14 Surprising Facts About Aaron Burr
It’s fair to say that no Founding Father has attracted more scorn than Aaron Burr, the tragic antagonist of a certain Broadway smash hit. Born on this date in 1756, Burr is mainly remembered for two things: killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel and later getting himself tried for treason under President Jefferson. Less attention is paid to Burr’s other major accomplishments. Did you know, for example, that he basically invented modern campaign organizing? Or that he helped Tennessee join the union? Or that he had a remarkably progressive outlook on women’s rights for a man of his time? If you love the Hamilton musical, these 14 facts should give you a whole new outlook on the show’s most compelling character.
1. HE GRADUATED FROM PRINCETON AT AGE 16.
Burr was left an orphan at the age of 2. The toddler and his sister Sally (then nearly 4) were taken in by their maternal uncle, Timothy Edwards. For two years, the youngsters lived in Stockbridge, Massachusetts before they relocated with Edwards to Elizabethtown, New Jersey. An intelligent, precocious boy, Burr submitted an application to Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) when he was just 11 years old. An examiner barred his admission, but that didn’t stop Burr from reapplying two years later. This time, Burr—now 13—was accepted into the university, which his late father had presided over. Four years younger than most of his classmates, he earned the affectionate nickname “Little Burr,” a reference to both the teen’s age and his short stature. He graduated with distinction in 1772.
2. DURING THE REVOLUTION, HE SERVED UNDER BENEDICT ARNOLD FOR A TIME.
Both of these guys would one day know how it felt to be the most notorious person in America. In 1775, Colonel Benedict Arnold led a contingent of patriot soldiers from Massachusetts to Quebec City by way of Maine. Altogether, some 1100 men made the journey; Burr was one of them. En route, the impressed colonel remarked that this future vice president was “a young gentleman of much life and activity [who] has acted with great spirit and resolution on our fatiguing march.” Fatiguing march, indeed: Arnold had severely underestimated the severity of the trek, and around 500 of his men had run off, died, or been captured by the time they reached their destination.
Near the end of this northward trudge, Burr was sent to deliver a message to General Richard Montgomery who, having taken Montreal, was also on his way to Quebec City with his own force of 300 men. Montgomery took an instant liking to Burr and recruited him as his personal aide-de-camp—but their partnership would soon be cut short.
On December 31, in the midst of a snowy winter’s battle, the general was killed by a cannon blast on the outskirts of the city. Some eyewitnesses later reported that Burr tried in vain to retrieve his commander’s body from the battlefield, but historians have their doubts about this story.
3. BURR WILLINGLY LEFT GEORGE WASHINGTON’S MILITARY STAFF.
In 1776, Burr received an invitation to join Washington’s staff, and that June—after he returned from fighting in Quebec—he met the general in person to accept the position. But he wouldn’t retain it for long; not content to serve as “a practical clerk,” Burr began yearning for a job that would expose him to more combat action. Within a month, he requested and received a transfer to the staff of Major General Israel Putnam. From there, the relationship between Burr and Washington cooled. In 1798, the Virginian threw some shade on his one-time staffer, saying, “By all that I have known and heard, [Burr] is a brave and able officer, but the question is whether he has not equal talents at intrigue?” The tension was two-sided: According to John Adams, Burr once privately remarked that “he despised Washington as a man of no talents and one who could not spell a sentence of common English.”
4. HE ADMIRED MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Burr had feminist leanings. On July 2, 1782, he married his first wife, Theodosia Prevost Bartow. The two had much in common, including a deep admiration for women’s rights essayist Mary Wollstonecraft. (In fact, they even hung her portrait on their mantle.)
The mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, Wollstonecraft’s best-known writing is, by far, her 1792 manifesto A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Considered a watershed document in the history of feminism, it passionately argued that members of both sexes deserve the same fundamental rights, and denounced the educational systems of its era for failing to provide women with the opportunities afforded to men. The Burrs loved it: In 1793, Aaron described Wollstonecraft’s essay as “a work of genius.” To his dismay, however, his peers seemed to overwhelmingly disregard the text. “Is it owing to ignorance or prejudice that I have not yet met a single person who had discovered or would allow the merit of this work?” Burr once asked.
