Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

Montage of images and link description. The Duel Imagemap: linked to kids and home
The Film and More
Imagemap(text links below) of menu items
The American Experience

People & Events
Aaron Burr

Aaron Burr If he had been able to keep his ambition in check, Aaron Burr might have become president. Instead, he became known as the man who killed Alexander Hamilton and as one of the most notorious traitors in history.

Aaron Burr was born in Newark, New Jersey, on February 6, 1756. His father, Reverend Aaron Burr, was president of the College of New Jersey, which would later be renamed Princeton. His mother, Esther Edwards Burr, was the daughter of theologian Jonathan Edwards, whose preaching helped precipitate the religious movement known as the Great Awakening. Aaron Burr was orphaned at 2. He was raised by his uncle, Timothy Edwards.

From an early age, Aaron showed signs of brilliance. He applied for admission to the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) at age 11, but was turned down. At age 13, he reapplied and was granted admission as a sophomore; he graduated at age 17.

When the Revolution began, Burr, then 19, unsuccessfully sought a commission from George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. A disappointed Burr joined Benedict Arnold's march against British strongholds in Canada. Later, he transferred to another force in Canada which was led by General Richard Montgomery.

When Montgomery attacked Quebec, on December 31, 1775, the Continental force was badly defeated, but Burr distinguished himself on the field. In 1776 he served briefly on Washington's staff. The next year, as a lieutenant colonel, he took command of a regiment, which would later distinguish itself at the battle of Monmouth. Later he was placed in command of the "neutral ground" north of New York City, where he guarded against British guerilla raids and cavalry forays. The job proved extremely difficult, and Burr persevered as long as he could. Exhausted and ill, he retired from the military in 1779.

That same year, Burr met Theodosia Prevost, the widow of a British officer. She was ten years his senior, but Burr found her intellect irresistible. They married in 1782, just after Burr passed the New York bar. As an attorney in New York, Burr had few equals. He commanded large fees, with which he furnished splendid homes, clothed himself and his wife in the most elegant fashion, and entertained lavishly. Soon, he began his rise in the political field.

A master of politics, Burr specialized in self-interest. In 1783 he was elected to the New York Assembly. In 1789 he was appointed the state's attorney general. Two years later, Burr made the jump to national politics, taking a United States Senate seat from Philip Schuyler, a powerful New York landowner and Alexander Hamilton's father-in-law. Burr held the seat for just one term.

His wife Theodosia gave birth to four children; -- only one survived. Named after her mother, she was Aaron Burr's pride and joy. When Burr's wife died in 1794, young Theodosia became the most important woman in his life.

In 1800 Republican Thomas Jefferson chose Aaron Burr as his presidential running mate. When the election results were tallied, Burr and Jefferson tied in total electoral votes. Congress would vote to decide the winner. Wary of appearing underhanded, Burr refused to lobby Congress for votes. Alexander Hamilton, who despised Jefferson but hated Burr even more, lobbied for Jefferson, to little effect. But Jefferson won the election, and Burr became his vice president.

Jefferson gave his vice president little power in the administration and even barred Burr's nomination for a second term as vice president. Ever practical and determined to rise, Burr began a flirtation with the Federalist Party. In 1804, with covert Federalist backing, Burr ran as an independent candidate for governor in New York. With the secret support of Jefferson, George and DeWitt unleashed slanderous attacks on Burr in the press. Burr was beaten soundly in the general election.

Alexander Hamilton, who feared that Burr would take away the power he held in the Federalist Party, had also spoken out against Burr. Although Hamilton's efforts had little effect on the election, Burr later read in a newspaper article that Hamilton had expressed a "despicable opinion" of him.

Angry and depressed over his defeat, Burr decided to try and restore his reputation by challenging Hamilton to a duel. Burr may have hoped that Hamilton would apologize, but the communication between the men escalated until a duel was unavoidable. On July 11, 1804, on the dueling grounds at Weehawken, New Jersey, Burr shot Hamilton dead. In New York and New Jersey, Burr was charged with murder. And in much of the Northeast, Hamilton was mourned as a fallen hero. But to many Americans, particularly in the South, Burr was viewed as a man who had rightfully defended his honor.

Although he was a wanted man, Burr nonetheless enjoyed immunity from prosecution in Washington, D.C. There, he presided over the impeachment trial of Samuel Chase, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Burr set a remarkable standard for decorum and fairness during the trial, in which Chase was acquitted. This would not be the last time Burr appeared in a highly publicized federal trial. The next time he would be the defendant in a trial for treason.

The United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803. Aaron Burr saw the territory as a place where his political hopes could be revived. Conspiring with James Wilkinson, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Army and Governor of Northern Louisiana Territory, Burr hatched a plot to conquer some of Louisiana and maybe even Mexico and crown himself emperor.

Burr sought help from both Britain, who considered his proposals but turned him down. With private backing, Burr trained and outfitted a small invasion force. But Wilkinson betrayed him, and Burr was captured in Louisiana in the spring of 1807 and taken to Richmond, Virginia, to stand trial for treason. Acquitted on a technicality, he faced resounding public condemnation and fled to Europe.

Burr's European adventures proved less than rewarding. Again, plotted to take territory in North America, but failed to gain support from European powers. He returned to the United States, a fugitive from debtors' prison.

When Burr arrived in New York, the US was on the brink of war with Britain. His treason plot and the killing of Hamilton largely forgotten. Burr was able to get the murder charges against him dropped, and he once again began to practice law. The death of his daughter Theodosia, whose ship was lost at sea in 1813, devastated Burr, who said he felt "severed from the human race."

In 1833, Burr married again, this time to Eliza Jumel, a wealthy widow; the marriage soon ended in divorce. He died three years later, at the age of 80, a nearly forgotten man.

previous | return to people & events list | next

The Film & More | Special Features | Timeline | Maps | People & Events | Teacher's Guide
The American Experience | Kids | Feedback | Search | Shop | Subscribe

©  New content 2000 PBS Online / WGBH

Exclusive Corporate Funding is provided by: