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Aaron Burr (1801-1805) - Vice President

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Aaron Burr was born in 1756 in Newark, New Jersey, into a family of ministers. His father was the second president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), and his grandfather was Jonathan Edwards, the famous theologian. Burr's parents died when he was a young boy, and he lived with various friends and family as a child. He went to college at Princeton in 1769 at the age of thirteen, graduating three years later. In 1775, with the outbreak of the American Revolution, Burr joined the Army to fight against the British. He accompanied Benedict Arnold's failed expedition to try to invade Quebec, and in 1776 he became a member of General George Washington's staff. He served in the Army until 1779, when ill health forced him to resign. Burr then decided to study law, and he was admitted to the bar in New York in 1782.

After moving to New York City, Burr set up his law practice. He was elected to the state assembly of New York in 1784 and served one term. In 1789, the governor of New York chose Burr as the state attorney general, and just two years later, the state legislature appointed him to the Senate of the United States, where he served until 1797. During his tenure in the Senate, Burr became part of the Democratic-Republicans who were nominally led by Thomas Jefferson. He returned to New York after his stint in the Senate and again served in the state assembly. In 1800, the Democratic-Republicans chose Burr as the vice presidential candidate to run with Thomas Jefferson who was the presidential candidate. During this period, voters could not differentiate their votes between President and vice president. The candidate with the most electoral votes became President and the candidate with the second most electoral votes became vice president. In the 1800 election, when the Democratic-Republican electors all voted for Jefferson and Burr, the two candidates received the same number of votes. Burr refused to concede to Jefferson, and only after thirty-six ballots in the House of Representatives did Jefferson finally prevail to become President. Needless to say, Burr's refusal to concede did not endear him to Jefferson, and he played little role in the administration. As vice president, Burr's primary responsibility was to preside over the Senate, which he did with efficiency and charm. Burr ran for governor of New York in the 1804 election. Alexander Hamilton, a Federalist, led the opposition to Burr's candidacy and spoke out against Burr and questioned his integrity in public. For these perceived slights, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel, during which he shot and killed Hamilton on July 11, 1804. After New York and New Jersey both issued warrants for his arrest, Burr went back to the District of Columbia and resumed his position as vice president, presiding over the Senate. Jefferson did not ask Burr to run with him again in 1804, and Burr went out west after he finished his tenure. There he was involved in a scheme to provoke a war with Mexico and seize land to create his own empire. Although the details of his intrigue remain unclear, Burr was arrested on charges of treason. He was found not guilty and fled to Europe. After spending four years in Europe, Burr returned to the United States and resumed his legal practice. He died in 1836.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Peter Onuf

Professor Onuf is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia. His writings include:

Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood (University Press of Virginia, 2001)

Statehood and Union: A History of the Northwest Ordinance (Indiana University Press, 1987)

Origins of the Federal Republic: Jurisdictional Controversies in the United States, 1775–1787 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983)