The Trial of Aaron Burr
At dusk on the evening of the twenty-sixth of March, in the year 1807, there arrived in Richmond, Virginia, over the road from Fredericksburg, a stagecoach bearing a party of seven men. It pulled up on Main Street before the Eagle Tavern, one of the leading hostelries of the town, where in the growing darkness the passengers descended without attracting great attention.
One of them was a tall, thickset man with a weather-beaten face whose air of authority marked him as leader of the group. His companion, of less than average height, lightly built and erect, wore a rough suit of homespun with pantaloons and a hat with a wide brim which drooped disconsolately over his refined features. Those unmistakable evidences of gentility were in striking contrast to the uncouth dress of a backwoodsman.
The large man bore the name of Nicholas Perkins. He was registrar of the land office of Washington County in faraway Alabama. The second man was Aaron Burr, lately Vice-President of the United States, and now a prisoner of the United States Army. The other five men were his guards, especially picked to assure the safe delivery of the prisoner wherever the authorities might direct. Theirs had not been an arduous task. With one minor exception the prisoner could not have been more co-operative and amenable.
The trip from Alabama had taken 21 days, but the journey which brought Aaron Burr to his present situation might be said to have begun when he first saw the light of day more than 51 years before. For nature had endowed him at birth with a fatal combination of brilliance and deviousness that in the end was to be his undoing.
No man could have been blessed with worthier forebears than was Aaron Burr. The first of the line to arrive in this country was one John Burr, a Puritan, who came to the Massachusetts colony with Governor John Winthrop in 1630. Aaron, born on February 6, 1756, in Newark, New Jersey, represented the fourth generation in descent from the immigrant. His father, whose name he bore, was president of the College of New Jersey, shortly to become Princeton. Aaron's mother was Esther Edwards Burr, daughter of the Rev. Jonathan Edwards, theologian, metaphysician and scholar. Because of his many descendants who achieved distinction, Jonathan Edwards was destined to go down in history as one of the greatest of New England progenitors. Following the death of his son-in-law, Edwards also held the office of President of Princeton.
When Aaron was still a child his father and mother died, and he and his older sister Sally were sent to live with an uncle, Timothy Edwards, of Elizabethtown. Uncle Timothy met his responsibility with Puritan zeal. Aaron's childhood was marked by strict discipline. Distasteful though it may have been it bore practical results. A precocious youngster to begin with, he progressed so rapidly in his studies that he was ready to enter the sophomore class at Princeton at the age of 13 years. In 1772, aged 16, he was graduated at the head of his class.
Already he was beginning to exercise an irresistible charm. The hazel eyes, which seemed to cast a hypnotic spell on whomsoever they fell, the regular handsome features, and an ingratiating manner made him a favorite among his fellows and aroused lively interest in those of the other sex.
Sister Sally by now had married Tapping Reeve, another person of outstanding intellect, who conducted a law school at Litchfield, Connecticut. To Litchfield Aaron repaired, to9 begin professional studies under his brother-in-law. Tradition has it that at Litchfield commenced the series of love affairs that were to earn Aaron the reputation of a philanderer. There he was when the Revolution broke out.
Fired with patriotism, Burr volunteered his services in time to join the expedition against Quebec which was led by Benedict Arnold. In that arduous and ill-fated campaign he conducted himself with courage and fortitude and was rewarded by being made a captain on the headquarters staff. He displayed signal gallantry in the heat of the battle and General Montgomery, Arnold's lieutenant, died in his arms.
Arriving in Albany flushed by his exploits in the Quebec campaign, Burr received word that General Washington would find it agreeable to see him in New York City where the Commander-in-Chief then had his headquarters. On Burr's appearance there the General invited him to join his official family and Burr accepted. The prospect was indeed a pleasing one.
On this occasion, however, the usually irresistible charm failed to work. Burr, young and impetuous and fired with enthusiasm, apparently expected to be taken into General Washington's confidence and to share in planning the grand strategy. On the contrary he was treated with no particular deference and saw himself nothing more than a clerk. Disappointed and discouraged he appealed to John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, who arranged to have him transferred to General Putnam's staff. His stay at general headquarters lasted only about six weeks.
Other later contacts between General Washington and Burr proved to be equally unsatisfactory. In the retreat of the army after the Battle of Long Island Burr saved a brigade from capture and was annoyed when the incident passed unnoticed by the General. When, a year later, a letter came from the General notifying Burr of his promotion to lieutenant colonel, instead of expressing gratitude Burr wrote a petulant reply complaining of others who had been promoted ahead of him and asking whether the late date of the commission was due to any misconduct on his part.
