Another Lawyer's Tale


New Jersey's Famous Duel and the Legacy of Aaron Burr

Never do today what you can do tomorrow.  Something may occur to make you regret your premature action.

- Aaron Burr

New Jersey played an important part in the settlement of the United States with many significant events taking place there in the early days of the new nation.  But one incident between two of America's early pioneers in democracy, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, remains to this day a sad chapter in the life of the state.

Aaron Burr, born 6 February 1756 in Newark, grew up in New Jersey.  Of distinguished ancestry, he was the son of the Reverend Aaron Burr, the cofounder and second president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), and Esther Edwards Burr, the daughter of the New England theologian Jonathan Edwards.  Aaron was a sickly baby.  Twice, before he was two years old, he narrowly escaped death.  A fever seized him and his mother thought of him "as one given to me from the dead."  On account of this miraculous recovery, she felt that the child should be brought up "in a peculiar manner for God."  Despite plans, however, evidence reveals that, when Aaron was left to his own devices, he proved to be a real boy: "a little, dirty, noisy boy sly and mischievous," and required "a good governor to bring him to terms."  He was small in stature, active, handsome: very much after the mould of his father.

Both his parents died before he was three, his father of a fever and his mother shortly thereafter from smallpox.  His early training was assumed by his uncle, the Reverend Timothy Edwards.  Timothy was a stern Puritan and Aaron got on badly with him; occasionally, he was "beaten like a sack."  The boy was so unhappy, he tried on several occasions to run away.  His life as a child was made livable only by the fact of the presence in the house of Timothy's young brother-in-law, Matthias Ogden, a lad of Burr's age.  These boys ran the woods, fished, hunted, and studied under tutors, one of whom was the celebrated Tapping Reeve, later to marry Sally Burr.  A precocious youth who would rebel against authority throughout his life, Burr escaped the strict discipline of his uncle's home to enter Princeton as a sophomore in 1769 at the age of 13.

Burr was considered to be one of the most brilliant students graduated from Princeton in the 18th century.  Woodrow Wilson said he had "genius enough to have made him immortal, and unschooled passion enough to have made him infamous."  Burr graduated with honors in 1772 at 16, a lad with unforgettable hazel eyes, handsome features and irresistible charm.

In the tradition of the family, Burr was foreordained for the ministry.  So, in the fall of 1773, he began the study of theology under the Reverend Joseph Bellamy.  However, it soon developed that Burr's nature did not lend itself to the constricted measure of Calvinistic dogma.  He asserted that the road to Heaven was open to all alike, and, in the spring of 1774, he broke away from theology.  He went at once to Litchfield, Connecticut, to the law school of Tapping Reeve, his brother-in-law, which was already becoming famous for its liberalism of thought.  Here Burr studied law and had his introduction to society.  He had his flirtations; once a match was made for him with a wealthy young lady, which he spurned; and once he actually eloped, only to be balked by a ferry boat's failure to move on schedule.  But law and love affairs were both to be interrupted, for in April, 1775, the thundering news of the battle of Lexington came rolling over the country.

Burr served on Benedict Arnold's staff, where he met James Wilkinson, who was to figure in his later plans; he then served briefly with George Washington and later with General Israel Putnam.  In every way, Colonel Burr distinguished himself for valor, sound judgment and intelligent devotion to the cause of the Colonies.  In spite of being a strict disciplinarian, he endeared himself to his men, never permitting corporal punishment to be inflicted in his regiment.  He resigned due to "ill health" from a sunstroke he had suffered.

When fully recovered, Burr resumed his law studies and was admitted to the New York bar early in 1782.  A few months later he married Theodosia Prevost, the widow of a former colonel in the British Army.  Theodosia had five children.  She was 10 years Burr's senior, but he seems to have been devoted to her.  Burr had been pictured a profligate, and was certainly most popular with women.  He was attracted to his wife he said, because of her charm and grace and because she had the truest heart and finest intellect of any woman he had ever met.  Theirs was an ideal companionship.  Up to the time of her death in 1794, "my Aaron," as his wife affectionately called him, was a faithful and exemplary husband.  She bore him a daughter, also named Theodosia, whom he idolised.

When Theodosia was about six months old, peace with England was achieved and Burr made plans to move to New York City, then boasting a population of 22,000.  He reached New York in November, 1783, in time to see the British troops depart.  During these years, with his wife practically an invalid, Colonel Burr was continuously embarrassed by debts.  His fees were large, but he spent lavishly.  There was always a dearth of money in the bank, and negotiations for loans and adjustments of debt consumed no small portion of his time.  But he was of such tireless energy, he seemed able always to meet every emergency.

