What was relationship between Burr and Jefferson?
In 1791, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison decided to take a trip–to New York State and to part of New England. Jefferson and Madison claimed they were traveling on a botany excursion; Jefferson was also interested in studying the Hessian fly. The trip was political as well as scientific. In the brief time together in New York City–Jefferson stayed on Beekman Street and the two Virginians met with New York chancellor Robert R. Livingston, Philip Freneau and, Aaron Burr. It would be the first time that the two of them met.
June, 1795 in the fall, Aaron Burr called at Monticello, leading to Federalist charges that the two men had “planned and approved” the Republican agenda in the ensuing Congress. It had been a brief visit on the mountaintop, only a single day. However the few hours they had spent together, Jefferson and Burr were to be intimately linked for the new dozen years–first as allies, then as foes. Burr proved to be an invaluable to the Jeffersonian cause–until the Election of 1800.
By August, 1796 the papers were already reporting, “to inform you that the people of the state, of every description, express a wish that you should be the new President of the United States, and Mr. Burr, Vice President.” By the time the election did roll around, Jefferson and Burr were running as a duo for President (Jefferson) and Vice President (Burr). In the end, presidential ambitions stood over Burr as he attempted to climb to the Presidency. There is no evidence that Burr considered betraying Jefferson, but Jefferson soon came to believe that his running mate was an unreliable and undesirable ally.
“The dread now,” a correspondent wrote Republican John Breckinridge in late December 1800, “is that Jefferson and Burr are equal as the vote of the electors, and that Burr will be preferred by the Eastern states, not because they think him really the most capable, but because Jefferson is the choice of the people… and their will shall not prevail; this certainly would be a wicked and contrary disposition in them. But what will they not do or attempt?”
By the last Sunday in December 1800, the votes were all in. They came to Jefferson as president of the Senate. It was a tie.
Once an ally, Burr not posed a possible threat. It would prove the 1800 election as another part to Burr’s challenging Alexander Hamilton to duel a few years later. Hamilton understood that “Jefferson is to be preferred” over Burr, “He is by far not so dangerous a man; and he had pretensions to character.” Jefferson, Hamilton noted, “is as likely as any man I know to temporize–to calculate what will be likely to promote his own reputation and advantage; and the probable result of such a temper is the preservation of systems, though originally opposed, which being once established, could not be overturned without danger to the person who did it.” By the end of March 1801, Jefferson was the third president of the United States, and his relationship with Burr was strained greatly.
Burr had become a seemingly uncontrollable political actor in the Republican party. It was partly due to the Republican’s belief that Burr had not energetically shut down Federalist efforts to use Burr to deny Jefferson victory in 1800-1801, and partly because of the complications of the New York state politics–Burr represented just one faction–Jefferson chose to thwart Burr’s ambitions once the Presidential contest of settled. Burr was proving an ever more elusive and daunting political force.
On Thursday, January 26th, 1804, Burr called on Jefferson at the President’s House. After the electoral college tie, the two men had had little contact in their first term, and Jefferson was determined to keep him off the ballot in 1804. As Burr told his story, he cast himself in the warmest and best of lights. He was, he was saying, the humblest and most honest of men. Burr knew that he was under attack privately and publicly. Jefferson reported that Burr had said “many little stories had been carried to him, and he supposed to me also, which, he despised, but that attachments must be reciprocal or cease to exist, and therefore he asked if any change had taken place in mine towards him: that he had chosen to have this conversation with myself directly and not through any intermediate agent.” Burr was willing to stand down, he said, but to do so he needed Jefferson help: and appointment of some kind. Jefferson’s reply was maddening. The president disclaimed any role in electioneering. He said he could do nothing for Burr.
Seven months later, after Hamilton was shot dead in a duel with Aaron Burr, he was indicted for murder both by a coroner’s jury in New York and by a grand jury in New Jersey. The vice president escaped both states in late July. For Jefferson, the problem of Aaron Burr was just beginning, for on Monday, August 6th, 1804–not quite a month after Hamilton’s death–Anthony Merry told Burr wanted to “effect a separation of the western part of the United States from that which lies between the Atlantic and the mountains in its whole extent.”
For his second term, Jefferson got George Clinton to take the place of Burr as his running mate. Saturday, March 2nd, 1805 before Jefferson’s second inauguration, Burr left the capital city and others thought him done with political life for good.
By 1806, the autumn brought news that Aaron Burr was making trouble. Since the duel, Burr had set out on a Wanderjahr. He traveled West and rumors had him variously plotting to convince some states to seceded and form a western empire or planning an independent strike against Mexico. “Burr is unquestionably very actively engaged in the Westward in the preparations to sever that from this part of the Union,” Jefferson wrote in November 1806. The former vice president allegedly was recruiting men, stocking arms, and building boats. Jefferson heard nothing to alleviate his concerns. November 27th, 1806, Jefferson was worried enough to issue a proclamation warning that “sundry persons,” including “citizens of the United States,” were conspiring and confederating together” to take over Spanish holdings. Incriminating papers soon emerged and Jefferson forwarded them to Congress in January 1807.
Jefferson pursued Burr unapologetically. He did so less out of personal ambition of jealousy–since the killing of Hamilton, Burr could pose no threat within the traditional political system. In his report on Burr to Congress on Thursday, January 22nd, 1807, Jefferson took the extraordinary step of declaring that his former vice president’s “guilt is placed beyond question”. By late March, Burr was under arrest. Jefferson paid close attention to the proceedings. Burr was brought to Richmond for the trial where John Marshall presided over the courtroom set up in the Eagle Tavern. Jefferson took an obsessive interest in the case, gathering information and advising the prosecution counsel.
Burr was indicted for treason, the weaknesses of the case against him grew evident as the trial progressed. Burr’s eventual acquittal enraged the president. Jefferson thought, perhaps, outrage over the Burr verdict could be channeled into a constitutional amendment making judges more accountable to the public. Jefferson and Burr would never see one another or work together, ever again.