to set himself up as a monarch in the West. This sounds like fiction but was the actual life of Aaron Burr. His story is that of a different era, full of uncertainty and severe political division for a young nation. That uncertainty even extends to debating exactly what Burr's intentions were. To this day, historians struggle with separating truth from speculation in the highly politicized scandals around Burr.

A black and white drawing of Aaron Burr StudySmarterAaron Burr/Wikimedia Commons

Early Life

In 1756 Aaron Burr was born in Trenton, New Jersey. His grandfather was the American religious leader, Jonathon Edwards. Burr followed in his grandfather's footsteps with a degree in theology before switching to a career in law.

Revolutionary War Service

Burr began his military service by following Benedict Arnold on the invasion of Quebec in 1775. In 1776 he went to New York City to work directly for General George Washington, but the two did not get along. He went on to receive his command, before resigning in 1779.

Law Career and Early Political Career

After leaving the military, Burr transitioned into practicing law. Burr found great success as a lawyer, moving to New York. New York Governor George Clinton would appoint him as Attorney General of New York. Next, Burr won a seat in the U.S. Senate. Burr's political career would peak as he ran for president in 1796 and 1800.

Vice Presidency

In the Election of 1800, Aaron Burr rose to the vice presidency under Thomas Jefferson. Serving under Jefferson, Burr found that he had little to do in the role of vice president. As a result, he explored other options. He ran for Governor of New York in 1804 but lost.

History with Alexander Hamilton

Burr had a history of animosity with Alexander Hamilton. When Burr won his Senate seat, he did so by defeating Hamilton's father-in-law. During the election the 1800, Hamilton had called Burr "The most unfit man in the United States for the office of president". Hamilton would later work to hamper Burr's campaign for Governor of New York. Newspapers would carry retellings of Hamilton's disparagement of Burr shortly after the New York election.

A drawing of the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr StudySmarterDuel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr

Duel with Alexander Hamilton

When Hamilton would not deny the remarks, Burr challenged him to a duel in April 1804. Hamilton agreed. Although still illegal, the duel was held in New Jersey instead of New York due to laxer laws. In the duel, Burr shot and killed Hamilton. Afterward, warrants for Burr's arrest would be issued, which he would escape by moving to Philadelphia. Burr continued serving as vice president, finishing out his term several months later.

The Burr Conspiracy

With his political career ended by taking part in the duel with Hamilton, Burr saw Louisiana as an opportunity to come back. He began planning before he even left the office of vice president. Exactly what his intentions were are unclear to this day. The charges were that Burr had intended to lead a military force to take parts of Louisiana, Texas, and Mexico to install himself as ruler. By April 1805, Burry was traveling West to recruit followers.

Instability of Louisiana

Why did Hamilton believe that he could successfully create a new country from part of Louisiana? Louisiana was a largely unsettled area and Spain contested the territory's borders. Additionally, part of its small population was openly discussing leaving the union. At the time, the idea of the United States splitting up into smaller countries was not uncommon.

Failed Attempts at British Support

In August 1804, Burr would approach Britain's Minister to the U.S., Another Merry. He would attempt multiple times to ask Merry for military and financial support. While Merry did pass on Burr's requests and provide a small amount of money, Britain was not interested in getting involved.

General James Wilkinson was the Governor of the Louisiana Territory. Wilkinson and Burr had become close while serving in the Revolutionary War. Burr later convinced Jefferson to name Wilkinson as Governor. After his death, it would be learned that he had been a spy for Spain.

Involvement of James Wilkinson

Wilkinson was an important recruit of Burr. Since he was Governor, he had control of military forces in Louisiana. He also would not arise suspicion if he went around the West.

Harmon Blennerhassett was a wealthy and eccentric Irish immigrant. He had settled with his family on an island in the Ohio River and named it Blennerhassett Island. By supporting Burr, Blennerhassett would lose everything.

Involvement of Harmon Blennerhassett

An early and important supporter of Burr was Harmon Blennerhassett. Blennerhassett would allow Burr to use his island as a staging ground for the military operation.

The Plan Begins

In the Summer of 1806, Burr would finally attempt to set his plan in motion. He would begin by sending what is called "the Cipher Letter", written in code, to Wilkinson. This letter described his plans. In his later trial for treason, the Ciper Letter would be an important piece of evidence. Next, he visited Blennerhassett and instructed him to turn his island into the military post that Burr needed.

Cipher: A secret code of letters or symbols used to disguise writing

Plan Revealed

By the Fall of 1806, Burr's plans become rumors and even appeared in newspapers. Three times Burr was charged and acquitted of Treason over the talk. By now Wilkinson did not believe the plan would succeed. Wilkinson wrote to President Jefferson revealing Burr's plan, heavily editing the details to reduce his role.