He had been in the city but six months when he was elected to the State Assembly, though he had not sought public office.  During the second session of the Assembly, he supported a motion for the abolition of slavery in New York, and was made chairman of a committee to revise the laws of the Empire State.  But, at the expiration of his term, he returned to the practice of the law.  Colonel Burr soon became one of the leaders of the New York bar.  He rose to the head of his profession through sheer ability and knowledge of the law.  In the bustling, commercial city of New York, Burr soon was competing with Alexander Hamilton for supremacy.

Before the rise of political parties, New York state was divided between Hamilton and Clinton factions.  Burr became politically active in 1789 after Governor George Clinton appointed him attorney general.  Two years later he defeated General Philip Schuyler, Hamilton's father-in-law, for a seat in the US Senate.

Burr was active in the Senate, making himself felt on important occasions.  Unhappily, in 1794, his wife died, after a prolonged illness.  He had wanted to resign his seat in Congress so as to be with her, but, evidently, she would not hear of it, for we find little Theo writing him that "Ma begs you will omit the thoughts of leaving Congress."  After his wife's death, Burr and his daughter were drawn more closely together, so close, in fact, that she was to write in after years: "I had rather not live than not to be the daughter of such a man."

At her mother's death, Theodosia was 11 years old and already versed in philosophy and history.  She had read Horace, Lucian and Terence, and was preparing to begin Homer and Virgil.  She could speak German and French, and played the harp and pianoforte.  Burr at once concentrated on an intensive program for her further education, which he contrived to supervise under all conditions.  Whether his grandfather, the Reverend Aaron Burr, first President of Princeton, would have approved of such a course of education for a girl is doubtful, and certainly her great-grandfather, the celebrated Jonathan Edwards, would not have thought it proper for Theodosia to dance, skate and ride a horse.  But her father was determined to make a prodigy of her in spite of her sex, for Burr was probably the first feminist in the United States.  He applauded Miss Woolstonecraft's book entitled Vindication of the Rights of Women, wherein it was argued that girls should receive the same kind of mental training as their brothers, women being not only the equal but the superior of men.  And Burr was in position to establish the thesis, for, at 14, Theodosia had come to be the most cultured and charming woman in America.  Burr idolised her and was proud of the encomiums paid her by all who came to know her.

In 1796, Burr ran for President but failed to be elected.  His term in the senate had expired, so he returned to his legal practice in New York City.  However, he could not cease to be active in politics.  Soon he was returned to the New York Assembly and was making plans for the future.

The Tammany Society had been founded in New York in 1789 as a social club.  Burr converted it into a powerful urban machine.  By 1800, he controlled the legislature and thereby the choice of presidential electors in a state whose vote could decide the outcome.  Burr was placed on the Republican ticket.  The Republicans won.  However, in the electoral college Burr and another candidate, Thomas Jefferson tied with 73 votes each.  The US House of Representatives had to break the tie.

While the House debate was going on, the Federalist party, led by Alexander Hamilton and Governor Morris, among others, held the balance of power in their hands.  Those favouring both Jefferson and Burr courted the Federalists, with many promises being made on all sides.  In the course of the campaign, the Federalists became divided, with the faction favouring Burr led by Representative Bayard of Delaware.  Alexander Hamilton, one of the Federalist leaders, was angered at the way his party was sacrificing its principles in order to assure its political ends.  Hamilton wrote scathing letters to Representative Bayard, Governor Morris and others, asking them not to make a political pact with his arch-rival, Burr.  Hamilton called Burr an unscrupulous schemer, a man without political morality who would do anything to achieve his own ends.

Only after the 36th ballot did Hamilton's influence give the presidency to Jefferson.  So Burr became vice president.

As vice president Burr, though humiliated by his loss, appeared willing to cooperate with the president but was rebuffed.  He was not consulted on appointments nor was he invited to join in party councils.  Official papers were denied him.

Whilst the excitement in Washington was at its height, on 2 February 1801, Theodosia married Joseph Alston of Charleston, South Carolina, of which State he was soon to become Governor.  For Burr this was an event of the gravest moment, his life centring in this daughter.  The following year, on 29 May 1802, he was made happy by the birth of her son, Aaron Burr Alston, who came to be called "Gampy."

