We are a nation blessed with an abundance of courageous fighters, patriots, and heroes. From our founding fathers to the Greatest Generation of World War II to the selfless acts of countless soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, America is a nation that has always been populated by those willing to fight for what is right. Times may change, but our American badass-ness has not.
One patriarch of American toughness who doesn’t get quite the same billing as, say, George Washington or Patrick Henry is Aaron Burr. Burr has been called many things since the days his boots last pounded the soil of the United States, and those things have not all been terribly friendly. But while some may disagree with his methods or actions – and if you don’t know what those actions are, well, you will soon enough – it is absolutely undeniable that Aaron Burr played a vital role in our history. He may be a controversial subject, but never let it be said he wasn’t integral to our foundation. This week we take a look at Aaron Burr, Vice President of the United States of America, soldier, and, some would say, stone-cold killer. To find out more, read on.
Aaron Burr was born on February 6, 1756, in Newark, New Jersey. He was the second child born to Presbyterian minister Aaron Burr, Sr., and Esther Burr, whose father, Jonathan Edwards, is well known as a Calvinist theologian. Burr had one older sister, Sarah. Sadly, their father passed away in 1757, and their mother also passed away within a year, leaving the Burr children orphaned when Aaron was just two years old. The children went to live with their late mother’s parents, but both of their grandparents passed away as well that same year. As a result, Aaron and his sister were placed with the William Shippen family of Philadelphia, but their time there was short-lived. In 1759, their late mother’s brother, Timothy Edwards, took custody of them. Timothy Edwards was 21 years old when he took the children in. Within a year, he himself got married to a Rhoda Ogden and they all moved to live closer to his new wife’s family. Rhoda had two younger brothers, Matthias and Aaron Ogden, and they became young Aaron’s playmates. Over the years they became quite close and, in fact, remained close throughout their lives.
Right from the start Burr took learning seriously, and at the ripe old age of 13 he was admitted to the College of New Jersey, a little place known today as Princeton University. Saying he studied hard might be a bit of an understatement, because he ended up graduating with his B.A. in 1772 at the age of 16. He then spent an extra year studying theology, but it wasn’t long before he took a detour to the career he’d end up sticking with in some form for the rest of his life: law.
It was 1775 when news of the fighting at Lexington and Concord reached Burr where he was studying law in Connecticut, and he didn’t hesitate for a moment but simply put his law studies on hold and enlisted in the Continental Army. From orphan to impressively young college graduate to law student to soldier, all before he was 20. Now here’s where it starts to get interesting.
In the army, Burr first served under Benedict Arnold, before his commanding officer became a traitor. Burr’s first big campaign was Arnold’s expedition to Quebec, which was quite a grueling undertaking at that time. It required trudging through more than 300 miles – on foot – of what was then dangerous wilderness. In fact, it was so bad that the 1100 soldiers Burr set out alongside had dropped to just 600 men by the time they reached the Saint Lawrence River in November. Some men gave up and turned back while others died; traveling had proved dangerous for many reasons (including the way leaky boats tended to destroy gunpowder stores and spoil food supplies). Burr proved fearless, though, and ended up becoming one of the youngest Colonels in the army. He did so well, in fact, that Arnold tasked him with heading out and retrieving General Richard Montgomery. This wasn’t just any retrieval, though; Montgomery was seriously wounded, and reaching him meant fighting through enemy forces. Of course, Burr, being a young badass and a brave, honorable man, didn’t hesitate but simply slashed his way through, rescuing Montgomery and taking him to safety. He was later cited for bravery for his actions. Thanks to his courage, Burr was given a position on George Washington’s staff, but it didn’t last long. You see, Burr didn’t want to sit in a fancy office pushing papers around on a polished wood desk; he wanted to fight. Within two weeks of arriving at Washington’s side, he requested to be returned to battle.
At this point something took place that was a rather broad stroke of irony. After leading a regiment at the Battle of Monmouth, Burr charged into battle as the British attempted an amphibious assault on Manhattan. During the invasion by the British right there in New York, Burr made the decision to retreat to Harlem, a choice that ended up saving the lives of an entire brigade. Among those in the brigade was Alexander Hamilton, which is what makes it ironic. More on that later. Anyway, after Burr saved a bunch of lives it was expected he’d be commended by Washington in the General Orders, which was the fastest way for him to be promoted. It didn’t happen. Word is Burr was absolutely incensed by the omission, and it’s quite likely that incident that led to the later estrangement between him and Washington.
In 1779, after four years of fighting in horrendous conditions and winning countless battles while also fighting numerous illnesses, Burr left the army. He wanted to focus on law, but although he had technically resigned from the Continental Army, he wasn’t entirely out of the action. He remained under assignment with George Washington, often performing intelligence missions, kicking ass and taking names long after he’d technically retired.