In the winter of Valley Forge Burr proposed a raid on Staten Island which Washington turned down. When in the same winter Generals Conway, Lee, and Gates plotted to relieve Washington of command, Burr was counted in the camp of the conspirators. At the Battle of Monmouth just as Burr was about to attack, General Washington appeared on the scene and countermanded the order. Yet when soon thereafter Burr suffered a sunstroke which ended his military career, Washington accepted his resignation "with regret."
The most authoritative account of the relationship between Washington and Burr is found in the memoir of Matthew L. Davis, Burr's friend of many years and his literary legatee. Davis states that Burr's prejudices against Washington became so fixed and unchangeable that up to his dying day he referred to the retreat from Long Island with acrimonious feelings for the commander. It is equally certain, adds Davis, that for some reason Washington placed no confidence in Burr and was exceedingly hostile to him.
Following his retirement from military service Burr was admitted to the bar and opened a law office in Albany. He soon thereafter married Theodosia Prevost, a widow ten years his senior and already the mother of five children. She bore him two daughters. Little is known about one of them who appears to have died in early childhood. The other, bearing her mother's name, lived on, as we shall see, to play a major role in the life of her father.
Letters of the elder Theodosia to her husband reveal an almost pathetic adulation. On at least one occasion Burr reacted with an impatience such as he seldom showed to anybody. Still, the marriage appears to have been on the whole a happy one, and it lasted twelve years until the death of Mrs. Burr in 1794.
Burr's intellect, his political instinct, and his charm combined to speed him on his career. Casting his lot with the Jeffersonians, he was elected to the New York Assembly. He moved to New York City and soon was recognized as a leader at the bar. There he found Alexander Hamilton already firmly established both in law and politics, and soon to apply his11 power and genius to blocking Burr's further progress. Hamilton, like Burr, was a veteran of the Revolution and had served on Washington's staff; but, unlike Burr, Hamilton was highly esteemed by the Commander-in-Chief. The friendship and mutual confidence there cemented were carried on into civilian life and Hamilton, who shared Washington's conservative views, entered the first President's cabinet as Secretary of the Treasury. When Burr arrived in New York Hamilton was leader of the local Federalists and the Federalists controlled the town.
After the Revolution there was established in New York and other cities in the East an organization bearing the name of the Tammany Society. Its membership was composed of mechanics and like humble citizens and it was dedicated to social, patriotic, and charitable activities. Burr was the first man in public life to realize its potentialities as a political force and to use the New York organization for the advancement of his own political fortunes. Meanwhile he had been appointed Attorney General of the state and from that vantage point was elected to the United States Senate over General Schuyler, Hamilton's father-in-law. The victory, naturally enough, served to aggravate Hamilton's jealousy and increase his concern over this rising political rival.
So far had Burr progressed in popular esteem that, in the Presidential election of 1796, he received 30 electoral votes as against 71 for John Adams, the victor, and 68 for Thomas Jefferson. His term in the Senate having expired, he returned to the practice of law and also to the New York Assembly.
In the Presidential election of 1800 Burr's meteoric political career reached its peak. He and Jefferson, running as Republicans, received an equal number of electoral votes and the election was thrown into the House of Representatives. For the first and last time Burr was within one vote of winning the nation's highest honor. But, on the thirty-sixth ballot, Jefferson was elected. As was the rule in that day Burr, who had received the next highest number of votes, became Vice-President.
In the election Burr had put his political machine to such effective use that the Federalist monopoly in New York was broken and enough Republicans from the city won seats in the Assembly to give their party control. Since the Assembly chose New York's electors, and since in the election of 1800 New York was the pivotal state, Burr could reasonably claim credit for swinging the election which threw the Federalists out of the government in Washington and put the Republicans in.
Hamilton was far from being a silent witness to these events. By now he was thoroughly alarmed not only for himself but for the safety of the nation whose future he saw in jeopardy if the Presidency were to go to a man of the caliber he judged Burr to be. With all the vigor at his command he threw himself into the contest to prevent Burr from winning the necessary votes. "As unprincipled and dangerous a man as any country can boast," "as true a Cataline as ever met in conclave," a man whose "private character is not defended by his most partial friends," "bankrupt beyond redemption except by the plunder of his country," his "public principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandizement"-these were among the extravagant epithets Hamilton applied to Burr in letters to friends. As much as he disliked Jefferson there was no question in Hamilton's mind that the rangy Virginian doctrinaire was the lesser of the two evils. Burr could lay his failure to attain the Presidency to the violent animosity of Hamilton.
