February 6, 2013
History professor and author Nancy Isenberg wrote in her introduction to “Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr” that:
“History is not a bedtime story. It is a comprehensive engagement with often obscure documents and books no longer read — books shelved in old archives, and fragile pamphlets contemporaneous with the subject under study — all of which reflect a world view not ours. We cannot make eighteenth-century men and women ‘familiar’ by endowing them and their families with the emotions we prefer to universalize; nor should we try to equate their politics with politics we understand. But this is what popular biographers do, and as a result, everything we think we know about Aaron Burr is untrue. It is time to start over.”
Aaron Burr was born in Newark, N.J., on Feb. 6, 1756. He was born to prominent parents, but was orphaned at an early age. His father, Rev, Aaron Burr Sr., was the second president of the College of New Jersey, which later moved to Princeton and was renamed Princeton University, died when Burr was one. His mother, Ester Edwards, was the daughter of a Jonathan Edwards, who was considered one of the colonies’ most important theologians, died when Burr was two. His famous grandfather and his grandmother died when Burr was three. Burr and his sister were raised by an uncle, who reminded them regularly of the examples set by their parents and grandparents.
Burr attended his father’s old college, and then studied law at Litchfield Law School, which was founded by his uncle, Tapping Reeve. He left law school to join the Continental Army, and was one of the young volunteers in Benedict Arnold’s invasion of Quebec. He became Gen. Richard Montgomery’s aide-de-camp, and fought in the Battle of Quebec, Dec. 31, 1775, in which the British defeated the Continental Army, killed Montgomery (subject of one John Trumbull’s famous paintings), wounded Benedict Arnold, captured more than 400 troops.
Arnold made his way back to Washington’s army in New York; he was with the army at Valley Forge. He was eventually promoted to Lt. Col., and resigned from the army in 1779 due to his poor health. He was considered a hero in the Revolutionary War.
He was elected to the New York legislature in 1784. Gov. George Clinton appointed him Attorney General in 1789. In 1791, when he was 36, he defeated Philip Schuyler, who was also Alexander Hamilton’s father-in-law, in the election for the U.S. Senate. Burr was supported by his political mentor, Clinton, and Robert Livingston, who wished to see the Schuyler-Hamilton faction hurt.
He ran for Vice President in 1796; he finished fourth. In 1800, Burr tied Jefferson with 73 Electoral College votes each in the presidential election (the electoral process in 1800 was that candidate with the most votes was elected president while the runner-up was vice president. Jefferson was elected president on the 36th ballot in the House of Representatives on Feb. 17, 1801.
Jefferson did not ask Burr to be his running mate in 1804, and he ran for governor of New York, losing in a landslide to Morgan Lewis. The campaign featured reports of personal attacks on Burr by Hamilton. The two men exchanged letters that escalated into demands for apologies, which Hamilton refused to grant. Burr challenged him to a duel.
On July 11, 1804, near Weehawken, N.J., on the same site where Hamilton’s son Philip had died in a duel in 1801, Burr killed Hamilton in a duel. Historians view the duel as fair, perhaps even weighted toward Hamilton, who may have tampered with the pistols, according to research by Isenberg and Andrew Burstein. Burr was charged with murder, but never tried.
Burr, hounded by Hamilton’s supporters, and bereft of Jefferson’s support, headed west to develop the tract of land (40,000 acres) he had leased from the Spanish government.
His actions while in the west, he feared that Spain would declare war on the U.S., led to charges of conspiring against America. In 1807, Jefferson issued a warrant for treason. He was indicted in Richmond, Va., and went to trial on Aug. 3. He was acquitted on Sep. 1, 1807. The accusations destroyed any remnant of Burr’s reputation then, and in the history books.
He died on Sept. 14, 1836.