September 2, 2011

Odd man out, II

After Aaron Burr lost the race for governor of New York and after he mortally wounded Alexander Hamilton, it all pretty much went south. (Immediately after the duel he went into hiding to avoid being arrested for murder – and he was still Vice-president of the United States.)

Jefferson in 1805.

He’d be jobless after the next election and his power as a player in New York politics had diminished considerably.  Jefferson, who hated Hamilton – they’d fought so fiercely when both were in Washington’s cabinet that the General had begged them to cease and desist – had grown to hate Burr even more.

It’s hard to understand Jefferson’s enmity when Burr had gone out of his way to help him politically in New York and New England. Among other things, in 1799, Burr prevailed upon the legislature to charter his Manhattan Company as a public water utility, inserting a clause which allowed the company to operate a bank.  The Manhattan Bank became  the second bank in New York, breaking the monopoly held by The Bank of New York, which had been organized seven years earlier by – ready? – Alexander Hamilton.

The Manhattan Bank became a bit of a Jeffersonian slush fund, just in time for the election.

Clearly, Jefferson, Hamilton and Burr were quite an interesting political triangle during the country’s formative years.  After the duel, Jefferson was relieved of one troublesome opponent, but if he thought Burr was going to go away quietly, he was quite wrong.

Chief Justice John Marshall

Burr did leave the east after his term ended, but he bought 40,000 acres in Louisiana and took a company of 80 men with him to settle the land and of course they were armed.  Armed, he later explained, as farmers would be, not with military weapons.  But he settled on Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, in an area surrounded by pockets of Spanish military who continued to lay claim to parts of the land.  Burr expected war with Spain and hoped to profit from it in some way, though how exactly isn’t clear.

But Jefferson – probably suspecting the location was some kind of insult on Burr’s part – was convinced Burr was planning to set up his own empire.  The ins and outs of this particular chapter in Burr’s life are sketchy and complicated and involve a cast of characters that range from quirky to malevolent – for more of the story, go here.

Bottom line, Jefferson accused Burr of treason and ordered his arrest.  Twice.  And twice Burr was freed by the courts.  Jefferson refused to let it go.  Burr was called before a grand jury four times before he was arraigned.  When the case finally got to court, the only evidence against him was a letter he’d supposedly written, but it was in someone else’s handwriting.  On Sept. 1, 1807, Chief Justice John Marshall – in spite of intense pressure from Jefferson – urged the jury to rule in Burr’s favor, prompting an infuriated Jefferson to write

“We supposed we possessed fixed laws to guard us equally against treason and oppression; but it now appears we have no law but the will of a judge.”

Ha – the first complaint about an ‘activist’ judge!

Disgraced, Burr fled to Europe, returning after four years to resume his law practice until his death at the age of 80.  Disgrace has obscured his bravery during the war, his career of public service in New York, his belief in the equality of women and introduction of a women’s suffrage bill, and his even-handed rule over the US Senate, including the establishment of procedures for impeachment. Burr is still on the B-list of founding fathers, but just barely.



  1. Gosh, how much there is to know! didn’t know that Aaron Burr was such an important figure. Certainly puts everything in a different light.So human.


    Comment by GALYA TARMU — September 2, 2011 @ 9:58 am | Reply

  2. holy moley its like a tele-novella great read :).


    Comment by ninachat — September 2, 2011 @ 2:14 pm | Reply



    Comment by avery — September 3, 2011 @ 3:18 pm | Reply

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