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Aaron Burr

Aaron Burr


Aaron BurrAaron Burr, though he became the third Vice - President of the United States, is generally regarded with aversion by Americans, and 'even classed by some as a traitor. His father, Rev. Aaron Burr, was the second president of the College of New Jersey, at Princeton. His mother was the granddaughter of the noted theologian of New England Jonathan Edwards, and her father, bearing the same name, was the third president of that college. The son, who brought infamy on a Dame and family of such honor, was born at Newark, New Jersey, February 6,1756. Before he was three years of age he had lost both of his parents, and was placed in charge of his uncle, Timothy Edwards, of Elizabeth, New Jersey. Before he was twelve he entered Princeton College, and he graduated in 1772. His sister, Sarah, had married Judge Tapping Reeve, of Litchfield, Conn., and with him Burr commenced the study of law; but on the outbreak of the Revolution, in 1775, his desire for adventure led him to join the American army as a private, at Cambridge, Mass. With the command under Benedict Arnold he shared the perils and disasters of the expedition against Quebec. He was sent forward to inform Montgomery of Arnold's approach, and on his arrival the former general made him his, with the rank of captain. When Montgomery fell, in the desperate assault on Quebec, December 30, I775, Burr attempted to bring off the body, and was almost the only one of the advance column who escaped. On account of his gallant conduct, he was promoted to the rank of major.


In 1776 Burr was invited to join the family of General Washington, in camp near New York i but he left headquarters soon after to join the staff of General Putnam, having, in some way, lost forever the confidence and friendship of the commander-in-chief. Burr commanded a brigade in the battle of Monmouth, on June 28th, 1778; the fatigue and exposure brought on an illness but on recovering he did good service in guarding the lines in Westchester county, above New York city. His health again failing, he for a time took command at West Point. He was appointed lieutenant-colonel, and won the character of a brave and efficient officer. The year I779. however, saw the close of his military career. His health again failing, he was obliged to throw up his commission and retire from the army.


In 1782, he commenced the practice of law in Albany, and in the same year married Mrs. Theodosia Prevost, the widow of a British officer. Soon removing to New York city, he became prominent in his profession. He also became active in political affairs, and entered into rivalry with Hamilton. In 1784 Burr was elected a member of the State assembly, and was appointed attorney-general of New York, in 1789. After the adoption of the Federal Constitution, he became a candidate of the Anti-Federal party, and organized a few devoted followers, who became known as "Burr's Little Band." He was a consummate master of political intrigue, but he never mingled freely with the people, preferring to act through chosen agents. In I79I he was elected United States Senator, and was made chairman of the committee appointed to reply to the address of the President, according to the custom then introduced but afterwards abandoned when the President's messages were transmitted in writing. The Anti· Federalists took the name Republicans when they became enthusiastic supporters of the new French Republic, and with these Burr acted on all occasions. Washington always treated Burr with distrust, and when he was urged for the mission to France, firmly refused to appoint him.


In 1797 Burr's term in the United States Senate expired, and he returned to New York somewhat discredited; but he soon perfected an organization of his party in that State which carried it to victory, and he became once more a member of the State Assembly. In 1800, when the administration of John Adams had aroused popular discontent, Burr was selected by the Republicans as the associate with Jefferson on their ticket, the intention being to have Jefferson as president and Bun as vice-president. But, according to the plan of voting then in vogue, this was not stated by the electors. Jefferson and Burr each received 73 electoral votes, and it became the duty of the House of Representatives to decide which of the now rival candidates should fill the office of President. Burr had considerable influence with the Federalists on account of his family connections, and that party favored him, so that it was only on the 36th ballot that Jefferson was chosen.


Burr now announced himself as a candidate for the governorship of New York. He was supported by most of the Federalists; but Hamilton, the true leader of that party, was enabled to secure his defeat. This brought matters to a crisis. Remarks made by Hamilton as to Burr's unfitness for the office were seized upon by the latter as a pretext for challenging his opponent to mortal combat. Friends attempted to secure an explanation and withdrawal of the offensive words; but Burr would listen to no one. Hamilton accepted the challenge, and they met on the 11th of July, 1804, at Weehawken, near New York. Hamilton fell, mortally wounded, his own pistol being discharged in the air. The sudden tragedy roused the whole community, and the prompt institution of legal measures forced the murderer from his home and society.


