If there’s only one thing you know about Aaron Burr, it’s probably this: on 11th July 1804 he shot Alexander Hamilton in a Weehawken duel. Hamilton died.
But there is a lot more to the third American vice president. It’s easy for it all to be overshadowed by the scandalous Burr-Hamilton duel, so in this article we’re going to shine the spotlight on 10 fascinating facts that make Burr such a controversial character in U.S. history.
Aaron Burr: 10 Facts About America’s Third Vice President
1. He had lots of children.
Aaron Burr had four biological children, two stepsons, two adopted sons, several protégées, and rumors suggest he also fathered several illegitimate children. One of those illegitimate children was said to be Martin Van Buren—the eighth president of the United States. This rumor—which has no basis—was recorded by John Quincy Adams in his personal journal.
Rumors of other illegitimate children have more basis. Several families claim to be descendants of Burr. During his first marriage, a woman of Indian or Haitian descent was employed by the Burrs as a governess. He is said to have fathered two children by the woman.
One of Burr’s protégées was the daughter of a French marquis, who was sent to the U.S. for safe keeping during the French Revolution. The other was famed painter, John Vanderlyn. Burr supported him financially for over two decades, and paid for him to attend art school in Paris. Rumors of other illegitimate children have more basis.
2. President Jefferson had him tried for treason
After Burr delivered his farewell address to the Senate in 1805, he was replaced by George Clinton. He left Washington and headed east. At the time, this was considered a suspicious move, with many assuming Burr was planning to conduct hostile takeovers and create an independent state. President Jefferson was one of those people.
In 1806 the president ordered the arrest of his former VP, who was charged with treason and taken to Virginia for trial. The Supreme Court Justice who presided over the case said there was not sufficient evidence to convict, and acquitted Burr. Once the trial was over, Burr went into self-exile in Europe for the next 4 years, which is an interesting fact about Aaron Burr.
3. He was indicted for murder twice (for that duel)
Not only did the duel make Burr a social outcast, the legal fallout was devastating to his financial and political standing as well. A New York coroner’s jury indicted him for murder in August, and in the following October a New Jersey court followed suit. Writing to his daughter, Theodosia, Burr explained:
“There is a contention of a singular nature between the two States of New York and New Jersey. The subject in dispute is which shall have the honor of hanging the Vice President. You shall have due notice of time and place.”
Both charges were dropped, thanks to the few political friends Burr had left in the U.S. Senate.
4. Burr helped Tennessee join the Union
Back in 1796, Tennessee was still an independent federal territory. It’s governor, William Blount, drafted and presented a constitution to the U.S. Congress. There was friction between the House and the Senate, and a bipartisan Senate committee was put in place to address the issue and come to a resolution. Burr was appointed as manager of the committee. He used his considerable influence at the time to ensure the committee ruled in favor of Tennessee joining the Union, an excellent fact about Aaron Burr. Tennessee officially became the 16th state of the Union in June 1796.
5. He liked a drink and a cigar
Aaron Burr’s law clerk, John Greenwood, recalled that Burr often ordered custom cigars, and liked to pair the best ones with fine wines. He enjoyed wine with his cigars, over the tipple of the time—brandy.
6. Burr stopped a duel between Alexander Hamilton and James Monroe
The story goes something like this:
Monroe called Hamilton out for giving government money to a man imprisoned for forgery. Hamilton explained that he had an affair with the imprisoned man’s wife, and that the funds were a blackmail payment.
A few years later, Hamilton’s affair was revealed publically, driving him to accuse Monroe of leaking the dirty secret as revenge. After months of bickering, the two agreed to a duel, with Monroe choosing Burr to negotiate the terms. Instead, Burr used his considerable diplomacy skills to talk both men out of the shoot-off.
Seven years later, Burr would shoot Hamilton himself.
7. He founded J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.
In the late 1700s, most established New York banks refused to lend money to Democratic-Republicans. Burr—one of the most well-known Democratic-Republicans—desperately needed a way around this issue.
He created the Manhattan Company under the guise of providing clean water, and then used a loophole in company legislation to turn it into a bank. Today, banking giant J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. owns and displays the pistols used in the Burr-Hamilton duel. That Burr founded J. P. Morgan is not a well-known fact about Aaron Burr.
8. He served under Benedict Arnold
Yes, the other notorious character in American history. Colonel Arnold led 1,100 soldiers—including Burr—from Massachusetts to Quebec in 1775. He grossly underestimated the length of the journey, and lost almost half his unit on the journey. Some deserted, some died, and many were captured by the enemy during their trek.
9. Aaron Burr was a smart kid
He applied to Princeton University for the very first time at just 11 years old. He was rejected, but applied again a couple of years later. This time he was accepted, at just 13 years old. He graduated at 16, an interesting fact about Aaron Burr.
Burr and his sister were orphaned young and raised by their uncle in Massachusetts and then New Jersey.
10. Burr believed in equality between men and women
Burr and his first wife hung a portrait of famed women’s rights writer, Mary Wollstonecraft, above their fireplace. They shared a love of promoting equal rights for both genders, and were motivated to provide their daughter with the kind of high-quality education that was reserved for males.
Burr died in September 1836 on Staten Island, following a stroke in 1834. Throughout his 80 years, Aaron Burr was a charismatic man who made many friends, and also many enemies. His lack of remorse over the death of Alexander Hamilton is well documented, and he continues to be one of the most controversial political figures in U.S. history.
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