Summary

3rd US vice president. Later known for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel.

Conflict Period:
Revolutionary War 1
Branch:
Army 1
Rank:
Lieutenant Colonel 2
Birth:
06 Feb 1756 1
Newark, Province of New Jersey 1
Death:
14 Sep 1836 1
Staten Island, New York, U.S. 1
More…

Related Pages

+
View more similar pages

Pictures & Records (19)

Add Show More

Personal Details

Edit
Full Name:
Aaron Burr 3
Also known as:
Aaron Burr Jr 3
Birth:
06 Feb 1756 3
Newark, Province of New Jersey 3
Male 3
Death:
14 Sep 1836 3
Staten Island, New York, U.S. 3
Burial:
Princeton Cemetery, Princeton, NJ 4
Edit
Birth:
Mother: Esther Edwards 3
Father: Aaron Burr Sr 3
Marriage:
Eliza Bowen Jumel 2
1833 2
Divorce Date: 1836 2
Marriage:
Theodosia Bartow Prevost 2
1782 2
Spouse Death Date: 1794 4
Edit

Revolutionary War 1

Branch:
Army 1
Rank:
Lieutenant Colonel 2
Service Start Date:
1775 2
Service End Date:
1779 2
Edit
Occupation:
Vice President of the United States 3
Employment:
Position: 3rd New York State Attorney General 2
Start Date: 1789 2
End Date: 1791 2
Employment:
Position: United States Senator from New York 2
Start Date: 1791 2
End Date: 1797 2
Employment:
Position: 3rd Vice President of the United States 2
Start Date: 1801 2
End Date: 1805 2

Looking for more information about Aaron Burr?

Search through millions of records to find out more.

Stories

Aaron Burr, 3rd Vice President (1801-1805)

 

 

 

Was there in Greece or Rome a man of virtue and independence, and supposed to possess great talents, who was not the subject of vindictive and unrelenting persecution?

—Aaron Burr to Theodosia Burr Alston

I never, indeed thought him an honest, frank-dealing man, but considered him as a crooked gun, or other perverted machine, whose aim or stroke you could never be sure of.

—Thomas Jefferson

Col. Burr . . . [is] Not by any means a model man . . .  but not so bad as it is the fashion to paint him.

—George W. Johnson

Congressional Republicans were in a festive mood on January 24, 1804, as they gathered at Stelle's Hotel on Capitol Hill for a banquet celebrating the transfer of the Louisiana Territory to the United States.  The festivities began at noon with the discharge of "three pieces of cannon."  President Thomas Jefferson and Vice President Aaron Burr were among the honored guests; they departed after the banquet, but the revelry continued until nightfall.  "A number of the guests drank so many toasts that in the night they returned to their houses without their hats," one contemporary reported.  But when one celebrant offered a toast to Vice President Burr, the effect was pronounced and chilling: "few cheered him," the chronicler observed, "& many declined drinking it."

None of Aaron Burr's contemporaries knew quite what to make of this complex and fascinating individual.  As Senator Robert C. Byrd observed in his November 13, 1987, address on the life and career of this controversial vice president, "there is much that we will never know about the man."  Much of Burr's early correspondence, entrusted to his daughter for safekeeping, was lost in 1812, when the ship carrying Theodosia Burr Alston from South Carolina to New York for a long-awaited reunion with her father disappeared off the North Carolina Coast.  

Burr was one of the most maligned and mistrusted public figures of his era—and, without question, the most controversial vice president of the early republic—but he never attempted to justify or explain his actions to his friends or to his enemies.  One editor of Burr's papers has lamented, "Almost alone among the men who held high office in the early decades of this nation, Burr left behind no lengthy recriminations against his enemies . . . no explanations and justifications for his actions."  He seems to have cared very little what his contemporaries thought of him, or how historians would judge him.  Few figures in American history have been as vilified, or as romanticized, by modern writers.  Urbane and charming, generous beyond prudence, proud, shrewd, and ambitious, he stood apart from other public figures of his day.  An anomaly in an era when public office was a duty to be gravely and solemnly accepted but never pursued with unseemly enthusiasm, Burr enjoyed the "game" of politics.  His zest for politics enabled him to endure the setbacks and defeats he experienced throughout his checkered career, but, as Mary-Jo Kline, the editor of Burr's papers suggests, it also gave him the "spectacular ability to inspire suspicion—even fear—among the more conventional Founding Fathers."  

