Aaron Burr is most famous for killing political rival Alexander Hamilton in a duel, making him the only Vice President (that we know of) to murder somebody while in office. But that’s not the only awful thing he did in his lifetime. In fact, some of Burr’s deeds reached the level of James Bond villains.
The Manhattan Company
New York City suffered under the burden of yellow fever in the late 18th century, with many blaming a faulty water system for more than 2,000 deaths in the summer of 1798. Burr, then a state assemblyman, offered a solution in the form of a bogus water company.
Burr created the Manhattan Company, which was to provide a new water system for New York. However, politics got in the way. Federalist Alexander Hamilton had the Bank of New York, which wouldn’t lend to members of the opposing Democratic Republican party. To make a quikc profit, both political and personal, Burr made a last-minute change to the Manhattan Company’s charter.
The change allowed Burr to use any surplus capital from the Manhattan Company to form a bank. This resulted in New York receiving substandard wooden piping as Burr did things on the cheap. Those wooden pipes would remain until 1842, despite the fact that cast iron pipes became the norm about 20 years earlier.
Burr, meanwhile, made a killing by cutting costs and used the profits to form the Bank of Manhattan. Years down the line, that bank still exists, albeit as JP Morgan Chase and Company. As an extra bit of deviousness from Burr, he got Hamilton to support his original idea, then pulled the rug out with the formation of a rival bank.
It’s worth noting that yellow fever is not a waterborne virus, so Burr didn’t directly kill people by failing to clean up the water supply. But medical knowledge at that point thought poor water was the cause, which means Burr was on board with thousands of people suffering if it meant he could have his new bank.
The Election of 1800
While it doesn’t involve in killing or cheating anybody, the presidential election of 1800 deserves mention when discussing Burr. If you’ve ever dealt with annoying campaign calls or visits from clearly self-interested politicians, you can thank Burr for his part in all that.
Prior to the election of 1800, candidates rarely entered the political fray themselves. But 1800 saw a change in that, with Burr becoming the father of modern political campaigning, recruiting a social club to his aid and using decidedly modern tactics in his bid for the presidency. The particularly ugly presidential campaign of the 2016 presidential campaign had its roots way back in 1800, and I think most Americans would prefer it if Burr had stuck to tradition.
Despite receiving the nomination of the Democratic Republican Party, Burr was never intended to become president. The party wanted Thomas Jefferson to serve as president, relying on Burr as a vice presidential candidate to secure the northern states that disliked slave-owning Jefferson.
Due to what was essentially a bug in the system, Burr wound up trying his de facto running mate Jefferson in the electoral college, forcing the issue to Congress. Even despite the error, many in Burr’s party expected him to step aside so Jefferson could become president. Instead, he leaked to Congress that he would not step aside and that he would be a better ally to the Federalists than Jefferson.
Ultimately, Burr fell short of the presidency, in part due to Alexander Hamilton surprising everybody by throwing his support to his arch-nemesis Jefferson. The US Constitution later got amended to repair the flaw that led to the temporary deadlock. Jefferson, never trusting Burr, locked him out of most important executive affairs and opted for George Clinton as his running mate when he made his bid for reelection in 1804.
Burr’s New Republic
Due to his falling out of favor with Jefferson, Burr’s political fortunes suffered as his term as Vice President drew to a close. Some federalists reached out to Burr to bring him into their party, but Hamilton, the founder of the Federalist Party, scuttled those efforts. Hamilton also helped to torpedo Burr’s subsequent attempt to become governor of New York, and the rivalry soon led to their famous duel.
With his political fortunes in the United States dead, Burr embarked upon a scheme that became one of the first cases of treason under the US Constitution. He met with General James Wilkinson with the apparent attempt to steal land that Jefferson had bought in the Louisiana Purchase. Raising a small army, though, raised some attention. Burr was arrested for treason in 1807.
Based on Wilkinson’s testimony (and probably fueled a bit by his own enmity for the man), Jefferson stated before Congress that Burr was guilty of treason. In doing so, he probably overreached. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall and Jefferson were bitter rivals, and Marshall subpoenaed the president for documents in his possession. Convinced that Marshall was out to get him, Jefferson refused to turn over the documents. The case went nowhere, and Burr was essentially saved by the same political infighting that had led him to his current position.
Bright Spots in the Legacy
Despite the political opportunism, murder, and treason, Burr was actually more complex than his highest-profile misdeeds make him seem. He served as a soldier during the American Revolution, played a role in keeping Jefferson from packing the Supreme Court, and embraced the idea of women’s rights in America.
His chief rivals, Hamilton and Jefferson, were equally complex figures. Both played key roles in the founding of the country, both had many personal flaws, and both did a lot of damage to the fledgling nation in an attempt to consolidate political power (thanks for the $%^! two-party system, guys).
Burr was definitely a villain in his own right, but a parade of his worst misdeeds tells only part of the story. The early days of America are filled with more bizarre tales of sex, lies, betrayal, and murder than even the zaniest soap opera. Burr is an example of how somebody instrumental to the formation of the land we know today could also sink to the depths of villainy.
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