The Forgotten Man: Aaron Burr
By Tom Morrow
If asked who the third man to hold the vice presidency of the United States was, few would know it was Aaron Burr who was noted for one historical event – a duel killing U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton
Hamilton prominently has taken his place in history as founder of what today is the Federal Reserve, the U.S. Mint – as such he gets his picture on the $10 bill. Conversely, Burr’s bio is found in very few history books, primarily because of their1807 duel. Hamilton remains historically well-known, especially since a recent Broadway musical “loosely” depicts his character.
Burr was a serving officer during the Revolutionary War under another controversial character: Gen. Benedict Arnold during the Quebec, Canada expedition. Burr distinguished himself in that battle earning a place on Gen. George Washington’s command staff. But, after only two weeks, Burr asked for a transfer back to the battlefield.
During the ensuing battle when the British landed on Manhattan, Burr saved an entire brigade from capture, including a young Alexander Hamilton. Evidently miffed because Burr had resigned from his staff, Washington did not commend Burr for his heroic actions on Manhattan. The snub by Washington led to an eventual estrangement between the two men. Nonetheless, Burr distinguished himself with a number of daring and heroic exploits during the Revolutionary War.
In 1777, Washington “buried the hatchet” and promoted Burr to lieutenant colonel. He was given command of a regiment. During the harsh winter at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania Burr led a small unit guarding an isolated pass. He and his men drove back an attempted mutiny by troops who tried to escape the miserable Valley Forge winter.
In 1779, Burr had to leave the Army due to bad health, but he remained active when assigned by Washington to perform occasional intelligence-gathering missions. During his days as a spy, Burr rallied a group of Yale students in New Haven, Conn., aiding a small group of Yankee soldiers in a skirmish with the British. This action repelled the enemy’s advance, forcing the British to retreat.
In 1792, Burr was admitted to the bar of New York. As an attorney, Burr later entered politics and was twice-elected to the New York state legislature. He 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 Senate. While in the Senate Burr ran for President against Thomas Jefferson, but lost by one vote, relegating him to the office of Vice President, where second-place finishers automatically landed. Burr blamed Hamilton for his defeat. The two men were pillars in New York social, political and business circles and had become bitter enemies. During the selection for president, Hamilton rallied several senators to vote against Burr – even a few who were enemies of Hamilton, but they hated Burr even more. Thomas Jefferson, who had his own rivals, was looked upon as “the lesser of two evils.”
In business Burr was highly successful. He established the Bank of Manhattan, which continues today as JP Morgan-Chase. Near the same time, Hamilton founded the competing Bank of New York, deepining their political and business rivalry even more.
Ironically, it’s their duel that caused Burr to be banished to historical obscurity. What caused the duel is a matter of conjecture. One of the reasons could be traced to Hamilton’s vicious rumors he spread in various newspaper columns.
During those years as business competitors, Burr was widowed and lived with his daughter and her husband. Hamilton reportedly suggested to a newspaper columnist Burr was committing incest with his own daughter. Enraged, Vice President Burr challenged Treasury Secretary Hamilton to a duel in Weehawken, N.J. Dueling was illegal which caused them to cross the Hudson River. As a result, Hamilton was mortally wounded, dying a day later. Hamilton’s death destroyed Burr’s political and business career and put him into social disgrace.
Years later, Burr traveled west to embark upon what was an alleged attempt to form a new country. He was charged with treason by the federal government, but later acquitted. Still, his reputation as a less-than honorable man persists despite his many deeds during the Revolutionary War.
Burr spent the remainder of his life in relative obscurity practicing law in New York. He died in 1836. The many achievements of Aaron Burr have been forgotten except for that famous conflict between him and Hamilton. That event is about the only point of history students of today learn about Burr. It is simply referred to as “The Duel” and usually needs no further explanation.
Some 30 years ago Aaron Burr’s life was loosely portrayed by author Gore Vidal in his historical novel, “Burr.” I recommend it.