Aaron Burr, an early American politician from the state of New Jersey, was the third Vice President of the United States, serving from 1801 to 1805 under Thomas Jefferson. A Revolutionary War hero, Aaron Burr was a member of the Democratic-Republican party, and rose to political prominence in the state of New York, where he held the positions of U.S. Senator and state Attorney General.
It was the presidential election of 1800 between Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson, that served as the impetus for the twelfth amendment of the United States Constitution. The twelfth amendment, which established separate electoral college ballots for president and vice president, was adopted to prevent the contentious situation which arose when the two candidates for the presidency ended up tied with an equal amount of electoral votes. At the time, the law mandated that the candidate with the most votes would become the president, the opposing candidate filling the role of vice president. Since Burr and Jefferson were deadlocked with an equal amount of votes, a vote was held in the House of Representatives to break the tie.
Jefferson won the tie breaker when a number of Federalist representatives abstained from voting at the behest of Alexander Hamilton, the founder of the Federalist party. Hamilton who disliked Burr, questioned Burr’s moral integrity, arguing that a man of his character was not fit to lead the country. The validity of Hamilton’s opinions on Burr are difficult to assess due to the absence of significant historical records that could shed light on this topic. However, it is known that many members of Congress at the time held Burr in high esteem, and admired his leadership qualities in the Senate.
Nearing the end of his vice presidential term, Burr decided to run for governor in the state of New York. Despite a strong political base, and support among many Federalists, Burr was defeated. He blamed his defeat on the dishonest tactics and propaganda perpetrated by his opponents, Alexander Hamilton, among them.
Following his defeat, Burr became incensed upon reading a letter by Charles D. Cooper published in the Albany Register detailing disparaging comments made about him by Hamilton at a dinner party prior to the election. Shortly, thereafter, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel in an effort to rectify what he perceived as a slight to his honor. On 11 July 1804, the two men conducted their duel near the town of Weehawken, New Jersey. In the ensuing duel, one of the most famous in U.S. history, Hamilton’s shot missed, but Burr’s shot hit Hamilton in the abdomen resulting in a wound that proved fatal.
In the wake of the duel, with his political career in shambles, Aaron Burr headed out west to pursue his fortune. In anticipation of a war with Spain over the part of Mexico now known as the state of Texas, Burr with the aid of a wealthy Ohio landowner named Harman Blennerhassett, and General James Wilkinson, the governor of the Louisiana Territory, hoped to establish dominion over the area by force of arms once the conflict arose.
Burr was subsequently betrayed by Wilkinson, and ended up on the run when Jefferson declared him a traitor and guilty of treason. Ironically, Burr twice turned himself in to authorities, only to be released by judges who determined that he had not violated any laws.
Eventually Burr was apprehended by the federal government and brought to trial in 1807 before the Supreme Court. The famous Chief Justice John Marshall presided over the trial, and in a ruling that tested the strength of the U.S. Constitution, acquitted Burr due to lack of witnesses or credible evidence. Marshall acquitted Burr despite all the efforts of the Jeffersonian presidency to secure a guilty verdict.
In the wake of his acquittal, debt ridden, with his political aspirations in shambles, Burr set off for Europe in an attempt to escape his creditors. Never able to restore his financial or political fortunes, Aaron Burr eventually returned to America where he succumbed to a debilitating stroke in 1834, and passed away in 1836.