American Revolutionary War
Battle of Quebec
Battle of Monmouth
Aaron Burr Jr. (February 6, 1756 – September 14, 1836) was an
American politician. He was the third Vice President of the United
States (1801–1805), serving during Thomas Jefferson's first term.
Burr served as a
Continental Army officer in the Revolutionary War,
after which he became a successful lawyer and politician. He was
elected twice to the
New York State Assembly
New York State Assembly (1784–1785,
1798–1799), was appointed New York State Attorney General
(1789–1791), was chosen as a U.S. senator (1791–1797), from the
State of New York, and reached the apex of his career as vice
The highlight of Burr's tenure as president of the Senate, one of his
few official duties as vice president, was the Senate's first
impeachment trial, that of Supreme Court justice Samuel Chase. In
1804, the last full year of his single term as vice president, Burr
shot his political rival
Alexander Hamilton in a famous duel. Burr was
never tried for the illegal duel, and all charges against him were
eventually dropped, but Hamilton's death ended Burr's political
After leaving Washington, Burr traveled west seeking new
opportunities, both economic and political. His activities eventually
led to his arrest on charges of treason in 1807. The subsequent trial
resulted in acquittal, but Burr's western schemes left him with large
debts and few influential friends. In a final quest for grand
opportunities, he left the United States for Europe. He remained
overseas until 1812, when he returned to the United States to practice
law in New York City. There he spent the rest of his life in relative
1 Early life
1.1 Revolutionary War
2 First marriage and family
2.1 Theodosia Burr
2.2 Stepsons and protégés
2.3 Illegitimate children
3.1 Legal and early political career
3.2 New York City politics
3.3 The presidential election of 1800
3.4 Vice presidency
Duel with Alexander Hamilton
3.6 Conspiracy and trial
4 Exile and return
5 Later life and death
5.1 Adopted and natural children
5.2 Marriage to Eliza Jumel
8 Representation in literature and popular culture
11 Further reading
12 External links
Burr's maternal grandfather Jonathan Edwards
Aaron Burr Jr. was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1756 as the second
child of the Reverend
Aaron Burr Sr., a Presbyterian minister and
second president of the College of New Jersey in Newark (which moved
to Princeton in 1756 and became Princeton University). His mother
Esther Burr (née Edwards) was the daughter of Jonathan Edwards, the
noted theologian, and his wife Sarah. Burr had an older sister
Sarah ("Sally"), named for her maternal grandmother. She later married
Tapping Reeve, founder of the
Litchfield Law School
Litchfield Law School in Litchfield,
Burr's father died in 1757, and his mother the following year, leaving
him and his sister orphans when he was two years old. He and his
sister first lived with their maternal grandparents, but Sarah Edwards
also died in 1757, and Jonathan Edwards in 1758. Young Aaron and Sally
were placed with the
William Shippen family in Philadelphia. In 1759,
the children's guardianship was assumed by their 21-year-old maternal
uncle Timothy Edwards. The next year, Edwards married Rhoda Ogden and
moved with the children to Elizabeth, New Jersey, near her family.
Rhoda's younger brothers
Aaron Ogden and
Matthias Ogden became the
boy's playmates. The three boys, along with their neighbor Jonathan
Dayton, formed a group of friends that lasted their
Burr was admitted to the sophomore class of the College of New Jersey
at the age of 13, after being rejected once at age 11. Aside from
being occupied with intensive studies, he was a part of the American
Whig Society and Cliosophic Society, the two clubs that the college
had to offer at the time. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in
1772 at age 16. He studied theology for an additional year, before
rigorous theological training with Joseph Bellamy, a Presbyterian. He
changed his career path two years later, at age 19, when he moved to
Connecticut to study law with his brother-in-law Tapping Reeve, his
sister's husband. News of the clashes with British troops at
Lexington and Concord
Lexington and Concord reached Litchfield in 1775, and Burr put his
studies on hold and enlisted in the Continental Army.
During the Revolutionary War, Burr took part in Colonel Benedict
Arnold's expedition to Quebec, an arduous trek of more than 300 miles
(480 km) through the frontier of what is now Maine. Arnold was
deeply impressed by Burr's "great spirit and resolution" during the
long march. When their forces reached the city of Quebec, he sent Burr
Saint Lawrence River
Saint Lawrence River to contact General Richard Montgomery, who
had taken Montreal, and escort him to Quebec. Montgomery then promoted
Burr to captain and made him an aide-de-camp. Burr distinguished
himself during the Battle of Quebec, where he was rumored to have
attempted to recover Montgomery's corpse after the General had been
In the spring of 1776, Burr's stepbrother Mathias Ogden helped him to
secure a place on George Washington's staff in Manhattan. However,
Burr quit within two weeks on June 26, wanting to be on the
battlefield; there was more honor to be found in that area than in the
"insular world of the commander's staff," according to historian Nancy
Israel Putnam took Burr under his wing. Burr
saved an entire brigade from capture after the British landing on
Manhattan by his vigilance in the retreat from lower
Harlem. In a departure from common practice, Washington failed to
commend Burr's actions in the next day's General Orders (the fastest
way to obtain a promotion in rank). Burr was already a nationally
known hero, but he never received a commendation. According to Ogden,
Burr was infuriated by the incident, which may have led to the
eventual estrangement between him and Washington. And yet, Burr
defended Washington's decision to evacuate New York as "a necessary
consequence." It was not until the 1790s that the two men found
themselves on opposite sides, in the realm of politics.