Jefferson's administration was bitterly opposed in New England, even to the point of separatist thinking.  Burr was sounded out by those who hoped to take the disaffected states out of the Union.  It may well have been with the idea of attaching New York to a Northern confederacy that Burr sought the governorship of the state in 1804.  He carried New York City, beating Morgan Lewis who was publicly supported by Alexander Hamilton.  But he was badly beaten upstate, in part by Hamilton's opposition.  It was during Burr's gubernatorial campaign for governor that his dispute with Hamilton reached its climax.

Hamilton, it was reported in the local press, spoke so harshly against Burr that the Burr sought revenge.  Saying that Hamilton had defamed him, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel.  Under the strict rules governing duels, both protagonists had their seconds plan the event.  Burr chose William Van Ness, a 26-year-old lawyer and personal friend.  Hamilton's second was Nathaniel Pendleton, a 58-year-old lawyer and former officer in the American Revolution.

Their duel took place on the morning of 11 July 1804 on a thin strip of land on the New Jersey side of the Palisades near Weehawken.  Both men squared off and, after they turned and fired their pistols, Hamilton lay mortally wounded.  He was taken by boat across the Hudson to New York City where he died in a house at the present 82 Jane Street in Lower Manhattan.  When the news of Hamilton's death spread abroad, a thunderous hue and cry went up against Burr.  He was a murderer, a criminal, in spite of the fact that all of the rules required under the duelling code had been observed.  The Federalists set upon him.  He was indicted forthwith for murder, both in New Jersey and New York, and, while he was never brought to trial, he had reason to fear facing a jury, so thoroughly had the public been prejudiced against him.  Burr first went to Perth Amboy, then crossed the Delaware into Pennsylvania.

A fugitive from the law in both New York and New Jersey, Burr fled to Philadelphia, where he and Jonathan Dayton, a former US senator from New Jersey, developed the grandiose scheme that was to prove Burr's downfall.  Just what the plans were and whether they were treasonous is uncertain, for Burr told different stories to different people.  In its most ambitious form the scheme envisaged a vast empire in the West and South, based on the conquest of Mexico and the separation of the trans-Appalachian states from the Union.  This much Burr told the British minister, of whom he asked financial and naval aid.  Burr then proceeded to Washington to finish his term as vice president.

Jefferson received Burr cordially, for Burr as vice president was to preside over the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, and the President wanted a conviction.  The Chase impeachment failed, but Burr's conduct of the trial appears to have been a model of decorum and impartiality.  The trial and the vice-presidential term concluded, Burr returned to his schemes.

Burr saw the new United States as a country in transition, one that needed lands in the unexplored West to enlarge the nation.  But the areas of interest to Burr were owned by Spain and there was little likelihood that Spain would give up her possessions without a fight.  To Burr's mind, the people of the West, mainly Louisiana and Texas, had no loyalty to the United States.  They were Spanish subjects who had little in common with the government in Washington DC.  Burr envisioned a plan, developed with Harman Blennerhasset and General of the Army James Wilkinson, to dismember those territories in the West and create a new nation of which he would be the leader.

Burr made a personal reconnaissance of the West in the spring of 1805.  It probably was on this trip that he first met Harman Blennerhassett, an Irish expatriate who lived in feudal splendor on an island in the Ohio River.  He also visited James Wilkinson, now governor of the Louisiana Territory, and several other government dignitaries.  Burr next acquired title to more than a million acres of land in Orleans Territory, the settlement of which thereafter became his ostensible purpose.  Funds were supplied by his son-in-law, Joseph Alston, and by Blennerhassett.  General Wilkinson oversaw the military training.

Unknown to Burr, General Wilkinson was secretly working for the Spanish Minister to the United States, Yruyo, giving him information about Burr's plans.  Wilkinson came to be known as "Agent Number 13."  While the former Vice President was widely liked in the West, the newspapers took a critical look at his adventures.  As he travelled, people with whom he'd come in contact reported his plans, and the papers, especially The Aurora, called for an investigation.  However, with young Henry Clay as his attorney, Burr was twice cleared of any treasonable intent.  In public, Burr's expedition came to be known as the "conspiracy,"

By the summer of 1806, boats, supplies, and men were procured, mainly at Blennerhassett Island.  Satisfied, Burr and some 60 followers set out to join Wilkinson near Natchez, Mississippi.  Coded letters from Burr and Dayton already were on the way to Wilkinson alerting him to be ready to move on Mexico.

