Think politics today is the most divisive ever? Not even close!
Today’s politicians endlessly rant on Twitter and seem addicted to hurling insults at their opponents. However, back in the late 1700s and early 1800s, leading politicians in both the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties (the forerunner of today’s Republican party) were virulently back-stabbing opponents, generating vile attacks in the press, and more than a few were plotting schemes aimed at tearing apart our young Nation.
Among the most infamous politicians of the era was Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr. On September 1, 1807, Burr was acquitted of committing treason.
While Aaron Burr is most remembered for fatally shooting Alexander Hamilton in a dual on the cliffs of Weehawken, New Jersey, it was Burr’s grandiose dreams of power and a plot to seize control of all the West that led him to be charged with treason in one of the most amazing landmark trials in the annals of U.S. history.
Aaron Burr, was born in 1756 into a highly respected family of educators and religious leaders. His father, the Reverend Aaron Burr, Sr., was president of the College of New Jersey, at Princeton (later known as Princeton University). Tragically, his father died when young Aaron was a toddler and within a year, his mother died of smallpox. Aaron and Sarah Burr, his older sister, were left as orphans to be raised by guardians.
Despite a difficult childhood, Burr’s natural intelligence and ambition propelled him to enter college at just 13 years of age and he graduated from the College of New Jersey before enlisting in the Continental Army of the Revolutionary War. Burr distinguished himself during the Battle of Quebec City where he risked his life to retrieve the body of fallen General Richard Montgomery.
Later, Burr was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and after serving in the defense of New York and at Valley Forge, he was assigned to the staff of General George Washington where he worked alongside Alexander Hamilton.
During his service during the Revolutionary War, Burr continued his studies of the law and was admitted to the New York bar. He established a law practice in New York City while simultaneously setting his sights on a career in politics.
Burr, like many of our politicians today, was probably less inspired by noble values of service than a self-serving plan to elevate his own power base and to keep himself elected to whatever office would bring him fame and fortune.
Burr was perceived as one of the rising stars of the new Republic in the years following the Revolutionary War. He established the Bank of Manhattan which immediately put him on a collision course with Alexander Hamilton who heretofore had a monopoly on banking with Hamilton’s Bank of New York.
As Burr’s power and influence increased, he used his law practice and his control of the Bank of Manhattan to benefit himself and his political cronies. Burr’s interest in politics did not come from principles or virtue but, rather, in building a power base and the money to support his very luxurious lifestyle.
He would, over the years and in numerous offices, not only support political allies but toss his influence behind other politicians on both sides of the political spectrum to secure a stronger foothold on power for himself.
Over the years between 1790 and 1801, Burr would hold a variety of public offices including Attorney General of New York, New York Assemblyman, and U.S. Senator for New York.
In the Presidential Election of 1901, Aaron Burr was in a tie with Thomas Jefferson in the Electoral College. Under the Constitution, the House of Representatives was charged with voting to determine which man would be named as the 3rd President of the United States. With both Burr and Jefferson receiving 73 votes, it took 36 ballots of the House of Representatives before Jefferson emerged victorious and was elected President. Burr had to settle for becoming the Vice President of his rival.
Burr served as Jefferson’s Vice President and presided over the Senate which he found tedious and demeaning. During this period, his rivalry with Alexander Hamilton was rekindled. The close election between Burr and Jefferson had made “strange bedfellows”. Hamilton had stark political differences with Jefferson whom he considered a dangerous supporter of France. However, Hamilton had even greater qualms about Burr whom he felt was an opportunist and a man of few virtues, if any.
During the rounds of voting in the House of Representatives, Hamilton, the leader of the Federalist Party, did the unthinkable. He urged his party faithful to not support the Federalist candidate Burr and, instead, throw their support and the Presidency to Thomas Jefferson. This rekindled the long held rivalry and animosity between Burr and Hamilton.
Bitter over the part Hamilton had played in his loss of the presidency, and angry over disparaging remarks that Hamilton had made about him in the campaign, Burr challenged Hamilton to a dual. On the cold morning of July 20, 1804, the two adversaries and arch rivals stood facing one another. Hamilton fired first and missed. Burr then pulled his trigger and fatally struck Alexander Hamilton.
While Hamilton lost his life as a result of the dual, Aaron Burr’s political aspirations died on the dueling ground. While still the Vice President, Burr was now a wanted man in New York and soon to be wanted in New Jersey on a charge of murder.
Ironically, he was still serving as Vice President but he knew that there was little chance of redemption in the aftermath of the public outcry of his killing of Hamilton.
