Oil painting of Aaron Burr

Photo: Yale University Art Gallery

Continued . . . In the meantime, the pivotal Battle of Yorktown was approaching. It might be the last major battle of the Revolution, and Hamilton desperately needed a command. It could be his last chance to achieve the compelling war victory his political future required.

There was a body of men available to be led in what was expected to be a minor skirmish preliminary to the Yorktown battle, but Washington gave the command to a junior officer who Hamilton knew. 

Hamilton objected furiously, but to no avail. Washington could be as adamant as himself when the occasion arrived. But at the end, when all previous arguments were exhausted, the despairing Hamilton accused Washington of ignoring the chain of command. That was a serious military infraction: Washington was gobsmacked, and for once Hamilton knew enough to shut up. The man Washington had selected to lead the attack on the Redoubt worked for Hamilton. Decorum required that Washington, even as the Commanding General, was required to pass orders through the various unit leaders until finally reaching the man for which the orders were destined. Hamilton announced his refusal to pass Washington’s orders along, and demanded that he be assigned to lead the soldiers himself. Washington relented. He had been rule-oriented all his adult life and it was too late to change now. Hamilton was appointed to command the Continental effort to reduce Redoubt 10 while the French were ordered to simultaneously take Redoubt 9.

Redoubt:  A small, usually semi-permanent fortress located between two warring groups.  It is typically used for observation and reporting of enemy movements.

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On that moonless night, when the French were assigned to seize Redoubt 9, Hamilton was to simultaneously take Redoubt 10.

While moving towards his assignment on that moonless night, Hamilton ordered his men to not fire their rifles. They were told to take their objective silently, using only their bayonets. The hardened troops penetrated the Redoubt in silence and without being observed, capturing their objective in about the time it takes a cup of coffee to reach drinking temperature. It was the victory Hamilton needed. 

Hamilton’s only combat command was an outstanding success. This story was told and repeated in the taverns of New York innumerable times. The fame Hamilton achieved through this audacious victory benefited him after the war and was instrumental in him being elected to the Continental Congress, where he was thrown together with Aaron Burr. Hamilton knew Burr before the election, from even before the war, and thought he knew him well. But it was only when both were in Congress that he understood Burr for what he was.                                              


Aaron Burr

At a fundamental level Aaron Burr was an insolvent flaneur with pretentions of aristocracy. These are conflicting characteristics, in that an elevated social position is difficult to support without the necessary funds. The intersections of these two opposing forces explain the inflection points in Burr’s life.


Rent-seeking: Aaron Burr was a natural politician. He was personally charming, knew everybody that could be useful to him, could talk the flies off a cow, and was an inveterate rent-seeker. He was, in other words, a near-perfect paradigm of the office-seeker.

Rent-seeking is the second oldest profession. While a productive person makes the pie bigger, the rent-seeker contributes nothing. He simply takes a cut from the existing pie, leaving everyone else with a little less. A classic example was seen in The Godfather, Part II. Don Fanucci said to the young Michael Corleone, “. . . I just want to wet my beak”. The underlying threat was implicit, but real . . . “because I’m in a position to hurt you”. That is the unspoken threat of all rent-seekers. After all, if they had no effect on your future, why would you write them checks?

Rent-seeking is integral to politics. A politician regulates people and things.  That’s his job. If you don’t want you or your things regulated, expect to contribute to the politician’s re-election fund. “No, that’s not extortion. I’m just giving him money so he won’t support a law that will hurt my business.”

Burr’s adult life was spent bouncing from one political office to another. He started early. In 1784, the year following the end of the Revolutionary War he, as new lawyer, was elected to the New York state assembly, where he served a single term. In 1789 he was appointed the state attorney general. Two years later, in 1791, the state legislature appointed him to the United States Senate, where he (again) served a single term, remaining until 1797, after which he returned to the New York state assembly as a member of Thomas Jefferson’s party. 

Jefferson ran for president in 1800. The party selected Burr to run for vice-president and he accepted. That was the moment Burr, like Icarus, began to fly too close to the sun. 


1800: Betrayal

There were 138 electoral votes available in the election of 1800. The Democrat-Republican Thomas Jefferson won, garnering 73 electoral votes and defeating his Federalist rival John Adams who gathered 65. But in those pre-12th Amendment days, when the presidential electors officially voted no distinction was made between the candidate for the presidency and that for the vice-presidency. The state electors voted for the combined ticket (in this case, Democrat-Republican) with no reference as to which man would sit behind which desk. At this point all anyone knew was that one of them would be the next president, and the other his vice-president. The question was referred to the House of Representatives. Burr’s eyes got big when he suddenly realized he had even-odds to become the next President. For a rent-seeker it was a golden moment, and for Burr concession suddenly became a non-starter.

The House was dominated by Federalists who were adamantly opposed to Jefferson, whom they saw as the worst possible Democrat-Republican. During the second week of February, 1801, Jefferson and Burr (to whom party affiliation was simply a matter of convenience) ran against each other in the House. The voting went through 35 tied ballots, but neither man could gather the necessary majority. Then the Federalist James Bayard (Delaware) advised that he was ready to change his vote from Burr to Jefferson. That broke the impasse and Bayard was soon joined by three other states. That was enough to give Jefferson the Presidency, but only after a strenuous 36 ballots.