Plan Collapses

In early December Blennerhassett Island was and the mansion looted by militiamen from Ohio. In late December, Blennerhassett and his small following of fewer than 100 men met Burr. They continued their journey until learning there was a reward for Burr's capture. Burr surrendered outside New Orleans. Fearing trial, Burr escaped in the wilderness but was captured in February 1807.

Trial

The trial of Aaron Burr was deeply political. The prosecution sought charges of treason and high misdemeanors. The high misdemeanors were for attempting to violate the Neutrality Act by attacking Spanish territory. However, Judge John Marshall made rulings to help Burr, which ultimately led to his acquittal.

Jefferson Seeks Charges

President Thomas Jefferson wanted Burr to be convicted of charges at all costs. He dispatched agents to the West seeking depositions against Burr in exchange for immunity. He also sought executive privilege to withhold from Burr's defense certain documents about the conspiracy.

Constitution and the Letter of the Law

Judge John Marshall presided over the trial. He took a very narrow and literal view of what defines "treason" in the Constitution. Marshall believed that intent to commit treason was not enough, but the action must be taken. Marshall ruled that talk of overthrowing the government was free speech, without any direct action taken. Jefferson believed that Marshall's disapproval of the Jefferson administration had led to this ruling.

It now appears we have no law but the will of the judge - Thomas Jefferson1

Acquittal

After Marshall delivered his narrow interpretation of treason, the jury found him not guilty. However, members of the jury did hint that the verdict may have been different if they were not told to decide under Marshall's interpretation. Shortly he was also acquitted of his other charges. He was not totally free, as Marshall did order him to face other charges in Ohio. Burr never showed up to the court.

Public Opinion

Burr's killing Alexander Hamilton in their duel had been extremely unpopular with the public. After his trial for treason, Burr was reviled in the press. The public burned him in Effigy. Burr was known to fear for his life.

Exile and Death

Following the trial Burr, floated around Europe as an exile from 1808-1812. Upon his return, he assumed the name Aaron Edwards to avoid creditors. He spent the rest of his life practicing law in New York City until he died in 1836.

Historian's Views

Historians continue to argue about exactly what Burr's intentions were. Many accounts of involved people are self-serving and contradictory, while Burr's papers were lost in a shipwreck. It is generally agreed that Burr did plan use a military force to take land between Louisiana and the territory controlled by Spain. Historian Gordon S. Wood felt that Burr was an important early American figure but that he acted out of self-interest instead of a wish for the public good. This placed him at odds with the Founding Fathers' idea of an Enlightenment gentlemen and is why he is not well remembered as a Founding Father today.

Aaron Burr - Key takeaways

  • Fought in the Revolutionary War
  • Vice president under Jefferson
  • Killed Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in a duel
  • Led "The Burr Conspiracy" to create a new nation to the West of the US
  • Was acquitted of treason charges in a highly political trial

1 Thomas Jefferson. From Thomas Jefferson to William Thomson, 26 September 1807.

Frequently Asked Questions about Aaron Burr

Aaron Burr was the vice president of the United States who shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel and later was charged with treason for his role in the Burr Conspiracy.

Aaron Burr died of a stroke

After being acquitted of treason, Burr left for exile in Europe for four years before return to New York City to practice law. 

Aaron Burr is most famous for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel.

After killing Hamilton, Burr became involved with the Burr Conspiracy.  He was eventually arrested, charged with treason and then acquitted for his role.  

Final Aaron Burr Quiz

Question

What was the Burr Conspiracy?

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Answer

A plan to take western lands with military force

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Question

What did Aaron Burr chaalenge Alexander Hamilton to a duel?

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Answer

Because Hamilton would not take back negative comments about Burr

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Question

What was the Cipher Letter about?


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Answer

Burr's plan to take the West

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Question


Aaron Burr was convicted of treason in a court of law for the Burr Conspiracy

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Answer

False

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Question

The trial of Aaron Burr was - 


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Answer

Political 

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Question


How did Blennerhassett Island figure into the Burr conspiracy?

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Answer

Burr wanted to stage his military there

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Question

The British were heavily involved in supporting the Burr Conspiracy 

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Answer

False 

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Question

Why did James Wilkinson reveal the Burr Conspiracy?


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Answer

To save himself when he believed the plan would fail 

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Question


Who wanted to seek legal charges against Arron Burr for the Burr Conspiracy?

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Answer

Thomas Jefferson

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Question

How did the public feel about the Burr Conspiracy 


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Answer

They were outraged and burned him in effigy

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Question

Where did Burr go after being acquitted?

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Answer

Europe

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Question

​Aaron Burr's grandfather was a famous 


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Answer

Minister

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