Burr spent some time leading those occasional charges against the British, and perhaps one of his coolest and most badass moments of that timeframe was the day he charged headlong into Yale and convinced a bunch of Ivy Leaguers to join him in battle. It was July 5, 1779, and he’d gathered a group of 1000 men rather hastily to fight against the seasoned British soldiers gathering outside New Haven – and, by the way, there were 2000 British – and what makes this even greater is that his ploy worked. He and his rather rag-tag group of men and college students successfully drove back the British.
Even though Burr was still fighting the occasional battle for Washington, he managed to finish studying law and passed the bar in 1782. He also got married, which was a bit interesting in itself because he married the widow of a British Army officer who was ten years his senior. He and his wife had only one child who lived to adulthood, Theodosia, who was born in 1783. Theodosia was rather fortunate to have the father she did at that time, because she was born in an era where women did not receive the education and weapons training available to men, but Burr made sure she got it anyway. He got her into all-male schools and taught her techniques such as accurately firing guns from horseback, and Theodosia soon became known for her stellar education and accomplishments.
Now, Aaron Burr is perhaps best known for two things: his political career and what happened with Alexander Hamilton. As a politician he had a somewhat mixed career, both fighting for equality and successfully playing a key role in getting slavery out of New York City but also being accused of tampering with New York electors. As Vice President under President Thomas Jefferson, though, he even managed to impress some of his naysayers by behaving in what they admitted was a fair manner. And, in fact, some of the traditions still carried out today by the President of the Senate are traditions started by Burr during his own time in that office.
One interesting historical fact was Jefferson’s (justified) distrust of Burr, which went so far that Jefferson dropped Burr from the presidential ticket in 1804. When Burr realized he wouldn’t be VP again he decided to run for Governor of New York. Burr ended up losing that election by a huge margin, and it was then his already strained relationship with Alexander Hamilton became significantly worse. It’s worth noting here that Hamilton was an honorable man, an amazing soldier, and not afraid to stand up for what he believed was right – remember, he once called Thomas Jefferson “womanly” due to Jefferson’s apparent affection for the French. But by the time the two men began exchanging angry letters back and forth, Burr demanding apologies for insults he believed Hamilton had made and Hamilton refusing to apologize when Burr was actually quoting what other people claimed Hamilton said rather than Hamilton’s own direct words, things had gone too far to end well. Hamilton was, after all, a Federalist, and Burr was not, and, well, they had some rather major fundamental disagreements that had cropped up throughout their relationship politically. And this is where it gets ugly.
In the end, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel, which was technically illegal in New York. Dueling in New York was punishable by death, so the two men ended up meeting in New Jersey, where it was also illegal but the punishment wasn’t so severe. The majority of historians agree as to the events of that day: the
re was a matter of seconds between the first and second shots fired, with Hamilton missing Burr and Burr fatally shooting Hamilton. However, there was ample evidence that Hamilton purposefully missed Burr and that he’d hoped to end matters peaceably.
Following the duel, Burr was charged with murder and immediately fled to South Carolina. But he didn’t stay long, he was, after all, still Vice President at that time. Burr returned to Washington to finish his term as VP, and the charges ended up being dropped on a rather interesting technicality: Hamilton had been shot in New Jersey, but died in New York the following day. Because the original charges had been filed in New Jersey but Hamilton didn’t actually die there, they were dropped. Not the kind of technicality that would occur today.
Burr would later be tried for treason for an entirely separate matter by none other than President Thomas Jefferson. He got pretty lucky there, too; he ended up wiggling free of charges and finally realized it was a good time to get out of the U.S. not only to escape further charges but because he’d amassed quite a bit of debt. Aaron Burr ended up passing away in 1836 following a debilitating stroke.
You may wonder why an American Heroes piece would involve Aaron Burr, our nation’s most controversial founding father – and there are some who’d rather not do him the honor of referring to him as a founding father. But he did play a key role in our nation’s history, it just happens to be that of the villain rather than that of the hero. Burr may have been an orphan, but he was given a number of privileges and luxuries in his young life. He was a bright young man, a hard worker, and a valiant fighter in battle. He had countless opportunities to make good, to prosper at a time when our young nation was in perhaps its most exciting growing stages. He even got lucky on multiple occasions I did not mention here, getting away with things he probably should have been charged with long before the moment he shot and killed Alexander Hamilton. And he kept going, right through to committing treason against the very country that had afforded him so many opportunities.
When two men are given similar opportunities, what leads one to become a respected leader and another to fall? Is it selfishness? Out-of-control greed? In the case of Aaron Burr, it would appear those things may be true at least in part, but with centuries passed it’s difficult to say for sure, although historians are happy to speculate. He started out as a talented soldier, and he ended as, well, draw your own conclusions. America remains a great nation today; she has not slid so far as to have lost her splendor or her many freedoms. Our nation has been gifted with many heroes, but we’ve had our fair share of villains as well.
This week, something a little different. This week, consider the many freedoms you have in this nation, and consider what you’re doing with them. Consider the damage being done by the villains of this era, and the perceptions and feelings of generations to come when they look back at the year 2015. What can you do to make a positive difference? Will you be the hero? Or…not?
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.
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