Burr went west and engaged in schemes for developing an independent government in the Mississippi valley. Harman Bleunerhasset, an Irish refugee, had a beautiful plantation on an island in the Ohio river, and his acquaintance with the fleeing duellist caused his ultimate ruin. They entered into schemes for mutual aggrandizement Burr also visited Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay, and endeavored to enlist them as his partisans. He purchased 400,000 acres on the Washita river with the view of establishing a colony. He enlisted men for an expedition against the Spaniards, and spoke of an empire to be established in Mexico. But his chief object seems to have been to form an independent government in the Mississippi Valley. He expressed a belief that with a few desperate and determined men he could overthrow the government at Washington. He won over to his treasonable schemes General James Wilkinson, then the senior officer of the United States army, who was in the vicinity of New Orleans. They carried on a correspondence in cipher. Boats were built and military stores collected with money advanced by Blennerhasset, whilst Burr summoned recruits to his assistance from Kentucky and Tennessee.


But, dismayed at the difficulties of the enterprise, Wilkins Son lost heart, and sent a letter of Burr's to Jefferson, saying that he had not understood the designs of the conspirators until receiving this epistle. At once the president issued a proclamation warning the Western people to have nothing to do with" these unlawful enterprises." The United States officials were aroused to energetic action. The conspirators fled. Their boots and stores were seized. Blennerhasset was arrested in Kentucky and Burr in Alabama. In August, 1807, they were brought to trial in Richmond, Va., before Chief Justice Marshall, to answer the charges of treason had misdemeanor. After a long trial of three months they were acquitted, much to the annoyance of Jefferson, who especially desired the conviction of Burr in vindication of himself.


Burr afterwards, under an assumed name, visited England, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and France, endeavoring to awaken interest in his scheme for establishing an empire in Mexico; but in vain. He arrived penniless in Boston, May, 1812. Returning to New York, he practiced law to some extent, but passed the remainder of his life in obscurity and neglect. His daughter, Theodosia, was drowned at sea on a voyage from South Carolina to the North to meet her father. He married, at the age of seventy-seven, Madame Jumel, the widow of a wealthy Sail Domingo planter; but they soon separated, on account of Burr endeavoring to secure the control of her property. He died neglected, on Staten Island, on the 14th of September, 1836. Aaron Burr, left in his infancy without father or mother, never inherited their virtues. His brilliant talents, political skill, and tact in conversation and debate have rarely been equalled; but he was licentious, profligate, and entirely destitute of honor. With his wonderful abilities, he might have left a name commanding the respect and admiration of his countrymen; but, after a surprising success in more than one effort for high position, he fell like Lucifer, never to rise again.




Burr's attention having been drawn to the movements in Spanish America, he determined to raise an army for the subjugation of Mexico. He had frequent conversations with Jay, who assured him that the boldness of the enterprise would contribute to its success. Various favorable circumstances rendered the undertaking apparently auspicious. The difficulties with Spain; the restlessness and disaffection of many of the officers and soldiers of the regular army in the West, who had become tired of a life of inactivity and ease; a lack of harmony, not only between the civil and military authorities, but in the ranks of the military themselves; all these considerations might well have flattered Burr that the fates were favorable to the adventure. "Indeed, I fear treachery has become the order of the day," wrote General Jackson to Claiborne.


An extensive correspondence with various distinguished characters of the country assured Burr of their countenance. and co_operation in the event of a war with Spain. Wilkinson, the commander-in-chief of the forces in the West, writes him, under date of October, 1805: "I fear Miranda has taken the bread out of your mouth." Wilkinson's regular force consisted only of about six hundred men, around which the followers of Burr were to form. These in fact were the only disciplined corps relied on. It is said the commander had pledged himself to strike the blow, whenever it should be deemed expedient. All that was wanting, with him, was a pretext for the commencement of hostilities against Spain. He detailed to Burr all the information he possessed respecting :Mexico, and pointed out the facilities which would probably be offered by the inhabitants in effecting a revolution; "On his suggestion Daniel Clark twice visited the country. He held conferences and effected arrangements with many of the principal military officers, who engaged to favor the revolution. The Catholic bishop, resident at New Orleans, was also consul ted, and prepared to promote the enterprise. The bishop was an intelligent and social man. He had been in Mexico, and spoke with great freedom of the disaffection of the clergy in South America. So far as any decision had been formed, the landing was to have been effected at Tampico.


