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The Truth about Aaron Burr

Updated on September 12, 2018

What's with Burr?

It seems Aaron Burr has taken the place of Benedict Arnold as the greatest scoundrel in American history. It wasn't enough for scholars to hate him for murdering Alexander Hamilton. They have to go further, saying he was a bad husband, that he'd tried to steal the election of 1800, that he'd committed treason by taking the western territories from the United States. In the famous duel, Hamilton was supposedly a reasonable man who fire wouldn't shoot at Burr. The wicked Burr then took to the opportunity to aim straight for Hamilton. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were supposedly saints, while Burr was always the devil. This seems a little too good to be true. In fact, there are certainly some details missing.

My family has a loose ancestral tie to Aaron Burr. During the Jackson administration in the 1830s, Texas was still a province of Mexico. Aaron Burr, then in his seventies as a practicing New York lawyer, delved into a land purchasing scheme in Texas. His plan was to populate his little "principality" (as he called it) with German immigrants. My several times great-grandfather was an associate of Burr's at the time. When Burr told him about it, my ancestor got into a Texas deal of his own. As the story goes, my great-grandfather was smart and actually traveled all the way to Texas to solidify his investment. Burr went through a crooked broker and lost everything. Another version of the story goes that my great-grandfather was the crooked broker who cheated Burr in 1833. He took the money and took Burr's Germans to settle a new colony in Texas. But it was always forbidden to entertain such talk in family circles growing up. What I do know is that stories of Aaron Burr circulated down to me over the decades. My great-grandfather worshipped Aaron Burr. To this day, Burr is still referred to as "Colonel Burr", or "the Colonel", among our relatives in Texas. We kept Burr's portrait in the family library for many years.

Doing some research, I found that all of our family lore on Colonel Burr was true. In fact, much of what is said about him by historians, particularly on television, proves to be false. Here, I'll go through the greatest misconceptions against Aaron Burr.

The Accusations

Aaron Burr the "Bad Husband"

This is only half true. I'm convinced one of the main reasons Burr was disliked by any of his contemporaries was the same reason any man hates another man: success with women. Before and after his first marriage, Burr was a bit of a philanderer. At age eighteen, he'd had an affair with John Hancock's wife. Other famous women he'd "known" were Peggy Shippen (wife of Benedict Arnold) and Dolly Madison. He had many illegitimate children whom he'd paid for and helped in life. He even had an affair with Martin Van Buren's mother, giving rise to the suspicion of Van Buren's parentage. Ironically, the affairs for which he's been attacked are those which he never committed. It was believed in 1776 he'd taken the virginity of a girl named Margaret Moncrieffe, who was a British spy living with Gen. Israel Putnam (of Bunker Hill fame). Burr suspected Putnam of having already done those honors.

After he'd left the Revolution due to injuries, Burr married Theodosia Prevost in 1782. She was a widow and a decade older, though he was entirely devoted to her. They had a daughter by the same name. After his wife's death after ten years, Burr was broken up and remained a widower. Burr did have one bad marriage; his second. This was to "Madame" Eliza Jumel in 1833 of what is today Upper Manhattan. Jumel, a widow, was in her fifties and was one of the richest people in the city. 77-year-old Burr married her for her money and was never faithful to her. Divorce proceedings commenced almost immediately. But this occurred long after Burr's bad reputation as a "traitor" had been established. He'd never mistreated any woman other than possibly his thievery from Madame Jumel. Toward his daughter, Burr was a perfect father. He taught her everything. It destroyed him when she died at sea in 1813.

My dad suspected the heavy flak Burr took for his womanizing was to cover up for Jefferson's affair with a slave and Hamilton's numerous infidelities. Hamilton was indeed a bad husband to his illustrious wife. Jefferson was a very good husband to his wife and was very broken up by her death. He did have affairs later with at least two married women before finally "settling down" with Sally Hemings. Sally, by the way, in addition to being a slave, was Jefferson's first wife's biological half-sister. Perhaps there was a resemblance, which almost makes the story romantic.

Aaron Burr the "Cabalist"

Burr is supposed to have been involved in the so-called "Conway Cabal" of 1777 and 1778. By 1777, it was clear to many in congress and in the army that George Washington was not a great tactical general. He had lost New York City and Philadelphia to the British. New Jersey, much of upstate New York and eastern Pennsylvania were under Hessian occupation. There was a conspiracy within the army by 1778 to push Washington out and replace him with Horatio Gates or Charles Lee. Both Lee and Gates were former British officers who had both won major victories in the war. Washington had won none. In any case, Burr was not involved in the conspiracy. However, Burr was friends with a lot of people who were in on the conspiracy. It's even probable that he knew something about it. But then again, he was good friends with Alexander Hamilton, who was the greatest supporter of Washington. Burr was always trusted by Washington and he performed valiantly in the war. After Charles Lee's treachery or incompetence at the battle of Monmouth, Burr cooled off to Lee.