A critical event in the so-called "conspiracy" was the "cipher letter," supposedly written by Burr, outlining the seizure of Spanish lands.  The high points of the cipher letter were the following: Burr was to be in charge, with General Wilkinson as his deputy; the British navy would send ships to meet Burr's forces at the Mississippi and then they would decide if a strike against Baton Rouge was necessary.

The author of this version of the cipher letter, however, was not Aaron Burr but his friend, Jonathan Dayton (although Burr did write a different letter detailing his plans).  With public attention now shifting from Burr, he fled into the wilds of western Mississippi, aided by his last friends and colleagues.  But back in Washington, Burr's one time partner, General Wilkinson, betrayed him while hiding his own part in the plot.  Wilkinson wrote to the President, who issued a proclamation calling for the arrest of the conspirators.  Burr learned of it on 10 January 1807, as he entered Orleans Territory and saw a newspaper transcript of his coded letter to Wilkinson.  He surrendered to civil authorities at Natchez, but jumped bail and fled toward Spanish Florida.

While encamped at a creek near the town of Chester, South Carolina on 20 February, Burr was captured and taken back to Richmond, Virginia for trial.  There he was arraigned before Chief Justice John Marshall, and on 24 June was indicted for treason.  Dayton and Blennerhassett also were indicted.  However, the trial was anticlimactic.  Marshall, after reading all the pre-trial material, agreed to charge Burr only with the crime of high misdemeanor since acts of treason must be attested by two witnesses.

While the government tried to prove its case, many of its star witnesses never showed up and when they did, their testimony proved faulty.  After weeks of waiting, the court finally heard from General Wilkinson.  He shouldn't have appeared.  After reviewing the famous cipher letter, the jury decided that Wilkinson had doctored it to hide his own participation (which he did) and so the chief witness for the prosecution was himself indicted.  Burr was acquitted on 1 September.

Harassed by creditors and with no prospect of a return to public life, Burr slipped away to Europe.  He spent a considerable amount of time there trying unsuccessfully to gain support for an attack on the Spanish lands in the United States.  He tried in vain to recoup his fortunes.  In June 1812, he returned almost unnoticed to New York.  In quick succession he received two crushing blows, the death of his grandson and then of his cherished daughter.

Burr spent the remaining years of a long life as a moderately successful New York attorney.  In 1833, at the age of 77, he married Eliza Jumel, a wealthy widow. Eliza was granted a divorce on the day that Burr died, after a short illness, at the age of 80 in Staten Island, New York, on 14 September 1836.  Burr's funeral was held in Princeton.  Princeton University President Carnahan preached the funeral sermon in Nassau Hall (in which he decried the evils of duelling).  Escorted to the Princeton Cemetery by members of the faculty, students, alumni, a military band, and the Mercer Guards, Burr was buried with full military honours at the foot of his father's and grandfather's graves.

Sources: written by Charles M Wiltse, Dartmouth College; New Jersey History written by Peter Kross © August 1987; - text by Alexander Valentine partly from Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion © 1978 Princeton University Press; photos from

For Further Reading

Abernathy, Thomas P, The Burr Conspiracy (Oxford 1954)
Cohalan, J, Saga of Aaron Burr (Exposition Press 1986)
Davis, Matthew L, Memoirs of Aaron Burr, 2 vols (1836-1837)
Kline, Mary-Jo, and Ryan, Joanne W, editors, Political Correspondence and Papers of Aaron Burr, 2 volumes (Princeton University Press 1982)
Lomask, Milton, Aaron Burr, 2 vols (Farrar, Straus 1979-1982)

One thing I found to be of interest in reading about Aaron Burr is how opinions of him today are probably about as varied as they were during the time he was alive.  When I began researching the duel, I knew very little about it though I tended to favour Hamilton because the house where Hamilton's fiancée had lived is just around the corner (so he was sort of like my neighbour, only removed in time).  The first author I read seemed neutral.  The next painted Burr as an unscrupulous opportunist at his best and indicated he went downhill from there as he got older.  The article after that one seemed to imply that Hamilton was a jealous hothead who more-or-less got what he deserved.  It put Washington and Jefferson in a bad light and indicated Burr was cheated of the Presidency.  I conclude that the "truth" of history is in one's interpretation.  People are legends when they're alive and become myths after they're dead.  You can probably learn about as much of human nature from watching a good movie or sitting on a park bench.

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