When you go through many of our villains in American history, there is usually a simple reason why they are hated in history. Ask anyone who John Wilkes Booth is, and they can say he shot Abraham Lincoln. Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK. Another one of those villains (according to many historians) was Aaron Burr, but when you ask what was the problem with Burr, you get all sorts of answers, everything from he killed Hamilton, to he was a traitor, or Burr was secretive, or Burr was a womanizer. Another was that Burr was an enemy of democracy. Burr was supposedly the most unprincipled of all the Founding Fathers, only out for his own reputation or power for power’s sake. One of my favorite was that Burr had an incestuous relationship with his daughter Theodosia. Something never just sat right with me about this, so a few years back I started learning about the real Aaron Burr, and the real Aaron Burr was very different from the myth given to us by supporters of Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Jefferson. Not to mention lazy historians who just want to sell a book without doing any actual work on their own. Not to mention the Fake News of the time from the political newspapers.
And when you go through Burr’s legislative history and his thoughts on issues – Burr was no enemy of democracy. Instead Burr was the first anti establishment politician. In the late 1700’s the Founding Fathers were very expressed about limiting who could vote. They wanted voting only open to white males who were property owners – because (in their minds) only white males who owned property could be trusted with such an important concept as voting. Also only white males could own property. Women and free blacks could not sit on juries.
The Hamiltonians state that Burr was an enemy to democracy. Yet facts are stubborn things, and the facts show that something very different occurred.
Burr believed that people of all political philosophies had the right to be heard. But in Alexander Hamilton’s New York State, only Hamilton’s supporters could run for office because he controlled the Bank of Manhattan (Now known as Citibank). Meaning that only a friend of Hamilton’s could get a loan to purchase a house or open a business. This gave Hamilton a death grip on NY State/City politics. Burr understood this was inherently wrong, and thus opened a bank to loan money to anyone with good credit no matter what their political leanings. You know this bank as JP Morgan Chase. This broke Hamilton’s political death grip on New York. So much so that in 1790, Burr beat Hamilton’s father in law (Schuyler) for a US Senate seat. So Hamilton was not being patriotic in his hatred of Burr. Hamilton was pissed that Burr beat him at his own game.
One of Hamilton’s main complaints with Burr was that Burr was unprincipled. Yet in 1784, Hamilton had no problem working with then State Assemblyman Aaron Burr to try and get a constitutional amendment passed which would ban slavery from the US. Burr was also a part of the NY Legislature which banned slavery in 1799. Aka taking on the plantation owners in NY State. Burr had the guts to take on the powers that be which controlled Albany at the time.
There were 4 major political philosophies at the time in early US history. The easiest way to compare the Founding Fathers to our modern day politicians would be to say that the Federalists (Hamilton, G Washington, John Adams) would be a Joe Lieberman style Democrat. They believed in big business, felt that a strong bureaucracy was necessary, thought that the court system needed to play an activist role, but also believed in a strong military. They supported the concept of a strong and activist federal government. (However they would have been horrified at what the federal government has now become)
The Democratic Republicans (Jefferson and Madison) would be considered Rand Paul style Libertarian Republicans (again rough comparison). They supported low taxes, no bureaucracy, but were very anti interventionalist and wanted no military. The Jeffersonians were terrified of the concept of an activist court. The Jeffersonians were states rights activists.
The few supporters of Thomas Paine believed in a social net and in social justice. They would have been very comfortable in Nancy Pelosi’s Democratic Party. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/paine/ (read section 2.5 on Paine and the Welfare state).
The fourth and final group were the Burrites (part of the Democratic Republican coalition). The Burrites believed in states rights, and a non activist court system. But unlike the Jeffersonians, the Burrite wing of the party supported a strong military, and were proponents of big business. The Burrites were most like Ronald Reagan in their philosophy.
Jefferson knew that he could not win the Presidency without Burr bringing along NY State. So Burr and Jefferson made a deal, in which Jefferson would be President, and Burr would be VP. They allied and won the election of 1800 from the Federalist party of John Adams. But due to a bizarre quirk of fate, and the electoral system at the time (there was no party system in place when the Founders wrote the Constitution), Burr and Jefferson tied for the most electoral votes. So the election was sent to Congress to straighten out. The Federalists – knowing that their hold on power was tenuous, tried to gum up the works by voting for Burr for President – either because they wanted to obtain concessions from Jefferson or because they were afraid that Jefferson was a rigid ideologue. And even though Burr did send to Jefferson a letter in early 1801 stating that everyone knew that Jefferson was supposed to be President and that they must wait out the political games in Congress, somehow Burr was blamed for the impasse, and became known as secretive. A charge which would haunt him many times in the years to come.
