Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson

by Roger G. Kennedy
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2132

Roger Kennedy graduated from Yale University in 1949 and from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1952. A lifetime Republican, he served in the Justice Department under President Dwight D. Eisenhower and was special assistant to the secretary of labor under President Richard Nixon. He acted as vice president for financial affairs at the Ford Foundation from 1970 to 1979 before becoming director of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution from 1979 to 1992. After retiring from the Smithsonian he became the director of the National Park Service, serving until 1997. Prior to this volume, Kennedy wrote nine books dealing with American architecture and American history.

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In an appendix to the book dealing with his biases, Kennedy describes himself as sympathetic to historical losers and skeptical of the claims of historical winners. Although most historians view Aaron Burr as a black sheep among leaders of the Early Republic, Kennedy, while praising the actions of Hamilton and Jefferson, would like to reverse that judgment. He admits that many who knew Burr viewed him as the shiftiest, the least reliable, and the most devious of early nineteenth century political leaders, but Kennedy argues that the historical record does not support their judgment. Kennedy contends that Burr was the most honorable of the three men. To support his opinion Kennedy consistently belittles Hamilton and Jefferson. As he examines Burr’s relations with his two opponents, Kennedy provides the reader with a fascinating description of the life of a colorful political leader too often ignored in general histories.

Burr came from a distinguished lineage. His father, also named Aaron Burr, and his grandfather, the renowned theologian Jonathan Edwards, were presidents of Princeton University. Young Aaron had a difficult childhood. He was orphaned at the age of two and brought up by an austere uncle whose discipline the boy hated; he tried to run away and go to sea several times. He entered Princeton at age thirteen, graduating with distinction in 1772 at age sixteen.

When the American Revolution broke out, Burr immediately volunteered. His bravery during the failed attempt to capture Quebec in 1775-1776 made him one of the first heroes of the war, earning him rapid promotions. He was appointed to the staff of General George Washington, but the two men did not get along and Burr shifted to the staff of General Israel Putnam. During the battle of New York in 1776, Burr rescued several brigades that were nearly entrapped by the invading British. In the winter of 1777- 1778, Colonel Burr commanded a regiment entrusted with the defense of the Valley Forge camp. In March, 1779, Burr resigned from the army on grounds of ill health. Kennedy notes that in contrast with Burr, Hamilton served unheroically as a staff officer with Washington, while Jefferson never joined the army at all.

Admitted to the New York bar in 1780, Burr soon became one of the leading lawyers in the city, often opposing Hamilton on important cases. In 1789 Governor George Clinton appointed him as New York’s attorney general. However, President Washington refused to offer Burr a position in the new national government. Kennedy suggests that Washington was jealous of Burr’s heroic reputation. Others have speculated that Washington distrusted Burr, suspecting that he had secretly supported the 1777 “Conway Cabal” that tried to remove Washington from his position as commanding general of the American army.

Burr remained active in politics, representing New York in the United States Senate for one term. He joined Republican critics of the national administration, often clashing with Hamilton, the outstanding Federalist leader in the state. When Burr’s supporters won a majority in the state legislature, he was accused of using his position to pass legislation that enhanced his own investments, a charge Kennedy ignores.

To improve Republican chances of carrying New York’s electoral votes in 1800, party leaders chose Burr to run as Jefferson’s vice presidential candidate. Until passage of the Twelfth Amendment in 1804, presidential electors did not vote separately for president and vice president. Each elector cast two votes; the candidate with the highest number of votes, if a majority, became president and the candidate with the second- highest number of votes became vice president. All Republican electors voted for Jefferson and Burr, and the two tied. The choice then went to the House of Representatives, where each state had one vote; the votes of nine of the sixteen states were needed to win. The Federalists controlled enough states to prevent Jefferson’s victory. When they voted for Burr, a stalemate developed that lasted for thirty-six ballots, until Federalists finally permitted the election of Jefferson.

Kennedy claims that Burr was the only honorable politician in 1800. He publicly stated that he would not compete with Jefferson for the presidency and remained in Albany, far away from the maneuvering in Washington, D.C. Kennedy condemns Jefferson for carrying out surreptitious negotiations with the Federalists to secure his election. Hamilton wins Kennedy’s scorn for successfully preventing some Federalists from voting for Burr by arguing that Burr was untrustworthy and unfit to lead the nation. Although Hamilton disliked Jefferson and opposed his programs, he considered Burr a much more dangerous man.

Jefferson was less certain than Kennedy that Burr had not secretly dealt with the Federalists during the 1800 crisis and soon made it clear than he preferred a different vice president for his second term. Burr, recognizing that he had no future in the National Republican Party, chose to run as an independent candidate for governor of New York in April, 1804. Kennedy praises Burr for refusing to join New England Federalists in a scheme to have New York and New England secede from the Union. He condemns Hamilton for the vicious manner in which he attacked Burr’s character in order to dissuade Federalists from supporting Burr. Despite Hamilton’s efforts, Burr apparently received the votes of most New York Federalists but lost badly to the Jeffersonian candidate.

