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Oct. 10, 2012

Vol. 113, No. 2


American Lucifer

Can Aaron Burr be redeemed?

By Mark F. Bernstein ’83
Published in the October 10, 2012, issue


This a corrected version of a story from the Oct. 10, 2012, issue. The correction appears at the end of the story.

Aaron Burr Jr. 1772 may have killed Alexander Hamilton in their celebrated 1804 duel, but the shot was no less fatal to Burr’s reputation. While the duel ­didn’t put an end to Burr’s public life, his status as one of the most ­brilliant, interesting, and far-seeing of the founders has not survived that encounter beneath the cliffs at Weehawken. Making matters worse, there was the small matter of Burr’s trial for treason less than three years later, when he was accused of ­leading a motley group of disaffected military officers and fortune-seekers on an expedition to conquer Mexico (Burr’s story) or tear the Western states and ­territories away from the Union (Thomas Jefferson’s story). 

At the hands of Henry Adams and dozens of other historians, biographers, and writers of fiction, Burr — acquitted on all charges — has been portrayed as a conniver, a cynic, and a seducer. He has become an archetype, the “bad” founder, an American Lucifer who fell from grace. While Hamilton adorns the $10 bill, Burr is forgotten except when he is scorned.

Now, 200 years after his return from self-imposed exile in Europe, the third vice president at last is getting another look. During the summer, the Grolier Club in New York hosted a large exhibition of Burr memorabilia, displayed as evidence of his progressive views. In her well-received 2007 biography, Fallen Founder, Lousiana State University historian Nancy Isenberg makes a convincing case that Burr has been unfairly maligned. Sean Wilentz, Princeton’s George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History, argues in his Bancroft Prize-winning book, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, that Burr deserves recognition for pioneering many modern political tactics. While it may be too much to call this attention to Burr a rehabilitation, it is, at least, forcing a re-examination and even something of a reappreciation. 

In many ways, Burr is more appealing to us than he was to his contemporaries. The son and grandson of two ministers and Princeton presidents, Aaron Burr and Jonathan Edwards, both of whom died when Burr junior was a boy, he grew up with the Enlightenment’s faith in human reason. Young Burr always was a rationalist, and in later life came to embrace Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism. Even his detractors conceded his genius. He first applied to Princeton when he was just 11 years old, and was accepted at 13. 

Physically, Burr was barely taller than James Madison 1771 and already balding as a young man, but he had piercing dark eyes and women swooned for him. Sexually voracious throughout his life, Burr was also a proto-feminist who appreciated Mary Wollstonecraft’s revolutionary book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, as “a work of genius” and gave his only child, his daughter Theodosia, the same classical education he would have given a son. 

Part of Burr’s problem, from a historian’s perspective, is that for most of his life he was content to stand apart — “a faction unto himself,” as Wilentz puts it in his book. He had a distinguished military career during the Revolution but little respect for George Washington’s generalship, and he declined an offer to serve on Washington’s staff. In 1788, he allied himself with anti-Federalists in opposing the new federal constitution and declined to participate in New York’s ratifying convention.

As a state assemblyman, Burr supported laws for the manumission of slaves (although he owned slaves when the practice was still legal in New York). By the time he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1791, many saw him as a rising national leader. He was promoted as a possible vice-presidential candidate in 1796, and four years later, in 1800, he was Thomas Jefferson’s running mate. It was Burr, in fact, more than anyone who secured the election for Jefferson, although he soon would be accused of trying to steal it from him. 

In those days, presidential electors were chosen by the state legislatures, and New York’s legislative elections were held early, in April. By outmaneuvering Hamilton and the Federalists, and briefly uniting the bickering Republican factions, Burr secured New York for Jefferson. He did it by employing what we would admire as a strong political ground game. Rather than affecting to be above politics, as Jefferson did, for example, Burr campaigned openly, made detailed lists of likely voters and party donors, and turned his house into a campaign headquarters. 

Then an odd thing happened. Although Burr was Jefferson’s running mate, candidates did not run as a formal ticket, as they do today. The candidate receiving the most electoral votes became president, while the runner-up became vice president. When Jefferson and Burr finished with the same number of electoral votes, the election was thrown, for the first of two times in American history, to the House of Representatives. Although Jefferson’s partisans later accused Burr of maneuvering to steal the presidency for ­himself, evidence suggests that it was Jefferson who engaged in behind-the-scenes arm-twisting that succeeded, after 36 ballots, in giving him the presidency.

Many assumed that, as vice president, Burr eventually would succeed Jefferson, but the faction of one found himself assailed from all sides. The aristocratic Republican families in New York viewed him as an interloper. Jefferson feared that he might challenge his protégé and fellow Virginian, James Madison, for the presidency. Burr maintained cordial relations on both sides of the aisle, but that only deepened suspicions about him. When the Republicans met in early 1804 to select their candidates, Jefferson arranged to have Burr dumped in favor of another New Yorker, Gov. George Clinton.

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1 Response to Can Aaron Burr be redeemed?

Edwin L. Brown *61 Says:

2012-10-08 16:14:10

After reading this careful weighing of Burr's considerable merits alongside the familiar demerits, I tend to look at him more as I view LBJ, that latter-day "deeply flawed idealist" -- to be squeezed among our 25 greatest in place of Rumsfeld?
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