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Aaron Burr

Aaron Burr

Born in Newark, New Jersey on February 6, 1756 to the Reverand Aaron Burr (cofounder and second President of what is now Princeton University) and Esther Edwards Burr, he was on track for a life in theology. After the deaths of both parents when he was three years old, his upbringing fell in the hands of his uncle, the Reverend Timothy Edwards. At the young age of 13 he enrolled at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) as a sophomore he originally studied theology and changed his major to law, graduating with honors at 16.

Burr volunteered for military service in 1775 and during his career worked with General George Washington, General Benedict Arnold, General Israel Putnam and General Charles Lee. At the age of 21, he commanded a regiment in Orange County, New York. A decorated hero, he resigned on March 3, 1779, citing ill health, and shortly after resumed his career studying law.

Although a successful lawyer, his real passion was politics, mostly for the power and influence associated with political positions. In 1800, Burr was in a head-to-head race for the Presidency with Thomas Jefferson. The vote was tied and the electoral college made the choice (by one) of selecting Jefferson as President and Burr as Vice President. Burr felt his nemesis, Alexander Hamilton, used his influence to ensure this result, which exacerbated their rivalry. A heated remark from Hamilton stating Burr was "a dangerous man and one who ought not be trusted with the reins of government" led Burr to challenge Hamilton to a duel. This famous duel, which took place on July 11, 1804 at Weehawken, resulted in the death of Hamilton and a cloud that hung over Burr for the rest of his days. Indicted for murder in New York and New Jersey (though never tried), his political career was over. Considered scurrilous and untrustworthy, he nevertheless completed his term of service as Vice President.

The change in his status, however, wrecked havoc on Burr's psyche. He envisioned schemes of grandiosity and attempted to align support from former adversaries to achieve his schemes. One of these schemes detailed organizing a revolution in the Louisiana territory, already purchased by Jefferson. In this surprise attack, he would become the emperor of these vast western lands and effect a separation of the Western part of the United States.

In attempting to accomplish his goal of becoming emperor (he was a big fan of Napoleon Bonaparte), he befriended various individuals: British Minister Anthony Merry, living in Philadelphia; Senator Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey; Harman Blennerhassett, wealthy Ohio Valley businessman; and General James Wilkinson who later held political office himself. Blennerhassett, an immigrant from Ireland, gave Burr $50,000 to advance his plan, not an inconsiderable sum at the time. Burr's spy network included frontiersmen, filibusters, adventurers and others. The conspiracy, in Burrs mind, grew to enormous proportions. His plan did not stop with the Louisiana territory but would continue into Mexico, where he envisioned himself as a liberator and planned to be welcomed by all.

In late 1805, Burr had dinner with President Jefferson at the White House. A few days later, Dec 1, 1805, the President received an urgent message (probably Wilkinson, known for his loose tongue) regarding the conspiracy. Although the missive did not reveal Burr by name, the description left no doubt as to his identity and Jefferson issued a proclamation calling for the arrest of all conspirators involved in the plot. Wilkinson, also involved with Burr's plot, attempted to save himself by giving details of Burr's conspiracy.

Burr was apprehended on Feb 20, 1807 and taken to Richmond, and on Jun 24th was indicted for treason before Chief Justice John Marshall. President Jefferson wrote an account of Burr's alleged criminal activity and wanted it presented to the court. Marshall, not on amicable terms with the President, required the President's personal appearance. The President refused, marking the precedent for future presidents to disobey the order of a court. Burr's spies spread the word that anyone who spoke against him would be killed and therefore there were no witnesses to testify against him. Marshall, stating that there would need to be at least two witnesses to deliver a guilty verdict, acquitted Burr in August 1807.

Harassed by creditors and with no chance of ever returning to public life, the most hated man in America sailed for France and England. In Europe he continued to seek support for his plan of seizing American lands. His further endeavors met with negative results and he returned to New York in 1812, where he opened a law office. The remaining years of his life were spent as a moderately successful New York attorney. He died on Sep 14, 1836, a broken man


Spies - A Narrative Encyclopedia of Dirty Deeds and Double Dealing from Biblical Times to Today, by Jay Robert Nash, 1997, M. Evans and Company, Inc.

American Revolution to World War II, A Counterintelligence Reader, National Counterintelligence Center

Encyclopedia Americana:Aaron Burr

Burr, Aaron, 1756-1836