In keeping with Wollstonecraft’s philosophy, the Burrs saw to it that their daughter, also named Theodosia, received a top-notch education—the kind normally reserved for boys.
5. BURR FOUNDED WHAT LATER BECAME J.P. MORGAN CHASE & CO.
Shortly after the war wrapped up, Burr established himself as one of New York City’s hottest lawyers—and its most prominent Democratic-Republican. For many years, his party found itself at a major disadvantage in the Big Apple. In the early 1790s, the city’s banks were all run by rich Federalists, and none of these establishments would lend money to Democratic-Republicans. So in 1798, Burr hatched a plot to get around this.
Taking advantage of a recent yellow fever epidemic, Burr asked the Federalist-controlled state legislature to give him a charter for what he called The Manhattan Company, a private organization that would provide New Yorkers with fresh, clean water. One of the most passionate supporters of Burr’s plan was none other than Mr. Federalist himself, Alexander Hamilton—though he would soon regret coming to his rival’s aid. In 1799, the legislature gave Burr that charter, which included a clause that allowed the Manhattan Company to employ “surplus capital” in any “monied transactions or operations not inconsistent with the constitution and laws of this state or of the United States.” Using this major loophole, Burr turned the Manhattan Company into a Democratic-Republican bank. It barely delivered water at all (although to keep the charter, a bank employee would ceremoniously pump water until 1923). Hamilton—along with the entire New York legislature—had been duped into helping Burr break the Federalist monopoly on banking in the city.
The Manhattan Company has since evolved into JP Morgan Chase & Co., one of the largest banking institutions in the world. It now owns the pistols that were used in the Burr-Hamilton duel.
6. IN THE SENATE, HE HELPED TENNESSEE ACHIEVE STATEHOOD.
Backed by New York Governor George Clinton and his family, Burr became a senator for the state of New York in 1791. Five years later, Senator Burr played a key role in Tennessee’s admission to the Union. Early in 1796, when the future state was still considered a federal territory, Governor William Blount spearheaded a constitutional convention at its voters’ behest. A constitution was drafted in Knoxville and then presented to both chambers of the U.S. Congress.
Upon reviewing the document, the House, with its Democratic-Republican majority, voted to grant Tennessee its statehood. However, the Senate was dominated by Federalists, who stalled—and a partisan gridlock ensued. As a manager of the bipartisan Senate committee that had been created to deal with this problem, Burr rallied most of his colleagues to Tennessee’s cause. In the end, the committee came out in favor of the territory’s bid for admission into the Union. Shortly thereafter, the Senate voted to give Tennessee statehood status. It officially became America’s 16th state on June 1, 1796.
Burr’s actions earned him the gratitude of many a prominent Tennessean. “I pronounce positively that Mr. Burr ... may be ranked among [Tennessee’s] very warmest friends,” Governor Blount declared. And when Burr visited the Volunteer State in 1805, Andrew Jackson entertained him as his personal houseguest in Nashville. At one point, Old Hickory even suggested that Burr relocate to Tennessee—where both men were quite popular—and seek public office there.
7. HE ONCE KEPT ALEXANDER HAMILTON OUT OF A DUEL.
The man on the $10 bill nearly traded gunfire with America’s fifth president. Here’s what happened: In 1792, then-senator James Monroe and two of his fellow Democratic-Republicans had accused Hamilton of illegally giving government money to a man named James Reynolds, who was in prison for committing forgery. When they confronted him, Hamilton revealed that he was having an affair with Reynolds’s wife; Reynolds had demanded payment to keep quiet and to allow the affair to continue.
The investigation wrapped up shortly thereafter, but Hamilton wasn’t out of the woods yet: In 1797, muckraking journalist James Callender publicly exposed the affair. Convinced that Monroe must have leaked the story, Hamilton went to confront his longtime opponent. Angrily, the two politicians waged a shouting match. “Do you say I represented falsely? You are a scoundrel,” Monroe barked. “I will meet you like a gentleman,” Hamilton said. “I am ready,” Monroe replied, “get your pistols.”
