Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Vice President Profile: Aaron Burr

June 15, 2016 by Olivia Fitzpatrick


As part of a continuing series this summer, Constitution Daily looks at Vice Presidential selections that had an impact on the Constitution. First up – the Vice President who forced Congress and the states to approve and ratify the 12th Amendment: Aaron Burr.

Jefferson and Burr - the worst of running mates!

The hats a Vice President wears are numerous: A shaper of policy and public opinion, a vice president is more than the last name hugging the president’s on a bumper sticker.

In colonial times, Vice Presidents were not strategically chosen partners, but rather the election’s runner up. Thomas Jefferson famously served as John Adams’ veep, their mutual animosity common knowledge in the New Republic. Had a tie between Jefferson and Aaron Burr not resulted in the following election,

Burr was born on February 6, 1756 in Newark, New Jersey. The grandson of the famous theologian of the day, Jonathon Edwards, Burr was raised New Light Presbyterian. His father, Aaron Burr, Sr., was the president of The College of New Jersey (now Princeton) at a time when only three other acting college presidents lived within the colonies. However, it would be women, rather than his famous grandfather and father, who shaped his life.

Esther Edwards Burr, his mother, was an outspoken woman of her time. Though she died when Burr was just two years old, her influence was a lasting one. Before Burr was three years old, he’d lost both parents and his maternal grandparents. His remaining family included a sister, Sally, who he was educated alongside of by tutor, Tapping Reeve. Perhaps his belief in the education of women was instilled here. He would go on to marry a woman 10 years his senior, Theodosia Bartow Prevost, who was renowned in the colonies for her intellectual prowess and home, which was modeled on a French Salon, during the American Revolution. Their daughter Theodosia (yes, the Theodosia from Hamilton’s “Dear Theodosia”  ) was highly educated with Burr supervising much of her curriculum. However, Burr’s feminism is often lost in history. When one’s duel with Alexander Hamilton results in a Founding Father’s death, one is hardly remembered for much else.

Before he was Hamilton’s nemesis, however, he was just “Little Burr”, a 13- year-old sophomore at Princeton. Most of his peers were four years older and Burr quickly made a name for himself. At the time of Burr’s entrance to Princeton, John Witherspoon (a signer of the Declaration of Independence) was president. This is critical. Had Witherspoon not brought Scottish enlightenment ideals to the colonies, stressing mathematics, geography and history, Burr might have followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.  However, this emphasis on educating the whole person, sent him from the church and to the courtroom.

At Princeton, while significantly younger than his classmates, Burr was a troublemaker. Students at the time studied up to 18 hours a day and though Burr would have been no different, he made time to be a part of both Princeton’s rival clubs of the day: the Whigs and the Cilios. Some argue his “party switching” was foreshadowed in this, while others argue the club system at Princeton provided a basis of the party system itself. Interestingly, James Madison who was weary of “factions” participated in the rivalry at Princeton. No matter, when one teacher arrived late at a club meeting, “Little Burr” used the opportunity to chide him. Tactful and funny, he got away with it and grew all the more popular. However, these “pushing the envelope” moments would not last forever.

Burr fought in the Revolution and was promoted to captain and aide-de-camp after successfully escorting General Richard Montgomery from Quebec. Burr later saved an entire brigade in New York, but his efforts went uncommended by Washington. Whether a mistake or purposeful omission of credit, the incident did little to squelch Burr’s rising star status but did found his resentment toward Washington. Later during the Quasi- War, Washington wrote to Adams, “By all that I have known and heard, Colonel Burr is a brave and able officer, but the question is whether he has not equal talents at intrigue.”

After suffering heat stroke, Burr’s health declined and he resigned from the Continental Army in 1779. He was admitted to the bar in 1782 and moved to Wall Street. In 1791, Burr was elected to the Senate defeating incumbent and father-in-law to Alexander Hamilton, Philip Schuyler. The victory severed his friendship with Hamilton and laid the basis for his Machiavellian reputation.

His notoriety only increased when he ran as Thomas Jefferson’s vice president. When the voting did not go according to plan and the election ended in a tie, Burr attempted to usurp Jefferson’s bid and win the presidency himself. Hamilton famously voted for nemesis Jefferson over Burr, and Burr became the vice president.

“The tie vote exposed deep problems in the 1787 system. The one-state/one-vote rule had the practical effect of giving Delaware’s sole Representative Bayard, an ardent Federalist, the same voting power as Virginia, then the largest state (and home, of course, of Jefferson),” explains scholar Sanford Levinson.  And it was Bayard whose vote on the 36th House ballot swung the election to Jefferson.

The whole incident, along with the pairing of Adams and Jefferson in the previous administration, led the Founders to rewrite part of a Constitution that was just 14 years old. The Twelfth Amendment was proposed by the Eighth Congress on December 9, 1803, and it was approved by the states within 10 months.  It provided for separate Electoral College votes for President and Vice President.

Having lost Jefferson’s trust, Burr was effectively dismissed from executive matters, but he was a favorite in the Senate where his farewell address was received with tears. He defended judicial independence in his role in the impeachment trial of Samuel Chase.

Dropped from Jefferson’s 1804 ticket, the famous Hamilton-Burr duel loomed. While Burr was never tried for his killing of Hamilton, his political future and historic legacy were effectively doomed the moment the former Secretary of the Treasury was pronounced dead. Burr fled to Europe and upon his return to America (ensured by his daughter, Theodosia) married a rich widow nineteen years his junior. Eliza Jumel, his second wife, quickly divorced him. His land speculation had put a dent in her fortune. The divorce was finalized the day he died September 14, 1836 at the age of 80. Burr’s ambition was perhaps his fatal flaw, but his contributions to the new Republic are undeniable. From his service in the Continental Army to his inadvertent establishment of the twelfth amendment, Burr’s place in history would have likely been sealed even without a duel. Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Tony winning musical, Hamilton, on the other hand may not have fared as well duel-free.

Olivia Fitzpatrick is an intern at the National Constitution Center. She is also a rising junior at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in English and minoring in Legal Studies.


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