We’ve talked about Alexander Hamilton and we talked about the duel. It’s only fair that we talk about the man on the other end of the duel, Aaron Burr. When we left him last, he had just fled after shooting and killing Hamilton. This would lead to one of the strangest stories in American history, the former vice president who tried to become the king of Mexico.
A little bit of background first. Burr was born into a prominent New Jersey family. His grandfather was famous enlightenment philosopher Jonathan Edwards. He would go on to graduate from what is now Princeton. After serving in the Revolutionary War, he moved to New York to work as a lawyer. He would then serve in the New York State Assembly, as New York Attorney General, and as United States Senator. For a time, Burr actually had more power in New York politics than Hamilton did. As a supporter of Thomas Jefferson, he helped establish a political machine for the Democratic-Republican party based out of a social club called Tammany Society, later known as Tammany Hall, which would remain a powerful political machine well into the 20th century.
In 1799, Burr fought his first duel with a man who was married to Hamilton’s sister-in-law. He also was the founder of the Bank of Manhattan, an early predecessor to what eventually became J.P. Morgan Chase. Then in 1800, after tying Jefferson in the Electoral College, he became vice president. His term actually had some significance. He presided over the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase. Seen as a political move from Jefferson, Chase was acquitted. To this day, he was the only Supreme Court Justice to ever be impeached. Burr did not politicize the impeachment, instead overseeing it impartially. This helped ensure the independence of the judiciary not just then but beyond.
So here we are at the duel. Up to this point, Aaron Burr has made some important and lasting contributions. Sure, he would have been somewhat overlooked after Jefferson dropped him from the ticket and he lost his bid for New York Governor. But his accomplishments would have lasted on. That was all forgotten the minute a bullet lodged into Hamilton’s ribs. He was immortalized in infamy the next day when Hamilton died. But the story of Aaron Burr only gets stranger.
The sitting vice president has just killed another major political figure in a duel. He is wanted in New York and New Jersey so he avoids these states and flees to South Carolina. But he is still the vice president so he eventually comes back to Washington to finish his term (could you imagine this?). Now what? He cannot go back home to New York unless he wants to be tried for murder. Well two years before, Jefferson bought a whole new area of land called the Louisiana Purchase, a great opportunity for Burr.
Burr rents a piece of land in what is present-day Louisiana which was not a state at the time. He then worked his way from Pittsburgh to Virginia to gain support for his new settlement, though his plans were not clear. Burr saw war with Spain as inevitable, so he started to put together a group to defend themselves. He claimed that he wanted a settlement of farmers who were also ready to fight if war broke out, though it never did. Andrew Jackson even offered to help if this happened. Word of what Burr was doing got back to Jefferson who put out a warren for his arrest. Burr twice turned himself in but each time, the judge found his actions legal and released him. Federal authorities eventually captured him and he was put on trial for treason.
Now so far, nothing he has done sounds treasonous. But there is some information I left out. During all of this, Burr was secretly corresponding with the British and Spanish ministers. His true plan was to secure money and supplies to overthrow the Spanish in the Southwest, paving the way for an independent Mexico. He then wanted to form a Mexican dynasty for which he would be the king.
After facing four grand juries, he was eventually arraigned on treason charges. The Constitution requires that for a party to be found guilty of treason, they must admit it in open court or have two witnesses testify to overtly seeing the act. Since neither of these conditions were met, he was acquitted, much to Jefferson’s dismay. It was an important test of the Constitution as Jefferson’s strong political influence did not affect the outcome of the trial.
As for Burr’s charges for the duel in New York and New Jersey, they were dropped years before. Burr would go on to move to England, living for a while with philosopher Jeremy Bentham, then returned to New York to practice law. He lived out his life quietly. He was remarried though that ended when his wife figured his fortunes to be dwindling. Imagine all of this occurring today with a former vice president. It seems unbelievable.
Burr would die in 1836 at the age of 80, the same day his divorce was finalized. His wife’s attorney, Alexander Hamilton Jr.