Was there in Greece or Rome a man of virtue and independence, and supposed to possess great talents, who was not the subject of vindictive and unrelenting persecution?
—Aaron Burr to Theodosia Burr Alston
I never, indeed thought him an honest, frank-dealing man, but considered him as a crooked gun, or other perverted machine, whose aim or stroke you could never be sure of.
Aaron Burr, the 3rd Vice-President of the United States under Thomas Jefferson, is once again (due to the popularity of the Broadway musical “Hamilton”) making the news.
* For more on this, see the recent article from the Dallas Morning News comparing Trump to Burr.
Currently, I see a problem in some authors writing about History. The Revisionists’ penchant to interpret Burr’s and other historic personalities actions from their own contemporary ideology and viewpoint, creates a problem in trying to get an “accurate” understanding of who these complex people were, and how they fit within the historical context of the era in which their lives were led, without the 21st century “spin.”
The following essay is not to defend Burr – but to look at his character and actions, political and otherwise, within the context of the time period in which he lived and how that had a profound impact upon his and other men’s lives and fates.
None of the other members of the acknowledged “Founding Fathers club” of this great Nation brings about such strong contempt, and blatant disgust as Aaron Burr. With that fatal shot at Hamilton in 1804, Burr not only killed a political rival, he also destroyed his political career and was doomed to be remembered mostly for a murder (and treason) in America’s narrative.
Aaron Burr was born into a Presbyterian household (father was the Rev. Aaron Burr) in 1756. By 1758, he and his older sister were orphaned and then placed into guardianship with a maternal uncle. He was in College in 1775 when the first battles began between the Americans and the British in Massachusetts. Burr immediately enlisted in the Continental Army, saw active duty in Canada and was recognized for valor. General Montgomery elevated Burr to captain and Aide-de-Camp. His strong military ability earned him a position in Washington’s staff (then in Manhattan), but Burr quit within 14 days, missing the action. Burr and Washington apparently had some problems getting along, which was unusual, for most of Washington’s men adored the General.
Meanwhile, General Putnam recruited Burr to assist in getting men out of lower Manhattan to avoid certain capture by the British who had just landed on Manhattan. Burr saved an entire brigade (including Alexander Hamilton) and brought them to safety in Harlem. In March 1779, Burr resigned from the military for health reasons (later in the 1830s he would receive a Pension for his service), went back to school and got his law degree.
In 1782, Aaron Burr married the woman who he would later say was the love of his life – Theodosia Bartow Prevost, the widow of Jacques Marcus Prevost, a Swiss/British army officer who in 1781 had died in the West Indies. Theodosia was 10 years older and had 5 children from Prevost, as well as quite a bit of *money and property.
* In the 18th century (well into the 19th century actually), widows were highly desirable marriage partners – particularly for their money/property, of which the women typically transferred all rights to their new husbands, i.e.Thomas Jefferson’s only wife was a wealthy widow and Alexander Hamilton married into the Schuyler family, one of the oldest and richest in New York. In the same manner, George Washington increased his financial situation after marrying the very rich widow Martha Custis.
During the American Revolution Burr had stayed at Mrs. Prevost’s large and cultured estate house named The Hermitage, as had other American officers: Washington, Greene, Hamilton, Clinton and the French Marquis de Lafayette. This was a Loyalist’s home so they would sequester it while”warring” in the area.
Picture of The Hermitage below.
Burr was a very successful attorney and had moved to New York in 1783 with his family. With his law practice, he came into contact with many of the up-and-coming politicians of the day. Attorney Burr even worked as co-defendant of a murderer on a huge sensational crime (the murder of a young woman) with Alexander Hamilton in the early 1790s.
In 1783, Theodosia Burr was born and she would be their only surviving child together. Tragically, Burr’s wife Theodosia was diagnosed in 1788 with what is now believed to be stomach cancer, and her condition worsened until she was bed-ridden and eventually died in 1794. By all accounts he was devastated.
He officially entered politics in 1789 when he was designated New York Attorney General. Then, in 1791, he was elected to the New York Senate, which position he held until 1797. Burr also made an unsuccessful run for President in 1796, placing fourth behind John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Pinckney.
In 1798, as President John Adams appointed Washington commanding general of U.S. forces, Washington struck 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 he described as “the most restless, impatient, artful, indefatigable, and unprincipled intriquer in the United States, if not in the world, to be second-in-command under himself, and how (Washington) dreaded an intriquer in a poor Brigadier.”
* Alexander Hamilton had been an Aide-de-Camp to George Washington and had a falling-out with the General as well. Hamilton also had strained relations with Jefferson over the 1797 Maria Reynolds affair, which reportedly was brought to the public’s (and Hamilton’s wife’s) attention by Thomas Jefferson, a man with a tainted sexual reputation himself, as well as Hamilton’s chief adversary.
