Aaron Burr was the third vice president of the United States. That was the highest office to which he attained, though if he had not been kept from it by the Spanish spy James Wilkinson, he might one day have been the Emperor of Mexico.
Born into a well known family, Aaron Burr was the son of a father by the same name who was then the President of Princeton University, although it was not called Princeton at the time. His mother, Esther Edwards Burr, was the daughter of Jonathan Edwards, a famous theologian. However, when Aaron was still a toddler, his mother and father died of small pox and his grandfather, the theologian, died soon thereafter of an inocculation against small pox, as did the boy’s grandmother. Aaron was then placed in foster care together with his sister Sally and later given to his young uncle Timothy Edwards, a stern disciplinarian with whom he had many theological disagreements. When he was ten years old, Aaron ran away from home and signed up as a cabin boy on a ship in New York harbor, until his uncle found him and took him back to New Jersey. He climbed to the top of the mast and negotiated a deal with his uncle: Timothy would not beat him for running away, if Aaron promised to apply himself to his studies and become a theologian.
Aaron Burr did excel in the study of ancient languages at Princeton, though he never became a theologian. Some of his classmates were James Madison and Edward Livingston.
When the Revoluntionary War broke out, Aaron Burr distinguished himself for bravery, leadership and feats of daring that went well beyond the call of duty. He was discharged as a Colonel. He then studied law and became involved in politics. His marriage to Theodosia Prevost produced one surviving child, Theodosia Burr Alston. Aaron Burr was ahead of his time in that he believed in the intellectual equality of women, and he educated his daughter with the same rigor that he would have applied to a son.
Burr and Jefferson were both members of the Democratic-Republican party that favored limited government. They ran together on the same ticket and defeated the incumbent president, the Federalist and authoritarian John Adams, preventing him from attaining to a second term. However, there was just one hitch: Jefferson and Burr tied in the election. In those days, the person who got the most votes in the presidential election became president.The person with the second greatest number of votes became Vice President. Although Burr and Jefferson were running mates, nobody had anticipated a tie. When all the dust settled, the new president was Thomas Jefferson, but he bore Burr a grudge for nearly beating him, and he did not choose him for a running mate the second time he ran.
While still serving as Vice President, Burr fought and won a duel with Federalist Alexander Hamilton, who had slandered and libeled him and refused to retract. Alexander Hamilton had also been a thorn in Jefferson’s side, but as soon as he died of his wounds in the duel, all this was forgotten, and Burr’s political enemies behaved as if the killing had been a murder.
Once out of office, Aaron Burr conceived of a plan to lead a private army against Spain’s holdings in Mexico. His partner in this plan was General James Wilkinson, but unbeknownst to Burr, Wilkinson was in Spain’s employ as a double agent. Wilkinson betrayed Burr to Jefferson, claiming that Burr intended treason against the United States, instead of war against Spain. Burr was arrested, imprisoned, and eventually tried. He was acquitted of the charge of treason, but was forced to leave the country in disgrace.
Burr spent some time in England trying to raise money for the conquest of Mexico, but when Britain and Spain became allies, he was forced to leave England, and in an increasingly impoverished state he toured Europe until he was finally able to return to the United States shortly before the outbreak of the War of 1812. His daughter Theodosia was lost at sea on her way to visit him in January of 1813.
While Burr lived a very long life after that, he was never able to accomplish anything worthy of note in the succeeding years. Today he is largely forgotten. Yet the significance of Aaron Burr’s life as a founding father of the United States and the philosophical conflicts that his life embodies should not be underestimated. He was the son of an influential family of puritan evangelicals, but he was an agnostic and one of the few politicians who did not hide behind a mask of religiosity. He was a supporter of limited government, and yet Jefferson, his ally in this, stretched the constitution in prosecuting him for plotting to tear the union asunder, which even if it had been true, should not have been a crime in the eyes of a believer in states’ rights like Jefferson. Burr believed in women’s equality and the rights of blacks at a time when these things were quite unpopular. Yet he was also a strong military leader whose expansionist vision for the United States did not involve higher taxation for the citizenry or a costly declared war. If Adams stood for British-style authoritarianism and Jefferson for a French-influenced Jacobin popularism, Burr was epitome of a true American, respecting the rights of all and plotting to take away the property of none.
Copyright 2013 Aya Katz – – Words and Image
Note: I drew the sketch based on the portrait by Vanderlyn.