Five Myths About Aaron Burr



David O. Stewart is the author of the recently-released American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America.

The truth about the charismatic Aaron Burr, our third vice president, was often surprising. Unsurprisingly, few historical figures have spawned so many inaccurate myths.

Intensely ambitious, Burr ached to become president. Instead, he landed atop the list of America’s Bad Boys, remembered principally for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Other unflattering Burr memories include the presidential election of 1800, when he and Thomas Jefferson finished in a prolonged tie even though they were running mates, and Burr’s expedition in 1806-07 to conquer the Spanish colonies of Texas, Mexico, and Florida and even to incite America’s Western lands to secede. Yet the myths are even more remarkable.

1. Burr was a vindictive harpy who relentlessly hounded Hamilton until he slaughtered the former Secretary of the Treasury on the dueling ground.

No record survives that Burr ever uttered or wrote a harsh word about Alexander Hamilton until their duel in July 1804. In contrast, for more than a decade Hamilton regularly denounced Burr as corrupt, dangerously ambitious, and utterly unprincipled. In one spasm of anti-Burr rhetoric, Hamilton wrote that Burr was “bankrupt beyond redemption, except by plunder of his country. His public principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandizement ... [H]e will certainly disturb our institutions to secure to himself permanent power.”

Twice before the duel, Burr objected to Hamilton’s remarks about him. On both occasions, Hamilton apologized. In June 1804, Burr learned that Hamilton said he held an opinion of Burr “still more despicable,” a term that then implied perverse personal habits. When Burr demanded a retraction, or an explanation, or Hamilton’s presence on a field of honor, Hamilton chose the duel.

2. Burr was a crack shot who lured Hamilton into the duel.

Both Hamilton and Burr were brave soldiers during the Revolutionary War. Both knew well the clumsy firearms of their time. There is no evidence, however, that Burr was an especially talented marksman. Six years before the contest with Hamilton, Burr fought a duel against John Barker Church, Hamilton’s brother-in-law, on the same ground in Weehawken, New Jersey. Burr’s shot missed Church entirely while Church’s bullet passed through Burr’s clothing but did not injure him.

3. Burr schemed with the opposition Federalist Party to cheat Jefferson out of the presidency when the House of Representatives decided the election of 1800.

The historic tie between Burr and Jefferson occurred because electors then cast two votes for president, with the top vote-getter becoming president and the runner-up becoming vice-president. In 1796, the Federalist John Adams won but his opponent, Jefferson, finished second and became vice president. To avoid that result in 1800, Republican electors observed strict party discipline, which landed Jefferson and Burr in a tie. Under the Constitution, the House of Representatives had to choose the president from the top two finishers.

Burr issued a statement that the nation expected Jefferson to be president. When pressed to declare that he would not accept the office, Burr took offense. He issued a second statement that no man of honor could declare himself unfit for the presidency and he would not do so. Encouraged by Burr’s second statement, House Federalists resolved to back him, producing a week-long deadlock through 35 ballots. No evidence has ever emerged that Burr, who was hundreds of miles away in Albany, encouraged the Federalists. He ultimately wrote from Albany to ask that Federalists stop supporting him.

4. Burr’s Western expedition in 1806-07 aimed solely to establish a new settlement on the Ouachita River near present-day Monroe, Louisiana.

On several occasions Burr said the purpose of his Western expedition was to settle land on the Ouachita. On its face, the claim was implausible. Burr was an entirely urban character, with no experience of or interest in the life of the soil. When it set off, the expedition included no agricultural implements, seed, or tools. It did include crates of muskets and other weapons.

Moreover, in conversations with the British ambassador, in correspondence with General-In-Chief James Wilkinson, and in other exchanges, Burr said his purpose was to lead an invasion of the Spanish colonies of Florida, Texas, and Mexico. That was the same message delivered directly to Jefferson by one of Burr’s lieutenants, Erick Bollman, in a conference at the Executive Mansion while Bollman was under arrest for treason.

5. Martin Van Buren, the eighth president, was Burr’s illegitimate son.

Burr almost surely fathered children out of wedlock. His enthusiasm for the opposite sex was well documented, and he was an unmarried adult for forty years, between the ages of 37 and 77. In the final stage of his career, while practicing law in New York from 1813 to 1835, he raised two young men in his home (Aaron Burr Columbus and Charles Burdett) who were presumed to be his illegitimate sons.

Burr and Van Buren, who were twenty-six years apart in age, had friends in common and associated together on legal cases in New York City. Both were small men, vain about their appearance, with reputations for deft political maneuvering. Although the paternity rumor has lingered for centuries, nothing has ever come to light that demonstrates that Burr was Van Buren’s father.

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