Amy has an M.A. in American History. She has taught history at all levels, from university to middle school.
Rivalry with Alexander Hamilton
For Alexander Hamilton, once an enemy, always an enemy. Such was the case for Aaron Burr. Their rivalry began in the 1791 New York Senate election when Burr unseated Senator Philip Schuyler. The senator also happened to be Hamilton's father-in-law. Burr was on the Democratic-Republican presidential ticket in 1796 and Hamilton was Burr's worst critic, calling him an opportunist. 'I feel it is a religious duty to oppose his career.' At the time, the candidate with the most votes became president and the runner-up became vice-president. When Burr tied Thomas Jefferson's 73 electoral votes with 73 of his own in 1800, Hamilton persuaded the House to give the presidency to Jefferson. Considering Hamilton's dislike for Jefferson, helping him was big news. In 1804, Vice-President Burr lost his bid to become governor of New York. Again, Hamilton had been front and center with the criticism of Burr.
Burr Challenges Hamilton
Burr's career was in tatters after the 1804 election. He had been the victim of smear tactics that challenged both his personal and political character. Burr was still the vice-president but Jefferson made it clear that Burr would not be part of his Cabinet. He never forgave Burr for letting the House decide the presidency rather than simply accepting the vice-presidency. Looking for a way to restore his career and his good name, Burr took action when a newspaper printed a letter from Dr. Charles Cooper to Philip Schuyler. Cooper claimed that Hamilton called Burr 'a dangerous man.' Burr wrote to Hamilton and asked him to apologize. Hamilton refused. More letters were exchanged, each one escalating the feud rather than resolving it. Hamilton, the veteran of 11 'affairs of honor,' or duels, knew what was coming next. Burr challenged him to a duel.
Most of the time, an affair of honor did not end with someone being shot. In fact, many times the disagreement was resolved before the rivals ever reached the 'field of honor.' Not this time. Burr and Hamilton met at Weehawken Heights along the New Jersey shore on the morning of July 11, 1804. Each man brought a 'second,' who could serve as both an assistant and a witness. Hamilton also brought a doctor. When the men took their places 20 feet apart, they were given a signal to begin. Each man had three seconds to fire. Hamilton took the first shot but he may have had a change of heart because he fired straight up into the air. Had he fired into the ground, perhaps Burr would have understood his intentions. Instead, Burr felt justified in returning fire and shot Hamilton in the abdomen. Hamilton died at 2 p.m. the next day.
The Burr Conspiracy
Instead of restoring his honor, Burr was wanted for murder. The vice-president was now a fugitive, on the run to see what would happen next. Murder charges were never filed but Burr's career was over. With no future on the East Coast, Burr headed west and hatched an ill-conceived plot to create a new empire in the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys. He enlisted the help of his friend, General James Wilkinson and together they discussed invading Mexico and to make it part of their new country. New Orleans would be the capital. However, Wilkinson discovered that rumors about their plot to take over the West had reached Washington, D.C. On October 9, 1806, Wilkinson turned on Burr to save himself and told Jefferson what he knew.
In January 1807, Burr surrendered at Bayou Pierre, Mississippi but a grand jury did not return an indictment. In February, he was arrested again, this time accused of treason. The trial began in Richmond, Virginia on August 3, 1807. Much of the prosecution's case centered on boats discovered during a raid of Blennerhassett Island on the Ohio River. Was that the base of operations for Burr's conspiracy? Perhaps, but with no witnesses who saw Burr do anything treasonous, Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the Constitution's definition of treason was not met. On September 1, Burr was found not guilty of crimes or misdemeanors against the United States. However, he never returned to politics. After a brief time in Europe, Burr went back to New York to practice law, where he lived a quiet life until his death in 1836.
Lesson at a Glance
Aaron Burr was one to make enemies with high-profile political figures. After a rivalry with Alexander Hamilton and killing him in an arranged duel, Burr headed west and tried to create a new empire by trying to annex Mexico and making New Orleans its new capital. Although Burr was accused of treason and put on trial, he was found not guilty. Burr ultimately went back to New York to practice law until his death.
After reviewing this lesson, you should be able to
- Describe the rivalry between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton
- Explain how Burr was trying to create a new empire within the United States
- Discuss the outcome of Burr's trial
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