Within a month, both founders were preparing themselves in earnest for a duel. But the showdown never came—and it was Burr who put an end it. Monroe picked Burr as his “second,” a designated go-between charged with negotiating the terms of this impending clash. For his part, Burr figured that both Hamilton and Monroe were being “childish,” and he did everything in his power to prevent them from squaring off. Eventually, he was able to calm both parties down: Thanks to Burr’s diplomacy, the duel went unfought.
8. HE LOVED CIGARS.
In Fallen Founder: the Life of Aaron Burr, historian Nancy Isenberg writes that John Greenwood, who served as Burr’s law clerk from 1814 to 1820, “knew Burr … as a constant cigar smoker, for instance—he had extra long cigars made especially for him.” Often, the law clerk would find his boss cloaked in a haze of tobacco smoke. During Burr’s travels in Europe, he’d sometimes burn through as many as six cigars a day. He also discovered that the choicer ones paired well with rancio wines, which he said “[recall] the spiciness of tobacco, and they are the ideal accompaniment for cigars, often complementing them better than brandies.”
9. HE’S ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT FIGURES IN THE HISTORY OF TAMMANY HALL.
To quote Gore Vidal, “Aaron Burr … professionalized politics in the United States.” Just look at Tammany Hall. Founded in 1788, this organization started out as the “Society of Saint Tammany,” a non-political New York City social club that appealed to immigrant and working families. But by the mid-19th century, it had been transformed into Gotham’s strongest political faction—and it was Burr who triggered the change.
During the election of 1800, Burr made it his mission to win New York’s 12 electoral votes for the Democratic-Republican party. To help him do so, he enlisted the Society of Saint Tammany. Though Burr never belonged to the club, he easily capitalized on the anti-Federalist sentiments of its immigrant members, who loathed the party of John Adams and his Alien & Sedition Acts. Under Burr’s leadership, Tammany volunteers campaigned door-to-door and raised money from local donors. All their hard work paid off in dividends when Thomas Jefferson and Burr carried New York en route to winning the White House.
10. AFTER BURR KILLED HAMILTON IN THAT DUEL, TWO DIFFERENT STATES INDICTED HIM FOR MURDER.
Like Washington, Jefferson eventually grew wary of Burr. Believing that the New Yorker had schemed to seize the presidency for himself in 1800, Jefferson resolved to drop his V.P. from the Democratic-Republican ticket in 1804. Realizing that he’d soon be out of the job, Burr made a bid to re-enter the arena of New York politics. In the spring of 1804, he ran for governor, but was roundly defeated by fellow Democratic-Republican Morgan Lewis.
It was during this campaign that Hamilton made the remarks that sealed his fate. While the race was going on, Hamilton vocally denounced Burr at a dinner party. Among those in attendance was Charles Cooper, a Democratic-Republican who sent off a letter to a friend describing Hamilton’s comments. Somehow, bits and pieces of the letter began appearing in local newspapers, prompting a stern denial from Hamilton’s father-in-law Philip Schuyler. An angry Cooper wrote a letter to Schuyler saying that Schuyler should be happy he had been “unusually cautious” and that “I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.” This letter too wound up in the press, and in June the relevant paper was sent to Burr, who wasted no time in contacting Hamilton. “You must perceive, Sir,” he wrote, “the necessity of a prompt and unqualified acknowledgement or denial of the use of any expressions which could warrant the assertions of Dr. Cooper.” Thus began an exchange of letters that culminated in the infamous duel of July 11, 1804.
As anyone who’s listened to the Hamilton soundtrack knows, Burr won. But what the show leaves out is the incident’s legal aftermath. That August, a New York coroner’s jury indicted him for murder. The following October, New Jersey—where the duel had been fought—did likewise. In a letter to his daughter, Burr explained his predicament thusly: “There is a contention of a singular nature between the two States of New York and New Jersey. The subject in dispute is which shall have the honor of hanging the Vice President. You shall have due notice of time and place.”
But Burr didn't hang. At the urging of Burr’s Democratic-Republican friends in the U.S. Senate, New Jersey dismissed its indictment against him in 1807; New York also dropped the murder charges.
