The Fallen Angel
Around twilight on June 7, 1812 the old soldier landed somewhere near today’s South Street Seaport. The colonel hastened to a friend’s house at 66 Water Street, only to find everyone away. Only around midnight did he find a room—already occupied by five other men—in “‘a plain house’ along a dark alley.” In the morning, he found his friend Samuel Swartwout at home, and after an affectionate welcome the Swartwout brothers lodged him.
The charm that had borne him up remained potent: a boyhood friend and long-time political opponent, Robert Troup, lent him ten dollars and a law library. He rented space at 9 Nassau Street. He took out some newspaper advertisements. He ordered a small tin sign, “brightly lacquered,” bearing his name, and tacked it to the outside wall. When he arrived to open his office on the morning of July 5, 1812, a line of clients awaited him. Hundreds more would follow. Within twelve days, his receipts totaled a staggering $2,000.00. “However the inhabitants of New York viewed…the man,” Milton Lomask writes, “they had not forgotten the skills of…the advocate.”
Thus, at fifty-eight, Aaron Burr resumed the practice of law.
He had been born February 6, 1756 in Newark, New Jersey. He entered Princeton in the sophomore class at thirteen, took his degree with distinction at sixteen, and even spoke at commencement.
He was elegant from youth: small, slender, broad-shouldered, and handsome. He had fine taste in clothes, as dozens of unpaid tailors on two continents would attest. His manners were exquisite, his conversation never palled, and whether in the courtroom or the United States Senate, he spoke quietly and conversationally, without bombast or literary allusion. He strove to see things as they are, not as they ought to be, and possessed a massive savoir faire: “… dexterity enough to conceal the truth, without telling a lie; sagacity enough to read other people’s countenances; and serenity enough not to let them discover anything by yours.”
He fought for American independence at the battles of Quebec, Brooklyn, and Morningside Heights. He was a lieutenant colonel at twenty-two, wintered at Valley Forge, and had a horse shot from under him at Monmouth on June 28, 1778. The man of pleasure once single-handedly suppressed a mutiny in his regiment. A ringleader leveled his musket at Burr, shouting, “Now is the time, my brave boys.” The last syllable had barely left his lips when Burr’s saber severed his arm just above the elbow. There were no more mutinies.
During his service, he met Theodosia Prevost, the wife of a British officer serving in the West Indies who lived in Bergen County, New Jersey. Burr later wrote that Mrs. Prevost possessed “the truest heart, the ripest intellect, and the most winning manners of any woman” he had ever met. She spoke French fluently, frequently quoted the Latin poets, and read avidly. Burr admired her greatly. She responded with warmth and friendship.
Her husband died in 1781. She married Burr the following year. Nothing so testifies to Theodosia Prevost’s character, charm, and intelligence than that this sensual, cynical man was her faithful husband. More, though Burr was a feminist by instinct—he admired Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women—his marriage made his beliefs heartfelt. He was among the first practical politicians—and Burr was nothing if not practical—to work for women’s education on a par with men. “It was a knowledge of your mind,” he wrote to her, “which first inspired me…the ideas which you have often heard me express in favor of female intellectual powers are founded on what I have … seen…in you.” She died in 1794 after twelve years of marriage.
In 1782 he was admitted to the New York bar. He was elected to the Legislature in 1784, where he fought to abolish slavery, and appointed attorney general in 1789. Within two years, he was a United States Senator. Burr worked hard without taking politics seriously. For him it was the pursuit of “fun and honor & profit.” This earned the antipathy of Thomas Jefferson, who took politics almost as seriously as he did himself.
Yet the Virginian and Burr needed one another. Burr controlled the country’s first mass party organization: the Society of St. Tammany. If Thomas Jefferson was the Democrats’ first ideologue, Burr was their first mechanic.
In 1800, the Jeffersonians nominated Burr for vice president and his troubles began. Presidential electors then voted for two candidates for president and vice president without specifying a preference either man’s holding either office. The candidate receiving the most votes became president; the runner-up became vice president. Jefferson and Burr tied with seventy-three votes each. The election went to the House of Representatives. The Federalists, who detested Jefferson, tried electing Burr instead. The House elected Jefferson President and Burr Vice President only after thirty-six ballots.
Jefferson froze Burr out and withheld patronage from his followers. In April 1804 Burr, knowing he would not be renominated for vice president, ran for governor of New York. Alexander Hamilton, former secretary of the Treasury, had come to hate Burr, and Hamilton’s rage was reflected in his intensely personal campaigning, which included indiscreet personal remarks reported in the newspapers. Burr was heavily defeated.
Burr seized upon correspondence published in the Albany Register. Dr. Charles Cooper wrote, “General Hamilton and Judge Kent have declared, in substance, that they looked upon Mr. Burr to be a dangerous man,” and “I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Burr.”
Burr requested an “acknowledgment or denial” of the “still more despicable opinion” of himself attributed to Hamilton. Two days later, Hamilton evasively replied with a dissertation on the meaning of “despicable.” Burr responded, “…the Common sense of mankind” affixed to the words “the idea of dishonor.” He then demanded that Hamilton generally disavow “any intention… to convey impressions derogatory to the honor of Mr. Burr.”
Hamilton was trapped. This meant denying most of his political conversations, speeches, and correspondence for nearly two decades. Hamilton now feebly offered that he could not recall using any term that would justify Dr. Cooper’s construction.
Burr again demanded a disclaimer. Hamilton refused. On June 27, 1804 Burr challenged and Hamilton accepted. On Wednesday, July 11, at 7 a.m., the two men stood ten paces apart on the Weehawken shore, pistols in hand. Hamilton missed. Burr did not.
