It’s July 1804, and Aaron Burr loads his pistol for an illegal duel. As the vice president of the United States, he’s seen his share of political competition – and now he aims his weapon at his greatest rival. By the next day, one of America’s Founding Fathers lies dead, and Burr’s career begins spiraling out of control.
Born on February 6, 1756, in Newark, New Jersey, Burr was part of a relatively affluent family. The young Burr experienced tragedy very early on in life, though. You see, his father, Aaron Sr. – once the president of what would later become Princeton University – died the year after his only son, Aaron Jr., was born.
Then in 1758 Burr’s mother Esther also passed away. Orphaned at a young age, the infant and his older sister were passed into their grandparents’ care. By the end of 1758, however, both older relations had also died, and the Burr siblings eventually ended up living with their young uncle, Timothy Edwards. And when Edwards married, he followed his wife to Elizabethtown, New Jersey, where the children would spend much of their youth.
There, Burr attended the Elizabethtown Academy, the preparatory school for Princeton – then known as the College of New Jersey. And at just 13 years old, Burr began attending the future Ivy League institution. Years later, a man named Alexander Hamilton would follow in his footsteps at the Academy – although it would be decades before their lives would become entwined.
After graduating in 1772, Burr began pursuing further studies in theology. However, after three years, he changed direction towards a career in law. So when Burr was 19 years old, he relocated to Connecticut. And there, he planned to study the field with the assistance of his brother-in-law.
But fate had something different in store for Burr. In 1775, word reached the young scholar of the battles at Lexington and Concord in what is now Massachusetts. There, American rebels had clashed with British troops, marking the beginning of the War of Independence – a bloody conflict that would rage across the nation for the next eight years.
Frustrated after years of overseas rule, many factions within the American colonies wished to declare independence from Great Britain. And in 1775, a convention of delegates from across the country established the Continental Army – a nationwide military force tasked with bringing about the revolution.
Keen to support his country, Burr signed up with the Continental Army before he was 21 years old. And soon after enlisting, he joined over 1,000 other soldiers on an epic 300-mile trek with the goal of invading Quebec City. Ultimately, this mission was not successful, although Burr gained the respect of Colonel Benedict Arnold for his resilience on the arduous march.
Soon promoted to the role of captain, Burr continued to distinguish himself during the War of Independence. And when the American troops retreated back to Harlem from Manhattan, his vigilance saved hundreds of soldiers from being captured by the British. However, he was inexplicably snubbed by George Washington, who failed to acknowledge Burr’s actions with a commendation.
In 1777 Burr became a lieutenant colonel, overseeing a number of victories against the British. But just two years later, his failing health forced him to resign. For the remainder of the war, he remained on the outskirts of the conflict but continued to work on his legal studies. By the time that the Thirteen Colonies emerged victorious, in fact, Burr had passed the bar.
In 1783, as the British fled the colonies, Burr established a life in New York City. And the following year, his career in politics began with an appointment to the state assembly. Five years later, George Clinton – then the Governor of New York – named Burr as Attorney General.
In 1791 Burr ran against General Philip Schuyler and won a seat in the Senate. However, his success came at a price. In doing so, he earned the dislike of Schuyler’s son-in-law Alexander Hamilton, kickstarting a deadly rivalry that would ultimately change both men’s lives forever.
In 1796, Burr made a bid for the role of vice president, but he was soundly defeated in the subsequent election. No doubt nursing a bruised ego, he retreated back to state politics, where he returned to the New York State Assembly in 1798. And during his time there, Burr established himself as a progressive and just politician. However, popular culture has since painted him in a more negative light.
For example, Burr spoke out against the belief of Hamilton’s Federalist Party that foreign-born citizens could never hold a political office within the United States. “America stood with open arms and presented an asylum to the oppressed of every nation,” Burr is reported to have said. “Shall we deprive these persons of an important right derived from so sacred a source as our Constitution?”
Also during his time in the state assembly, Burr helped pass a law that allowed foreign nationals to own land. And even at home, he displayed an attitude considered progressive for the time. For example, his daughter Theodosia enjoyed an excellent education – spurring rivals such as Hamilton to attack Burr’s apparent support of women’s rights.
Burr’s next controversial move came in 1799, when he founded the Bank of the Manhattan Company – the first such institution not entirely owned by members of the Federalist Party. Moreover, the company took the unprecedented approach of offering services to everyday people – a revolutionary move for the time.
However, Burr further riled Hamilton and the Federalists when he disguised his plans for the bank within a proposal for a water company, only unveiling the truth once the project had been approved. So by the time that the two men faced off in the election of 1800, there was plenty of animosity between them.
By 1800, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans were the two main parties in the United States. And with the violence of the French Revolution raging overseas, many conservative Federalists sought to reestablish their ties with Great Britain. Meanwhile, the Democratic-Republicans were wary of a return to colonial rule.
With an election looming, vice president Thomas Jefferson hoped to topple the Federalist President John Adams and return the country to the ideals of the American Revolution. And on the same ticket, Burr also made his own bid for power. Eventually, both men secured the same amount of votes – with the House of Representatives called on to make the final decision.
Unfortunately for Burr, the House of Representatives was largely run by Federalists. Led by Hamilton, they voted strongly in favor of Jefferson becoming President of the United States. So, Burr became vice president, although the close call had earned him Jefferson’s distrust for the duration of his time in office.
