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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Forgotten Man

By Tom Morrow

If you were asked who the third Vice President of the United States was, few would know it was Aaron Burr.

Wait a minute — didn’t he shoot and kill our first Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in a duel?

Hamilton prominently takes his place in history as founder of what today is the Federal Reserve, the U.S. Mint, and with his picture on the $20 bill. Conversely, Aaron Burr’s bio is found in very few school history books, primarily because of his 1807 duel with founding father Hamilton.

Burr had an illustrious war record, serving during the Revolutionary War under Gen. Benedict Arnold in the Quebec expedition. Burr distinguished himself in that battle earning a place on Gen. George Washington’s staff. But, after only two weeks, he asked for a transfer back to the battlefield.

In battle, Burr saved an entire brigade, which included Hamilton, from capture after the British landed on Manhattan. Evidently miffed because Burr had resigned from his staff, Washington did not commend Burr for his heroic actions. This led to an eventually estrangement between the two men.

In 1777, Burr was promoted to lieutenant colonel, assuming command of a regiment. During the harsh winter at Valley Forge, Burr led a small unit guarding an isolated pass. He drove back an attempted mutiny by troops who wanted to escape the Valley Forge winter.

In 1779, Burr had to leave the Army due to bad health, but he remained active in the War. He was assigned by Washington to perform occasional intelligence missions. During one of those missions, Burr rallied a group of Yale students in New Haven, Conn., to aid a small group of soldiers in a skirmish with the British. This action repelled the enemy’s advance, forcing them to retreat.

He was admitted to the bar of New York in 1782.Burr was twice elected to the New York state Assembly, was appointed State Attorney General, then he was chosen as a U.S. Senator.

In those days, the office of President was elected by the U.S. Senate. After some 38 ballots in a close election, Burr’s presidential run for President against Thomas Jefferson lost by one vote, relegating Burr to the office of Vice President, which, in those days, second-place finishers were relegated.

Burr blamed Hamilton for his defeat.In business, It would be among the first of a long line of insults and disagreements between Burr and Hamilton.

Then the two men became founding bankers. Burr founded the Bank of Manhattan Company, which today is JP Morgan-Chase. Hamilton founded rival Bank of New York, making them bitter political and business competitors.

It’s the fame duel that caused Burr to be banished to near historical obscurity. What caused the duel is a matter of conjecture. One of the reasons could be Hamilton’s vicious rumors. The two men were often invited to dinner parties hosted by leading New York politicians, businessmen and even each other. During those years, Burr was widowed and lived with his daughter and husband. Hamilton reportedly suggested at a social gathering that Burr committed incest with his daughter. Enraged, the Vice President challenged the Treasury Secretary to a duel in Weehawken, N.J., as dueling was illegal in New York State. Hamilton was mortally wounded, dying a day later. Hamilton’s death destroyed Burr’s political, social, and business career and standing.

Years later, Burr traveled west to embark upon what was an alleged attempt to form a new nation, for which he was charged with treason, but later was acquitted.

Burr spent the remainder of his life in obscurity practicing law in New York, dying in 1836.

For an interesting look at Burr’s life in historical novel form, try Gore Vidal’s “Burr.”

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