Burr was promoted to lieutenant colonel in July 1777 and assumed
virtual leadership of Malcolm's Additional Continental Regiment. There
were approximately 300 men under Colonel William Malcolm's nominal
command. The regiment successfully fought off many nighttime raids
into central New Jersey by British troops arriving by water from
Manhattan. Later that year, Burr commanded a small contingent during
the harsh winter encampment at Valley Forge, guarding "the Gulf," an
isolated pass that controlled one approach to the camp. Burr imposed
discipline, defeating an attempted mutiny by some of the troops.
Burr's regiment was devastated by British artillery on June 28, 1778,
Battle of Monmouth
Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey and, in the day's heat, he
suffered heat stroke. In January 1779, he was assigned to
Westchester County in command of Malcolm's Regiment, a region between
the British post at Kingsbridge and that of the Americans about 15
miles (24 km) to the north. This district was part of the larger
command of General Alexander McDougall, and there was much turbulence
and plundering by lawless bands of rebel or loyalist sympathizers, as
well as by raiding parties of ill-disciplined soldiers from both
Burr resigned from the
Continental Army in March 1779 due to his
continuing bad health and renewed his study of law. Technically, he
was no longer in the service, but he remained active in the war; he
was assigned by General Washington to perform occasional intelligence
missions for Continental generals, such as Arthur St. Clair. On July
5, 1779, he rallied a group of
Yale students at New Haven, along with
James Hillhouse and the Second Connecticut Governors Foot
Guard, in a skirmish with the British at the West River. The British
advance was repulsed, forcing them to enter New Haven from
Despite these activities, Burr finished his studies and was admitted
to the bar at Albany in 1782. He married that same year; he began
practicing law in New York City the following year, after the British
evacuated the city. He and his wife lived for the next several years
in a house on
Wall Street in Lower Manhattan.
First marriage and family
Aaron Burr and his daughter Theodosia
In 1782, Burr married
Theodosia Bartow Prevost
Theodosia Bartow Prevost (1746–1794), a widow
with five children who was ten years his senior, and lived with her in
Philadelphia. Her first husband had been Jacques Marcus Prevost, a
British Army officer of Swiss origin, with whom she lived at The
Hermitage in New Jersey. Jacques Prevost died in the West Indies
during the Revolutionary War. Theodosia Burr died in 1794 of stomach
The Burrs' daughter Theodosia was born in 1783 and named after her
mother; she was their only child to survive to adulthood. Burr
prescribed education for his daughter in the classics, language,
horsemanship, and music, and she became widely known for her education
and accomplishments. In 1801, she married
Joseph Alston of South
Carolina. They had a son together, who died of fever at ten years
of age. During the winter of 1812–1813, Theodosia was lost with the
schooner Patriot off the Carolinas, either murdered by pirates or
shipwrecked in a storm.
Stepsons and protégés
Burr acted as a father to the two teenage sons of his wife's first
marriage, Augustine James Frederick Prevost (called Frederick), and
John Bartow Prevost. Burr provided for their education, gave both of
them clerkships in his law office, and frequently was accompanied by
one of them as an assistant when he traveled on business. John
Bartow Prevost was later appointed by
Thomas Jefferson to a judicial
post in the
Territory of Orleans
Territory of Orleans as the first judge of what became the
Louisiana Supreme Court.
Nathalie de Lage de Volude
From 1794 to 1801, during Theodosia's childhood, Burr served as a
guardian to Nathalie de Lage de Volude, the daughter of a French
admiral from an aristocratic family, taken to New York for safety from
the French Revolution by her governess, Caroline de Senat. Burr
opened his home to them, allowing Madame Senat to tutor private
students there along with Theodosia. Nathalie became a companion and
close friend to Burr's daughter Theodosia, and later married the
son of General Thomas Sumter. Her husband,
Thomas Sumter Jr.,
Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro from 1810 to 1819 as the American ambassador
to Portugal during the transfer of the Portuguese Court to Brazil,
and her son, Thomas De Lage Sumter, was a Congressman from South
In the 1790s, Burr also took the painter
John Vanderlyn into his home
as a protégé, and provided him with financial support and patronage
for twenty years. Burr arranged Vanderlyn's training by Gilbert
Stuart in Philadelphia, and sent him in 1796 to the École des
Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he remained for six years.
It is believed that Burr also fathered two illegitimate children
during his first marriage, with an East Indian woman who worked as a
servant or governess in Burr's household in Philadelphia.
According to descendants' family histories, the woman was named either
Mary Emmons or Eugénie Beauharnais, and she came from
Haiti or Saint-Domingue, where she lived and worked before being
brought to Philadelphia, possibly by Jacques Prevost, Theodosia's
first husband. Both of her children married into
Philadelphia's community of free African-Americans, in which their
families became prominent:
Louisa Charlotte Burr
Louisa Charlotte Burr (b. 1788) worked most of her life as a domestic
servant in the home of Mrs. Elizabeth Powel Francis Fisher, a
Philadelphia society matron closely connected to the oldest
Philadelphia families, and later in the home of Mrs. Fisher's son,
Philadelphia businessman Joshua Francis Fisher. She was
married to Francis Webb (1788–1829), a founding member of the
Pennsylvania Augustine Education Society, secretary of the Haytien
Emigration Society formed in 1824, and distributor of Freedom's
Journal from 1827 to 1829. After Francis Webb's death, Louisa
remarried and became Louisa Darius. Her youngest son, Frank J.
Webb, wrote the 1857 novel The Garies and Their Friends, the second
novel to be published by an African-American writer.
