A Burr Primer
Hi all! I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time. I know this is verrrry long, and I don’t expect a whole lot of you will read every word. Peruse as you see fit! It feels good to have put all this in writing. 😎
Those who know me best are well aware of my obsession over the years with the life of Aaron Burr. I will quickly add that yes, I am sympathetic towards this leading member of this nation’s founding revolutionaries, but while that much is true, I stop short of claiming that I am a full-fledged Aaron Burr “fan.” I am well aware of his shortcomings, though the musical Hamilton did not characterize them in quite the same way that I would.
To most Americans, if his name rings a bell at all, it is likely in the context of The Duel — when Aaron Burr, then the sitting Vice President of the United States, mortally wounded the former Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. This one event doomed Burr’s place in history to that of a mere footnote, a rather unpleasant one at that. A shame, because his actual life story reads as a stream of fascinating adventures, replete with significant accomplishments, and one that deserves to be put in proper perspective. Why nobody has yet produced a movie about Burr’s life remains a mystery to me, and though I have been talking literally for decades about writing a screenplay to seize that opportunity, well all I can say is I still would love to do that.
Here in the meantime is a relatively short overview of Burr’s life that gives you a good idea of why he always fascinated me, what makes him such an extraordinary research subject, if not one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated men of his generation. Forgive any small errors I may have made (I wrote most of this without double-checking all the details, which are presented as I remember having read about them), and understand that there is much, much more colorful detail that I have spared you here! Thanks for reading, enjoy.
Youth and Revolutionary Ardor
Aaron Burr was born in 1756 and orphaned by age 2. He and his sister were raised by a young uncle, who already had charge of at least 3 of his own younger siblings. Aaron ran away from home twice as a young child, demonstrating an inclination towards rule breaking. However, he finally settled in and eventually enrolled at Princeton (the College of New Jersey, as it was known then) as a precocious 13 year old.
By age 18, Aaron had begun the study of law. When the Revolution broke out in 1775, he dropped his studies and joined Colonel Benedict Arnold’s bold and perilous expedition from the Massachusetts shore onward through the dense Maine forests to Quebec. He was one of the fortunate ones to survive the daring 600-mile trek, forever known as the “March to Quebec,” during which some starved to death or died of hypothermia, and many more deserted.
You may be surprised to learn that the American Revolution included battles waged by the revolutionaries in Canada. While victorious in Montreal, the Patriots’ attack on Quebec did not fare as well. By this time, young Burr, still only 19 years old, had already been singled out by his commanding officers as an exemplary soldier, and by the time the long arduous trek through Maine had ended, he was sent to Montreal to reach General Richard Montgomery (for whom Montgomery County, Maryland, is named — fun fact!). By the time of his return to Quebec alongside the general, Montgomery had already made him both a Captain and his aide de camp.
The battle occurred on New Year’s Eve 1775, a night of blizzard conditions. It ended in disaster for the attackers. As they began their charge through the snow, General Montgomery was killed almost immediately (along with several other officers), Burr by his side, by retreating British outposts. In a scene that soon was widely celebrated in the colonies, young Burr, one of only 2 survivors of the volley of deadly fire that had killed everyone else in the front line of attack, bravely continued forward, until Montgomery’s next in command called for a retreat. Then he attempted to half drag, half carry Montgomery’s heavy body back with him, all while the British defenders continued to shoot. His behavior was viewed as an outright heroic one of bravery under fire. It stood as one of the most celebrated during the early part of the Revolution.
Burr’s conduct resulted in a promotion to Major in early 1776, and he attracted the attention of leaders of the Revolution, including the Commander in Chief, General George Washington, who welcomed him on his personal staff in June. It was an ill-fated and short-lived stint, as something occurred that made Washington dislike Burr, a dislike that lasted Washington’s entire life. Nobody knows for sure what happened to trigger it, but it’s likely that Burr’s personality was at least part of the problem. Burr was probably overly assertive and insufficiently deferential for his commander’s taste. Burr always thought he was the smartest man in the room.