Burr's political success in New York was disturbing not only to the Federalists but equally so to certain members of his own party. The New York Republicans were then divided into three factions made up of the followers of the Livingston and Clinton families and of Burr. All three groups were steeped in intrigue and so bankrupt of moral principle that there was little choice between them. Albert Gallatin, Jefferson's Secretary of the Treasury and political mentor, was inclined to give a preference to Burr. Not so Jefferson.
The presidential election over, Burr showed his pique by kicking over the traces. In January 1802 a bill to repeal the hated judiciary act, passed in the previous year by the Federalists,13 reached the Senate. A motion to recommit led to a tie vote and left the decision to the Vice-President. Burr voted with the Federalists. Then a few weeks later, to add insult to injury, he appeared as guest at a dinner given by the Federalists and there proposed a toast to "the union of all honest men." It was abundantly clear to those present that in the select company of honest men Burr emphatically did not mean to include Mr. Jefferson and the rest of the "Virginia dynasty."
Such disloyalty to his party could not be overlooked. Within a few days the Republican press, led by DeWitt Clinton's New York American Citizen and William Duane's Philadelphia Aurora, was in full cry. There was no longer any doubt that Jefferson, the Clintons, and the Livingstons were determined to strip Burr of his power and drive him from the party.
Considering the conflicting temperaments of Burr and Jefferson the split between the two men was inevitable. Though Jefferson professed to believe that Burr had declined the blandishments of the Federalists to have himself elected President in 1801, a truer opinion of Burr is revealed in a letter written some years later to Senator William B. Giles. Jefferson denied having ever had any hostile sentiment toward Burr yet confessed that he had not thought him an honest, frank-dealing man but rather "a crooked gun, or other perverted machine, whose aim or shot you could never be sure of."
An election for Governor of New York was scheduled for the spring of 1804 and though Burr's term as Vice-President would not be up until March of the following year he announced himself as a candidate. But the Clintons and the Livingstons controlled the party machine. While the rank and file were for Burr the leaders saw to it that the nomination went to one Morgan Lewis. Since the Federalists had no candidate of their own and Burr was well liked by many of them, he decided to run as an independent candidate, counting on both Federalist and Republican votes. Here he met with violent opposition from Alexander Hamilton, who had no intention being of humiliated by Burr, whom he disliked and distrusted, winning the election with the aid of Federalist votes. In the14 bitter campaign which followed Lewis, with the support of the regular Republicans and a minority of Federalists, was swept into office. Burr's defeat, attributed largely to Hamilton's intervention, spelled the end of his political career.
In the course of the campaign Hamilton attended a dinner at the home of a friend in Albany. It was an assembly of intimates and Hamilton freely expressed his opinion of Burr. The matter might have ended there had not the remarks he was supposed to have made found their way into an Albany newspaper, from which they were picked up by other newspapers throughout the state and used extensively in the campaign. One remark was to the effect that Hamilton had said Burr was a "dangerous man and ought not to be trusted." The other credited Hamilton with having applied to Burr the term "despicable."
Burr waited until the campaign was over. Then he wrote Hamilton a letter stating that the remarks had been brought to his attention and demanding an explanation. Hamilton's reply was evasive. After further exchanges failed to give satisfaction, Burr's friend William P. Van Ness presented himself before Hamilton with a challenge to a duel. Hamilton accepted. The date set was July 11 and the place the heights of Weehawken in New Jersey across the Hudson River from New York City.
On July 4, according to its custom, the Society of the Cincinnati, composed of former officers of the American army in the Revolution, held a convivial celebration in honor of the Declaration of Independence. Both Hamilton and Burr were members and both attended. Those present recalled later that Hamilton was unusually gay, leading the others in song, while Burr was more serious than was his usual custom at these parties. Their conduct toward each other was so correct that nobody suspected that the two men shortly were to meet in a duel.
Early on the morning of the 11th Hamilton, accompanied by Nathaniel Pendleton, his second, and Dr. Davis Hosack, his surgeon, crossed the river and arrived at the rendezvous. They found Burr and Van Ness already on the ground, busy clearing15 away the underbrush and overhanging boughs. The formal greetings required by the "Code" were exchanged. The seconds loaded, inspected and approved the pistols, and agreed on the procedure.
The principals took their positions. In appearance they were evenly matched. Both men were short of stature, trim in figure, alert but calm. Whatever their shortcomings neither lacked physical courage. With pistols gripped they awaited instructions which were not long in coming.
The order "Fire!" was given by Pendleton in a loud voice, and two shots followed. Burr stood unmoved; Hamilton fell forward on his face. Pendleton and Hosack rushed to the wounded man's side. Burr made a motion as if to do likewise but was restrained by Van Ness, and after removing their hats in respect for their opponent they left the scene.