Early Years

Aaron Burr was born at Newark, New Jersey, on February 6, 1756.  His father, Aaron Burr, Sr., was a highly respected clerical scholar who served as pastor of the Newark First Presbyterian Church and as president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University).  His mother, Esther Edwards Burr, was the daughter of the noted Puritan theologian and scholar, Jonathan Edwards, who is most often remembered for his passionate and fiery sermons.  The family moved to Princeton when the college relocated there soon after the future vice president's birth, but Burr did not remain there long.  His father contracted a fever and died when young Aaron was only a year-and-a-half old.  His mother and her parents died soon thereafter.  An orphan by the age of two, Burr and his older sister, Sally, moved to Philadelphia, where they lived with family friends until 1759, when their uncle, Timothy Edwards of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, became their legal guardian.  

Edwards and his young wards moved to Elizabeth Town, New Jersey, the following year.  Uncle Timothy soon discovered that Esther's "Little dirty Noisy Boy" had inherited much of the Edwards family's renowned intellect but little of their piety.  High-spirited, independent, precocious and self-confident, young Aaron at first studied with a private tutor. In 1769 he began his studies at the College of New Jersey, graduating in 1772.  In 1773, he enrolled in the Reverend Joseph Bellamy's school at Bethlehem, Connecticut, to prepare for the ministry but soon realized that he could neither wholly accept the Calvinist discipline of his forebears nor forgo the distractions of the town.  He had, his authorized biographer relates, "come to the conclusion that the road to Heaven was open to all alike."   In May 1774, he moved to Litchfield, Connecticut, to study law under his brother-in-law, Tapping Reeve, but the outbreak of the American Revolution interrupted his studies.    

Burr joined the march on Quebec as an uncompensated "gentleman volunteer" in the summer of 1775.  His bravery under fire during the ill-fated assault on that heavily fortified city on December 31, 1775, won him a coveted appointment as an aide to the American commander in chief, General George Washington, but he was almost immediately reassigned to General Israel Putnam.  Burr served as Putnam's aide until 1777, when he finally received a commission as a lieutenant colonel and command of his own regiment.  Washington seems to have taken an immediate dislike to his ambitious young aide, and Burr appears to have reciprocated this sentiment.  When Washington ordered the court-martial of General Charles Lee for dilatory conduct at the battle of Monmouth Courthouse, New Jersey, in June 1778, Burr sided with Lee.  His own regiment had suffered heavy losses during the engagement after Washington ordered Burr to hold an exposed position in the blazing ninety-six-degree heat.  But notwithstanding his dislike for Colonel Burr, Washington respected his abilities, assigning him the difficult but crucial task of determining the future movements of the British forces in New York.  Burr later commanded the troops stationed at Westchester, New York, imposing a rigid but effective discipline that brought order to the frontier outpost where unruly soldiers and footloose marauders had formerly terrorized the nearby settlers.  Burr resigned his commission in early 1779, his health broken by the accumulated stresses of several exhausting campaigns.  He always took pride in his military record, and for the remainder of his long life, admirers referred to him as "Colonel Burr."    Of his many accomplishments, only two are memorialized on the stone that marks his grave:  Colonel in the Army of the Revolution, and Vice President of the United States.

Aaron Burr lived an unsettled existence after leaving the army, travelling about the countryside, visiting friends and family, and studying law as his health permitted.  In 1782, he began his legal practice and married Theodosia Bartow Prevost, the widow of a British army officer.  In November 1783, the Burr family—which included his wife's two sons by her first husband and an infant daughter, named Theodosia for her mother—moved to New York after British forces evacuated the city.  Burr lavished special attention on his only child, carefully supervising her education and cultivating her intellect.  Young "Theo," in turn, idolized her father, and she became his closest confidante after her mother died in 1794.

Early Political Career

Burr was an able lawyer.  A New York law barring non-Whigs from the legal profession worked to his advantage as he rose to prominence in that calling. At this stage in his career, he was not, apparently, an adherent of any particular political persuasion. Despite his alacrity in responding to the call for volunteers at the outbreak of the Revolution, he seems to have been curiously detached from the political ferment that brought it about.  Once Burr began his political career, he served a single term in the New York assembly during the 1784-1785 session, not returning to public life until 1788. Then, as the editors of his papers suggest, he "appears to have played a minor and equivocal role" in the New York debate over ratification of the proposed federal constitution.  The radical Sons of Liberty touted Burr as a possible delegate to the ratification convention, but, for reasons he never elaborated, he declined to serve.  Before long, however, he abandoned whatever reservations he may have had with respect to the new Constitution. "After adoption by ten states," he advised one correspondent, "I think it became both politic and necessary to adopt it."  