In a move that was likely welcomed by both Washington and Burr, John Hancock, who had known Burr’s father, arranged for young Aaron to be transferred to Major General Israel Putnam’s staff, making his stint on Washington’s staff a short one. While in service to “Old Put,” as General Putnam was fondly called, Burr spearheaded the rescue of an entire Brigade that was otherwise doomed to capture by the advancing British in New York City’s lower Manhattan. Burr guided the Brigade to safety further North, leading the soldiers along the broad path that would one day become Broadway. It is often speculated that a young Alexander Hamilton may have been among those troops….
By the end of June 1777, Burr had more than earned his next promotion, as Lieutenant Colonel. (An aside on promotions and public recognition of deserving service: probably because of Washington’s dislike for Burr, the latter was promoted at a slower rate than other junior officers, despite his service having been exemplary. This likely caused Burr to harbor resentment towards Washington. And who so proudly served on Washington’s staff for several years and was treated like a favorite son? Those of you who’ve seen the musical know. Now the rest of you do too. George Washington’s dislike of Burr may have been transferred on to young Hamilton as early as the 1770s.)
Lieutenant Colonel Burr took over a regiment known as “the Malcolms,” which was assigned to an area in New York State that was in danger of being overrun by advancing loyalists, allied with the British. He made an immediate impact after nearly doubling the size of the regiment through his recruiting efforts, and then imposing a strict training regimen. Next, Burr moved with a part of his force to the South, towards an enemy that consisted of hundreds of armed loyalists, who by this time were robbing local farms and wreaking general havoc. Burr led a surprise attack and was able to capture an entire unit of 30 men, suffering no losses in his own regiment. This not only impressed his own men, but also the nearby New Jersey militia, which rose up to join Burr. The victory and subsequent increase in militia scared off the remaining loyalists, who fled to join the British further South.
Next, Burr and the Malcolms were ordered to join General Washington, at Valley Forge.
At Valley Forge, Burr once again stood out among the crowd of officers. Washington, on the recommendation of General Alexander McDougall, one of the original leaders of New York City’s revolutionaries, dispatched Burr to take charge of a troublesome Patriot outpost some six miles South of Valley Forge, part of a detachment whose role was to intercept any advance by the British towards Washington’s base. Once there, as with the Malcolms earlier, he imposed strict discipline in an effort to upgrade the quality of soldiership among his new troops. The result? There were no more headaches for headquarters (the name of my new rock band) coming from this key defensive outpost.
1778 found Burr and the Malcolms in action at the important battle of Monmouth Court House. Some historians consider that battle to be a turning point in the Continental Army’s maturity, in that it finally started to display cohesively disciplined troops. It can be argued that Burr contributed (along with von Steuben, of course) to that vaunted milestone of military professionalism.
By the summer, Washington was sending Burr closer to New York City, up and down the Hudson to reconnoitre enemy movements, finally settling in at West Point in November. It wasn’t long though before Washington once again gave Burr another troubleshooting sort of assignment in 1779, installing him in No-Man’s-Land in Westchester County, New York, an area of about 15 miles that was controlled by neither the Patriots nor the Brits, but where the local farmers and merchants were subject to random raids from both sides. Burr immediately installed strict disciplinary measures among the men he was sent to command, and he ordered his soldiers to return the stolen goods that they had accumulated. Thanks to the harsh punishments he meted out to offenders, within weeks there were no more banditry problems.
Love, Family, and Post-Revolution Career
Burr left the military in 1779 due to ongoing bouts with illness, which had begun in 1778 during the intense heat at the Battle of Monmouth Court House and reportedly consisted of migraines and repeated episodes of nausea. During the 3+ years he served in the Continental Army, he had distinguished himself on multiple occasions, both as an energetic and insightful officer and as a molder of men, to a remarkable degree for such a young man.
He soon resumed his legal studies and became a full-fledged New York attorney in 1782. In the interim, he had met and courted a charming, highly educated and independent-minded woman, known to be a friend of the Patriots, including Washington, Monroe, Lafayette, and others, but whose then-husband was a British officer who had already been absent for years in the West Indies, and whose return as a combatant against the Revolutionaries occurred in 1779 in the colony of Georgia, many miles from Theodosia’s New Jersey home, The Hermitage. After distinguishing himself in combat in Georgia, the British command sent her husband to Jamaica, where he died of yellow fever in 1781. Burr and Theodosia (10 years his senior) were married in 1782, had a daughter (also named Theodosia), and were deeply in love with each other. Tragically, Aaron Burr’s wife died (of breast cancer), just 12 years later, at age 47.
