The Forgotten History of Aaron Burr

You might have heard the name Aaron Burr before, as he is played by Leslie Odom Jr. in the Broadway hit Hamilton. If you watched the show, you might be thinking, “Hey, I know all about him, I don’t need to know more.” But do you really know the history and accomplishments of Aaron Burr? Aaron Burr was born on February 6, 1756, in Newark, New Jersey, and died on September 14, 1836, in Staten Island, New York. From very early on, Aaron Burr served in the army during the Revolutionary War, and he was eventually promoted to the rank of major. However, Burr had great political ambitions, and in 1800, he ran against Founding Father Thomas Jefferson in the Presidential election. The race was incredibly close, but the presidential office was given to Jefferson, as the House of Representatives had the final vote. At the time, the runner up became vice president, so Burr was then vice president from 1800-1804. However, Burr is perhaps most known for killing former Secretary of State, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel. Despite all of Burr’s achievements in life, after the duel, Burr was looked upon as a villain, his history and numerous influential accomplishments forgotten.

From the very beginning, Burr had many accomplishments running through his bloodline. He was the son of a minister, and the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, a Calvinist theologian. Soon after Burr was born, his family moved to Providence, New Jersey, as his father had accepted the position of being the President of the College of New Jersey. Sadly, Burr was orphaned extremely early in his life, and the cause of his parents' death is lost in history. But Burr kept on going. Like I mentioned before, Burr was very ambitious, and he applied for college at the age of 11. Even though he was rejected initially, Burr applied again at 13, and he was accepted as a sophomore. In college, Burr originally studied theology like his grandfather but later on switched to becoming a lawyer. Even though he was incredibly young to be in college, Burr graduated at the age of 16. Burr was surrounded by many people in his entire life, but the most important person to him was his daughter. In 1781, Burr married widow Theodosia Prevost, and in 1783, their daughter, Theodosia Burr was born. Unfortunately, Burr’s wife died only 11 years later, and Burr and his daughter were left alone. Already having a strong relationship, Burr felt the need to protect his daughter even more than before, and eventually, he was motivated and determined to keep Theodosia safe from all the things that could possibly hurt her

For as many achievements Burr had in his life, he is most recognized for his biggest mistake, getting into a duel, and eventually killing, Alexander Hamilton. Before the duel even took place, many disputes had occurred between the two. Previously, Hamilton had succeeded in getting Burr’s followers to withhold their votes for him; this allowed Thomas Jefferson to win the Presidency. Not only did Hamilton cost Burr the Presidential office, but Hamilton also publicly opposed Burr when he was running for mayor of New York City. However, these actions came after Burr had switched political parties to take the US senate seat from Philip Schuyler, Hamilton’s father in law. Despite all of the previous interactions between the two, Hamilton’s relentless public attacks caused the duel. On July 11, 1804, the infamous duel took place in Weehawken, New Jersey, and both men showed up ready for a fight. Now, after all the arguments and disputes between the two, Burr believed that Hamilton would try his best to at least wound him. Shockingly, what happened was quite the opposite. This quote came from a letter Hamilton penned from June 28 to July 10, 1804 before his untimely death, "I have resolved,” he wrote, “if our interview is conducted in the usual manner, and it pleases God to give me the opportunity, to reserve and throw away my first fire, and I have thoughts even of reserving my second fire.” What Hamilton is trying to say is that he will throw away his shot, purposefully miss Burr, and that he would even do it twice. But how was Burr supposed to know this? He had no idea of knowing Hamilton’s true motives. So when the duel commenced, Hamilton shot a tree some distance away from Burr, but Burr shot Hamilton in the torso, and with the state of medicine at the time, it became clear that the wound was fatal. Word soon spread about what had happened, and the public flew into a rage at Burr. The anger was so intense, that Burr actually had to hide to protect himself from the public’s wrath. But he urr not only fell out of favor with the public, but he lost all political support he had whatsoever. All of it. Whether it was common folk or even his political allies, the Jeffersonians, nobody wanted to be associated with him. 

Based on the way we have learned Burr’s history, many people likely think he is just being recognized as the villain he is. But have you ever thought about how one-sided Burr’s story is? If you look closely, there are tiny details in his story that have a giant impact. For instance, it was not Burr who pursued a duel, it was, in fact, Hamilton. Contrary to popular belief, Burr did not even want to fight, and he tried many times to get out of the duel itself. However, the duel still commenced, and Hamilton still died no matter how many times Burr tried to avoid it. As previously mentioned, the public was furious with Burr, but how did Burr feel about his own actions? Although this quote did not come from his reaction to the duel, it sums up what his reaction could have likely been. Burr said, “Something may occur to you to make you regret your premature actions.” Despite it not being known if the quote was said before or after the duel, the message remains the same. Burr was trying to say that do not act immediately, think through your actions, and then make your decisions. It is especially interesting that Burr used the word “regret”, not another word like “wish”. The word makes it seem that Burr recognizes the negative consequences of his own actions. And after said actions, Burr’s reputation was forever tarnished and ruined, and the perception of Burr as a villain had begun. Despite all of this, his actions did have a big impact on our country, or at least could have. Hamilton was a financial genius, so who knows what our treasury system and the national bank would be like if Hamilton had lived for even a decade longer. Also, if not for that fateful duel, our national history could also look different, and perhaps Burr would not have made so many ill-advised decisions after Hamilton was killed, including even being tried for treason.

Aaron Burr should be recognized for who he was. He was much more than the man who killed Alexander Hamilton, he was a Vice President, a Senator, an army major, a loving father, and so much more than what we are told. He impacted so many lives by fighting for our independence and helping shape our early government. But we have learned valuable lessons from his worst moments. From the notorious duel, we learned that you should always stick with what you believe in, never give in if you know it is not right, and do not let your ambition overtake you. Burr’s importance is large, yet so unrecognized at the same time. So many things could, and would, be different had he not shot Hamilton. The way we learn about his history could be different, and also parts of our government like the treasury system could have changed as well. Although it is true he did not make as big as an impact as other early American figures, we should respect his legacy nonetheless.