Burr’s betrayal had a predictable effect on Jefferson’s affection for him. Burr became little more than a benchwarmer in the four years of the first Jefferson administration, and when Jefferson ran for a second term, he made certain his running-mate was not Burr, whose character was fully revealed by the 1804 election.

Sidebar: The election of 1800 precipitated the 12th Amendment that was proposed by Congress on December 09, 1803 and ratified by the states six months later on 15 June, 1804. The Amendment states “The electors shall meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President . . .” (emphasis added), thus requiring electors to, for the first time, distinguish their Presidential vote from their Vice-Presidential.


1804: The Duel

Immediately following his single term in the vice-presidency, Burr ran for governor of New York in the 1804 election. His opposition was led by Alexander Hamilton, who used every opportunity to publicly address Burr’s lack of integrity. This was clearly damaging to Burr’s political future, to his assumed status as a grandee and, worse yet, to his rent-seeking income. Burr could not be seen as tolerating Hamilton’s public insults. When his attempt for the governorship failed, he immediately challenged Hamilton to a duel.

Like civil suits today, which are regularly disposed of on the courthouse steps, duels were often settled before the principals met on the dueling ground. In fact, that was one of the reasons for the “seconds”. A duelist’s second was not intended to replace his fallen principal: His purpose was to negotiate a last-minute peace between the belligerents. If the opposing principals were unable to reason together the next people to try, even to the last moment, were their seconds. The most desirable second would be a facile negotiator who was liked and respected by both duelers.


July 11th

Dueling was illegal in New Jersey. After Hamilton fell, the state issued a warrant for Burr’s arrest. Hamilton died the next day. Burr ignored the warrant and scampered back to the District of Columbia. State warrants were not honored there, and Burr took full advantage of the fact. Burr’s victory on the dueling grounds somehow made Hamilton’s musings all the more credible. Although Burr reached the district and its federal sanctuary, as a public man he was now thoroughly discredited. The Democratic-Republicans shunned Burr for opposing Jefferson in the 1800 election. The Federalists ostracized him for killing Alexander Hamilton. For a politician, Burr was now a man without a home.

With his options vanished, it was time to set his gaze higher and fly even closer to the sun.


1805: Empire

Burr, in 1805, plotted with James Wilkinson to create a new country from the Louisiana Purchase. This area, acquired from Napoleonic France in 1803, consisted of 828,000 square miles. The price was $15 million, or about $8 / square mile. In the future that land would become all or portions of 15 states and two Canadian provinces.  

James Wilkinson, fully Aaron Burr’s equal in ethics and perhaps his superior in charisma, simultaneously held two jobs: United States general and Spanish spy. The Revolutionary War over, Wilkinson left the Continental army and crossed the Appalachian Mountains to become a land speculator. He promptly fell into debt. To clear his obligations, he began to spy for Spain. Spain found Wilkinson useful because so much of the land to the west of the Louisiana Purchase was Spanish Territory. When Louis and Clark tried to find a land route to the Pacific Ocean, Wilkinson informed the Spanish and recommended they be intercepted. A land route to the Pacific, cutting thousands of miles off the sea route around Tierra Del Fuego, would be invaluable to the nascent United States. The Spanish reasonably believed that Louis and Clark’s success would stimulate American claims on the Spanish land west of the Louisiana Purchase. Spain tried, but was unable to find the expedition. Again, as America expanded into the Louisiana Purchase, Wilkinson recommended that Spain build defensive lines to thwart the American expansion, and Spain so did. Apparently, Spain held Wilkinson in high regard.

Burr, not to be outdone, contacted the British government and pleaded for their assistance in the scheme. He wanted the British navy to blockade the Mississippi River and obstruct American expansion, at least until he and Wilkinson created their independent country. The British, having been beaten once, demurred.

While Burr and Wilkinson were searching for a likely place to do a spot of nation-building, the incipient border trouble with Spanish Mexico heated up. That resulted in Burr and Wilkinson focusing their interests in Spanish America, specifically land in what was to be the future state of Texas. 

In sum, Wilkinson spied for Spain, Burr tried but failed to get the British navy to block American western expansion, and neither Wilkinson nor Burr got any land from Spanish Mexico. Altogether, it was a Laurel and Hardy show.


1807: Treason

President Jefferson, who had not forgotten Burr’s earlier betrayal, loathed him. When Burr’s nation-building attempts came before Jefferson via a message from Burr’s partner, General James Wilkinson, the charge of Treason was quickly brought. The trial was held before Chief Justice John Marshall, America’s fourth Chief Justice. Marshall could hurt Jefferson, whom he hated possibly as much as Jefferson hated Burr, by acquitting Burr, and Marshall found legal reason to do so.

Burr fled to Europe where he wandered about, voicing his new schemes to all who would listen, until poverty intervened. After spending four years in Europe, he returned to New York and again opened his law practice. Burr died in 1836.

All this, in eleven years.


This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as professional advice. Klarise Yahya is not a financial planner. Nothing in this article is presented as investment guidance. For specific circumstances, please contact an appropriately licensed professional. Klarise Yahya is a Commercial Mortgage Broker specializing in difficult-to-place mortgages for any kind of property. If you are thinking of refinancing or purchasing real estate, perhaps Klarise Yahya can help. For a complimentary mortgage analysis, please call her at (818) 414-7830 or email [email protected]

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