Despite Jefferson’s attitude, however, Burr won acclaim during his time as vice president. In fact, he helped to establish traditions that are still recognized today and was often applauded for his even-handed approach. This impartial approach did not sit too well with other Democratic-Republicans, though. So by the time that the next election came around, Burr knew that his renomination was unlikely.
Instead, Burr set his sights on becoming Governor of New York. And even though he had the support of some friends in high places, the then-vice president lost to up-and-coming politician Morgan Lewis. Moreover, Burr blamed his defeat on political rivals such as Hamilton, who he believed had orchestrated a smear campaign against him.
In April 1804 a local newspaper published a letter written by the politician Charles D. Cooper. In the missive, Cooper claimed to relay Hamilton’s opinion. The Federalist apparently believed Burr to be “a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government.” Moreover, Cooper alleged that Hamilton had another, even worse, opinion of Burr – although he declined to share any details.
Shocked by these allegations, Burr wrote to Hamilton seeking clarification on the remarks. Eventually, this escalated into a war of words, with the vice president demanding that his rival publicly apologize for the slight on his honor. And when Hamilton refused this request, Burr suggested that they settle the matter with a duel.
At the time, duelling was illegal in New York, with the death penalty imposed on anyone found guilty. So, Burr proposed that the duel take place in neighboring New Jersey. Although the practice was also banned there, the potential penalties were not as harsh. And so, on July 11, 1804, the two men met in the township of Weehawken.
Poignantly, the duel took place on the same spot where Hamilton’s son had lost his life in another duel some three years previously. But what happened once he and Burr drew their pistols is still a matter of some debate. According to some, Hamilton intentionally fired his shot away from his opponent. Others claim that he simply missed, however.
Additionally, those who observed the duel could not agree on which man had fired the first shot. But whatever really happened, the outcome was undeniable. The next day, Hamilton passed away. His death was the result of a fatal bullet wound that had pierced his torso. Burr, meanwhile, remained unharmed.
Amazingly, that wasn’t quite the end of Burr’s political career. Although a warrant for his arrest was issued, and some believing the vice president guilty of murder, he remained in New York for a month after the deadly duel. And by November, Burr was back in the Senate, ready to assume his role.
Now, the government was in the difficult position of having a wanted man taking an active role in Congress. But somewhat bizarrely, the duel seemed to have preceded a change in the Republican’s attitudes towards Burr. In fact, the vice president subsequently found himself frequently invited to dine with Jefferson, and many Senators spoke out against his prosecution for Hamilton’s death.
Ultimately, Burr never faced any charges relating to the duel, and he continued his role in national politics. Just a few months later, in fact, the vice president played a crucial role in the trial of Samuel Chase – an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. At the time, Chase had been impeached by those who believed that his political leanings were affecting his judicial decisions.
During the trial, Burr won more grudging acclaim for his conduct. In fact, one reporter described him as behaving “with the dignity and impartiality of an angel, but with the rigor of a devil.” However, some people believe that Burr’s newfound popularity with the party was merely due to his ability to influence the important Chase case.
Eventually, Chase was acquitted. And then in 1805 George Clinton replaced Burr as vice president of the United States. No longer a powerful figure in politics, Burr traveled to what is now Louisiana. Burr had leased a large tract of land in the area, and it was here that he then started to prepare for battle. At the time, Spain still owned territory in the United States, and Burr believed that a war between the nations was imminent.
In preparation for the war, Burr teamed up with General James Wilkinson and began making plans to invade Mexico. However, some believe that Burr was also dreaming up another, altogether more sinister scheme: to stir up rebellion in the western states and create a new empire.
Whether or not Burr really made these plans still remains unclear. However, we do know that Wilkinson betrayed Burr, and the details he shared were enough for Jefferson to declare his former vice president a traitor. Eventually, Burr was arrested and sent to Richmond, Virginia, to stand trial.
In 1807 Burr stood in court accused of plotting against the United States. However, he was ultimately acquitted of all charges. And while some historians claim that this was a direct result of his complete innocence, others suggest that the verdict was merely a technicality – and that treason could not truly be committed in the absence of a state of war.
Whatever the truth, Burr’s chances of regaining any political power were destroyed. Instead, he traveled to Europe, where he attempted to persuade the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to invade Florida. However, he was unsuccessful and ultimately returned to the United States in 1812.
Burr spent the last years of his life in New York, where he returned to a career in law. He also married for the second time. This time, his wife was a rich widow. And Burr, somewhat ignobly, spent much of her fortune before they separated after just four months. Eventually, the couple were officially divorced on September 14, 1836 – the same day that Burr passed away on Staten Island, New York.
Today, Burr is mostly remembered as a villain. This is thanks to his role in the popular musical Hamilton. Based on the 2004 biography by Ron Chernow, the story paints the Hamilton as a liberal hero. Burr, meanwhile, is portrayed as the spineless coward who refused to take a stand for what he believed in.
In the musical’s interpretation of Hamilton and Burr’s deadly duel, the former deliberately misfires – after which the vice president callously shoots him. And with Hamilton firmly established as one of the biggest Broadway successes of recent years, this version of events is one that is likely to remain in the public consciousness for many years to come.
However, there are some who are seeking to reclaim Burr’s place as a hero in the story of the Post-Revolutionary United States. “Burr was in most ways more forward-thinking, by our standards, than his nemesis Hamilton,” Nancy Isenberg wrote in The Washington Post in 2016. “And the romantic recasting of Hamilton’s life comes at the expense of a true progressive champion.”