John Pierre Burr
John Pierre Burr (c. 1792–1864) grew up to be an active member of
Philadelphia's Underground Railroad. He also served as an agent for
the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, worked in the National Black
Convention movement, and served as Chairman of the American Moral
In addition to oral family histories, at least one contemporary of
John Pierre Burr
John Pierre Burr identified him as a natural son of Burr in a
published account. Burr's surviving letters and documents provide
no evidence of any woman matching the description of Mary or Eugénie,
and do not mention or allude to Louisa or Jean Pierre. No source
suggests that Burr acknowledged them as his children, in contrast to
his adoption or acknowledgement of other children born later in his
Legal and early political career
Burr served in the
New York State Assembly
New York State Assembly from 1784 to 1785. In
addition, he continued his military service as lieutenant colonel and
commander of a regiment in the militia brigade commanded by William
Malcolm. He became seriously involved in politics in 1789, when
George Clinton appointed him as New York State Attorney General. He
was also Commissioner of Revolutionary War Claims in 1791. In 1791, he
was elected by the legislature as a U.S. Senator from New York,
defeating the incumbent, General Philip Schuyler. He served in the
Senate until 1797.
Burr ran for president in the 1796 election, coming in fourth with 30
votes behind John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Pinckney. (At
the time members of the electoral college cast two ballots but did not
specify an office. The first-place finisher overall became president
and the runner up vice president. They did not run on a 'ticket' and
were often opponents.) Burr was shocked by his defeat, as he believed
he had arranged with Jefferson's supporters for their vote for him as
well, in exchange for Burr's working to obtain New York's electoral
votes for Jefferson. But many Democratic-Republican electors voted for
Jefferson and no one else, or for Jefferson and a candidate other than
During the next presidential election of 1800, Jefferson and Burr were
again candidates for president and vice president. Jefferson ran with
Burr in exchange for the latter's working to obtain New York's
electoral votes for Jefferson.
Burr was active in various Democratic clubs and societies. "Aaron Burr
defended the democratic clubs and was listed as a member of the New
York Democratic Society in 1798." Although
Alexander Hamilton and
Burr had long been on good personal terms, Burr's defeat of General
Schuyler, Hamilton's father-in-law, probably drove the first major
wedge into their friendship. Their relationship got worse and
worse. (See the
Burr–Hamilton duel article for further details.)
After Washington was appointed commanding general of U.S. forces by
John Adams in 1798, he turned down Burr's application for a
brigadier general's commission during the
Quasi-War with France.
Washington wrote, "By all that I have known and heard, Colonel Burr is
a brave and able officer, but the question is whether he has not equal
talents at intrigue." John Adams, whose enmity toward Alexander
Hamilton was legendary, later wrote in 1815 that Washington's response
was startling given his promotion of Hamilton, whom Adams described as
"the most restless, impatient, artful, indefatigable, and unprincipled
intriguer in the United States, if not in the world, to be second in
command under himself, and now [Washington] dreaded an intriguer in a
Bored with the inactivity of the new U.S. Senate, Burr ran for and was
elected to the New York State Assembly, serving from 1798 through
1799. During this time, he cooperated with the Holland Land Company
in gaining passage of a law to permit aliens to hold and convey
lands. During John Adams' term as president, national parties
became clearly defined. Burr loosely associated with the
Democratic-Republicans, though he had moderate Federalist allies, such
Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey.
New York City politics
Burr quickly became a key player in New York politics, more powerful
in time than Hamilton. This was due largely to the power of the
Tammany Society, later to become the Tammany Hall. Burr converted it
from a social club into a political machine, particularly in populous
New York City, to help Jefferson reach the presidency.
In 1799, Burr founded the Bank of the
Manhattan Company. In later
years, it was absorbed into the Chase
Manhattan Bank, which in turn
became part of JPMorgan Chase. In September 1799, Burr fought a duel
with John Barker Church, whose wife, Angelica, was the sister of
Hamilton's wife, Elizabeth. Church had alleged that Burr had taken a
bribe from the Holland Company in exchange for using his political
influence on its behalf. Burr and Church fired at each other and
missed, and afterward Church acknowledged that he was wrong to have
accused Burr without having proof. Burr accepted this as an apology,
and the two men shook hands and ended the dispute.
The enmity between Hamilton and Burr may have arisen from how he
founded the bank. Burr solicited Hamilton and other Federalists'
support under the guise that he was establishing a badly needed water
company for Manhattan. However, Burr secretly changed the charter to
include banking; shortly after it was approved, he dropped any
pretense of founding the water company. Hamilton and other supporters
believed Burr acted dishonorably in deceiving them. Due to Burr's
manipulations, there was a delay in constructing a safe water system
for Manhattan. This likely contributed to additional deaths during a
subsequent malaria epidemic.
Manhattan Company was more than a bank – it was a tool to
promote Republican power and influence, and its loans were directed to
partisans. By extending credit to small businessmen, who then obtained
enough property to gain the franchise, the bank was able to increase
the party's electorate. Federalist bankers in New York responded by
trying to organize a credit boycott of Republican businessmen.
The presidential election of 1800
In the 1800 city elections, Burr combined the political influence of
Manhattan Company with party campaign innovations to deliver New
York's support for Jefferson. In 1800, New York's state
legislature was to choose the presidential electors, as they had in
1796 (for John Adams). Before the April 1800 legislative elections,
the State Assembly was controlled by the Federalists. The City of New
York elected assembly members on an at-large basis. Burr and Hamilton
were the key campaigners for their respective parties. Burr's
Republican slate of assemblymen for New York City was elected, giving
the party control of the legislature, which in turn gave New York's
electoral votes to Jefferson and Burr. This drove another wedge
between Hamilton and Burr.
Burr enlisted the help of
Tammany Hall to win the voting for selection
of Electoral College delegates. He gained a place on the
Democratic-Republican presidential ticket in the 1800 election with
Jefferson. Though Jefferson and Burr won New York, he and Burr tied
for the presidency overall, with 73 electoral votes each. Members of
Democratic-Republican Party understood they intended that
Jefferson should be president and Burr vice president, but the tied
vote required that the final choice be made by the House of
Representatives, with each of the 16 states having one vote, and nine
votes required for election.