Burr's greatest sin in American political history seems to have been that he never wholeheartedly took sides with any ideology--or, more accurately, with any famous personage. He never joined in on the hero-worship of George Washington, even while serving on the general's staff in 1776. This made the Virginian self-conscious and a little suspicious. Burr occasionally disagreed with Washington's plans, which gained him no points. Washington was the sort of man to recognize and reward talent, but he did have a tinge of pettiness in him. When Burr was recruited by Jefferson and Madison to join their republican political faction in the 1790s, Burr became a moderate voice for their cause. And, unlike Washington, Jefferson was deeply petty, suspicious and backstabbing. In fact, more often than not, the Virginians were all typically self-conscious, stiff, shy, awkward and unforgiving. They were all terrible public speakers. The big three: Washington, Hamilton and Jefferson, were always posing for history. Hamilton and Jefferson were fractious. Each of them controlled one of two wings in the press...and neither wing was friendly to Burr in the end.

Aaron Burr the "Election Thief"

This is 100% false, and I believe it was the source of all of Burr's bad press. In the election of 1800, Jefferson and Burr tied in the Electoral College. The final decision was then sent to the House of Representatives. Burr stuck to the deal that he and Jefferson had made that he wouldn't run until 1808. Rather than lobby the House to be president, Burr went on holiday. Jefferson, by contrast, lobbied the House nonstop. In fact, he had to bow and scrape and crawl on his belly to Hamilton and the Federalists to get elected. The Federalists hated him. Burr, being a New York moderate, was everyone's preferred candidate. Luckily for Jefferson, Hamilton was jealous of Burr. All Hamilton required of Jefferson was that Jefferson wouldn't try to defund the central bank. Jefferson agreed and became president in 1801. If Burr had written one letter or said anything to anyone, he would easily have become president in 1801.

The jealous Jefferson never forgave Burr for the embarrassment. But if it was anyone's fault, it was Jefferson's. He was the party leader and should have seen to it that at least one person voting for Burr should cast his vote for someone else to avoid a tie. Jefferson denied most of Burr's patronage requests. He passed the twelfth amendment, which created the rotten party system we have today. He didn't select Burr as his successor for 1808 or as his running mate in 1804. This effectively ruined Burr's political career. Prior to this, Jefferson had never quite warmed to Burr anyway. He, like George Washington, never trusted him because he wasn't a sycophant.

There was a political betrayal among Jefferson and Burr besides this though. It occurred in 1796. That year, Jefferson betrayed Burr in the national election by delivering his state's electoral votes to himself and Samuel Adams. Burr had delivered New York to Jefferson and to himself. Burr told Jefferson in 1800 that Jefferson mustn't do this again if he wanted Burr's help.

Aaron Burr the "Bad-Tempered Duelist"

This again is only half-true. Actually, it says more about Hamilton. Burr, born to a patrician family, was always a good-natured man. It's why everyone liked doing business with him. When Burr entered the Senate, it was at the urging of the powerful families of New York. Only some of the top-tier national leaders didn't like him. Hamilton was born a nobody; "illegitimate" as John Adams liked to point out. In addition to being endlessly ambitious, Hamilton was a vicious man. And the myth that Hamilton had qualms about dueling is false. Hamilton's own son had already been killed in a duel, which his father had told him he must accept. No one knows what caused Burr to lose his cool and challenge Hamilton in 1804. What we know is that it was bad enough to get Burr to want to kill him. When Burr had realized he was finished politically in 1804, he decided to go back to New York and "start over" by running for governor. Hamilton by that time had been publicly ruined by a sex scandal and was now little more than a behind-the-scenes manipulator. It was in this role that Hamilton helped defeat Burr in his attempts at being governor. Hamilton made a number of cutting statements on Burr to the press. But he made worse remarks in private. One of these got round to Burr, who turned cold and issued the fateful challenge.

Aaron Burr the "Cheat"

Americans today know nothing about dueling. So legend has it that Burr "cheated" in the duel. Historians don't seem to agree on this. Some say Burr shot first at Hamilton, whose pistol went off as a result. Others say Hamilton shot first, but at the ground or air, deliberately missing. Either way, Burr was supposedly ungentlemanly. Personally, I don't see why these details are relevant other than as a way to smear a man politically. There's no way to "cheat" in a duel of honor.