Burr was soon actively involved in New York politics.  Joining forces with his future rival, Alexander Hamilton, he supported Richard Yates—a moderate Antifederalist and a longstanding friend who had helped him win admission to the bar—in the 1789 gubernatorial election.   Yates lost to George Clinton, a more ardent Antifederalist who had served as governor of New York since 1777.  Governor Clinton, either willing to forgive Burr or shrewd enough to realize that the brilliant young newcomer would soon emerge as a key player in New York politics, appointed him attorney general in 1789.  In 1791, Clinton helped orchestrate Burr's election to the U. S. Senate, unseating Senator Philip Schuyler and making a lifelong enemy of Schuyler's son-in-law, Alexander Hamilton.

Senator Burr had acquired a taste for politics—a profession that, he would later advise an aspiring candidate, he found "a great deal of fun."   In 1792, he entered the New York gubernatorial race but soon withdrew in Clinton's favor.  Northern Republicans mentioned him as a prospective vice-presidential candidate in 1792, but Burr deferred to Clinton again after southern Republicans refused to support the ambitious young senator.  Better to select "a person of more advanced life and longer standing in publick trust," James Monroe of Virginia cautioned, "particularly one who in consequence of such service had given unequivocal proofs of what his principles really were."

Burr was a vehement partisan in the Senate, siding with the anti-administration forces who opposed Hamilton's financial system and Washington's foreign policy.  He mounted a spirited, though unsuccessful, defense of Pennsylvania Senator Albert Gallatin, the Swiss-born Republican who was unseated in 1794 after the Federalist majority determined that he did not meet the Constitution's nine-year citizenship requirement for senators. He voted against Washington's nomination of John Jay as an envoy to Great Britain in 1794, on the grounds that it would be "mischievous and impolitic" to appoint Jay, the chief justice of the United States, to "any other office or employment emanating from, and holden at the pleasure of, the executive."  Burr was also one of the most outspoken opponents of the unpopular "Jay Treaty," which the Federalist-dominated Senate approved in 1795.  

In 1796, the determined senator again set his sights on the vice-presidency, and—in a striking departure from eighteenth-century electoral etiquette—began an energetic campaign to secure the support of his fellow Republicans.  On June 26, 1796, the Republican caucus endorsed him as their vice-presidential candidate, although, as Burr's biographers have noted, "For their party's vice-presidential nomination, the Republicans were less unified than in their determination that [Thomas Jefferson] was the man to head their party's drive to oust the `aristocrats.'"  Republicans concentrated on capturing the presidency but succeeded only in electing Thomas Jefferson vice president.  Over half of the electors who voted for Jefferson failed to cast their second votes for Burr, who finished a disappointing fourth with only thirty electoral votes.

Burr retired from the Senate in 1797.  The following year, he returned to the New York assembly, making several enemies during his brief and troubled term.  He advocated defensive measures to protect New York harbor as relations with France worsened in the wake of the "X,Y,Z affair"—a prudent stance, given New York's strategic importance and vulnerable location, but one that prompted accusations from more doctrinaire Republicans that Burr had joined the Federalist camp.  He became vulnerable to charges that he had abused the public trust for his personal benefit when he participated in a private land speculation venture in western New York and then sought to enact legislation removing restrictions on land ownership by noncitizens—a measure that would increase the value of his western lands. Working in concert with Hamilton, Burr helped secure a charter and raise subscriptions for a private company to improve the water supply of pestilence-ridden Manhattan, but New Yorkers were shocked to learn that the surplus capital from the venture had been used to establish the Bank of Manhattan.  Although Federalists were heavily involved in the enterprise, the bank was controlled by Republicans.  New York voters, suspicious as they were of banks, deserted the party in droves in the 1799 state election, and Burr was turned out of office.  One observer commented in disgust that the Republicans "had such a damn'd ticket that no decent man could hold up his head to support it."  