Publicly, Burr remained quiet, and refused to surrender the presidency
to Jefferson, the great enemy of the Federalists. Rumors circulated
that Burr and a faction of Federalists were encouraging Republican
representatives to vote for him, blocking Jefferson's election in the
House. However, solid evidence of such a conspiracy was lacking and
historians generally gave Burr the benefit of the doubt. In 2011,
however, historian Thomas Baker discovered a previously unknown letter
William P. Van Ness
William P. Van Ness to Edward Livingston, two leading Republicans
in New York. Van Ness was very close to Burr – serving as his
second in the later dual with Hamilton. As a leading Republican, Van
Ness secretly supported the Federalist plan to elect Burr as president
and tried to get Livingston to join. Livingston apparently agreed
at first, then reversed himself. Baker argues that Burr probably
supported the Van Ness plan: "There is a compelling pattern of
circumstantial evidence, much of it newly discovered, that strongly
Aaron Burr did exactly that as part of a stealth campaign to
compass the presidency for himself." The attempt did not work, due
partly to Livingston's reversal, but more to Hamilton's energetic
opposition to Burr. Jefferson was elected president, and Burr vice
Aaron Burr as Vice President
Burr was never trusted by Jefferson. He was effectively shut out of
party matters. As Vice President, Burr earned praise from some enemies
for his even-handed fairness and his judicial manner as President of
the Senate; he fostered some traditions for that office that have
become time-honored. Burr's judicial manner in presiding over the
impeachment trial of Justice
Samuel Chase has been credited as helping
to preserve the principle of judicial independence that was
Marbury v. Madison
Marbury v. Madison in 1803. One newspaper wrote
that Burr had conducted the proceedings with the "impartiality of an
angel, but with the rigor of a devil".
Burr's farewell speech in March 1805 moved some of his harshest
critics in the Senate to tears. But it was never recorded in full, and
has been preserved only in short quotes and descriptions of the
address, which defended the United States of America's system of
Duel with Alexander Hamilton
Main article: Burr–Hamilton duel
Wikisource has original texts related to:
Hamilton–Burr duel correspondences
When it became clear that Jefferson would drop Burr from his ticket in
the 1804 election, the Vice President ran for Governor of New York
instead. Burr lost the election to little known Morgan Lewis, in what
was the largest margin of loss in New York's history up to that
time. Burr blamed his loss on a personal smear campaign believed
to have been orchestrated by his party rivals, including New York
governor George Clinton.
Alexander Hamilton also opposed Burr, due to
his belief that Burr had entertained a Federalist secession movement
in New York. In April, the Albany Register published a letter from
Charles D. Cooper to Philip Schuyler, which relayed Hamilton's
judgment that Burr was "a dangerous man, and one who ought not be
trusted with the reins of government", and claiming to know of "a
still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of
Mr. Burr". In June, Burr sent this letter to Hamilton, seeking an
affirmation or disavowal of Cooper's characterization of Hamilton's
Hamilton replied that Burr should give specifics of Hamilton's
remarks, not Cooper's. He said he could not answer regarding Cooper's
interpretation. A few more letters followed, in which the exchange
escalated to Burr's demanding that Hamilton recant or deny any
statement disparaging Burr's honor over the past 15 years. Hamilton,
having already been disgraced by the
Maria Reynolds adultery scandal
and mindful of his own reputation and honor, did not. According to
historian Thomas Fleming, Burr would have immediately published such
an apology, and Hamilton's remaining power in the New York Federalist
party would have been diminished. Burr responded by challenging
Hamilton to a duel, personal combat under the formalized rules for
dueling, the code duello.
Alexander Hamilton fights his fatal duel with Vice President Aaron
Dueling had been outlawed in New York; the sentence for conviction of
dueling was death. It was illegal in New Jersey as well, but the
consequences were less severe. On July 11, 1804, the enemies met
outside Weehawken, New Jersey, at the same spot where Hamilton's
oldest son had died in a duel just three years prior. Both men fired,
and Hamilton was mortally wounded by a shot just above the hip.
The observers disagreed on who fired first. They did agree that there
was a three-to-four-second interval between the first and the second
shot, raising difficult questions in evaluating the two camps'
versions. Historian William Weir speculates that Hamilton might
have been undone by his own machinations: secretly setting his
pistol's trigger to require only a half pound of pressure as opposed
to the usual 10 pounds. Burr, Weir contends, most likely had no
idea that the gun's trigger pressure could be
Louisiana State University
Louisiana State University history
professors Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein concur with this. They
note that "Hamilton brought the pistols, which had a larger barrel
than regular dueling pistols, and a secret hair-trigger, and were
therefore much more deadly," and conclude that "Hamilton gave
himself an unfair advantage in their duel, and got the worst of it
David O. Stewart, in his biography of Burr, American Emperor, notes
that the reports of Hamilton's intentionally missing Burr with his
shot began to be published in newspaper reports in papers friendly to
Hamilton only in the days after his death.[page needed] But
Ron Chernow, in his biography, Alexander Hamilton, states Hamilton
told numerous friends well before the duel of his intention to avoid
firing at Burr. Additionally, Hamilton wrote a number of letters,
including a Statement on Impending
Duel With Aaron Burr and his
last missives to his wife dated before the duel, which also attest
to his intention. The two shots, witnesses reported, followed one
another in close succession, and none of those witnesses could agree
as to who fired first. Prior to the duel proper, Hamilton took a good
deal of time getting used to the feel and weight of the pistol (which
had been used in the duel at the same Weehawken site in which his
19-year-old son had been killed), as well as putting on his eyeglasses
in order to see his opponent more clearly. The seconds placed Hamilton
so that Burr would have the rising sun behind him, and during the
brief duel, one witness reported, Hamilton seemed to be hindered by
this placement as the sun was in his eyes.