Both Aaron and Theodosia had a passion for education and each was among the erudite elite of the day. They also both embraced the concept of feminism, and when his wife died, Burr continued to ensure their daughter’s education was among the best one could get, and one that at the time was highly unusual for a female to receive. Young Theodosia was fluent in multiple languages by the time she was a teenager, had read and studied Greek and Latin texts, and was discussing philosophy with her father. It was not long after her mother’s death that she became comfortable in the frequent role of Lady of the House, hosting many get-togethers of some of the leading citizens of the day.
Theodosia and her father were one of the closest father-daughter tandems that ever lived. They were each the primary love of the other throughout their adult lives, writing each other constantly about literature, philosophy, and current events. Some of the later correspondence between them even included very specific allusions to Aaron’s many sexual adventures, including intimate details that are not normally shared between parent and child.
More about Theodosia later…
Burr proved to be a highly skilled lawyer, rising to the top of the profession and recognized as one of New York City’s very best attorneys — along with Burr’s frenemy, Alexander Hamilton. They were sometimes opposing counsel, and other times served together as co-counsel. Burr’s style was characterized by succinctness, skilled oratory, building irrefutable arguments, using persuasive language, and molding evidence to best advantage. His reputation was that of a winner in the courtroom. Although his law practice was an active one on and off throughout most of his life, by 1784 Burr had entered politics, winning election as a New York Assemblyman. During his tenure in the Assembly, Burr argued, unsuccessfully of course, for New York legislation to free the slaves (note that he had 1 slave himself, such a conflicted generation!), and also opposed early attempted legislation to prohibit interracial marriage and to deny formerly enslaved citizens their right to vote.
By 1789, in the prime of his young life, Burr had already gained such momentum, as one of New York’s best lawyers, as an able politician with a cohort of loyal followers, and as a fierce and gifted officer during the Revolution, that New York’s Governor George Clinton appointed him Attorney General. This was generally viewed as part of a plan by Governor Clinton to ensure Burr’s further elevation to the US Senate, as an opponent to the incumbent, General Schuyler, Hamilton’s father-in-law. By beating the General in the election of 1791, Burr not only became a US Senator representing the State of New York, but also became a guy with a target on his back, an avowed special enemy of Hamilton’s, his fellow New York elite lawyer turned power politician, who was btw not known to be a “nice guy.” (Just sayin’)
The Election of 1800
Burr’s political star was shining so bright that he even got an electoral college vote (from a South Carolina delegate) in the Presidential election of 1792 (as a potential VP during President George Washington’s second term). It was not until 8 years later, in the milestone election of 1800, that Aaron Burr became Vice President of the United States. Thomas Jefferson and his Virginia coterie had previously decided that Burr was their man for VP (in a losing 1796 effort as well), and they had worked together to build a political base that extended from the South to New York. And it was in New York that Burr worked some magic during the late 1790s, building what has been described as one of the first examples in the US of a successful grassroots-style campaign. It would assure that the swing state of New York would vote for the Jefferson/Burr ticket. The campaign Burr directed in New York has been viewed as a precursor to its modern political equivalent. Through his organizing efforts, he had turned the state (and New York City) from one that elected Federalists to office in 1799, to one that voted for Jefferson’s opposition party the very next year, in 1800.
It had been a fiercely fought campaign, with plenty of mudslinging between the Jefferson/Burr ticket and that of John Adams/Charles Pinckney. The voting during these early presidential elections was done by an elite group of electors. In this quirky case, Jefferson and Burr received the identical number of votes, and the tie vote was to be broken in the Congress. Well, long story short, it took days and 36 ballots before Jefferson became President, and he never forgave Burr for failing to step forward and immediately and unambiguously declare to the Congress that they should break the tie in favor of the person who had been the Presidential candidate all along, Mr. Jefferson.