But although some Republicans were increasingly uncomfortable with Burr's questionable financial dealings and his willingness to cooperate with Federalists to achieve his ends, he remained a valuable asset.  He had, one Federalist admitted, "by his arts & intrigues . . . done a great deal towards revolutionizing the State,"  building a political base that would help launch his national career.  Burr's vehement opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts in the New York assembly had won Republicans the support of New York's large and rapidly growing immigrant community. In a feat one admirer attributed to "the intervention of a Supreme Power and our friend Burr the agent," he ensured that New York City elected a Republican delegation to the state legislature in 1800, laying the groundwork for a Republican victory in the presidential contest later that year.  New York was one of the states in which the legislature selected presidential electors, and its 12 electors comprised over 15 percent of the 70 votes necessary to achieve an electoral majority.  Republican control of the New York legislature was crucial, and New York City's thirteen-member delegation gave the party a majority.

The Election of 1800

  In 1800, Republican strategists hoped to cement their fledgling coalition by seeking, for geographical balance, a New Yorker as their vice-presidential candidate.  One obvious choice was New York's elder statesman, George Clinton, but his reluctance to enter the race cleared the way for Burr's unanimous nomination by the Republican caucus on May 11, 1800.  Although Jefferson would later claim—after Burr discredited himself by his behavior during the election and in office—that he had harbored reservations about his New York lieutenant from the time of their first meeting in 1791 or 1792, contemporary correspondence suggests that their relationship was cordial during the 1790s.  If Jefferson had reservations about Burr in 1800, he laid them aside to secure a Republican victory, using his influence to ensure that all of Virginia's twenty-one electors would cast their second votes for his running mate.

Jefferson waged a behind-the-scenes campaign, writing letters to his political lieutenants and encouraging the preparation and dissemination of pamphlets and press accounts critical of John Adams' administration, which had supported the Alien and Sedition Acts and increased the military establishment.  Burr was an active campaigner, visiting Rhode Island and Connecticut in late August to shore up Republican support. "The Matter of V.P—is of very little comparative Consequence," he informed one correspondent as he speculated that the election might result in the election of Jefferson as president and Adams as vice president, "and any Sacrifice on that head ought to be made to obtain a single vote for J____."   Surprising as it might appear to modern observers, Burr's clearly successful political prowess in the 1800 election only raised suspicions among his rivals and allies that he was not to be trusted.  He did not fit the mold of the dispassionate statesmen who remained aloof from the fray of politics while their supporters worked to secure their election.  But "the creation of nationwide, popularly based political parties," one Burr scholar explains, "demanded men who were willing to . . . bargain regional alliances, men able to climb the ladder of popular support and to convey their own enjoyment of the `fun' of politics."  In this respect, she suggests, Burr was "The Ghost of Politics Yet to Come."

Jefferson soon had ample reason to distrust Burr.  In 1800, as in the three previous presidential elections, each elector cast two votes without distinguishing between presidential and vice-presidential candidates.  Republican strategists expected that all of their electors would cast one vote for Jefferson and that most—enough to guarantee that Burr would receive the second highest number of votes but not enough to jeopardize Jefferson's margin—would cast their second votes for Burr.  Jefferson and his lieutenants left the implementation of this scheme to chance, never asking even a single elector to withhold a vote from Burr, although Jefferson's friend and advisor, James Madison, would later allege that Republicans had been lulled by "false assurances dispatched at the critical moment to the electors of one state, that the votes of another would be different from what they proved to be."  

Increasingly confident of victory as the news of the election filtered in from the states, Republicans were stunned to learn by mid-December that, although they had clearly defeated Adams and his running mate, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina, they had failed to elect a president.  Jefferson and Burr, whether by neglect or miscalculation, would each receive 73 electoral votes.  The election would be decided by the House of Representatives, as provided in Article II, section 1, of the Constitution, which directed that "if there be more that one [candidate] who have such a majority, and have an equal Number of Votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately chuse by Ballot one of them for President," with "each State having one Vote."   The representatives from each state would poll their delegation to determine how their state would cast its single vote, with deadlocked states abstaining.  

As soon as the outcome of the election became apparent, but before Congress met to count the electoral votes on February 11, 1801, the Federalists began a last-ditch effort to defeat Jefferson.  Some, while resigned to a Republican victory, believed that the less-partisan and more flexible Burr was by far the lesser of two evils.  Others supported Burr in the hope that, if a deadlock could be prolonged indefinitely, the Federalist-dominated Congress could resolve the impasse with legislation authorizing the Senate to elect a Federalist president—a hope that had no constitutional basis but demonstrated the uncertain temper of the times.  Alexander Hamilton, a prominent New York Federalist, actively opposed Burr, repeatedly attempting to convince his colleagues that Burr was a man whose "public principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandisement."  

