Aaron Burr—The Villain Who Killed Hamilton

From the Lecture Series: America’s Founding Fathers

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

No one could claim a more distinguished intellectual lineage in the Founders’ generation than Aaron Burr, the grandson of Jonathan Edwards. And no one in the Founders’ generation could claim to be a more wicked person.

illustration of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton preparing to duel
Burr and Hamilton preparing to duel (Image: J. Mund. – Lord, John, LL.D. (1902)/Public domain)

An Unfortunate Start

In the course of less than a year, young Aaron Burr had lost both parents and both grandparents.

Born on February 6, 1756, Aaron Burr arrived—as his mother, Esther Edwards Burr put it—“unexpectedly,” and that continued to be something of a pattern for the rest of his life. His father, Aaron Burr, Senior, was the devoted disciple of the great Edwards and became president of Princeton College in 1747.

Learn more about George Washington’s doubts

However, the senior Burr died when the boy was less than two years old, thus setting a melancholy trend followed by young Burr’s grandfather, Jonathan Edwards, who took the helm of Princeton from his dead son-in-law’s hands in January, 1758, only to die himself from a botched smallpox inoculation the following March. Esther Edwards Burr was also inoculated for the smallpox and likewise died two weeks later, followed by her own mother, Sarah Pierrepont Edwards in October. In the course of less than a year, young Aaron Burr had lost both parents and both grandparents, which, even in an age of high mortality, sets something of a record.

Pictured from left to right Jonathan Edwards, Burr’s grandfather and a famous preacher; Aaron Burr (Image: Public Domain), Sr. Burr’s father and president of Princeton College, and Esther Edwards Burr (Image: Edward Ludlow Mooney/Public domain), Aaron Burr’s mother (Image: Internet Archive Book Images/Public domain).

The boy ended up in 1760 in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in the care of his aunt and uncle, Timothy and Rhoda Edwards, who had also taken in the orphaned under-age siblings of Timothy Edwards. Burr’s father had left a trust of over £3,000 to educate the boy for the ministry, and not surprisingly, it was to Princeton that he went in 1769 at the tender age of 13. But in spite of the cloud of clergymen that emerged from the Edwards nest, Aaron Burr was of a different plumage.

A Revolutionary in Search of Fame and Glory

John Witherspoon, president of Princeton College during Aaron Burr’s attendance (Image: Charles Willson Peale/Public domain).

Aaron Burr, Senior, was a quieter, gentler version of his father-in-law, Edwards, and deplored “boisterous methods” in awakenings; John Witherspoon, imported from Scotland in 1768 as yet another president for the College, had been formed in the mold of the Scottish Enlightenment and its natural-law “common sense” philosophy.

Learn more about Benjamin Franklin’s Leather Apron

And young Aaron Burr’s 1772 class oration, “On Honor” had much more to do with philosophy, or perhaps more accurately, much more to do with personal fame and glory than religion. “Man is formed for action,” Burr declared and seeks “for honor and praise” above all.

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

He pursues “lasting glory, and true, permanent honor, to breathe peace and safety upon mankind; to rise above them all, without any advantage taken by their fall,” all of which might have been near to what we would expect to hear from a young George Washington at this age, but which clearly had little savor of evangelical religion.

Burr was swept up easily into the enthusiasm, not of revival, but of revolution. He joined the Continental Army almost as soon as it was organized, and as “son of the former president of the college of New Jersey,” Burr was attached to the staff of General Richard Montgomery for Montgomery’s ill-fated attempt to capture Quebec. When Montgomery was killed, Burr devotedly “returned back alone and attempted, amidst a shower of musquetry, to bring on his shoulder, the body of Montgomery.” But his heroics earned him little reward. Montgomery’s death left him without a sponsor, and he wrote to Montgomery’s widow that if Montgomery had lived, “his friends” would be “in stations more equal to their merit.”

From Valley Forge Soldier to New York Politician

He found his footing again as an aide to the venerable old Connecticut general Israel Putnam. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel, survived the winter at Valley Forge, and finally left the Army in 1779. He turned to the study of law, and married a wealthy widow, Theodosia Bartow Prevost, and moved to New York City as the British evacuated it in 1783.

Alexander Hamilton, shortly after the American Revolution (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Burr clashed almost at once with another newly-minted New York City lawyer, Alexander Hamilton. In these years before the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton devoted a good deal of his energy to defending one-time Tory loyalists in the New York courts. The New York legislature had passed, in 1779 and 1782, draconian confiscation bills. Bills that not only violated the terms of the Treaty of Paris but which also drove out a useful segment of New York’s merchant class. The war was over, Hamilton reasoned; these people were useful to the new republic. Why impoverish them by confiscating their property and impoverish the republic by punishing them further?