In any event, Hamilton's shot missed Burr, but Burr's shot fatally
injured Hamilton. The bullet entered Hamilton's abdomen above his
right hip, piercing Hamilton's liver and spine. Hamilton was evacuated
to Manhattan; he lay in the house of a friend, receiving visitors
including clergy, in order to be baptized before he died the following
day. Burr was charged with multiple crimes, including murder, in New
York and New Jersey, but was never tried in either
He fled to South Carolina, where his daughter lived with her family,
but soon returned to
Philadelphia and then to Washington to complete
his term as Vice President. He avoided New York and New Jersey for a
time, but all the charges against him were eventually dropped. In the
case of New Jersey, the indictment was thrown out on the basis that,
although Hamilton was shot in New Jersey, he died in New
Conspiracy and trial
Main article: Burr conspiracy
After Burr left the Vice-Presidency at the end of his term in 1805, he
journeyed to the Western frontier, areas west of the Allegheny
Mountains and down the
Ohio River Valley eventually reaching the lands
acquired in the
Louisiana Purchase. Burr had leased 40,000 acres
(16,000 ha) of land—known as the Bastrop Tract—along the Ouachita
River, in Louisiana, from the Spanish government. Starting in
Pittsburgh and then proceeding to Beaver, Pennsylvania, and Wheeling,
Virginia, and onward he drummed up support for his plans.
His most important contact was General James Wilkinson,
Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Army at New Orleans and Governor of the
Louisiana Territory. Others included Harman Blennerhassett, who
offered the use of his private island for training and outfitting
Burr's expedition. Wilkinson would later prove to be a bad choice.
Burr saw war with Spain as a distinct possibility. In case of a war
Andrew Jackson stood ready to help Burr, who would be in
position to immediately join in. Burr's expedition of about eighty men
carried modest arms for hunting, and no materiel was ever revealed,
Blennerhassett Island was seized by Ohio militia. His
"conspiracy", he always avowed, was that if he settled there with a
large group of (armed) "farmers" and war broke out, he would have an
army with which to fight and claim land for himself, thus recouping
his fortunes. However, the 1819 Adams–Onís Treaty
secured Florida for the United States without a fight, and war in
Texas did not occur until 1836, the year Burr died.
After a near-incident with Spanish forces at Natchitoches, Wilkinson
decided he could best serve his conflicting interests by betraying
Burr's plans to President Jefferson and to his Spanish paymasters.
Jefferson issued an order for Burr's arrest, declaring him a traitor
before any indictment. Burr read this in a newspaper in the Territory
of Orleans on January 10, 1807. Jefferson's warrant put Federal agents
on his trail. Burr twice turned himself in to the Federal authorities.
Two judges found his actions legal and released him.
Jefferson's warrant, however, followed Burr, who fled toward Spanish
Florida. He was intercepted at Wakefield, in Mississippi Territory
(now in the state of Alabama), on February 19, 1807. He was confined
Fort Stoddert after being arrested on charges of treason.
Portrait of Burr, undated (early 1800s)
Burr's secret correspondence with
Anthony Merry and the Marquis of
Casa Yrujo, the British and Spanish ministers at Washington, was
eventually revealed. He had tried to secure money and to conceal his
true designs, which was to help Mexico overthrow Spanish power in the
Southwest. Burr intended to found a dynasty in what would have become
former Mexican territory. This was a misdemeanor, based on the
Neutrality Act of 1794, which Congress passed to block filibuster
expeditions against US neighbors, such as those of George Rogers Clark
and William Blount. Jefferson, however, sought the highest charges
In 1807, Burr was brought to trial on a charge of treason before the
Circuit court at Richmond, Virginia. His defense lawyers
included Edmund Randolph, John Wickham, Luther Martin, and Benjamin
Gaines Botts. Burr had been arraigned four times for treason
before a grand jury indicted him. The only physical evidence presented
to the Grand Jury was Wilkinson's so-called letter from Burr, which
proposed the idea of stealing land in the
Louisiana Purchase. During
the Jury's examination, the court discovered that the letter was
written in Wilkinson's own handwriting. He said he had made a copy
because he had lost the original. The Grand Jury threw the letter out
as evidence, and the news made a laughingstock of the general for the
rest of the proceedings.
The trial, presided over by
Chief Justice of the United States
Chief Justice of the United States John
Marshall, began on August 3. Article 3, Section 3 of the United States
Constitution requires that treason either be admitted in open court,
or proven by an overt act witnessed by two people. Since no two
witnesses came forward, Burr was acquitted on September 1, in spite of
the full force of the Jefferson administration's political influence
thrown against him. Burr was immediately tried on a misdemeanor charge
and was again acquitted.
Given that Jefferson was using his influence as president in an effort
to obtain a conviction, the trial was a major test of the Constitution
and the concept of separation of powers. Jefferson challenged the
authority of the Supreme Court, specifically Chief Justice Marshall,
an Adams appointee who clashed with Jefferson over John Adams'
last-minute judicial appointments. Jefferson believed that Burr's
treason was obvious. Burr sent a letter to Jefferson in which he
stated that he could do Jefferson much harm. The case as tried was
decided on whether
Aaron Burr was present at certain events at certain
times and in certain capacities.