Burr never explained his role in the drama that subsequently unfolded in the House of Representatives, which cast thirty-six ballots before finally declaring Jefferson the winner on February 17, 1801.  The few comments he ventured at the time were guarded, evasive, and contradictory.  Professing indignation at rumors that he was soliciting Federalist support in an attempt to wrest the presidency from Jefferson, Burr initially denied "that I could submit to be instrumental in counteracting the wishes & expectations of the U. S.," instructing his friend Samuel Smith "to declare these sentiments if the occasion shall require."  One prominent Federalist, Robert Goodloe Harper of South Carolina, advised Burr against withdrawing from the presidential contest, urging that he "take no step whatsoever, by which the choice of the House of Representatives can be impeded or embarassed," and instead "keep the game perfectly in your own hand."  Burr appears to have followed Harper's advice to the letter during the tense and confused days that followed.  He never actively solicited Federalist votes but seemed willing enough to accept them. In late December, he informed Samuel Smith that, if the House elected him president, he would not step aside for Jefferson.

Rumors of Burr's change of heart soon appeared in the press. Tempers flared and reports of impending armed conflict spread, but Burr remained silent.  When the House cast the first ballot on February 11, eight of the sixteen states—one less than the simple majority required to elect the president—voted for Jefferson.  Six states voted for Burr, with two states divided and not voting. This ratio remained constant through thirty-four subsequent ballots taken over the course of a week. The deadlock was not resolved until February 17, when Jefferson received the votes of ten states on the thirty-sixth ballot.  Representative James A. Bayard (F-DE) and Burr himself finally resolved the impasse.  As Delaware's only representative, Bayard controlled his state's vote.  He voted for Burr on the first several ballots, but was under considerable pressure from Hamilton to change his vote and resolve the contest in Jefferson's favor. (In thus throwing his support to Jefferson, Hamilton rose above partisan interests and helped to save the nation.) Concluding that Burr could not muster enough Republican support to win the election (and having received assurances with respect to Jefferson's fiscal and appointments policies), Bayard finally informed his fellow Federalists that he could not "exclude Jefferson at the expense of the Constitution."   Correspondence from Burr, who was awaiting the outcome of the election in New York, had arrived on February 15; these letters, now lost, revealed that he had abandoned any hope of winning the presidency.  His supporters finally agreed that, when the state delegations were polled before the House cast its thirty-sixth ballot on February 17, Vermont and Maryland Federalists would withhold their votes, a move that freed their previously deadlocked delegations to vote for Jefferson.  Bayard and the South Carolina representatives would cast blank ballots, further eroding Burr's margin.  Jefferson, with ten votes, would become president, while Burr, with four, would become vice president.  

The election, and the confusion that followed, exposed a critical flaw in the constitutional provision governing the election of the president and the vice president.  The Twelfth Amendment, which passed both houses during the fall of 1803 and was ratified by the requisite number of states in time for the 1804 election, changed the method of election by requiring electors to designate one vote for a presidential candidate and the other for a vice-presidential candidate.  Intended to prevent an unscrupulous vice-presidential candidate (or his supporters) from subverting the electoral process, the amendment was a Republican initiative, sponsored in the House of Representatives by John Dawson (R-VA) and in the Senate by Burr's rival De Witt Clinton (R-NY).  

Vice President Aaron Burr

If Burr was at all chagrined by the outcome of the election, or by the taint he had acquired from not emphatically renouncing his widely rumored presidential aspirations, he gave no sign of it.  "I join my hearty Congratulations on the Auspicious events of the 17th:," he wrote to Albert Gallatin while en route to Washington for the March 4 inauguration; "as to the infamous slanders which have been so industriously circulated—they are now of little Consequence & those who believed them will doubtless blush at their own Weakness."   Burr arrived in Washington three days before the inauguration and found accommodations in nearby Georgetown.

  On March 4, 1801, Senate President pro tempore James Hillhouse (F-CT) administered the oath of office to Burr in the Senate chamber on the ground floor of the new Capitol in Washington.  The new vice president offered a brief extemporaneous address of "about three sentences," which the press ignored in favor of Jefferson's elegant and conciliatory inaugural address.  Burr assumed the president's chair and administered the oath of office to the newly elected senators who presented their credentials.  When Jefferson and the presidential party arrived in the Senate chamber, Burr left the Senate president's seat and joined Chief Justice John Marshall to listen to Jefferson's inaugural address. He later described the day as "serene & temperate—The Concourse of people immense—all passed off handsomely—great joy but no riot."