11. BURR WAS FAMOUSLY TRIED FOR (AND ACQUITTED OF) TREASON.
Correctly assessing that the New York City area was no longer a safe place for him, Vice President Burr ran away to Georgia in August 1804, where he briefly stayed at the plantation of Major Pierce Butler. But as the sitting V.P., he couldn’t stay away from Capitol Hill for long. By November 4, he was back in Washington to preside over the impeachment trial of Samuel Chase, a Federalist Supreme Court Justice. The trial wrapped up on March 1, 1805 and Chase was acquitted. One day later, Burr gave a stirring farewell address to the Senate and took his leave. Soon, he would be replaced as Jefferson’s vice president by George Clinton. And yet, the administration hadn’t seen the last of Aaron Burr. Not by a long shot.
The word filibuster had a different meaning in the early 19th century. Back then, it was defined as “one who engages in unauthorized and irregular warfare against foreign states.” With his prospects on the east coast looking bleak, Burr headed westward to establish one in 1805. He attracted around 60 men to his cause and began arousing plenty of suspicion. His modern defenders argue that the former vice president was convinced there’d soon be a war between the U.S. and Mexico, and that he may have been planning to bide his time in the American south until said war broke out, at which point he’d lead his men into Spanish-controlled territory. But there were those who believed Burr wanted nothing less than to conquer America’s western holdings and create his own nation there.
President Jefferson assumed the worst. In 1806, the commander-in-chief called for Burr’s arrest. He got his wish on February 19, 1807, when Burr was apprehended in present-day Alabama. Burr was subsequently charged with treason and taken to the United States Court for the Fifth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia. Presiding over the case was John Marshall, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who said that the prosecution failed to provide sufficient evidence with which to convict Burr—and he was acquitted. Once again, though, Burr sensed that public opinion had turned sharply against him. In 1808, the disgraced politician set sail for Europe and didn’t return to the States until 1812.
12. WHEN BURR’S SECOND WIFE LEFT HIM, SHE HIRED ALEXANDER HAMILTON JR. AS HER DIVORCE ATTORNEY.
Talk about courtroom drama! Burr’s first wife had passed away in 1794, a victim of stomach cancer. He didn’t remarry until 1833, when he exchanged “I dos” with a rich widow named Eliza Jumel. (In the interim, his beloved daughter, Theodosia, vanished forever at sea.) After two turbulent years, Jumel accused Burr of committing adultery and of trying to liquidate her fortune, and sued for divorce. Her attorney during the proceedings was Alexander Hamilton Jr. Yes, the son of the man Aaron Burr had shot in 1804 represented his estranged second wife in a highly-publicized divorce case that was derided by haughty Whig newspapers. Burr died on September 14, 1836—the day this divorce was made final.
13. MARTIN VAN BUREN WAS RUMORED TO BE BURR’S ILLEGITIMATE SON.
They shared a knack for growing sideburns, but no genes. “Old Kinderhook,” as Van Buren was sometimes known, first met Burr in 1803. The two became reacquainted after Jefferson’s former V.P. came back from his self-imposed European exile and resumed his New York law practice. Together, they ended up collaborating on a handful of legal cases. This gave rise to the absurd rumor—as recorded by John Quincy Adams in his diary—that Van Buren was Burr’s bastard child.
14. A WORK OF AARON BURR EROTICA WAS ANONYMOUSLY PUBLISHED IN 1861.
No really, this exists. Burr’s enemies—including Hamilton—were known to accuse him of rampant womanizing. Such rumors help explain what is quite possibly the strangest work in American literature: 1861’s The Amorous Intrigues and Adventures of Aaron Burr.
Presented as a novelized biography, the book (whose author is unknown) retells everything from Burr’s birth in 1756 to his death 80 years later. But it also includes lurid descriptions of fictitious sexual conquests in several different states, with virgins, young widows, and unhappy wives constantly throwing themselves at our protagonist. For those who might be looking for a less racy novel about Jefferson’s first vice president, there’s Gore Vidal’s 1973 bestseller, Burr.