Mental Floss
HISTORY

14 Surprising Facts About Aaron Burr

Mark Mancini
John Vanderlyn, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
facebooktwitterreddit

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 musical. Born in 1756, Burr is mainly remembered for two things: killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel and later getting himself tried for treason under President Thomas Jefferson. Less attention is paid to Burr’s other major accomplishments: he basically invented modern campaign organizing, helped Tennessee join the union, and had a pretty progressive outlook on women’s rights. If you love Hamilton, these 14 facts should give you a new outlook on the show’s most compelling character.

1. Aaron Burr graduated from Princeton at age 16.

Burr was left an orphan at 2 years old. He and his older sister Sally were taken in by their maternal uncle, Timothy Edwards. The children lived in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, for two years before they relocated with Edwards to Elizabethtown, New Jersey. Burr—an intelligent, precocious boy—submitted an application to Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) when he was 11 years old. An examiner barred his admission, but that didn’t stop Burr from reapplying two years later. This time, the now 13-year-old 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 American Revolution, he served under Benedict Arnold.

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 1100 patriot soldiers from Massachusetts to Quebec City by way of Maine. Burr was one of them. En route, Arnold remarked that Burr was “a young gentleman of much life and activity [who] has acted with great spirit and resolution on our fatiguing march.” "Fatiguing" was putting it mildly: Arnold had underestimated the severity of the trek, and around 500 of his soldiers had run off, died, or been captured by the time they reached their destination.

Near the end of the march, Burr was sent to deliver a message to General Richard Montgomery, who was also on his way to Quebec City with his own force of 300. Montgomery took an instant liking to Burr and recruited him as his personal aide-de-camp, but their partnership didn't last long. Montgomery was killed by a cannon blast outside Quebec 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 thought he was too talented to work for George Washington.

In 1776, Burr received an invitation to join George Washington’s staff, and met the commander in chief of the Continental Army in person to accept the position. But he was not content to serve as “a practical clerk,” and he requested a transfer to the staff of Major General Israel Putnam. From there, the relationship between Burr and Washington cooled. In 1798, Washington 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 feeling was mutual. 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. Burr admired Mary Wollstonecraft.

On July 2, 1782, Burr married his first wife, Theodosia Prevost Bartow. The two had much in common, including a deep admiration for feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. They even hung her portrait on their mantle.

Wollstonecraft's best-known work is her 1792 manifesto A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Considered a watershed document in the history of feminism, it argues that members of both sexes deserve the same fundamental rights, and denounces the educational systems of its era for failing to provide women with the opportunities afforded to men. In 1793, Burr described Wollstonecraft’s essay as “a work of genius,” but his peers seemed to disregard it. “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 the company that later became JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Painting of Aaron Burr, Philip Schuyler, and Alexander Hamilton on a Manhattan street
Alexander Hamilton, Philip Schuyler, and Aaron Burr on a lower Manhattan street / Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Shortly after the Revolutionary War wrapped up, Burr established himself as one of New York City’s most in-demand lawyers—and its most prominent Democratic-Republican. For many years, his party found itself at a major disadvantage. In the early 1790s, all of the city’s banks were 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.

Burr, taking advantage of a recent yellow fever epidemic, 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 clean water. One of the most passionate supporters of Burr’s plan was 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 JPMorgan 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, Burr helped Tennessee achieve statehood.

Backed by New York Governor George Clinton and his family, Burr became one of the state's U.S. senators in 1791. Five years later, Burr played a key role in Tennessee’s admission to the United States. The territorial governor, William Blount, spearheaded a constitutional convention at its voters’ behest. A constitution was drafted in Knoxville and then presented to both chambers of Congress.

The House's Democratic-Republican majority voted to grant Tennessee statehood. The Senate's Federalist majority stalled the bill's progress—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 and the full body came out in favor of the territory’s bid. Tennessee became the 16th state on June 1, 1796.

7. Burr once kept Hamilton out of a duel.

In 1792, then-senator James Monroe and two of his fellow Democratic-Republicans 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.

Monroe's investigation wrapped up without the scandal going public. But in 1797, muckraking journalist James Callender exposed the affair. Convinced that Monroe must have leaked the story, Hamilton went to confront his longtime opponent. “Do you say I represented falsely? You are a scoundrel,” Monroe told Hamilton. “I will meet you like a gentleman,” Hamilton said. “I am ready,” Monroe replied, “get your pistols.”

Monroe picked Burr as his “second,” a go-between who negotiated the terms of a duel. Burr thought Hamilton and Monroe were being “childish,” and he was able to calm both parties down. The showdown never happened.

8. Burr 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" surrounded by a cloud 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. Burr weaponized Tammany Hall to ensure Jefferson's win.

Gore Vidal wrote that “Aaron Burr … professionalized politics in the United States.” Just look at Tammany Hall. Founded in 1788, the 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 1800 election, Burr made it his mission to win New York’s 12 electoral votes for the Democratic-Republican party. He enlisted the Society of Saint Tammany. Though Burr never belonged to the club, he capitalized on the anti-Federalist sentiments of its immigrant members, who loathed the party of John Adams and his Alien & Sedition Acts. Tammany volunteers campaigned door-to-door and raised money from local donors. All their hard work paid off when Thomas Jefferson and Burr carried New York en route to winning the White House.

10. Two states indicted Burr for murder.

Aaron Burr fatally shoots Alexander Hamilton in their infamous duel.
Aaron Burr fatally shoots Alexander Hamilton in their infamous duel. / Henry Davenport Northrop, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Like Washington, Jefferson eventually grew wary of Burr's ambitions. Jefferson resolved to drop Burr as vice president on the Democratic-Republican ticket in 1804. Realizing that he’d soon be out of the job, Burr made a bid to re-enter New York politics. In spring 1804, he ran for governor, but was 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 denial from Hamilton’s father-in-law Philip Schuyler. 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 also wound up in the press, and in June the relevant paper was sent to Burr, who immediately contacted 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 on 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 too. In a letter to his daughter, Burr explained his predicament: “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.”

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 tried for—and acquitted of—treason.

After the duel, Vice President Burr ran away to Georgia in August 1804, where he briefly stayed at the plantation of Major Pierce Butler. But he couldn’t stay away from Washington for long. By November 4, he was back 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.

With his prospects on the East Coast looking bleak, Burr headed westward to Louisiana to establish a community 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 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.

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.

Burr’s first wife had passed away in 1794. He married the extremely rich, widowed former prostitute Eliza Jumel in 1833. (In the interim, his beloved daughter Theodosia was lost at sea.) After two turbulent years of marriage, Jumel accused Burr of 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 his 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. Van Buren first met Burr in 1803. The two became reacquainted after Jefferson’s former VP 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 weird rumor—recorded in John Quincy Adams's diary—that Van Buren was Burr’s illegitimate son.

14. A volume of Aaron Burr erotica was published in 1861.

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 women 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.

A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2022.

facebooktwitterreddit