Daniel Clark engaged to advance, for the purposes of the expedition, fifty thousand dollars; but, being disappointed, was unable to furnish it. Murray, the British plenipotentiary resident in the United States, was consulted on the subject. He communicated to his government the project of Burr. Colonel Williamson, the brother of Lord Balgray, was dispatched to England on the business. From the manner of his reception, and the encouragement he received, it was expected that a British naval squadron would have been furnished for the enterprise. General Jackson bad also been consulted, and funds for defraying the expenses of his division were placed in his hands by Burr. The disaffection of the inhabitants of the South and ,"Vest was thought favorable to a separation of the trans-Allegheny territory; and this, it is said, was among the earlier schemes of Burr, although but seldom revealed, except to those who he thought would favor it.


Such were the preparations: a plan well matured, and auguring success in the event of a war with Spain. As soon however, as intelligence had been received, that such satisfaction had been rendered, on the part of the Spanish government, as to obviate the necessity of a resort to arms, many of the warmest advocates of the plan abandoned their former designs, and turned their attention to scenes less dazzling, but more productive of substantial enjoyment.


Burr had dreamed too long of the wealth and splendor of the halls of the Montezumas, to resign their captivating pleasures for the tamer scenes of a government in which he was becoming daily more unpopular; and which, he now conceived, viewed his actions with ungrateful suspicions. For years had he cherished the hope of investing himself with the regal power of that ancient kingdom, and transmitting its crown to his latest posterity. For the realization of this had he sacrificed the comforts of home; traversed the States to the extremes of Florida; often traveling through pathless wildernesses, sometimes without shelter and occasionally without food; alluring to his standard men of every grade, prompted by every motive of action. Confident of the aid of Wilkinson and the men under his command, he continued his exertions after every prospect of a war with Spain had ceased. Whatever motive may have influenced the subsequent conduct of that officer, there is but little doubt that he had given Burr the most indubitable assurance of his firm adherence to the undertaking.


Notwithstanding the suspicious with which his movements were observed by the government, the acts of the Ohio legislature, and his arrest in Kentucky, Burr still persisted in his measures, giving confidence to his followers by his unflinching determination. Even the proclamation of the President, and of the several governors within the respective States and Territories along his route, could not deter him. But when he was info ruled that the measures adopted by the government for his arrest were through the advice and at the instance of Wilkinson; that he had not only proved treacherous by exposing the scheme and magnifying its object, but was the chosen instrument for his arrest; that courage, which had before characterized his actions, completely abandoned him; then, and not till then, did he sink under the accumulated difficulties which beset his path.


He was arrested, tried and acquitted, "but his country refused to believe him innocent." Though stout old Truxtun had testified in his favor; though Jackson had seen nothing wrong in Burr's project, but agreed to favor it; the popular voice continued to regard him as a traitor, whom accident alone had prevented from dismembering the Union. That a man of sense and ability should entertain such a notion; relying for aid on associates who he knew would countenance no treason, is a preposterous and insane supposition. As he said on his death-bed, he might as well have attempted to seize the moon and parcel it out among his followers.


The real secret of the popular belief is to be found in the character of Burr. In him the elements which make up great and good men were strangely mixed up with those which we may suppose the spirits of evil to pride themselves. He was brave, affable, munificent of indomitable energy, of signal perseverance. In his own person he combined two opposite natures. He was studious, but insinuating; dignified, yet seductive. Success did not intoxicate, nor reverse dismay him. Turning to the other aspect of hi~ character, those great qualities sunk to insignificance beside the evil ones. He was profligate in morals, public and private; selfish and artful; a master in dissimulation, treacherous, cold hearted. Subtle, intriguing full of promise; he shot upwards in popularity with astonishing velocity; but a skeptic in honesty, a scorner of all things noble and good, he failed to secure the public confidence, and fell headlong from his dizzy eminence. Here lies the secret of his ruin. There was nothing in his character to which the great heart of the people could attach itself in love; but they shrank from him, in mistrust, as from a cold and glittering serpent. The public rarely errs in an estimate like this.-W. H. SAFFORD.


Aaron Burr

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