For Burr, knowing he had no future in the 13 American Colonies, he set his sights on the West. At that time, the frontier lands were already attracting waves of settlers into territories controlled by Spain and France.
Burr was particularly interested in Texas, the Southwestern territories, and Mexico. His ego filled with opportunities for grandeur, imagined himself as Emperor of Mexico and in control of the entire Southwest.
Ironically, at the same time in 1804, President Thomas Jefferson was dreaming of westward expansion, as well. Jefferson had sent out his former secretary, Meriwether Lewis on an expedition to explore the continent to prove that the millions that Jefferson had paid to Napoleon Bonaparte would make the Louisiana Purchase more popular with his political opponents.
Aaron Burr now used his political contacts and military experience to find allies who would follow him into the western frontier. Burr also reached out to the British foreign minister asking if there might be financial or military support available for settlers in the territories west of the Appalachians who “might” want to secede from the United States. Burr implied that if Britain wanted to provide aid in this effort that he would be their lead contact person – for a price.
In 1805, Burr traveled down the Mississippi to New Orleans looking for any and all supporters who would possibly join his scheme seize control of the West from Spain. Burr met with western politicians, businessmen, settlers, and former soldiers. Most of these contacts were highly in favor of Burr’s plan to annex the frontier territories from Mexico.
One of these men was General James Wilkinson. Wilkinson was, shockingly, the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. Army in 1805. He was also a man with a shady reputation and rumored to be a double agent working for the Spanish government. Wilkinson was also known to have been active in a separatist movement dating back to the 1790s where he encouraged the Kentucky and Tennessee territories to separate from the Union.
In 1805, Burr encouraged President Jefferson to appoint Wilkinson as Governor of the Louisiana Territory. This put Wilkinson in an ideal position to later support Burr’s secret dream of becoming Emperor of Mexico. Wilkinson assured Burr that he was in support of Burr’s Western ambitions and promised that with his influence, he could garner enough men to form a military team to conquer Mexico.
Rumors of an uprising led by Burr began to spread to the Eastern states where Burr was already seen as an unprincipled scoundrel for his killing of Hamilton. Now, Burr was being accused of becoming a traitor for potentially sparking a separatist movement, starting a war with Mexico, and for collusion with the British.
Burr, however, was watching his back. He had made a lifelong habit of putting very little of his plans or promises in writing. He also frequently resorted to writing letters in secret codes or speaking only in private to his contacts to ensure that whatever scheme or shady deals he was involved with could not be traced back to him. So, while he had certainly been speaking to many about the “possibility” of a takeover of the West, there seemed to be nothing in writing or any cold, hard facts, which could be tied to his doing more than “exploring the possibility” that an army of American frontiersmen could conquer the Western territories.
Wilkinson, fearing that his involvement with Burr might backfire, decided to betray Burr by reporting to President Jefferson of a possible conspiracy. Jefferson who despised Burr, finally thought he had the evidence to take down his former Vice President and issued orders for Burr’s arrest. Burr was apprehended in Alabama and brought to Richmond, Virginia to await trial.
In 1807, just six years after he had been in a tie to become President of America, Aaron Burr was in prison and possibly facing death if convicted of treason. The celebrated case of the United States v. Aaron Burr was presided over by none other than he Supreme Court Chief Justice, John Marshall.
Burr’s legal team mounted a vigorous defense. They insisted that there was not written proof of Burr having committed any conspiracy and that correspondence from Burr to Wilkinson, written in cypher, was open to interpretation and had also been “doctored” by the Army officer in a crude attempt to entrap the former Vice President.
Chief Justice Marshall concurred with Burr’s defense and stated that while Burr may have spoken to various individuals about possible plots to gain control of the West – he never took action.
Burr was acquitted of the charges of treason on September 1, 1807 but whatever was left of his reputation was beyond repair. He was vilified in the press as a traitor and a villain. Disgraced and impoverished, Burr fled to Europe where he lived for several years in self-imposed exile.
Burr eventually returned to New York in 1813 and set up a law office which he operated until his death in 1836.
Aaron Burr was a man born into an important family with rare intellect, daring courage, and an immense drive. His political genius took him to great heights but his lack of a moral compass was his Achilles heel.
Aaron Burr could have been President of the United States. He could have been Emperor of Mexico, controlling all of the Western half of the Continent. However, at the close of his life and for the generations yet to come, Burr is remembered for killing the statesman Alexander Hamilton and for being the only major politician in our nation who was ever tried for treason.