U.S. History in February
Aaron Burr, Sir
You could argue that Aaron Burr is most famous (or, perhaps, infamous) for his fatal duel with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in 1804. Or for his role as antagonist in the hugely popular contemporary Broadway musical, “Hamilton.” What many people don’t remember, though, is that he was Vice President of the United States at the time, and that just three short years later he was arrested and tried for treason over an alleged attempt to turn the newly-created Louisiana Territory into his personal empire. Let’s look a little closer at how Aaron Burr finally threw away his shot.
Burr was vice president from 1800 to 1804, after coming in second to Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 presidential election. This was in a time before candidates ran on tickets, so the runner-up became vice president. Oftentimes this caused bitter political rivals to work hand-in-hand. After Jefferson made it clear Burr would be a one-term vice president, he ran for governor of New York in 1804, but lost the race by a huge deficit. He blamed the loss on a smear campaign run by his political rivals and especially blamed Alexander Hamilton, which lead to the notorious duel. Burr was no longer an influential political figure, and doubtless helped convince him to embark on his ill-fated pursuit of the Louisiana Territory.
In 1805, Burr went out west, traveling all over the Louisiana Territory and dropping hints that he would soon be looking for supporters on a military venture. He teamed up with several influential men including the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Army at New Orleans and Governor of the Louisiana Territory, General James Wilkinson, and British Minister to the United States, Anthony Merry, both of whom pledged their support to Burr’s attempt to claim the Louisiana Territory for his own. Rumors began to swirl about what Aaron Burr was up to and in the fall of 1806 Wilkinson, believing that the venture was destined to fail, sent President Jefferson a letter detailing the plot. Burr eventually fled west, but was captured and charged with treason on February 19, 1807.
Aaron Burr was acquitted on charges of treason in September 1807, but his political career was over. He spent the next four years abroad in Europe before returning to the United States in 1812. He reopened his law practice in New York and worked there in relative obscurity until his death in 1836.
Want more information on the Burr Conspiracy?
Research question, grades 4-6:
One of the most important pieces of evidence in Burr’s treason trial was an encrypted letter he sent to James Wilkinson. Use the cipher key at the link to have your students create and decode secret notes. Will they uncover a treasonous plot?