Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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BURR, Aaron, vice-president of the United States 1801-5, was born at Newark, N. J., Feb. 6, 1756, and died at New York, Sept. 14, 1836. He was graduated at the college of New Jersey in 1772, and began the study of law, but gave it up to enter the continental army, in which he reached the rank of colonel. He was admitted to the bar in Albany in 1782, and in 1783 removed to New York city. In 1791 he was chosen United States senator, and almost immediately began to be prominent as an anti-federalist. Until his time the politics of New York, 1776-91, had really been a triangular contest between the three great families of the state, the Livingstons, Clintons and Schuylers. (See NEW YORK). To an unsurpassed genius for political intrigue, Burr joined very considerable ability as a soldier, and abundance of that pseudo-democratic spirit which consists in a willingness to use popular force for personal advancement. To fight the three great clans he contrived a union of the popular interest by introducing semi-military discipline among the anti-federalists of New York city. He himself was commander-in-chief; a knot of young disciples, Van Ness, the Swartwouts, and others (called by the federalists the "Little Band") were the aides; and at the word of command, given through the aides, the popular rank and file were to move forward with the rigid discipline of an army and the pitiless precision of a machine. Under this species of Cæsarism the masses, by yielding a temporary headship to Burr, the creature of their will, were to free themselves from the domination of the great families. (See TAMMANY SOCIETY; VAN BUREN, MARTIN; NOMINATING CONVENTIONS.) In the spring of 1800 Burr thus secured the electoral vote of New York and the national success of his party. In the following winter he was chosen vice-president. (See DISPUTED ELECTIONS, I.) Here his advancement stopped, for in national politics he had become dangerous to the Virginia interest, and in the state the great families united actively against him. In the spring of 1804 many New England federalists, despairing of success in the south, were disposed to unite with the Burrites in the middle states. As a preliminary Burr was nominated against Morgan Lewis, the Livingston and Clinton candidate for governor of New York, but through Hamilton's active personal exertions against Burr, the New York federalists did not support him heartily, and he was defeated. He therefore forced a duel upon Hamilton, and shot him fatally, July 11, 1804. In the resulting excitement Burr disappeared from polities. After engaging in a mysterious expedition down the Mississippi, he spent several years in Europe, and then, returning, practiced law in New York city until his death.


—BURR CONSPIRACY. In the spring of 1805, Burr, indicted for murder in New York and New Jersey, a homeless and bankrupt man, made an extensive tour in the west, ostensibly for the purpose of securing a nomination as congressman from Tennessee. The Mississippi valley, separated by distance and difficulty of communication from the states east of the Alleghanies, was apparently very loosely attached to the Union, and many of its prominent citizens, including the commander of the federal army at New Orleans, had been for years pensioned by the Spanish government. Whether Burr's design was to found a new Union, or perhaps a republican empire like that of Napoleon, in the Mississippi valley, or to press on and invade Mexico, is an impenetrable mystery. The people of the eastern states, dreading that east and west division of the Union which was only eliminated from political calculation at last by the introduction of the railroad (see ANNEXATIONS, I.; UNITED STATES), charged Burr with the former design, and it is certain that some of the reckless spirits who sought him during his tour, would not have shrunk from any enterprise in which he offered to head them. During the next year Burr completed his preparations for that which, on the surface was a colonizing expedition to the river Washita, in Texas. He had interested many of his former party associates in this expedition, as well as ex-senator Jonathan Dayton, of New Jersey, and general Wilkinson, commanding at New Orleans; and had good grounds to expect aid from Great Britain and from Mexicans disaffected to Spain; but from his first entrance into Kentucky he found that any attempt upon the unity of the nation would be resisted by the great mass of the western people. He succeeded in breaking away from legal proceedings, which were at once begun against him in Kentucky, by protesting that his real design was land speculation, by hinting at his aim against the Spaniards in Mexico, and by private assurances that he was acting under the direct sanction of the administration. While on his way down the Mississippi he found that Wilkinson had abandoned the undertaking, and made a merit of betraying it; that president Jefferson, on Wilkinson's information, had issued a proclamation, Nov. 27, 1806, cautioning all good citizens against joining the expedition; and that the whole design was a failure. He therefore left his boats at Natchez, in January, 1807, was arrested by the president's order, at Fort Stoddart, and conveyed in March to Richmond for trial, his expedition having been begun in Virginia. In May his examination began before chief justice Marshall and justice Cyrus Griffin. June 24, the United States grand jury brought in two indictments against him, one for treason and one for misdemeanor, both based on his action in levying war within the United States against a friendly nation, but with the further intention, if possible, of proving him guilty of an attempt to divide the Union. He was defended by able counsel and supported by the federal party, who considered his arrest, by the president's order and without a warrant, an act of usurpation, while the president, anxious that the result should justify his action, took almost a personal oversight of the management of the case. His correspondence contains nine long letters to the district attorney, June-September, 1807, filled with legal hints and directions, criticisms on chief justice Marshall's action, and denunciation of Luther Martin, Burr's leading lawyer, as an "unprincipled and impudent federal bull-dog." Nor did Burr shun the appearance of a contest. He even subpœnaed the president as a witness, though the demand for personal attendance was not pressed, and allowed the trial to take the form of a pitched battle between the federal party and the president, the head of the republican party. Consequently, his acquittal of the charge of treason, Sept. 1, for want of jurisdiction, made him the enemy of every supporter of president Jefferson, and ended his political career forever. The acquittal was given only because no overt act of war had been proved by two witnesses, and for this reason the jury at first endeavored to give a Scotch verdict of "not proven," but the court directed it to be entered "not guilty." Burr was then tried and acquitted for misdemeanor, and bound over to appear for trial in Ohio, but the further prosecution was dropped. A few of Burr's confederates came to public view, but the secretiveness and caution of the leader has made the full extent of the conspiracy a matter of conjecture only. (See HABEAS CORPUS.)


—Sec 1 Hammond's Political History of New York; 4 Randolph's Works of Jefferson, 70-103; Davis' Life of Burr; Parton's Life of Burr; Monette's History of the Mississippi Valley; Robertson's Trial of Aaron Burr; Carpenter's Trial of Aaron Burr; Van Ness' Examination of the Charges against Burr; Memoirs by General Wilkinson.


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