Burr was indicted for murder in New York and in New Jersey. While his lawyers and friends worked to quash the indictments, he returned to Washington, where he resumed his duties as vice president. On March 2, 1805 his last day in public office, Burr rose from the chair. He stood before a hall of professional politicians familiar with every rhetorical device, many of whom despised him. Without changing his customary conversational tone, he spoke briefly of the United States and the Senate itself, “a sanctuary, a citadel of law, of order, and of liberty.” He implored Divine protection upon the Constitution and having spoken from the heart then stepped down, walked across the chamber, and went out the door.
Behind him, the Senate sat in absolute silence. Senator Samuel Mitchill of New York wrote, “My colleague, General Smith, stout and manly as he is, wept as profusely as I did. He…did not recover…for a quarter of an hour.”
Even before leaving office, Burr had begun a conspiracy. Precisely what Burr planned remains “a mystery, a puzzle, a lock without a key.” He told his first biographer, Matthew L. Davis, that the scheme he called “X” was intended to “revolutionize Mexico” and settle some lands he held in Texas. Perhaps it was.
But the legends remain and the papers tantalize: the maps of New Orleans, Veracruz, and the roads to Mexico City and the correspondence hinting he would not liberate but seize Mexico, draw the Western states from the Union, and, combining them into one nation, stand at the throne of the Aztecs and crown himself Emperor of the West.
“The gods invite us to glory and fortune,” Burr wrote to his co-conspirator, Gen. James Wilkinson. John Randolph of Roanoke, Virginia, most ferocious of politicians, called Wilkinson “the mammoth of iniquity… the only man I ever saw who was from the bark to the very core a villain.” Wilkinson, whose self-designed uniforms, encrusted with gold braid and frogging, failed to conceal his massive girth, was then general-in-chief of the U.S. Army. He was also a paid agent of Spain. At some point, Wilkinson told President Jefferson everything. On November 27, 1806 Jefferson issued a proclamation that led to the collapse of the plot and Burr’s arrest and indictment for treason by levying war against the United States.
Burr was tried in Richmond, Virginia before Chief Justice John Marshall, Jefferson’s third cousin (they detested each other). The United States attorney insinuated during the trial that Marshall would be impeached if he did not rule for the prosecution on the evidentiary motions. Marshall noted the threat in his decision. He also noted the Constitution required that treason be proven by the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act of treason. Of the dozens of witnesses presented by the government, not even one had testified to an overt act. Marshall then excluded all evidence presented by the government as “merely corroborative and incompetent.” Within twenty-five minutes, the jury found Burr not guilty.
He had beaten the treason rap and quashed the murder indictments.???you didn’t say above that his lawyers were successful. If so, why did he have to leave office??? Now, in a self-imposed exercise in discretion, Burr left for Europe, traveling to England, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and France, not to return for four years. At first, he sought financial support for “X” from the British and then the French. Nothing came of it. From the beginning of his exile[self-imposed?], Burr recorded his experiences in his private journal, in which he reveals himself as he does nowhere else. Perhaps its saddest revelations [fix repetition?] are that this vital, charming man was so easily bored. Yet, as Lomask writes, “There was a limit to how many parties he could attend, how many ceremonies he could watch, how many books he could read, how many bright and articulate people he could draw within the radiant circle of his charm.”
He devoted increasing energies to fornication, often with prostitutes and with other women whenever possible. Lomask notes he described his amatory encounters as muse, “a French hunting term meaning ‘the beginning of the rutting season in animals.'” Thus, in Copenhagen, after an unsatisfactory sexual encounter (bad muse), Burr returned to the hotel where the chambermaid occupied his time: “not bad; muse again.” During one busy morning in Stockholm, “ma bel Marie” came by after breakfast, a Hanoverian woman at nine, and “Carolin” at two p.m. The former vice president admitted he would have been happier if Carolin had deferred her visit to the next morning. Then he ordered a bath, noting “nothing restores me after too much muse like the hot bath.” In Paris, he noted muse was plentiful, but not always to his liking: he found the Parisiennes cold and calculating, with their passions in the head and not the heart. Yet some principles remained untainted despite boredom and lack of money. He never descended to drinking cheap wine.
After his return to the United States, he only dabbled in politics. In 1812, he was pulling strings for “an unknown man in the West, named Andrew Jackson, who will do credit to a commission in the army if conferred upon him.” When Jackson became President in 1829, Samuel Swartwout, whose hospitality Burr had enjoyed on his return from exile, was appointed Collector of the Port of New York with Burr’s help. As M. R. Werner relates, Swartwout later “hurried to Europe when his accounts showed that he had borrowed from the government’s funds… the sum of $1,225,705.69… The public, with that charming levity which has always characterized its attitude towards wholesale plunder, made the best of a bad situation by coining a new word… when a man put the government’s money into his own pocket, it was said… he had ‘Swartwouted.'”
In 1833, Burr married Eliza Jumel, probably the richest American woman of the time, for her money. Within the year, she began divorce proceedings upon the grounds of adultery, a remarkable, even heartening charge against a man of 78.
On September 14, 1836 the old man died in a second-floor room at Winant’s Inn, 2040 Richmond Terrace in Port Richmond, Staten Island. Two days later, he was buried by his father and grandfather in Princeton, New Jersey. Lomask writes, “For nearly twenty years the grave went unmarked. Then a relative arranged for the installation of a simple marble slab.”