The Maria Reynolds affair, in which a humiliated Hamilton was exposed, essentially ruined his political career. After the scandal broke, and when Maria Reynolds began proceedings to divorce her husband, she hired as her attorney none other than….. Aaron Burr.
Perhaps, one of the reasons why Jefferson was willing to expose Hamilton in the Reynolds affair was in the contents of a 1796 essay. Hamilton (who had ceded his Secretary of the Treasury to Wolcott in 1795 and was acting as an consultant to Federalist politicians) condemned Jefferson’s private life, writing that the Virginian’s “simplicity and humility afford but a flimsy veil to the internal evidences of aristocratic splendor, sensuality, and epicureanism.”
The newly-formed United States was a small place at this time and political nepotism was at an all-time high. The American political arena was made up of upwardly mobile, land & *slave owning, educated, white men who interacted with one another within a small clique, which sub-divided into smaller cliques that thrived on mud-slinging and pettiness.
* George Washington at his death in 1799 owned 318 slaves. Aaron Burr is enumerated on the 1800 New York City Census with 2 slaves. On the 1820 Albemarle County, VA Census Thomas Jefferson is enumerated with 107 enslaved people. Alexander Hamilton was the exception: he did not own slaves BUT he married into a family – the Schuyler’s – who had many slaves to work their farm properties in New York.
During the presidential election of 1800, Jefferson and Burr were (again) candidates for President/Vice-President. Jefferson decided to run with Burr in exchange for the latter’s lobbying to obtain New York’s electoral votes for Jefferson.
Upon Jefferson winning the election, Burr became Vice-President of the United States. Despite his letters supporting Jefferson and his avoidance of any political activity during the balloting (he supposedly never left Albany), Burr was never trusted by Jefferson. He was effectively pushed aside regarding topics of party interests.
Another Burr relationship charged with political rivalry and personal animosity was that with Alexander Hamilton. There was no love lost here – they really despised one another. So with their back and forth comments, their “honor” being insulted , their status of “being a gentleman” questioned, the rivalry finally culminated in the July 11, 1804 duel that ended with the death of Alexander Hamilton by Aaron Burr.
Shortly afterward, Burr fled (supposedly running from Federal authorities) to South Carolina, where he stayed with his daughter Theodosia Burr Alston and her family. It was also during this time, August of 1804, Burr boated down to St. Simon’s Island in Georgia, making a visit to Hampton Point, the plantation of his fellow colleague and former senator, Pierce Butler. Butler owned one of the largest plantations in the South.
While on St. Simons as Butler’s guest, he sent a message to Catharine Littlefield Greene, the widow of General Nathaniel Greene who lived on Cumberland Island, land which the U.S. government rewarded Gen. Greene for his service in the American Revolution. Catharine Greene (by this time had remarried and was Mrs. Phineas Miller) and her family had had close relations with Hamilton, and she knew Burr and his reputation for being a “ladies man”. Catharine Greene Miller had a reputation as well, dating back as far as 1775. Catharine and her family were devastated by the news of Hamilton’s death. Burr sent a note stating he would like to have permission to visit “with an old friend” on Cumberland Island. Mrs. Miller felt she had to honor his request, however she made arrangements with a servant who was to meet Burr’s boat at the pier on the island to signal her once they were underway to the main house. Meanwhile, she had carriages waiting, and packed up her extended family and sped to the interior of the island. Elizabeth Ellet author of “Women of the American Revolution” wrote “She (Catharine Greene Miller) could not receive as a guest one whose hands were “crimsoned” with (Hamilton’s) blood.” Needless to say, Burr was snubbed and did not stay long.
After a few months in the South, Burr returned to Philadelphia and then went back to work (and conspiring) in Washington to complete his Vice-Presidency (term ended in December 1805). Once there, he was reviled by the Federalists for the murder of Alexander Hamilton. The Democratic-Republicans mistrusted him equally. Burr was never tried for the illegal duel, and all charges against him were eventually dropped, but Hamilton’s death forever ended Burr’s political career.
Burr was kind of a man without a country – certainly a man without the support of a political party. Just before leaving office, Burr was already deeply embroiled in a conspiracy to conquer Mexico. This was when he started looking West (it was after the Louisiana Purchase and there was LOTS of land available.)