Thomas Jefferson used all of his
influence to get Marshall to convict, but Marshall was not
Historians Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein write that Burr:
was not guilty of treason, nor was he ever convicted, because there
was no evidence, not one credible piece of testimony, and the star
witness for the prosecution had to admit that he had doctored a letter
David O. Stewart, on the other hand, insists that while Burr was not
explicitly guilty of treason according to Marshall's definition,
evidence exists that links him to treasonous crimes. For example,
Bollman admitted to Jefferson during an interrogation that Burr
planned to raise an army and invade Mexico. He said that Burr believed
that he should be Mexico's monarch, as a republican government was not
right for the Mexican people. Many historians believe the extent
of Burr's involvement may never be known.
Exile and return
By the conclusion of his trial for treason, despite an acquittal, all
of Burr's hopes for a political comeback had been dashed, and he fled
America and his creditors for Europe. Dr. David Hosack, Hamilton's
physician and a friend to both Hamilton and Burr, loaned Burr money
for passage on a ship.
Burr lived in self-imposed exile from 1808 to 1812, passing most of
this period in England, where he occupied a house on
Craven Street in
London. He became a good friend, even confidant, of the English
Utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, and on occasion lived at
Bentham's home. He also spent time in Scotland, Denmark, Sweden,
Germany, and France. Ever hopeful, he solicited funding for renewing
his plans for a conquest of Mexico, but was rebuffed. He was ordered
out of England and Napoleon Bonaparte refused to receive him,
although one of his ministers held an interview concerning Burr's
Spanish Florida or the British possessions in the Caribbean.
After returning from Europe, Burr used the surname "Edwards", his
mother's maiden name, for a while to avoid creditors. With help from
Samuel Swartwout and Matthew L. Davis, Burr returned to
New York and his law practice. Later he helped the heirs of the Eden
family in a financial lawsuit. By the early 1820s, the remaining
members of the Eden household, Eden's widow and two daughters, had
become a surrogate family to Burr.
Later life and death
Aaron Burr death mask
Late 19th century photograph of St. James Hotel, previously Burr's
final home and place of death
Burr lived out the remainder of his life in New York in relative
peace, until 1833, when his second marriage failed after four
months, soon followed by medical and financial setbacks.
Adopted and natural children
In addition to his daughter Theodosia, Burr adopted or otherwise
acknowledged two sons and two daughters later in his life:
During the 1810s and 1820s, Burr adopted two boys, both of whom were
reputed to be his biological sons:
Aaron Burr Columbe (later Aaron
Columbus Burr), who was born in Paris in 1808 and arrived in America
around 1815, and Charles Burdett, born in 1814. A Burr
Aaron Columbus Burr as "the product of a Paris
adventure," conceived presumably during Burr's exile from the United
States between 1808 and 1814.
In a will dated January 11, 1835, Burr also acknowledged and made
specific provisions for two young daughters by different mothers.
Burr's will left "all the rest and residue" of his personal estate,
after other specific bequests, to six year old Frances Ann (born
c. 1829), and two year old Elizabeth (born c. 1833).
Marriage to Eliza Jumel
On July 1, 1833, at age 77, Burr married Eliza Jumel, a wealthy widow
who was 19 years younger. They lived together briefly at her residence
which she had acquired with her first husband, the Morris–Jumel
Mansion in the Washington Heights neighborhood in Manhattan.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is now
preserved and open to the public.
Soon after the marriage, she realized her fortune was dwindling due to
Burr's land speculation losses. She separated from Burr after four
months of marriage. For her divorce lawyer, she chose Alexander
Hamilton Jr., and the divorce was officially completed on
September 14, 1836, coincidentally the day of Burr's death.
Burr suffered a debilitating stroke in 1834, which rendered him
immobile. In 1836, Burr died on
Staten Island in the village of Port
Richmond, in a boardinghouse that later became known as the St. James
Hotel. He was buried near his father in Princeton, New Jersey.
Aaron Burr was a man of complex character who made many friends, but
also many powerful enemies. He may be the most controversial of the
Founding Fathers of the United States. He was indicted for murder
after the death of Hamilton, but never prosecuted; he was reported
by acquaintances to be curiously unmoved by Hamilton's death,
expressing no regret for his role in the result. He was arrested and
prosecuted for treason by President Jefferson, but acquitted.
To his friends and family, and often to complete strangers, he could
be kind and generous. Jane Fairfield, the wife of the struggling poet
Sumner Lincoln Fairfield relates in her autobiography that their
friend Burr saved the lives of her two children, who were left with
their grandmother in New York while the parents were in Boston. The
grandmother was unable to provide adequate food or heat for the
children and feared for their lives; she went to Burr, pleading for
his help. Burr wept and replied,
"Though I am poor and have not a dollar, the children of such a mother
shall not suffer while I have a watch." He hastened on this errand,
and quickly returned, having pawned the article for twenty dollars,
which he gave to make comfortable my precious babies.
In his later years in New York, Burr provided money and education for
several children, earning their lifelong affection. But contemporaries
were often suspicious of Burr's motives, with many viewing him as
untrustworthy, following his role in the founding of the Bank of
Manhattan (discussed above).
Burr believed women to be intellectually equal to men, and hung a
Mary Wollstonecraft over his mantel. The Burrs' daughter,
Theodosia, was taught dance, music, several languages, and learned to
shoot from horseback. Until her death at sea in 1813, she remained
devoted to her father. Not only did Burr advocate education for women,
upon his election to the New York State Legislature, he submitted a
bill to allow women to vote.
Burr had been a frequent patron of prostitutes during various periods
of his life. In his personal journals, he recorded with great detail
encounters in Europe with dozens of women whom he paid for sex. Often
he described "sexual release as the only remedy for his restlessness
and irritability". He was considered a notorious womanizer, and is
believed to have had at least three natural children.
In 1784 as a New York state assemblyman, Burr unsuccessfully sought to
abolish slavery immediately following the American Revolutionary
War. The legislature in 1799 finally abolished slavery in New
John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary when Burr died: "Burr's
life, take it all together, was such as in any country of sound morals
his friends would be desirous of burying in quiet oblivion."
