Colorful fellow Aaron Burr: snappy dressy, successful with the ladies, and vice president of the United States. The pinnacle of his career, they said; not high enough for Aaron, they said.
Ambitious and brilliant, out of hubris, they said, Aaron Burr was the callous murderer of Alexander Hamilton, self-appointed emperor of Louisiana, and traitor to the U.S.
That was the single view of Burr until 2007. Then one biography, "Fallen Founder: the life of Aaron Burr" by Nancy Isenberg, argued that we misunderstood the man and his motives. Victim of both the vitriol of 18th-century American politics, and subsequent hagiographies of Thomas Jefferson, Burr was unfairly rendered. To wit: Burr was treated as President Obama would be treated in a book written by the Republican National Committee.
Was Aaron Burr murderer or self-defender, traitor or patriot, debaucher or feminist? In at least one way Isenberg was right: the story of Burr is the story of political foes and factions.
In 1801 Burr received the same number of electoral votes for president as Jefferson. A tie in the Electoral College was decided in the House of Representatives. Jefferson was named president; Burr vice president. Alexander Hamilton swung the vote in favor of Jefferson.
Hamilton disliked both men, but he disliked Burr more. Jefferson didn’t like Burr: he ignored and excluded him; let him know someone else would be VP in his second term.
In 1804, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Historians claim we cannot know definitively the reason, but regardless of the motive, there was no dispute that both men fired shots; Burr was unharmed; Hamilton died.
Hamilton defenders said he missed intentionally. They drew an invidious comparison between the gentleman Hamilton and the bloodthirsty bad guy Burr.
Burr supporters relied on dialectics: there was no proof Hamilton fired wide on purpose; if he did, there was no way for Burr to know. Hamilton shot his gun, therefore, Burr’s shot was self-defense and acceptable under the rules.
No matter, Hamilton was dead and Burr was dead in politics. Burr was left alone to contemplate his future. According to his detractors, he decided to become an emperor. Was the Burr conspiracy a treasonous plot to take Louisiana and parts west marshaling support, troops, and funds for an attack on Washington or was it his political enemies’ carefully crafted fiction promulgated to prosecute him? It depends upon the biographer.
Burr offers little help saying, "I leave my actions to speak for themselves and my character to confound the fictions of slander."
The trial wasn’t much help either. The president brought the charge of treason against Burr. Did Jefferson believe Burr a traitor or just know he was a political enemy? Debatable, but Chief Justice John Marshall, presiding over the trial, was certainly a political enemy of Jefferson’s. Marshall wanted Jefferson to lose, to appear vindictive and over-reaching. For the purpose of the trial, Marshall defined treason so narrowly that no one could have been convicted. Burr was not.
Fascinating as all this may be, what does it have to do with Berkshire history? Actually quite a bit. The links between 18th-century Berkshire and the wider world were stronger than one might expect.
For example, there is a house that still standing on the corner of Main and Pine Streets, Stockbridge. Two men owned it and both tie Aaron Burr to our Berkshires: Barnabus Bidwell and Timothy Edwards.
Stockbridge attorney Barnabus Bidwell was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1805. He became a spokesman for President Jefferson and was called the "sworn interpreter of executive messages." From Washington, he wrote to his wife in Stockbridge about Burr and the Burr conspiracy. Not surprisingly he echoed the party line.
Perhaps a more intimate connection between Burr and Stockbridge was through its most successful merchant, Timothy Edwards. Timothy built the house and it served as both his home and store before he sold it to Bidwell.
Timothy was the son of the Rev. Jonathan Edwards, Stockbridge Congregational Church. Timothy’s sister Esther married Aaron Burr Sr., minister, founder, and president of Princeton College.
In 1757, Aaron died from a "putrid fever." The following year, Jonathan and Esther both died from smallpox. By the deaths of his father, sister and brother-in-law, Timothy, at the age of 21, became guardian to eight children under the age of 15. Among the eight was 2-year-old Aaron Burr Jr.
Timothy studied law but found the mercantile trade more remunerative and better suited to supporting a large family. He lived in New Jersey until 1771 when he moved to Stockbridge and built the house.
"It was a fine structure with a porch running along the front ... quite fancy ..."
In 1772 Edwards became a licensed retailer.
"By merely stepping from one room to the other [in the house], Timothy Edwards could change from village potentate to shopkeeper." (Stockbridge 1739-1939)
Burr visited his guardian in Stockbridge in 1809. At one point Mrs. Edwards remonstrated against Burr and begged he mend his ways. She seemed to half-believe the stories of murder and treason at the same time as she treated Burr with deference. She remembered his mother’s dying words: a prayer that her infant son live a good life and die in grace.
Burr "answered tenderly."
Was the truth about Burr finally revealed in a Stockbridge parlor?
He said, "Oh aunt don’t feel so badly. We shall both meet in Heaven."
Was that a repudiation of wrongdoing?
Not exactly: Burr went on, "My idea is of a kinder and more forgiving God than yours." ("Autobiography of a Blind Minister," 1856).
Who was Aaron Burr? Who indeed.
Carole Owens is a Berkshire writer and historian.