In early 1800, at the dawn of a new century, Aaron Burr was on every short list of men who could become president of the United States. He was the most prominent Northern leader of the Republican party, which was poised to win the national elections that fall. As an emerging political star, he seemed fated to shape the infant republic as it struggled for its place in a world of warring monarchies and despotisms.
Burr had reached this extraordinarily favorable position by measured steps. From an early age, Burr preferred to advance on his own careful terms, beholden to no one. He had been just old enough to join the fight for independence from Britain. In 1776, when the Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence, the twenty-year-old Burr served as a lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army. When General George Washington picked him as a personal aide, Burr swiftly lateraled into another assignment, out from under the great man’s shadow. When the Constitutional Convention met in 1787 to create a new government, Burr avoided the highly charged debates, building his New York law practice and local political standing. When the new Congress convened in 1789 and George Washington assembled the first government under the Constitution, Burr served in the New York State government. Yet by 1800, Burr was a leading contender for the highest national offices.
Writing some years later, former president John Adams struggled to explain Burr’s rise. “There is in some souls a principle of absolute levity that buoys them irresistibly into the clouds,” he wrote grumpily. “This I take to be precisely the genius of Burr.”
There were better explanations for Burr’s success. His family was distinguished. A grandfather, Jonathan Edwards, had been America’s leading divine, famously warning that we are all sinners in the hands of an angry God. Burr’s father was president of the College of New Jersey, the future Princeton University. Orphaned at an early age and raised in an uncle’s family, Burr was kin to prominent Americans from New Jersey through Boston. But his advancement grew from achievement as much as from fortunate birth.
Burr won distinction as a soldier and cut a military figure all his life, though he did not serve in uniform after the age of twenty-five. His intelligence and persuasive powers brought success as a lawyer and a politician: attorney general of New York State, then United States senator, then candidate for vice president in 1800. Burr’s adroit campaign management in the 1800 election marked him as a master of the new art of electioneering. The nation’s first two vice presidents, Adams and Jefferson, used the office as a stepping-stone to the highest office. Burr, whose talents and charisma were acknowledged even by his adversaries, intended to do the same.
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