The new vice president soon received a flood of letters from friends, political allies and relatives, seeking appointments in the new administration or demanding the removal of Adams' Federalist appointees.  Burr, who could never refuse a friend and considered patronage a means of cementing alliances and paying political debts, passed a number of these requests along to Jefferson. The president, however, became increasingly uncomfortable with each new recommendation.  Most damning, as historian Mary-Jo Kline has explained, were the "repeated requests for consideration of the claims of the `faithful' from other states and territories."  Jefferson was perfectly willing to replace Adams' "midnight appointments" with marshals and court officers who were loyal Republicans, as well as to remove Federalists who displayed "malversation or inherent disqualification" for office, appointing Republicans to the vacant posts. Still, mindful of the charges of nepotism and cronyism he had levelled against the Adams administration, he hesitated to dismiss civil servants solely for political reasons.  Nor did he think it appropriate for the ambitious New Yorker to concern himself with appointments to federal offices in other states. The final insult appears to have occurred in the fall of 1801 with Burr's campaign to secure an appointment for his ally, Matthew L. Davis, to a naval post in New York.  The president, already suspicious of the enterprising vice president who had jeopardized his election, soon began to distance himself from Burr.  Thereafter, in making federal appointments in New York, he relied on George Clinton or Clinton's nephew De Witt.  

After the Clintons replaced Burr as the administration's liaison to the New York Republican party, De Witt spared no effort to discredit the vice president in his home state.  Assisted by [New York] American Citizen editor James Cheetham, he waged a savage war against the vice president in the local press. "The handbills were numerous, of various descriptions, uniform however in Virulent and indecent abuse," Burr reported.  "[T]o Vilify A.B. was deemed of so much consequence, that packages of them were sent to Various parts of the country."  It was becoming painfully apparent, one of his allies observed, that the vice president's "influence and weight with the Administration is in my opinion not such as I could wish."   Bereft of the political base that had made him a formidable force in New York politics and an attractive vice-presidential prospect, he was now a liability to the administration.  During Burr's single term in office, whatever influence or status he enjoyed would derive solely from his position as president of the Senate.

President of the Senate

Burr was one of the most skilled parliamentarians to serve as president of the Senate, a striking contrast to Adams and a worthy successor to Jefferson.  "Mr. Burr, the Vice President, presides in the Senate with great ease, dignity & propriety," Senator William Plumer (F-NH) observed.  "He preserves good order, silence—& decorum in debate—he confines the speaker to the point.  He has excluded all spectators from the area of the Senate chamber, except the members from the other House.  A measure which contributes much to good order."

But, although Burr was universally respected for his parliamentary skills and his impartial rulings, Senate Republicans noted with mounting concern his easy familiarity with his many Federalist friends.  Alienated from his own party, pragmatic at the expense of principle, and beset by the chronic financial difficulties that dogged him throughout his career, Burr was increasingly regarded by his fellow Republicans as an unprincipled opportunist who would stop at nothing to rebuild his shattered political and personal fortunes.  They found ample evidence of the vice president's apostasy on January 27, 1802, when Burr cast a tie-breaking vote that undercut the Republican effort to repeal the Judiciary Act of 1801.  

That act, signed into law less than a week before Jefferson's election, enacted badly needed reforms, providing circuit court judges to relieve the Supreme Court justices from the burdensome and exhausting chore of riding circuit, and reducing the number of justices from six to five, effective with the next vacancy.  The act became effective in time to allow John Adams to appoint Federalist judges to the new circuit courts, a development that heightened Republican fears of a Federalist-controlled judiciary.  And, with one less Supreme Court justice, it appeared unlikely that Jefferson would ever have an opportunity to appoint a Republican nominee to the Supreme Court.  On January 6, 1802, Senator John Breckinridge (R-KY) introduced a bill to repeal the Judiciary Act.  Burr's vote would prove crucial in the Senate, where the absence of one Republican and the resignation of another had eroded the administration's already slim majority.  Republicans were greatly relieved when the Senate deadlocked on a vote to proceed to a third reading of the repeal bill on January 26, and Burr resolved the tie in favor of the repealers.  But he had secretly informed Federalists that he would support their attempts to block repeal by adding amendments that would make the Judiciary Act acceptable to moderate Republicans. Thus, the next day, when his friend Jonathan Dayton (F-NJ) moved to refer the bill to "a select committee, with instructions to consider and report the alterations which may be proper in the Judiciary system of the United States," Burr resolved the tie in favor of the Federalists.  Burr explained that he had voted for referral in hopes of reaching a compromise:

