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Right Angle Club 2017
Dick Palmer and Bill Dorsey died this year. We will miss them.

Aaron Burr: Good Guy, or Skunk?

Ross Kershey

Ross Kershey, a faculty member and coach at Immaculata University, recently visited the Right Angle Club and related the story of Aaron Burr, who prompted the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution by being elected Vice President in a sort of backhanded way. He and Thomas Jefferson ran for President and Vice President in the Electoral College, but the ballots failed to distinguish between the two offices. So officially, he and Jefferson had an equal number of votes when the Constitution provided that the person with the most votes was President, and the second highest number of votes elected the Vice President. The Constitution failed to provide for a tie, and so Burr was within his rights to assert he was tied for the Presidency since repeated voting failed to induce anyone to switch. Needless to say, there was a great deal of bitter comment about ungentlemanly behavior, and ultimately Jefferson was elected by a private deal, which provoked bitterness from the other voters. There were other grievances, and ultimately a duel resulted, with the well-known consequence of the death of Hamilton. A good many false claims were invented by various interested persons, not the least of whom was Gore Vidal, a Burr descendant writing "historical novels". As if the various true claims were not enough, there was a strong division between upper and lower classes on the question, with the Jefferson supporters sneering at the upper-class supporters of Burr, who were disdainful of the low-life supporting Jefferson as not being worthy of the job of President. The background of the Sally Hennings affair may have influenced the electors, but was largely unknown by the voters, but which spilled over to the slavery issue in subsequent elections and formed an unspoken link to the emerging party system of voting.

Professor Kershey supplied the Right Angle meeting with a time-line summary of Burr's life, which is here repeated with his permission:

1. Aaron Burr: 1756-1836, Newark N.J. - His father was president of Princeton University. One sister, Sally.

2. Both parents died when Aaron was 2. He and sister Sally lived with the Shippen family, in Philadelphia, briefly. Then with a 21 yr-old uncle.

3. Burr graduated from Princeton at age 16, as a theology major, justifying the description of bright Princeton students as "having the highest grades since Aaron Burr." He changed to law -- after graduation.

4. Revolutionary War--part of Benedict Arnold's ill-fated invasion of Canada. Joined Washington' staff in N.Y., (as did Alexander Hamilton).

5. During the N.Y. campaign, Burr saved a brigade from capture at the battle of Manhattan, including Captain Alex. Hamilton.

6. Burr spent the winter at Valley Forge (see Sonoma Tavern, below). Commanded a regiment at the battle of Monmouth. Heat Stroke--never fully recovered.

7. Resigned due to health. Continental Army's secret service (intelligence). Suspected Peggy Shippen Arnold (see #2.)

8. 1782 - Married Theodosia Prevost- widow of a British officer and 10 years older. One daughter -also Theodosia.

9. Began the practice of law. Wife died of cancer- 1794.

10. Daughter Theodosia, well educated - one son, who died at age 10.

11. Burr may have fathered 2 illegitimate children with servant.

12. Politics- N.Y. State Assembly, Attorney General of N.Y., U.S. Senator, defeating Philip Schuyler, Hamilton's father-in-law.

13. Helped form Tammany Hall into political power. Selected by Jefferson as Presidential running mate in 1800.

14. The disputed election of 1800 - tie: Jeff$ Burr - 36 ballots - the influence of Hamilton decided the outcome. 12th Amendment.

15. Burr not really involved in administration. Presided over Senate very competently - in the impeachment of Justice Chase.

16. Ran for governor of N.Y. - lost due to Hamilton's influence and smear campaign - "despicable".

17. Duel 7-11-1804 Weehawken, N.J. -Hamilton's son killed in a duel on the same spot in 1801. Both N.Y. and N.J. accused him of murder.

18. Hamilton's shot missed (on purpose?) Burr's shot pierced Hamilton's liver & spine. Died on 7-12-04, buried in Trinity Churchyard in lower Manhattan.

19. Fled to S. Carolina & Georgia. Charges never pursued, eventually dropped. Burr completes term as V.P.

20. 1805-06 Burr conspiracy: invade Mexico? Establish gulf-coast empire on Spanish territory? Secession?

21. The plot included General James Wilkinson, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Stephen Decatur, Harmon Blennerhasset.

22. The plot never materialized - some troops, some equipment, some funds from Blennerhasset.

23. Gen. Wilkinson realized plot would fail, informed President Jefferson -- Burr arrested.

24. Tried for treason - Circuit Court in Richmond presided over by Chief Justice John Marshall, who was Jefferson's cousin and known to hate him. - 1807

25. Despite great pressure from Jefferson for a guilty verdict, Marshall interpreted the Constitution's definition of treason strictly. The crime of treason (the only crime defined by Constitution) as a conspiracy plus an overt act witnessed by two people.

26. No witnesses came forward, so no overt act witnessed by two people, so no treason. Not guilty.

27. 1808-12 Burr goes to Europe, looking for help from England or France. No chance. Napoleon.

28. Burr returns to U.S. penniless. Theodosia lost at sea, 1812 shipwreck or piracy?

29. Burr practices law in N.Y. 1833, at age 77, marries Eliza Jumel, wealthy widow.

30. Separate, after 4 mos, finally divorced.

31. Burr suffers a debilitating stroke, dies in 1836. Buried at Princeton.

Aaron Burr

In the question period, two interesting facts were brought out. In the first place, there is a large rock projecting into the Schuylkill, causing a big bend in the river on one side, and a narrow defile behind it as an extension of Montgomery Avenue. Roads fanning out behind the gulch are now called Upper Gulph, Lower Gulph, Old Gulph, New Gulph, and several other variations on the name. At the entrance to the gulf on the Southside, is now Sanoma Tavern. But in Revolutionary times it was Aaron Burr's house, with the assignment to guard the narrow entrance to Valley Forge. The department of highways once proposed to blast the rock away for commuters, but the Daughters of the Revolution wouldn't let them.

The second item of some interest is that Immaculata University, where Professor Kershey works, was the scene of the Revolutionary "Battle of the Clouds". Washington was retreating North from the Battle of Brandywine, hotly pursued by the British, when a hurricane struck. Hurricaines were discovered by, who else, Benjamin Franklin, but not widely understood. All the troops knew was it was pouring rain, everybody's powder was soaking wet, and the battle was called off, forever to be known as the Battle of the Clouds.

Originally published: Saturday, April 29, 2017; most-recently modified: Friday, May 10, 2019