From Burr’s point of view, why he’d make a pretty darn good President himself, of course! Moreover, a likely explanation for his silence during this period of congressional deliberation is that he felt the honorable thing to do was to leave it to the Congress to sort it out, and that neither candidate had any business telling the Congress how to vote. One can debate the wisdom of his decision. Meanwhile, Jefferson was the one to make a move to break the deadlock (along with Hamilton, who actively campaigned for Congress to choose Jefferson over Burr). Jefferson himself got an allied Senator to persuade one of the swing Federalist voters to vote his way, in exchange for a promise to do something this Federalist senator’s party wanted. And predictably enough, as a direct result of his failure to act during this time of limbo, Burr became Vice President under President Jefferson. Burr’s tenure as VP was mostly a miserable one, as the President chose to ignore him rather than ever trust him again — a reality most VPs in this country have perhaps tasted at one point or another?
When it became clear that Jefferson would not opt for Burr as his ticket mate for the 1804 election, Burr decided instead to run for Governor of New York. He lost, in no small part thanks to the never-ending political opposition campaign activities directed by none other than Hamilton himself. It was some time after this frustrating defeat that Burr learned of an allegation made by a witness who claimed that Hamilton had uttered a gravely insulting public remark about Burr’s character. This prompted a frustrated Burr to ever so politely demand an explanation from Hamilton, who famously demurred and evaded direct answers to Burr’s repeated messages, which were more or less along the lines of “just what did you say about me, and if it was bad, you better take it back!”
Due to Hamilton’s refusal to comply with Burr’s FOIA request (lol), the duel was on. They used Hamilton’s pistols, which are now known to have had a secret hairpin trigger (one that presumably would allow the knowledgeable owner to shoot faster than his opponent.) There are multiple versions of how the duel went down, but the most widely accepted one is that Hamilton’s shot rang out just before Burr’s. Hamilton’s bullet broke a branch somewhere above Burr’s head.
Meanwhile, Burr’s bullet struck Hamilton in the lower stomach area in what would prove to be a fatal wound. Burr, who was still Vice President at the time, instantaneously became one of the country’s most reviled men, as Hamilton, much as he was disliked by many, had nevertheless been a national hero, seen largely in the limelight alongside General/President Washington for lo those many years.
Conspiracy and Treason Trial
Go West, young man! might as well have been Burr’s axiom by the end of 1804. Wanted for Hamilton’s murder in both New York and New Jersey, reviled by Hamilton’s party and shunned by Jefferson’s, hey it’s a big country, Burr must have thought. A talent like his should not be wasted!
At the time, the Western parts of the territory belonging to the United States included the Louisiana Territory, only recently acquired from the French. One of those in charge was the highest ranking General of the United States, General James Wilkinson. Long story short, Burr and Wilkinson conspired to take advantage of long-standing grievances by residents of the Western part of the US (including areas around Kentucky, Tennessee, and Louisiana). At the same time, the Spanish rule of Mexico was considered by free Americans to be a harsh one, and thoughts about bringing “freedom” to the indigenous Mexican people had been popular already for decades. Burr and Wilkinson hoped to include a “free Mexico” in their fantasy empire. And finally, last but not least, Napoleon was then reigning as Emperor in Europe. His revolutionary beginnings and his legendary military exploits had already made him world famous. It’s likely Burr thought to himself, if he can do it, so can I.
So Burr and Wilkinson planned to take the City of New Orleans, make it the capital of a new Republic or Empire, maybe welcome Kentucky and other border states whose citizens were dissatisfied with their pecking order in the new United States of America government, and maybe venture both West and South, to spread the Burr brand of liberty. It was not to be.
When it came time to put their conspiracy in motion, Wilkinson got cold feet and betrayed Burr to Jefferson, who ordered Burr stopped. He was quickly captured, essentially before he could even get started. He was brought back East and stood trial in Richmond, Justice John Marshall presiding.
Marshall, though a cousin of Jefferson’s, was one of the President’s most hardened political enemies. Some of the great Justice’s decisions during this trial were controversial ones that tended to tilt in Burr’s favor. Burr was ultimately found not guilty and released. His political career was over, but he was still a free man. (His murder indictments in NY and NJ were more pro forma than anything else, and they were never acted upon.)
Final Moves, Final Tragedy
After becoming a national pariah, despite his not guilty verdict, Burr decided to market himself overseas. He met with French officials, the British, and even the Swedes, all in an attempt to gain support for his cause, to sell his skills, his knowledge, and his talents to whoever would pay him. There were no takers, and Burr survived a tough period in his life, living hand to mouth for months, even years on end. After several essentially miserable years in Europe, he finally decided enough time had passed for him to be able to return anonymously to the States.