Burr was furious at Hamilton, who had now twice blocked Burr’s political ambitions. He demanded that Hamilton issue a comprehensive disclaimer regarding his derogatory remarks; when Hamilton equivocated, Burr challenged him to a duel. Dueling was illegal in both New York and New Jersey, but the practice was still prevalent and participants were rarely prosecuted. When the two met in Weehawken, New Jersey, on July 11, 1804, Hamilton’s shot went wide over Burr’s head while Burr’s shot hit Hamilton in the spine. Hamilton’s death the next day set off an outpouring of shock and condemnation toward Burr. Many in the North were convinced that Burr was a cold-blooded murderer. In order to exonerate Burr of responsibility for Hamilton’s death, Kennedy speculates that Hamilton may have been seeking an assisted suicide when he accepted Burr’s challenge; however, he presents no evidence that Hamilton was acting out an unconscious death wish.

Warrants were issued for Burr’s arrest in New York and New Jersey. Burr left for Philadelphia and then fled farther south, traveling incognito to areas where duels were common and the death of Hamilton produced no opprobrium. While staying with friends in Georgia, Burr spent two weeks traveling in Florida, then a colony of Spain. Why he went there and what he did there are mysteries. Kennedy speculates that Burr was considering an armed invasion of Florida, intending to offer it to the United States and thus restore his political fortunes. Perhaps so, but it is also possible that his personal intentions were unconsciously revealed by the pseudonym he chose: R. King (a detail not mentioned by Kennedy).

While serving his last months as vice president, Burr began to plan an expedition to the West that might revive his political and economic fortunes. Exactly what he had in mind was the subject of much controversy during Burr’s lifetime, as it has been among historians since his death. Kennedy asserts that Burr’s intentions were entirely honorable, and that he planned to become rich by developing an extensive tract of land along the Mississippi River and then raise an armed force that, if war broke out between the United States and Spain, would mount raids into Texas and Mexico in order to liberate them from Spanish rule.

Kennedy’s explanation may well be an accurate version of Burr’s basic intentions, but it is difficult to be certain. Many conflicting versions of what Burr planned circulated at the time. An accomplished politician, Burr possessed a knack for convincing listeners that they had heard what they wanted to believe, without actually committing himself to a definite position. Many persons living in the Mississippi Valley were discontented with Eastern dominance of the nation and were attracted by rumors published in newspapers that Burr intended to detach the West from the Union and set up a new nation led by himself. Others believed that Burr planned a conquest of the Spanish colony of Mexico with the assistance of the British, who were then at war with Spain. Combining Mexico with the trans- Mississippi West would provide a truly imperial domain for Burr to rule. Both British and Spanish ministers to the United States reported to their respective governments that Burr hoped to divide the United States and combine the West with Mexico. The British minister thought it a great idea; the Spanish minister warned his government to take adequate precautions. Documents that would permit historians to decide among the competing versions do not exist. Burr was averse to putting things down on paper; his letters are deliberately vague. His private journals for this period were lost at sea in 1813 but might not have provided definitive answers in any case. His later journals refer to a “Project X” but never describe it.

Kennedy scathingly condemns General James Wilkinson, coconspirator with Burr, whose defection led to Burr’s trial for treason. Wilkinson, the commanding general of the United States Army in the West, had long been a secret agent for Spain, reporting regularly to authorities in Mexico on activities in the region. While on the Spanish payroll he was also plotting with Burr about combining his forces with Burr’s irregulars for an attack on Spanish possessions. When Wilkinson became nervous about supporting Burr he wrote to Jefferson, describing Burr’s plans in extreme terms, claiming that Burr intended to seize the city of New Orleans by force and use its resources to finance an attack on Mexico. Jefferson was ready to believe any derogatory information concerning Burr and ordered him arrested and brought to trial for treason.

In 1807, when Burr’s trial opened in Richmond, justices of the Supreme Court still performed circuit court duty. Since Richmond was in Chief Justice John Marshall’s circuit, he presided over the trial. In a landmark ruling establishing a powerful precedent, he insisted on a literal reading of the United States Constitution regarding treason. Only the testimony of two witnesses to an actual act of levying war against the United States could prove treason. With no evidence of such an act by Burr, the jury ruled that he was not guilty. More important, Marshall’s ruling removed the British doctrine of constructive treason—a version of guilt by association—from American law. After his acquittal, Burr spent four years in Europe before returning to the United States in 1812 and resuming his law practice in New York City.

Kennedy justly praises Burr for the many ways in which he was ahead of his time. He was an early feminist, raising his daughter to be his intellectual equal; he was a friend of the Native Americans and urged the federal government to adopt a generous policy toward them; he supported the abolition of slavery in New York State while serving in the state legislature. To strengthen his assessment of Burr’s character, Kennedy goes well beyond what the evidence will support. He condemns Jefferson’s failure to prevent the expansion of slavery while he was president and suggests, but cannot prove, that Burr would have thwarted slavery. Neither Milton Lomask’s major biography, Aaron Burr (1979-1982, 2 vols.), nor the extensive notes to Political Correspondence and Public Papers of Aaron Burr (1983, 2 vols.) offer any evidence that Burr maintained interest in the antislavery movement after leaving the legislature.

Kennedy’s view of the value of Aaron Burr’s life is basically unconvincing because it fails to weigh the relative contributions of Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson. No one can write a history of the Early Republic without extensive consideration of Hamilton and Jefferson. Burr is an intriguing character, but one could omit him from historical accounts without losing anything essential about the development of the young American nation.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 96 (November 15, 1999): 596.

Kirkus Reviews 67 (September 15, 1999): 1472.

Library Journal 124 (October 1, 1999): 108.

Publishers Weekly 246 (November 1, 1999): 66.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 15, 1999, p. D3.

The Wall Street Journal, October 27, 1999, p. A16.

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