Burr looked at the question from the other end of the telescope, confiscated Tory properties could be sold and used to compensate impoverished patriots for their sacrifices—especially impoverished patriots like Aaron Burr, who had no objection to buying up confiscated Tory property at low state-set prices and then selling them dear on the open market.

Learn more about Alexander Hamilton’s Republic

George Clinton, two-time governor of New York and 4th Vice President of the United States, was the political mentor of Aaron Burr in New York politics (Image: By Ezra Ames/Public domain)

In 1784, Burr was elected to the New York state assembly, where he allied himself with George Clinton and won appointment as state attorney-general. Burr increasingly served as Clinton’s foil to Alexander Hamilton in New York politics, and in 1791, Clinton muscled Burr’s election to the U.S. Senate through the state assembly, unseating Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler.

“I know not whether Fame lies,” John Adams gossiped to Abigail Adams from Philadelphia in 1794, “but she begins to whisper that Burr has been very fortunate and successful as well as several others of Governor Clinton’s friends” and “lives here in Style.” By 1796, Jeffersonian Republicans were already talking of Aaron Burr as a possible candidate to run for president against John Adams.

“Unprincipled both as a public and private man.”

And yet Burr was already sending uneasy currents of anxiety through even republican ranks. His political ideas, if he had any, were glib, and mostly concentrated on his own self-advancement. “If you have the same Opinion of Mr. Burr that many have,” one New York Republican warned his brother-in-law, Robert Livingston, after Burr’s election to the Senate, “you will not rely much on his friendship. ’Tis a pretty prevalent Idea, that he is a Man who makes every Thing subservient to his private Views.”

Hamilton was much more unsparing about Burr.

Burr is unprincipled both as a public and private man. When the constitution was in deliberation, his conduct was equivocal; but its enemies, who I believe best understood him considered him as with them. In fact, I take it, he is for or against nothing, but as it suits his interest or ambition. He is determined, as I conceive, to make his way to be the head of the popular party and as much higher as his circumstances may permit. In a word, if we have an embryo-Caesar in the United States, ’tis Burr.

He cultivated the favor of Madison, and ever the gallante, introduced the forty-three-year-old bachelor to the widow who would become his wife, Dolly Payne Todd. Burr handed out copies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions as a badge of his pro-French sympathies and denounced the Jay Treaty. And yet, he never quite shook off the suspicion of unscrupulous political climbing. Even Benjamin Franklin Bache’s radical Aurora admired him only at very safe distances,

Next, in the train the courtly Burr is seen,
With winning aspect, and with varying mien;
Though small his stature, yet his well-known name,
Shines with full splendour on the roll of fame.
Go search the records of intrigue, and find
To what debasement sinks the human mind,
How far ’tis possible for man to go,
Where interest sways and passions urge the blow;
While pride and pleasure, haughtiness and scorn,
And mad ambition in his bosom burn.

Learn more about Alexander Hamilton’s papers

Burr Aims for the Presidency and Misses

Burr, running as Jefferson’s Vice-Presidential candidate, garnered 73 electoral votes in the election of 1800 tying Jefferson and causing a runoff in his own party. (Image: John Vanderlyn/Public domain)

In the event, John Adams won the 1796 election, with Jefferson as his unenthusiastic vice-president. But Burr still netted 30 electoral votes, and even though Washington personally struck off his name for a commission in the Additional Army, “Burr is a brave and able officer,” he remarked to Hamilton, “but the question is whether he has not equal talents at intrigue.”

The Clintonites in New York were, notwithstanding, already filling his head with notions of the presidency. Burr sealed that expectation by swinging the 1799 New York City elections to the Republicans, and in 1800 he was picked to run as the Republicans’ candidate for vice-president with Jefferson. The problem was that the presidential itch was now about to drive him over the line.

Thomas Jefferson, who had picked Aaron Burr as his running mate, found himself fending off a usurpation from Burr after an oversight in the electoral college. (Image: Rembrandt Peale/Public domain)

Jefferson easily outscored Adams in the Electoral College, 73 to 65. But Burr, running on Jefferson’s coat-tails, had also tallied 73 electoral votes, and this meant that, by the terms of Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution, the House of Representatives would have to sort out “by Ballot one of them for President,” based on a majority of states voting as entire delegations. Jefferson wrote uneasily to Burr on December 15, 1800, to suggest that this was simply an oversight. “Decency required that I should be so entirely passive during the late contest, that I never once asked whether arrangements had been made to prevent” a tie vote by Republican electors.

