Aaron Burr

(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: Burr developed the political organization which assured the presidential victory of Thomas Jefferson and was the force behind the liberalization of New York’s penal codes and political process.

Early Life

Aaron Burr was born February 6, 1756, in Newark, New Jersey. His mother, Esther Edwards Burr, was the daughter of the Reverend Mr. Jonathan and Sarah Edwards; his father, the Reverend Mr. Aaron Burr, was pastor of the Newark Presbyterian Congregation and president of the College of New Jersey, which, within the year, moved to Princeton. When Burr was nineteen months old, his father died. Within the year, his mother and grandparents died as well, leaving Burr and his older sister Sarah wards of their twenty-year-old uncle, Timothy Edwards.

After graduation from Princeton at age seventeen, Burr completed his study for the ministry but decided to become a lawyer. His preparations were interrupted by the Revolution. After serving with distinction at the battles of Quebec, New York, and Monmouth and commanding American forces in Westchester, Colonel Burr’s health forced him to resign (he was about five feet, two inches in height, thin, and always looked frail), and he returned to the study of law.

In 1782, he was admitted to the New York Bar and then was married to Theodosia Bartow Prevost, ten years his senior and the widow of a British army officer. The Burrs moved to New York City as soon as the British evacuated it. Four children were born: two sons, who died at birth; a daughter, who died in 1789; and Theodosia, the firstborn, who disappeared at sea in 1812.

Burr became noted as a superior attorney; he won many cases “by default.” The city’s other lawyers, including Alexander Hamilton, sought Burr as co-counsel in arduous litigations. People reported other traits: Burr seldom ventured opinions on public issues, he had difficulty in expressing his wishes or seeking favors, and he seldom joined groups—though groups joined him. Observers noted his unusual interest in the well-being of children. Mental health professionals indicate that the trauma of early parental death can lead to such behavior.

Life’s Work

As a military hero and the heir of the Reverend Mr. Edwards and the Reverend Mr. Burr, Colonel Burr would be an asset to any of the political groups forming in New York, but he refused to join the factions led by Senator Philip Schuyler, Governor George Clinton, or Chancellor Robert Livingston. In 1784, a radical group convinced him to allow his name to be placed in nomination for the state assembly; he agreed and was elected. In February, 1785, he sponsored a bill to emancipate all those of “Negro, Mulatto, Indian and Mustee blood born in New York.” The measure failed, but Burr continued to seek legislative means to end slavery, Burr was reelected but seems not to have served; he declined further nomination. Refusing to join any faction, Burr nevertheless developed friendly relations with Schuyler’s son-in-law, Hamilton, and Livingston’s brother, Edward. The Schuyler and Livingston factions supported the new Constitution, while Clinton opposed ratification. In 1789, after New York joined the Union, Clinton attempted to placate Burr by appointing him attorney general. Burr was an efficient official and before resigning prepared a series of recommendations to liberalize the state’s laws.

In 1791, the Livingstons, angered by Hamilton’s use of his friendship with President George Washington to secure favors for the Schuyler group, combined with the Clintons to prevent the reelection of Senator Schuyler. Burr was elected in his place. Outwardly, Burr and Hamilton remained friends, but Hamilton was determined to “destroy” Burr.

As senator, Burr became identified with the Thomas Jefferson group led by James Monroe in the Senate and James Madison in the House. Burr supported measures to make Senate sessions public and liberalize laws. Because of his stand on slavery, however, he was not fully trusted by the Jeffersonians. He praised the French Republic and objected to the presence of British forts on American soil; he favored funds to the military to protect Americans from Indian raids. After Monroe left the Senate, Burr was acknowledged as Jeffersonian spokesman in the Senate, and his name was unsuccessfully put forward for vice president in the 1796 campaign.

Following the death of his wife, Burr did not seek reelection. Returning to New York, he entered the legislature, where he was instrumental in passing a manumission law, securing the construction of public and private roads and canals, and in creating the Manhattan Company with its “notorious” bank. The Bank of the Manhattan Company, by providing venture capital, enabled New York City to replace Philadelphia and Boston as the preeminent American financial center. The bank also provided an alternative source of capital to the Bank of the United States, dominated by the Schuyler faction (or Federalists), which had used the bank to deny loans to Anti-Federalists.

As an attorney, Burr represented individuals being prosecuted under the Federalist-sponsored Alien and Sedition laws. Although never a member, he helped restructure the Tammany Society into a political organization. Despite his leadership role in the Anti-Federalist, or Democratic Republican, Party, Hamilton, in 1798, convinced Federalist governor John Jay to appoint Burr overseer of the state’s defenses to prepare for war with France.

Burr blueprinted a plan which would have prevented a foreign fleet from entering New York Harbor. The legislature rejected most of the plan as too costly. Burr, however, was able to convince many Federalists, most of whom had considered the Anti-Federalists as too pro-French, to switch parties. He gathered a slate of candidates which would ensure that pro-Jeffersonians would be selected as presidential electors for the election of 1801. When, for the first time, the state elected an Anti-Federalist slate, the Jeffersonians agreed that Burr would be their vice presidential candidate.

Unfortunately, Burr and Jefferson received an equal vote for president; the House of Representatives would have to elect the president. The balloting started February 11, 1801. Burr received a majority of the votes, but, for him to be elected, nine states had to concur; Jefferson had a majority in eight states, Burr a majority in six, and two states split evenly. By February 16, the Federalists, having reached an...

(The entire section is 2682 words.)