What happened in the duel was this: Hamilton put on his glasses. That's an odd thing to do for one not planning to aim. There is, in addition, no way Hamilton didn't know that Burr planned to kill him. Burr couldn't be talked down and Hamilton didn't try. Hamilton, at the commencement, fired an instant before Burr, missing. The steady Burr fired and hit his target. There is no reason to suspect Hamilton missed on purpose. If he had, he would have told his second of his intention in order to get Burr to do the same. That's how dueling worked. However, terrified and exposed men in war have been known to deliberately miss by a fraction of an inch as a psychological way of thinking incoming bullets would miss them. Terrified men have also been known to tremble. According the Burr, Hamilton's hand shook as he aimed.

Aaron Burr the "Conspirator"

If you want to know the facts of this, just look up the treason trial. Burr was found not guilty of trying to secede the western territories and states form the union. He was found guilty of trying to conquer New Spain (modern-day Mexico). The latter offense was a misdemeanor in those days.

After his falling out with President Jefferson, Burr had decided that the country was doomed. He wanted to go west, take Mexico City and become emperor of Mexico. He wanted to build a civilization in America through the establishment of a monarchy in the Spanish colonies. It sounds crazy today, but Napoleon had taken over France and became emperor of most of Europe by that time. Lots of would-be military men saw this as their destiny as well. Even Hamilton in 1798 was put in charge of an army and planned to go west to conquer Spanish lands. Burr wasn't a nobody. He was a former senator and former vice president (who could have been president if he'd tried). Burr's plan in 1805 and 1806 was to collect a ragtag army of Tennessee/Kentucky westerners and head for Texas. The man who reported him was the commander of the US Army at the time, James Wilkinson. Wilkson himself was about to be prosecuted when it was apparent that he was taking bribes from the Spanish government as an agent. He decided to get heat off himself and fulfill his mission as a subject of the Spanish Crown by falsely accusing Burr. Jefferson encouraged him. Alexander Hamilton actually came closer to becoming a Napoleonic dictator of the United States in 1799. He was thwarted by President John Adams. After this, Hamilton took revenge on Adams in the press and cost him his re-election. This little bit of history is always skipped over.

Burr the "Traitor"

One thing needs to be said about the treason trial of Burr. It was managed by President Jefferson behind the scenes. The president did this mostly by bribing witnesses. These included William Eaton and James Wilkinson. Jefferson wanted Burr gone. Even with all of the chips stacked in Jefferson's favor, Burr was acquitted. He was given the unfair ruling of "cannot convict without further evidence" rather than the usual "not guilty". The witnesses in the trial made fools of themselves, particularly Wilkinson, the real traitor. Andrew Jackson, who was part of Burr's supposed conspiracy, came to Burr's defense at the trial.

The Republican press, manipulated by Jefferson, proceeded to destroy Burr. Burr became the devil. By the 1810s, he was persona non grata in all of the press. This affected the history books, which affected the way the younger generations thought of him.

Burr's Shortcomings

I'm not saying Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton were bad people. I'm just saying one should never have got in their way politically. There certainly were bad things Burr did for which historians choose not to point out. For one, just as Hamilton was a paid secret agent for the British government, Burr was a paid secret agent for the French. It probably explains why a New Yorker would oppose the Federalist central banking plans. Furthermore, it better explains the nature of the feud between Hamilton and Burr, which was never well explained. So I suppose Burr and Hamilton were both traitors to the new republic in a sense (Hamilton more so). At least Jefferson was of his own mind, ambitious as it was. Burr did indeed rip off Eliza Jumel in 1833. Then he was ripped off by someone else (possibly my ancestor). As a lawyer, Burr would take any case. He helped to acquit more than one certainly-guilty murderer. He created the political wing of Tammany Hall, which grew to become the most corrupt political machine in the country. Never mind his numerous homewrecking exploits.

At the same time, Burr was ahead of his time in wanting to enfranchise women; something Jefferson never would have stood for. Burr was a war hero at Quebec, New York, Valley Forge and Monmouth. Burr was well educated and intelligent. Politically, he walked a reasonable line between monarchism and radical Jacobinism.

Clearly Burr wasn't perfect. He simply wasn't a traitor on the order of Benedict Arnold. His greatest sin of all was in being more popular than the boss of a rotten political party. The press is where much of history is written. And the press on both sides was unfavorable to Burr after 1801.

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