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Real Life

Born in Newark, New Jersey, Aaron Burr distinguished himself in the Revolution, made a prosperous marriage (1782) to the widow of a former British officer, and set up a successful law practice in New York City. He entered the U.S. Senate in 1791 and served as U.S. vice president from 1801 to 1805.

Jefferson distrusted Burr and dropped him from the Democratic-Republican ticket in the 1804 race. Thus rejected, Buff ran for New York governor, garnering support (in part) by suggesting that he would aid certain Federalist radicals in their effort to break New York free of the Union. Burr was attacked in print by Alexander Hamilton, and when Burr lost the election, he challenged his enemy to a duel on July 11, 1804. Hamilton was mortally wounded, and Buff received the dubious distinction of becoming the first (and thus far only) U.S. vice president charged with murder.

Burr ultimately was acquitted, completed his vice presidential term with dignity, but then entered into a conspiracy of bewildering proportions. Even now, it is impossible to determine just what Burr intended to do, but he seems to have envisioned creating an empire stretching from the Ohio River to Mexico—an empire over which he would rule. Burr conspired with U.S. army general James Wilkinson to incite the West to a rebellion supported by Mexico. Before Burr could take significant action, however, Wilkinson betrayed him to President Jefferson. Chief justice John Marshall presided over Burr’s trial for treason, pointing out to the jury that Burr had not committed any acts of treason, but had been shown only to have intended to commit such acts. Marshall declared that one could not be found guilty on account of one’s intentions. After 25 minutes of deliberation, the jury acquitted Burr, who fled to Europe and did not return to the United States until May 1812. He lived out the remainder of his life in retirement.


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