That turned out to be an oversight of near-fatal proportions. Hamilton would have preferred the devil to Jefferson as president, and he did not hesitate to lay out suggestive snares in Burr’s path, that Federalists in the House might be willing to unload their votes on him; and for his part, Burr scooped up the snares with unbecoming greed. He did not openly campaign against Jefferson, but at the same time he coyly declined to issue any statement promising support for Jefferson, and he allowed his allies to seduce Republican congressmen to vote for Burr.

When the House of Representatives convened on February 11, 1801, 19 successive ballots were cast without a clear majority before an exhausted house finally recessed after midnight. Three more ballots followed over the next two days. After seven days of haggling, with Burr’s “agents here at work with great activity, there at work,” and a total of 36 ballots being cast, finally James Bayard, a Federalist and the lone representative of Delaware, withheld his vote from the tally, and the election was finally over. Jefferson was president.

Learn more about James Madison’s vices

But Burr, said Bayard, “had completely forfeited the confidence and friendship of his party.” He enraged them still further by obstructing Jefferson’s replacement Judiciary Act in 1802, and in return, Burr’s allies were coldly denied offices in the new administration. By the time Jefferson was ready for his second presidential campaign, he was anxious to be rid of Burr, and in January 1804, called him to the Executive Mansion to tell him as much.

“There never had been any intimacy between us, and but little association,” Jefferson wrote afterward. And the congressional Republican caucus when met on February 25 to renominate Jefferson, did not give a single vote in favor of Burr continuing as vice-president.

Burr Aims at Hamilton and Hits

Denied the vice-presidency by Jefferson, Burr threw his hat into the ring for the governorship of New York in the spring of 1804. He lost, and he blamed Hamilton for it.

This ended Aaron Burr’s career as a public man, but not his ambitions or his thirst for revenge, which now came together to form the raciest chapter in his history. He struck first at his New York, nemesis, Alexander Hamilton. Denied the vice-presidency by Jefferson, Burr threw his hat into the ring for the governorship of New York in the spring of 1804. He lost, and he blamed Hamilton for it. Sending Hamilton a letter which claimed that Hamilton had defamed him during the campaign, Burr demanded “a prompt and unqualified acknowledgment or denial of the use of any” defamatory “expressions.” Hamilton refused to reply, and on the grounds that “political opposition can never absolve gentlemen from the necessity of a rigid adherence to the laws of honor,” Burr formally challenged him to a duel.

Hamilton seems scarcely to have been able to credit Burr’s insolence, especially since Hamilton’s own son, Philip, had been killed in a duel only three years earlier. They met on July 11, 1804, on the bluffs overlooking the Hudson river at Weehawken. Hamilton, as he had announced in advance, fired his pistol into the air; Burr, however, took deliberate aim and hit Hamilton in the right hip, penetrating the liver and striking the spine. Alexander Hamilton died at 2 o’clock the next afternoon.

If Burr expected this to restore his fortunes in the eyes of the republicans, he could not have been more wrong. Burr was denounced as an “assassin,” and Burr complained that “all our intemperate and unprincipled Jacobins who have been for Years reviling” Hamilton “as a disgrace to the Country and a pest to Society” are now “the most Vehement in his praise.” Even John Adams, who had no reason to love Hamilton, grunted that “no one wished to get rid of Hamilton in that way.”

Common Questions About Aaron Burr

Q: Why did Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr have a duel?

Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr had long been political rivals. After the duel, which took place on July 11, 1804, Hamilton died of complications from gunshot wounds dealt by Burr.

Q: What was Aaron Burr most famous for?

Aaron Burr ran for president in 1800 and lost, serving as Vice President under Thomas Jefferson. He was known for his power-hungry attitude, his ability to make enemies with other politicians, and for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel.

Q: Were Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr friends?

Long before their famous duel, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr were actually friends. However, political tensions between them grew, first with Burr defeating Hamilton’s father-in-law for senate and later with Hamilton supporting Thomas Jefferson, who defeated Burr in his bid for president.

Q: What happened to Aaron Burr’s wife?

Aaron Burr married Theodosia Bartow Prevost in 1782. Theodosia was highly educated and known for her intellect. Burr valued her advice and friendship and was heartbroken when she died of illness twelve years after their marriage. He remarried Eliza Jumel in 1833, but they divorced shortly after.

This article was updated on 7/26/2019

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