Hamilton managed to tell Dr. Hosack he believed the wound was fatal before he lost consciousness. The ball had passed through his liver and lodged in his spine. He was rowed back across the river to New York and, suffering great pain, lingered through the day and night and died the following afternoon.
An incident which occurred on Burr's return to Richmond Hill, his handsome country home outside the city, affords a momentary glimpse into the strange character of the man. A young relative, unaware of what had happened, dropped by and found Burr engrossed in ordinary household matters. He accepted an invitation to breakfast where the conversation was confined to general topics. After breakfast the young man said goodby and went down to Wall Street where a friend inquired if he had heard that Burr had killed Hamilton in a duel. "Impossible," exclaimed the relative, "I have just had breakfast with the Colonel and he said nothing about it."
Those who knew him well say that Burr would have expected no mourning had he, and not Hamilton, been killed.
But if Burr's conscience was clear, not so that of the local community. Before this meeting public opinion had turned strongly against dueling as a means of settling personal differences.16 Anger reached fever heat when the victim was so distinguished and popular a man as Hamilton. The public cried out for punishment. Burr was indicted for murder in New Jersey and for a misdemeanor in New York. To escape the action of the courts he had to leave home and, as he expressed it, "give a little time for passions to subside."
When men faced the possibility of death in a duel it was customary for them, on the eve of the meeting, to set down parting messages. Burr's on this occasion was a touching farewell to his daughter Theodosia. Hamilton's contained an apology for his attacks on Burr. Confessing that in some particulars he might have been influenced "by misconstruction of misinformation," he concluded: "It is also my ardent wish that I may have been more mistaken than I think I have been, and that he, by his future conduct, may show himself worthy of all confidence and esteem, and prove an ornament and a blessing to the country." Later events were to give a prophetic quality to the doubt expressed.
The situation in which he found himself did little to disturb Burr's natural buoyancy. He allowed himself to be involved in a romantic episode with a lady named Celeste and wrote gaily to Theodosia: "If any male friend of yours should be dying of ennui, recommend to him to engage in a duel and a courtship at the same time. Prob. est."
Burr's objective at this time was a reunion with Theodosia, who had married Joseph Alston, a wealthy South Carolina planter. The Alstons, and their little son Aaron Burr Alston, had a home in Charleston. Before going there Burr spent a brief vacation at St. Simon's Island, Georgia. His traveling companion, who acted also as secretary and aide-de-camp, was Samuel Swartwout, whom Burr described as "a very amiable young man of twenty or twenty-one." Samuel was the younger brother of John Swartwout, onetime Collector of the Port of New York and a political ally of Burr who had been ignominiously discharged by Jefferson. More will be heard of Samuel.
In the journey from Georgia to Charleston Burr included a 200-mile canoe trip by inland waterways which revealed his17 exceptional powers of endurance at the age of 48 years.
Around the beginning of the New Year of 1805 Burr was back in Washington as presiding officer of the Senate. His admirable conduct of the impeachment trial of Justice Samuel Chase has been mentioned. But his official days were numbered. In the election of 1804 the Republicans chose DeWitt Clinton, his New York rival, for second place on the ticket. The Republicans were again the victors and Jefferson and Clinton took office on March 1, while Burr went out.
The Vice-President made a dramatic exit. On the eve of his departure he addressed the Senate. No scribe was at hand to record for posterity his exact words. He himself stated that he had made no previous preparation, but spoke merely from the heart. What posterity does know is that he spoke so earnestly, so eloquently, and so convincingly that some of his colleagues in that austere body broke down and wept unashamedly. When he had finished, in spite of the duel, in spite of political animosities and suspicions, they "Resolved, unanimously, that the thanks of the Senate, be presented to Aaron Burr, in testimony of the impartiality, dignity and ability with which he has presided over their deliberations, and of the arduous and important duties assigned him as President of the Senate."
Was he not to be excused if, with such impressive evidence of magic power over his fellow men, he was led to imagine that destiny still had great things in store for him?
Yet, for the moment, there were serious defects in his fortunes which called for immediate repair. He was out of political office. The indictments against him in New York and New Jersey made it impossible for him to return home to the practice of law which hitherto he had found lucrative. Always extravagant in his tastes, and chronically living beyond his means, he was now heavily in debt. Soon after the duel he had been obliged to sell Richmond Hill for $25,000 to meet his more pressing obligations. As one of his biographers says of him, he was at this point what is popularly described as "a ruined man." Under these discouraging circumstances Burr turned his eyes to the West.