Aaron Burr: A Man of Ill-repute


By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D.Gettysburg College

No one could claim a  more distinguished intellectual lineage in the Founders’ generation than Timothy Dwight, the grandson of Jonathan; it was Aaron Burr, Dwight’s cousin and likewise a grandson of the redoubtable Edwards. But from that point, no two paths in the early Republic diverged further. Burr was swept up into the enthusiasm, not of revival, but revolution.

An image of Aaron Burr's property
In the course of less than a year, young Aaron Burr had lost both parents and both grandparents. (Image: National Photo Company Collection/Public domain)

In an Age of High Mortality

Born on February 6, 1756, the boy arrived as his mother, Esther Edwards Burr, put it “unexpectedly”, and that continued to be something of a pattern for the rest of his life. His father, Aaron Burr, Senior, was the devoted disciple of the great Edwards and became president of Princeton College in 1747. 

However, the senior Burr died when the boy was less than two years old, thus setting a melancholy trend followed by young Burr’s grandfather, Jonathan Edwards, who took the helm of Princeton from his dead son-in-law’s hands in January 1758, only to die himself from a botched smallpox inoculation the following March. 

Esther Edwards Burr was also inoculated for smallpox and likewise died two weeks later, followed by her own mother, Sarah Pierrepont Edwards, in October. In the course of less than a year, young Aaron Burr had lost both parents and both grandparents, which, even in an age of high mortality, sets something of a record.

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding FathersWatch it now, on Wondrium.

A Man of a Different Plumage

The boy ended up in 1760 in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in the care of his aunt and uncle, Timothy and Rhoda Edwards. Burr’s father had left a trust of over £3,000 to educate the boy for the ministry, and not surprisingly, it was to Princeton that he went in 1769 at the tender age of 13. But in spite of the cloud of clergymen that emerged from the Edwards nest, Aaron Burr was of a different plumage.

Aaron Burr, the Senior, was a quieter, gentler version of his father-in-law, Edwards, and deplored “boisterous methods” in awakenings. And young Aaron Burr’s 1772 class oration, “On Honor” had much more to do with philosophy, or perhaps more accurately, much more to do with personal fame and glory than religion.

On Staff of General Richard Montgomery

Aaron Burr joined the Continental Army almost as soon as it was organized, and as “son of the former president of the College of New Jersey”, Burr was attached to the staff of General Richard Montgomery for Montgomery’s ill-fated attempt to capture Quebec. 

A painting showing the death of General Rischard Montgomery
After the death of Richard Montgomery, Aaron Burr was left without a sponsor. (Image: Yale University Art Gallery/Public domain)

When Montgomery was killed, Burr devotedly “returned back alone and attempted, amidst a shower of musketry, to bring on his shoulder, the body of Montgomery”. But his heroics earned him a little reward. Montgomery’s death left him without a sponsor, and he wrote to Montgomery’s widow that if Montgomery had lived, “his friends” would be “in stations more equal to their merit”.

He found his footing again as an aide to the venerable old Connecticut General Israel Putnam. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel, survived the winter at Valley Forge, and finally left the Army in 1779. He turned to the study of law, and married a wealthy widow, Theodosia Bartow Prevost, and moved to New York City as the British evacuated it in 1783.

Learn more about James Madison’s War.

Aaron Burr and His New Governmental Positions

In 1784, Burr was elected to the New York state assembly, where he allied himself with George Clinton and won appointment as state attorney-general. Burr increasingly served as Clinton’s foil to Alexander Hamilton in New York politics, and in 1791, Clinton muscled Burr’s election to the U.S. Senate through the state assembly. 

By 1796, Jeffersonian Republicans were already talking of Aaron Burr as a possible candidate to run for president against John Adams. And yet, Burr was already sending uneasy currents of anxiety through even republican ranks. His political ideas, if he had any, were glib and mostly concentrated on his own self-advancement. 

“If you have the same Opinion of Mr. Burr that many have,” one New York Republican warned his brother-in-law, Robert Livingston, after Burr’s election to the Senate, “you will not rely much on his friendship. ’Tis a pretty prevalent Idea, that he is a Man who makes everyThing subservient to his private Views.”

Learn more about George Washington’s fears about post-Revolutionary America.

Aaron Burr’s Character and His Thirst for the Presidency

Burr was unprincipled both as a public and private man. When the constitution was in deliberation, his conduct was equivocal; but its enemies considered him as with them. In fact, he was for or against nothing, but as it suited his interest or ambition. He was determined to make his way to be the head of the popular party and as much higher as his circumstances may permit. In a word, if there is an embryo-Caesar in the United States, ’tis Burr.

In the event, John Adams won the 1796 election, with Jefferson as his unenthusiastic vice-president. But Burr still netted 30 electoral votes, and even though Washington personally struck off his name for a commission in the Additional Army, “Burr is a brave and able officer,” he remarked to Hamilton, “but the question is whether he has not equal talents at intrigue.” The Clintonites in New York were, notwithstanding, already filling his head with notions of the presidency. 

Burr sealed that expectation by swinging the 1799 New York City elections to the Republicans, and in 1800 he was picked to run as the Republicans’ candidate for vice-president with Jefferson. The problem was that the presidential itch was now about to drive him over the line.

Common Questions about Aaron Burr’s Reputation

Q: Who was Aaron Burr? 

Born in 1756, Aaron Burr was the grandson of Jonathan Edwards. After graduating from Princeton College, he joined the Continental Army and became a staff officer to Richard Montgomery. Aaron Burr was later chosen as the candidate for vice-president.

Q: How did Aaron Burr’s family die? 

Aaron Burr‘s father died when Aaron was less than two years old. Aaron’s grandfather, Jonathan Edwards, also died of bad smallpox inoculation after a while. Two weeks later, Aaron’s mother died of the same cause. Aaron’s grandmother had died at the same time and before her daughter.

Q: What happened to Aaron Burr after his family died? 

After losing his entire family, Aaron Burr ended up in the care of his uncle and aunt Timothy and Roda Edwards. Burr’s father had set aside a trust of over £3000 for his son’s education. Aaron joined Princeton at the age of 13, where his father and grandfather had been presidents.

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