Who Was Aaron Burr? - Duel & Trial History

Instructor: Amy Lively

Amy has an M.A. in American History. She has taught history at all levels, from university to middle school.

This lesson discusses the life of Aaron Burr. Learn more about the vice-president's duel with Alexander Hamilton and why he was put on trial after being accused of treason, then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Aaron Burr

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.

The 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.

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