Burr’s daughter, Theodosia, had meanwhile married the Governor of South Carolina, and Burr had a grandson he cherished. But before he could reunite with his daughter and grandson, the latter had died, at age 10. A despondent Theodosia hired a ship in early 1813 to take her from South Carolina to be with her newly returned father in New York. The ship never arrived at its destination. Depending on the story teller, the ship either sunk in a violent storm off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, or it was stormed by killer pirates, or least likely of all, it was captured/sunk by the British. The War of 1812 was indeed already underway. At any rate, Theodosia was never seen again, and Aaron Burr was truly alone in the world.
After what was no doubt a long and painful period of personal grief, Burr resurrected his legal career. Clients were happy to pay for the services of a first-class attorney. Burr was a charitable man as he approached old age. Despite not being a wealthy man, he took in and sheltered the man who had been a bulldog attorney on his behalf during the treason trial, a redoubtable orator (and a notorious drunk the older he got) Luther Martin, who had become a penniless, semi-senile old man.
Burr also married again, towards the very end of his life. Eliza Jumel was then 56, and Burr 78. Eliza had as notorious a reputation as Burr’s, and she also had money — lots of it. In fact, she was known as the wealthiest woman in New York. Burr spent more than Eliza thought appropriate, and she sued for divorce. Burr suffered a stroke shortly later, while at his law office. He died the day the divorce was granted, on September 14, 1836. He was 80 years old.
A Few Fun Facts
- Burr successfully argued to the governing court for an exception to be made that would allow Burr to take the Bar exam without having first studied law for the then-prescribed number of years. One of the letters he gave to the court for their favorable consideration was a letter of recommendation produced for him by General Phillip Schuyler, who later lost a Senate election to Burr and who also was to become Alexander Hamilton’s father-in-law.
- By 1799, epidemics of yellow fever had ravaged several cities, including New York. Burr authored a bill to create a water company that would deliver fresh water to the city. a bill that was supported by Hamilton. The Manhattan Company was granted a charter. But Burr had snuck a clause into his legislation that gave the Company the right to do whatever it wanted with any excess funds, within the bounds of the law of the land. And thus the predecessor to the Chase Manhattan Bank (or now JPMorgan Chase Bank) was born, much to Alexander Hamilton’s shock and dismay. Until that point, Hamilton’s Federalists had controlled the banking system in New York, and the system served almost exclusively the needs of the well to do. The bank that Burr helped create finally broke the Federalists’ monopoly, and banking services were now made available to New York’s less well heeled crowd.
- Aaron Burr was a good friend of Dolley Payne Todd. And Aaron Burr is the one who introduced old school chum (Princeton) James Madison to his Dolley.
- The man who betrayed Burr, General James Wilkinson, had been a paid spy for Spain throughout his tenure as the highest ranking General in the United States of America, which he was during the presidencies of Adams, Jefferson and Madison. He was never caught (though long suspected). He died a pauper in Mexico, burial place unknown.
- Aaron Burr was interred on Princeton University grounds. His grave lies next to that of his father, the Reverend Aaron Burr, second President of Princeton and founder of Nassau Hall, and next to that of his grandfather, the Reverend Jonathan Edwards, a famous theologian of the early 1700s.
- And after I write the screenplay of Burr’s life (where have I heard that before, haha), I have a sequel in mind — the amazing life of James Wilkinson, founder of Frankfort KY, Revolutionary War officer present at the Battle of Saratoga, Governor of the newly acquired Louisiana Territory, a man who once declared martial law in New Orleans, a traitor to his country, and a friend to no man. He did seem to play a mostly laudable role early on as a young officer in the Revolution, though even then he made serious mistakes. Later, though he had accumulated an overall unimpressive military record, he somehow was chosen to lead the US armed forces under several US Presidents — all the while acting as a spy in the service of España. And that ain’t all — there’s also the matter of who killed Merriwether Lewis? Yes, that Lewis, of Lewis and Clark fame. I contend Wilkinson had him killed. And I can tell you why. No kidding. Like I said, another great movie in the making!🤣