Adams' father, President John Adams, had frequently defended Burr
during his life. At an earlier time, he wrote, Burr "had served in the
army, and came out of it with the character of a knight without fear
and an able officer".
Gordon S. Wood, a leading scholar of the revolutionary period, holds
that it was Burr's character that put him at odds with the rest of the
"founding fathers", especially Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton. He
believed that this led to his personal and political defeats and,
ultimately, to his place outside the golden circle of revered
revolutionary figures. Because of Burr's habit of placing
self-interest above the good of the whole, those men thought that Burr
represented a serious threat to the ideals for which they had fought
the revolution. Their ideal, as particularly embodied in Washington
and Jefferson, was that of "disinterested politics", a government led
by educated gentlemen who would fulfill their duties in a spirit of
public virtue and without regard to personal interests or pursuits.
This was the core of an Enlightenment gentleman, and Burr's political
enemies thought that he lacked that essential core. Hamilton thought
that Burr's self-serving nature made him unfit to hold office,
especially the presidency.
Although Hamilton considered Jefferson a political enemy, he believed
him a man of public virtue. Hamilton conducted an unrelenting campaign
in the House of Representatives to prevent Burr's election to the
presidency and gain election of his erstwhile enemy, Jefferson.
Hamilton characterized Burr as greatly immoral, "unprincipled ...
voluptuary", and deemed his political quest as one for "permanent
power". He predicted that if Burr gained power, his leadership would
be for personal gain, but that Jefferson was committed to preserving
Although Burr is often remembered primarily for his duel with
Hamilton, his establishment of guides and rules for the first
impeachment trial set a high bar for behavior and procedures in the
Senate chamber, many of which are followed today.
A lasting consequence of Burr's role in the election of 1800 was the
Twelfth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which changed the
way in which vice presidents were chosen. As was obvious from the 1800
election, the situation could easily arise where the vice president,
as the defeated presidential candidate, could not work well with the
president. The Twelfth Amendment required that votes be cast
separately for president and vice president.
Representation in literature and popular culture
Burr appears as a character of worldly sophistication in Harriet
Beecher Stowe's 1859 historical romance The Minister's Wooing.
Edward Everett Hale's 1863 story
The Man Without a Country
The Man Without a Country is about a
fictional co-conspirator of Burr's in the Southwest and Mexico, who is
exiled for his crimes.
Charles Felton Pidgin's 1902 novel The Climax is an alternate history
where no Hamilton duel occurred, and Burr later becomes president.
My Theodosia (1945) by author
Anya Seton is a fictional interpretation
about the life of Theodosia Burr, daughter of Aaron Burr.
Aaron Burr Story" (1965), a second-season episode of the
television series Daniel Boone, starred Leif Erickson as ex-Vice
Aaron Burr trying to organize an army to take over the
Gore Vidal's Burr: A Novel (1973) is the first in chronology of his
Narratives of Empire series.
James Thurber's story, "A Friend to Alexander", in his collection My
World and Welcome To It (1969), portrayed the Burr–Hamilton rivalry
in the twentieth century.
Eudora Welty's story, "First Love", in her Selected Stories of Eudora
Welty (Modern Library, 1992) related the romance of Burr's Western
In the comic book, The Flash, "The Man of Destiny!", a 1975 backup
story featuring Green Lantern, stars Burr. It reveals that Burr was
recruited by aliens to act as a leader for an interplanetary society
In Michael Kurland's The Whenabouts of Burr, the protagonists
chase across various alternate universes trying to recover the US
Constitution, which has been stolen and replaced by an alternate
signed by Aaron Burr.
In Orson Scott Card's alternate history / fantasy novel, Seventh Son
(1987), a character states that "...
Aaron Burr got to be
governor of Suskwahenny, before Daniel Boone shot him dead in
A 1993 "Got Milk?" commercial directed by
Michael Bay features a
historian obsessed with the study of Aaron Burr—he owns the guns and
the bullet from the duel. (see Aaron Burr)
In 2000, the
PBS television series
American Experience presented an
episode titled "The Duel", re-enacting the events that led to the
In Alexander C. Irvine's novel, A Scattering of Jades (2002), Burr is
shown to take part in a plot to bring an ancient Aztec deity into
power, as if to explain his interest in Mexico.
The Lonely Island's "Lazy Sunday" lyrics quotes the line "you can call
Aaron Burr from the way we're dropping Hamiltons", as they spend a
large number of ten-dollar bills, a reference to Burr killing or
"dropping" Hamilton at their duel.
In the alternate history short story, "The War of '07" by Jayge Carr,
collected in the anthology Alternate Presidents, Burr is elected
Thomas Jefferson in 1800, establishes an alliance with
Napoleon Bonaparte, and creates a family dictatorship. He serves as
president for a total of nine terms. Upon his death in 1836, he is
succeeded by his grandson
Aaron Burr Alston, who previously served as
his Vice President.
A 2011 short dramatic film recounts Burr's life as having become "a
casualty of history". It was a selection at the 2011 New York Film
Festival as well numerous other US festivals.