I am for the affirmative, because I never can resist the reference of a measure where the senate is so nicely balanced, when the object is to effect amendment, that may accommodate it to the opinions of a larger majority; and particularly when I can believe that gentlemen are sincere in wishing a reference for this purpose.  Should it, however, at any time appear that delay only is intended, my conduct will be different.    

Republicans who resented Burr's treachery were outraged when he announced the members of the select committee.  During the early 1800s, senators voted to choose members of these temporary committees, which normally consisted of three members, but on this occasion two senators tied for first place and three for second place.  The committee would therefore, Burr announced, be comprised of five members: two Republicans who favored repeal; two Federalists who had voted against repeal and subsequently voted to refer the bill to committee in hopes of effecting a compromise; and one Republican moderate, John Ewing Colhoun (R-SC), who had sided with the Federalists.  An account of the proceedings in the New York Evening Post reveals that Burr answered Republican challenges to this unexpected development with his customary ease and composure:

unexpected development with his customary ease and composure:

. . . The Democratic [Republican] members appeared extremely discontented at the apparent result; and before the vote was finally declared by the Vice President, General [James] Jackson [R-GA] rose and proposed, that the Senate should ballot again for the committee.  This dashing proposition did not materially interrupt the regularity of the scrutiny.

The Vice President was very deliberate.  He took the ballots of the respective Senators, examined them attentively, stated the number of them, and holding them up in his hand, mentioned that gentlemen, if they chose, might come and examine them.  Mr. G[ouverneur] Morris [F-NY] hoped never to see, in the Senate a proceeding implying so much distrust.

After a pause, the Vice President declared his opinion, that the ballots were truly counted.  Of course, the committee was composed as stated above, to the no small chagrin of some of the Democratic members of Congress, in both Houses.

Although Burr had substantive objections to the repeal bill, and told one correspondent that he was troubled at the prospect "of depriving the twenty-six judges of office and pay,"  his growing estrangement from the administration was also a factor.  He may, as one scholar of the early judiciary suggests, have hoped to "enhance his stature not only with moderates of his own party but also with Federalists, and perhaps even pave the way for the eventual formation of a third party under his leadership,"  but the immediate result of Burr's abortive attempt to reach a compromise was his further isolation from his party.  He had, as Jefferson's biographer has noted, "offended one side without satisfying the other."   Among the advisers who comprised Jefferson's inner circle, only Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin continued to support the increasingly troublesome vice president.

  Burr soon abandoned any hope of winning renomination to a second term. In early 1804, he called on Jefferson to inform him that he recognized "it would be for the interest of the republican cause for him to retire; that a disadvantageous schism would otherwise take place," but he was concerned that "were he to retire, it would be said that he shrunk from the public sentence."  He would need, Burr suggested, "some mark of favor . . . which would declare to the world that he retired with [Jefferson's] confidence."  Jefferson replied that he had not attempted to influence the 1800 election on his own or Burr's behalf, nor would he do so in the next election—a cool rejoinder that masked his now considerable resentment of the man whom, he claimed, he had "habitually cautioned Mr. Madison against trusting too much."  

 

The Republicans ultimately settled on George Clinton as their new vice-presidential candidate.  Burr retired from national politics, without Jefferson's "mark of favor," entering the 1804 New York gubernatorial race in a desperate attempt to restore his rapidly failing career.  

Acquittal of Treason Charge

After killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, Burr became a political pariah and thus decided to try his fortunes elsewhere by creating a new republic in what was then considered the West by taking land from either the United States or Spain. His scheme gained traction and he garnered followers, including his main co-conspirator General James Wilkinson. However, as word leaked out about Burr’s plans, Wilkinson decided his interests would be best served by turning on Burr and informing President Jefferson of what was occurring. Jefferson was outraged and ordered Burr’s arrest. Burr stood trial for treason, but as there was a lack of evidence that his actions fulfilled the Constitution’s definition of treason, he was acquitted on 1 September 1807. His reputation totally ruined, Burr fled to Europe before eventually returning to the United States. 

About this Memorial Page

×