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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 494

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This is the grave of Aaron Burr.

One of the most complicated people in American history, Burr was born into an elite colonial family in 1756. His father was president of Princeton. His maternal grandfather was none other than Jonathan Edwards. But his growing up was tough. His parents both died by 1758. The toddler was sent to live with Edwards, but then he died a few months later. He still had money and wealthy relatives, so he wasn’t destitute, but the uncle he eventually ended up with was probably physically abusive. But despite all of this, he was still the son of Princeton’s former president and he started there at the age of 13. He intended to be a minister and studied theology for a year after his graduation in 1772, but then decided on a different path, moving to Connecticut to study the law.

Soon after the battles at Lexington and Concord, Burr quit his studies and joined the Revolutionary Army. He was involved in Benedict Arnold’s invasion of Quebec. He rose rapidly and was a captain by the end of 1775. He briefly served on George Washington‘s staff, but wanted glory on the battlefield. He was quite successful but Washington disliked him and never gave him the commendation for his actions required for a promotion. Burr held it against the general. He did finally become a lieutenant colonel in 1777. He left the army in 1779, mostly because of bad health, probably stemming from heat stroke he suffered at the Battle of Monmouth. He did occasionally fight still, including rallying Yale students to repel a British advance in Connecticut in 1779. He was finally admitted to the bar in New York in 1782.

Like many young ambitious men in the new nation, Burr soon went into politics. George Clinton named Burr the New York Attorney General in 1789. In 1791, he was elected to the Senate, where he served a full term. As the nation began to develop political parties, he found himself on the opposite side of the spectrum than Washington, who he still disliked for dissing him in the war. He became a leading Democratic-Republican, though one who maintained working relationships with New York Federalists. He also really wanted to be president and openly ran in 1796. He came in fourth, behind John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Pinckney. Burr was furious that he would finish so low.

On Washington’s advice, John Adams refused to appoint Burr as a brigadier general during the quasi-war with France. Wrote Washington, “By all that I have known and heard, Colonel Burr is a brave and able officer, but the question is whether he has not equal talents at intrigue.” That was certainly Burr’s M.O. He served a couple terms in the New York state legislature instead. Burr also received Federalist support, including from Alexander Hamilton, to open a water company and then at the last second changed the point of the company to instead open a bank to challenge Hamilton’s interests. The Federalists never forgave him for this, especially as the bank only loaned money to other Democratic-Republicans, basically serving as a political funding source.

Burr of course ran again in 1800. When both Jefferson and Burr ended up with 73 electoral votes, defeating Adams but also violating the agreement that the latter would be the VP, Burr did nothing to step back. Instead, he attempted to intrigue with Federalists to elect him instead, denying the presidency to Jefferson, who the Federalists hated. Federalists did show at least some support for this plan, but it failed in the end and then the 12th Amendment made sure this wouldn’t happen again. Jefferson basically despised Burr and certainly didn’t trust him. So Burr had nothing to do but run the Senate. Jefferson had no intention of allowing Burr to be the VP in the 1804 election, so the latter decided to run to be New York’s governor. But he was blown out and soon to be out of a job. Hamilton was writing against Burr and the publication of some of this is what led to their famous duel later in 1804.

This was not Burr’s first duel. In 1799, he fought a duel with John Baker Church, who was Hamilton’s brother-in-law, after Church accused Burr of taking a bribe. They both fired and both missed and it was settled. But of course this time, Burr hit Hamilton, in the hip, and the latter died soon after. He never faced any prosecution, though there were briefly charges against him in New Jersey and New York. He fled briefly to the South but returned to complete his term as VP.

In 1805, angry and disillusioned, not to mention discredited politically for murdering Hamilton, a still pretty young Burr went to the West. I personally find the time line of all this pretty confusing, so I hope I am explaining this correctly. He leased a bunch of land in Louisiana that was owned by the Spanish government to start a big settlement. But he lost his investment when Louisiana became an American territory. He wanted his money back. Burr was wandering around, hoping that a war with the Spanish would begin, which looked possible for awhile. He believed that Andrew Jackson would jump in if a war started. Then that force and his own would side with the Spanish and Burr would make his desired fortune. He traveled through western Pennsylvania and Virginia to drum up support for this and added James Wilkinson, the top American general in New Orleans to his scheme. There’s also evidence that Burr was thinking of raising an army to invade Mexico and establish himself as king. Meanwhile, Wilkinson finally told Jefferson what was going on and the president issued a warrant for Burr’s arrest on treason charges. Burr fled toward Spanish Florida, but was arrested in Mississippi. Tried in Virginia with John Marshall presiding, in truth, the evidence against Burr was limited. It was mostly Wilkinson, who couldn’t even produce his original letter. Jefferson was using his political power to press for a conviction, but Marshall acquitted him.

What really led all the other Founders to hate Burr is that he betrayed their politics, which were based in the idea of the disinterested patriarch ruling impartially. Burr did not do that. He was in it for the power and the money. Thus, not only could he not be trusted, he was a threat to the republic. Burr wasn’t a monster in his beliefs per se. He introduced a bill to abolish slavery in New York while in the state legislature and openly supported women’s suffrage long before that was something the vast majority of politicians could fathom. But the lack of disinterest was off the rails. It’s why Hamilton may have despised Jefferson’s politics, but his hatred of Burr was far greater. Hamilton wasn’t going to personally slander Jefferson, but Burr had placed himself beyond the boundary in which one needed to have restraint. And it’s hard to argue. Burr’s ridiculous imperial ambitions and warmongering were genuinely pretty scary.

Burr may have been acquitted, but he was a complete pariah. He fled to England and lived there between 1808 and 1812. He became good friends with Jeremy Bentham and even lived at the philosopher’s home for awhile. He tried raising money so he could put his plans to become King of Mexico into motion, but no one was having that. He returned to the U.S. in 1812, used his mother’s maiden name to avoid his creditors, but eventually got back started in the law in New York. He lived most of the rest of his life in relative peace, staying out of the headlines. At the age of 77, he married a younger woman. But when she realized that Burr had far less money than she thought, she divorced him and hired Alexander Hamilton, Jr. to be her divorce lawyer!!!!

Burr had a stroke in 1834 and never recovered. He died in 1836. By total chance, the very day he died, his wife received her victory in the divorce case.

Aaron Burr is buried in Princeton Cemetery, Princeton, New Jersey.

If you would like this series to visit more of the Founders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Jay is in Rye, New York and Thomas Pinckney is in Charleston, South Carolina. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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