Among many things, he was a land speculator. Long story made short, Burr in a despotic attempt to “revolutionize Mexico” and to settle some lands he held in Texas, wanted to form an independent empire in the West. Seriously. The evidence of his treason are found in his papers: maps of New Orleans, Veracruz and the roads to Mexico City, and the letters suggesting that he would not liberate, but seize Mexico, where he would draw the Western states from the Union and combine them into one nation. When this was done, he would stand at the throne of the Aztecs and crown himself Emperor of the West. “The gods invite us to glory and fortune,” Burr wrote to his co-conspirator, Gen. James Wilkinson. John Randolph of Roanoke (who incidentally was a cousin of Jefferson) and one of the fiercest of politicians, called Wilkinson “the mammoth of iniquity, the only man I ever saw who was from the bark to the very core a villain.” Wilkinson was then General in-Chief of the U.S. Army. He was also a paid agent of Spain.( See map above)
Eventually, unbeknownst to Burr, Wilkinson disclosed the entire plot to President Jefferson. On Nov. 27, 1806, Jefferson issued a proclamation that undermined the success of the scheme and led to Burr’s arrest and his indictment for treason by levying war against the United States.
Burr was tried in Richmond before Chief Justice John Marshall, Jefferson’s third cousin (though they did not like each other – recall the comment about political nepotism?) The United States Attorney hinted during the trial in an obvious “power play” that Marshall would be impeached if he did not rule for the prosecution on the motions of evidence. Marshall duly noted the threat in his decision. He then excluded all evidence presented by the government as “merely corroborative and incompetent.” Within an hour, the jury found Burr not guilty. After the acquittal, the animosity between Jefferson and Marshall increased as Jefferson felt Marshall had effectively released Burr from his “overt act” of treason.
After the trial, Burr spent time with his daughter and her family and then sailed for England in 1808, confident that he would gain support for a revolution in Mexico. England ordered him out of the country and he then traveled in Europe, including Sweden, Denmark, Germany and France. In Paris, he tried to garner support from Napoleon who was quite preoccupied with his own Empire at the time. Of course Burr’s scheme failed, leaving him so penniless and in such debt to friends that he couldn’t afford to return to the United States.
He eventually left for the United States in a French ship in 1811, but this was the time leading up to the war of 1812 and as Burr’s fortune’s took another hit he was captured by the British and detained until May 1812. He finally returned to the U.S. to pursue his law practice back in New York. This was also the period when his daughter Theodosia Burr Alston was going to travel up to New York to spend time with her father.
From my previous post:
Theodosia, who was eagerly awaiting the reunion with her father, was to go to New York, but tragically her 10-year-old son Aaron Alston had succumbed to a fever and died on June 30, 1812. Heartbroken, her grief nearly killed her. Meanwhile, her husband was sworn in as Governor of S.C., and for this reason he could not join her on the journey to New York City. So, she waited until December to make the trip.
On December 31, 1812, her father sent a friend with medical knowledge to accompany her on the ship Patriot leaving Georgetown, S.C. for New York City. The War of 1812 is on and the Patriot was a fast-sailing Privateer most likely making a rapid run to New York with its cargo. It is likely that the ship was laden with the proceeds from its privateering raids.
It never reached its destination.The fate of Theodosia Alston and all on-board the ship Patriot remains a sad mystery: no survivor returned to tell whether it had been victim of a storm, pirates or Carolina “Bankers” (Outerbank’s gangs that would lure ships to wreck, and then they would kill the passengers and take the cargo.) The only documented evidence was on Jan. 2, 1813 when a British fleet had stopped the Patriot off Cape Hatteras.
It was said that many of Burr’s personal records, which Theodosia had stored in South Carolina while her father was in Europe (she had been working to get a pardon for him as well), went down with the Patriot.
After the death of his daughter, whom he sadly assumed had drowned and accepted that that was her fate, he loyally maintained a good relationship with her husband Joseph Alston, until his early death in 1816. Aaron Burr also returned to his law practice in New York.*Despite his efforts he continually had money and debt problems and would go to his grave with that being an issue.
*Alexander Hamilton at his death left his family in debt. George Washington left large debts and Thomas Jefferson was in debt for much of his life in the 19th century, and when he died in 1826, Jefferson owed his creditors about $100,000.
Aaron Burr who always had, according to one of his best biographer’s Nancy Isenberg, a “passion for territorial expansion”, was again a man of his time. Jefferson certainly had the same passion, that and his fortuitousness led to his probably making one of the best land acquisitions in History, with the Louisiana Purchase. These men lived at a time when the West had just opened up, and while there were indeed boundaries, the possibilities were endless.
*Nancy Isenberg, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr (New York: Penguin, 2007),
Milton Lomask in Aaron Burr, The Years from Princeton to Vice President, 1756-1805 (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979), 216, posits that Washington’s distrust of Burr dated to the Revolution.
Aaron Burr, Fallen Angel
William Bryk read at http://www.nypress.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?avis=NP&date=20000718&category=NEWS&lopenr=307189997&Ref=AR&template=printart
Caty: A Biography of Catharine Littlefield Greene by John F. Stegeman & Janet A. Stegeman Georgia Press, Athens, GA 1977