Aaron Burr and His Notorious Political Agendas

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: A History of the United States, 2nd edition

By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D., Princeton University

During his presidency, while Thomas Jefferson was busy initiating the expedition to explore Louisiana territory, he also had to deal with his vice president, Aaron Burr. Burr went on to become a burden and danger who could go to any extent to fulfill his political ambitions. Learn more about how Burr went step by step in ruining his political career.

Image shows Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and others, around a table, deep in conversation.
Since the purchase of the province of Louisiana, it was not clear what was included so Thomas Jefferson had to press for an expedition to the territory of Louisiana. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Relocating Sources of Mississippi River

Lewis and Clark were the first explorers to penetrate the Louisiana territory. In September 1805, United States Army Lieutenant, Zebulon Pike, led another expedition up the Mississippi River to locate the sources of the Mississippi River. In 1806, Pike led a second expedition to explore the Rockies and Louisiana’s uncertain boundary with the Spanish dominions in the Southwest and identified the Great Peak, bearing his name in modern Colorado, and managed to get himself arrested and briefly imprisoned by Spanish authorities in New Mexico.

Following the Suit to Explore

The explorers were followed by the entrepreneurs. A German-born fur dealer named John Jacob Astor set up a fur-trapping factory at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1810, laying foundations for one of the greatest fortunes in American history. Over 600 freelance trappers; Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, and Kit Carson penetrated the Rockies by the 1830s. Following the entrepreneurs and trappers were the middlemen, who set up some 150 small posts and forts by 1840s, to broker the fur trade. The strangest and the most sinister of these entrepreneurs was Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson’s first vice president.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Ambitious Aaron Burr

A portrait of Aaron Burr.
From a very young age, Aaron Burr was very ambitious and wanted to access entry into the world of politics for which he did not mind borrowing and spending money. (John Vanderlyn/Public domain)

Hardly any major figure in American politics, enjoyed so distinguished an ancestry as Aaron Burr. His father was an upstanding Presbyterian clergyman and an early president of Princeton. His mother, Esther, was the daughter of Jonathan Edwards, a famous theologian and philosopher. Unfortunately for the young Aaron Burr, both his father and mother died before he was four, and then his famous grandfather also died shortly thereafter.

Burr was handed to the Edwards family, treated well, and spoiled. He grew to manhood with charm and ambition, borrowed and spent on a prodigal scale to gain access to New York politics and society, and married a rich but unlovely widow in order to pay his debts. He allied himself politically with the Jeffersonians.

Pick and Drop of Burr

In 1800, Jefferson reluctantly accepted Burr as his vice presidential choice in order to secure New York’s decisive electoral votes. Once elected, Jefferson promptly dropped Burr out of all his councils. In 1804, when Jefferson had enough momentum of his own to win easy reelection, he dropped Aaron Burr off the ticket entirely. Burr had become more than just the ordinary political liability to the Republicans in 1804. As the most glamorous of the New York Republicans, Burr collided head on with Alexander Hamilton, who remained an influential voice in New York Federalism.

Learn more about Aaron Burr who attempted to set up his own independent republic.

Burr’s Plan of Treason

In July 1804, Burr provoked Hamilton into a duel in which Burr, shot and wounded Hamilton. Both Republicans and Federalists united in denouncing Burr as a murderer. Only a hasty flight out of state saved Burr from arrest. Hamilton’s death ended all hope of Burrs career in politics, but kindled in Burr, a darker hope of profiting by a career in treason. In the summer 1804, while he was still serving as vice president, Burr secretly opened negotiations with the British Minister in Washington City, Anthony Merry.

Image shows Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton involved in a duel.
Due to the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, both Republicans and Democrats had a common voice in denouncing Burr as the murderer which resulted in the end of his political career. (Image: Illustrator not identified. From a painting by J. Mund./Public domain)

Burr claimed that the western territories were seething with dissatisfaction at the United States government, and willing to contemplate seceding from the American federal union to organize a separate republic in the Mississippi River Valley. With a little financial help from the British government, and with some guarantees of British protection, Burr promised to rally the western settlers to his banner and proclaim a new Republic in the West.

Initiating Plans of Deceit

Anthony Merry was skeptical, but, Burr had managed to recruit a band of followers. He borrowed money from his in-laws, and flattered the commander of the American garrison in New Orleans, General James Wilkinson, into cooperation with his plot who was a weak link in Burr’s chain. On New Year’s Day in 1807, Burr assembled his tiny force at New Madrid on the Mississippi River, distributing arms and announcing his intention to capture Baton Rouge and make it his temporary headquarters. But General Wilkinson in New Orleans had lost his courage at the last moment and betrayed Burr’s scheme. Burr was preparing to hatch his plot, the local militia was on the way to arrest him and his cohorts. When he learnt of Wilkinson’s double-cross, Burr deserted his little army and stayed on the loose until February 19, when he was finally arrested by federal troops.

Hidden Agendas of Scot-free Burr

Burr was returned to Virginia and put on trial for treason in the Federal District Court in Richmond, presiding was the chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall. The case against Burr turned out to be not clearly as self-evident as the government had hoped. Burr had cleverly covered the tracks of his intentions, and the government’s witnesses against Burr, like General Wilkinson, were themselves shady characters. Burr’s attorneys, Edmund Randolph and John Wickham, quickly succeeded in turning the trial not into an evaluation of Burr’s attempt at treason, but as a referendum on the administration of Thomas Jefferson. The chief justice, who had little love for Jefferson, agreed. On August 31, Marshall quashed the treason indictment of Burr on a technicality, who got off scot-free.

After several months of dodging his creditors, he smuggled himself in disguise on a boat for England. Burr returned from Europe in 1812, and when it was clear that his political friends in New York would make sure that he wouldn’t be arrested for the death of Alexander Hamilton, Burr boldly set up a law office on Nassau Street, making a scanty living, and died in 1836.

Learn more about John Adams’ challenge of foreign policy problem.

Jefferson’s Parting Ways with Politics

The Burr conspiracy effectively demonstrated that the glories of the Louisiana acquisition were accompanied with equally sizable risks. The Burr trial splattered political sewage over Jefferson’s reputation. New England Federalist governors publicly attacked the embargo, and Chief Justice Marshall fenced in every move Jefferson made with unassailable legal dictums. Jefferson’s glorious ‘revolution of 1800’ looked less like a mighty assertion of republican virtue and more like a confused mistake. Jefferson did not consider running for a third term as president in 1808. The Republican cause did not die with Jefferson’s retirement as they received a new lease on life from a highly unlikely quarter — the British.

Common Questions about the History of the United States

Q: Was Aaron Burr a Federalist or Democratic Republican?

Aaron Burr, early on, allied himself politically with the Jeffersonians and thus he was a Democratic Republican.

Q: How did Aaron Burr kill Alexander Hamilton?

In July of 1804, Aaron Burr provoked Alexander Hamilton into a duel in which Burr shot and wounded Hamilton badly. He was denounced as a murderer by both Republicans and Federalists.

Q: Did Aaron Burr get prosecuted?

Aaron Burr was put on trial for treason in the Federal District Court in Richmond. However, the case against Burr turned out to be not clearly as self-evident as the government had hoped and thus he got acquitted.

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