In the gaslamp fantasy roleplaying game Castle Falkenstein, Burr is
the founder and seemingly immortal
President for Life
President for Life of the pirates'
republic of Orleans and the lover of Marie Laveau, although he has not
been seen in public in more than 25 years at the time the game is
Leslie Odom Jr. as Burr in Hamilton
Burr is a principal character in the 2015 Broadway musical Hamilton,
Lin-Manuel Miranda and inspired by historian Ron Chernow's
2004 biography of Hamilton. The role of Burr was originated by
Leslie Odom Jr., who won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Actor in a
Musical for his work in the role. In Hamilton, Burr is both the
principal narrator, and a sympathetic yet increasingly antagonistic
foil to Hamilton. He is portrayed as ambitious but indecisive,
preferring to smile and gladhand rather than make any strong
commitment or action — a character trait that Hamilton constantly
questions and calls Burr out on. Burr's prominent songs include "Wait
For It", which explains his willingness to wait for fate to decide his
place and what he deserves, and "The Room Where It Happens", in which
Burr recognizes and embraces his desire to be influential and
powerful, realizing that waiting is not getting him where he wants to
be. That decision places him even more at odds with Hamilton, who
views Burr as lacking morals or ideals and being willing to change
positions for small gain. In "The World Was Wide Enough",
Hamilton's Burr sings of his regret for his role in Hamilton's death
and his sorrow at being cast as a villain in American history.
^ a b Office of Art and Archives.
^ a b Chisholm 1911, p. 861.
^ Isenberg 2007, pp. 9–16.
^ Isenberg 2007, pp. 22–28.
^ Isenberg 2007, pp. 33–34.
^ Lomask 1979, p. 82.
^ Schachner 1961, p. 37.
^ Isenberg 2007, pp. 34, 36.
^ Parmet & Hecht 1967, p. 42.
^ Isenberg 2007, p. 46.
^ Burr 1837, p. 159.
^ Parmet & Hecht 1967, p. 57.
^ Burr 1837, p. 252; Isenberg 2007, p. 76.
^ Wymond 1921, p. 113; New York Gen. & Bio. Record 1881,
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^ Schachner 1961; Burr 1837, p. 387 n.1.
^ Bureau of Public Affairs.
^ National Gallery.
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^ a b Ip 2005.
^ a b c d e Maillard 2013, p. 261–300.
^ a b Willson 2000, p. 123 n.11.
^ Willson 2000, p. 123 n.11; Ballard 2011, p. 68, 271.
^ Pickard & 1895 224.
^ Documents of the Senate of the
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State of New York 1902, p. 108.
^ a b Isenberg 2007, p. 153.
^ Isenberg 2007, p. 130.
^ Steiner 1987, p. 95.
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^ Adams 1856, p. 124.
^ Steiner 1907.
^ Myers 1901, p. 14–16.
^ Chernow 2004, p. 875.
^ Chernow 2004, pp. 585-90.
^ Murphy 2008, p. 233-266.
^ Elkins 1995, p. 733.
^ Paulsen 2017, p. 53.
^ a b Baker 2011, p. 553–598.
^ Baker 2011, p. 556.
^ Ferling 2004.
^ Sharp 2010.
^ a b c Chisholm 1911, p. 862.
^ McDonald 1992.
^ Lamb 1921, p. 500.
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^ Kerber 1980, p. 148.
^ Fleming 1999, p. 233.
^ Fleming 1999, p. 284.
^ Fleming 1999, pp. 287–89.
^ Buescher 2010.
^ Ellis 2000, pp. 20–47.
^ Weir 2003.
^ a b c Isenberg & Burstein 2011.
^ Stewart 2011.
^ Hamilton 1804a.
^ Hamilton 1804b.
^ McFarland 1979, p. 62.
^ Parmet & Hecht 1967, p. 259.
^ Parmet & Hecht 1967, p. 268.
^ Pickett 1900.
^ Wandell & Minnigerode 1925, p. 182.
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^ Ward 2000, p. 39.
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^ Isenberg 2007.
^ Berkin et al. 2013, p. 200.
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^ Fairfield 1860, p. 89.
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^ Adams 1856, p. 123.
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Political Defection: With an Appendix. Denniston & Cheetham.
Cheetham, James. A view of the political conduct of Aaron Burr, esq.,
vice-president of the United States. (1802)
Burdett, Charles. Margaret Moncrieffe: The First Love of Aaron Burr.
Available from the University of Michigan, 1860.
Clark, Alan J., Cipher Code of Dishonor: Aaron Burr, an American
Enigma. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2005.
Clark, Daniel. Proofs of the Corruption of Gen. James Wilkinson, and
of His Connexion With Aaron Burr: A Full Refutation of His Slanderous
Allegations in Relation to ... of the Principal Witness Against
Him (1809). Reprinted by University Press of the Pacific, 2005.
Clemens, Jere. (Hon.), The Rivals: A Tale of the Times of Aaron Burr
and Alexander Hamilton. (1860) online edition
Cohalan, John P., The Saga of Aaron Burr. (1986)
Cote, Richard N., Theodosia Burr Alston: Portrait of a Prodigy. (2002)
Faulkner, Robert K. "
John Marshall and the Burr Trial". Journal of
American History 1966 53(2): 247–258. ISSN 0021-8723
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the American Antiquarian Society 29(1): 43–128. 1919
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Aaron Burr Conspiracy: A History Largely
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1898. (2 vols.)
Robertson, David. Reports of the Trials of Colonel
Aaron Burr (Late
Vice President of the United States) for Treason and for
Misdemeanor ... Two Volumes (report taken in shorthand) (1808)
Rogow, Arnold A. A Fatal Friendship:
Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr
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Notes and references
1. In 1792, with
George Washington as the candidate favored to be
elected President, the
Democratic-Republican Party nominated George
Clinton; their intention was that he be elected Vice President.
2. Before passage of the Twelfth Amendment, in 1804, each presidential
elector would cast two votes; the candidate who received a majority of
votes would become President and the runner-up would become Vice
Aaron Burr was a presidential candidate in the elections in 1796
and 1800, although the
Democratic-Republican Party also nominated
Thomas Jefferson; their intention was that Jefferson be elected
President and Burr be elected Vice President.
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