Jefferson then set out to destroy his political rival for multiple reasons. In fairness to Jefferson, Americans at the time tended to not think of themselves as American citizens, but as citizens of their own home state. So Jefferson would naturally want his ally James Madison to be the next President. Also Burr was one of the most popular politicians in the country. Much more liked than Jefferson or Hamilton. So Jefferson – being afraid that Burr might become the next President and destroy his political movement, went out to cut Aaron Burr’s political base out from under him, and then destroy his reputation. The Jeffersonian newspapers then went on a smear campaign, labeling Burr everything from an enemy to democracy to being a pedophile.
When in 1804 it was obvious that Burr was not wanted on the Jeffersonian ticket, he then ran for Governor of NY State. Both Hamilton and Jefferson wanted to kill Burr’s political career once and for all. So they went after Burr from both sides, and the end result was that Burr lost the governor’s race in a landslide. Then the fun began.
A local paper published an article talking about how Burr was “despicable”. In early America, the term despicable had a slightly different meaning. In 1804 the term despicable meant “not fit for polite society” (meaning a flasher or serial rapist or child molestor). Burr read this, and asked Hamilton to explain what he meant. Hamilton could have said that he did not like Burr’s politics or something to that effect. Instead Hamilton stood by his words, and dared Burr to challenge him to a duel.
They go through the dance that was at the time known as the “code duello” and at Weehauken they did meet and the rest is known history. Or was it? History tells us that Burr killed Hamilton in cold blood after Hamilton “wasted his shot” (fired in the air). Yet an inspection of the dueling pistols provided by Hamilton clearly shows that Hamilton had “cheated” by playing with the trigger pressure – giving himself an unfair advantage. So if we are to believe the 1976 Smithsonian magazine – Hamilton cheated, yet Burr won the duel, and still Burr was the bad guy. Read page 96 of the Smithsonian Magazine on this issue. http://www.aaronburrassociation.org/Smithsonian.htm
This marked the end of Aaron Burr’s political career. But the powers that be were not yet done.
Jefferson then had Burr arrested and charged with treason for organizing a “filibuster” into then Latin America. The US went jury shopping, and finally on the 4th warrant, got an indictment of the charge of treason against Burr. The charges were laughed out of court as much of the evidence was based on fraudulently written documents provided by the military governor of New Orleans. We will never know exactly what Burr was trying to do. But we do know that the case was tossed out by the Chief Justice before ever reaching the jury.
Was Burr a perfect man? Of course not. After the death of his 1st wife (also named Theodosia) he became the womanizing letch which the Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians proclaimed he was. Likely Burr had 2 children out of wedlock. He was careless with his finances. His second marriage near the end of his life (the 1st celebrity divorce case in US history) was a disaster of Biblical proportions. Probably his biggest mistake of all was a refusal to respond to his political enemies. Burr’s reputation will forever suffer because he never would respond to his enemies in the newspapers of the time.
Aaron Burr’s personal papers were forever lost when his daughter Theodosia died in a shipwreck off the coast of Charleston SC in 1812. So we do not know as much as we want to know about him. And likely we never will. But what we do know is this much: Burr was one of the first military heroes of the Continental army. Burr was one of the first abolitionists and because of Aaron Burr’s work, blacks and women could vote in much of NY State in the early 1800’s. Burr was a kind and giving man. Burr was also probably the best natural politician of his date. People would meet him and fall in love with him on the spot. A trait that neither the taciturn George Washington, the arrogant Alexander Hamilton, the moody John Adams, nor the recalcitrant Thomas Jefferson never had.
Burr deservers a respected place among our Founding Fathers for being a principled man, for supporting the end of slavery. For supporting the rights of women to vote. And, whether the Jeffersonians like it or not, Burr was the man who ensured that Thomas Jefferson became our 3rd President.
Final note to all politicians – learn from Aaron Burr – you must respond and fight back against Fake News. And for those of you who wonder why Trump fights back the way he does, however anyone feels about Donald Trump, he won’t lie down and take it the way that Aaron Burr did.