Apr 8, 2014
Aaron Burr's Treason Trial Explored in Litchfield, Town With Strong Ties to Burr
Ever wonder why George Washington, a largely inexperienced general who lost more battles than he won during the American Revolution, was so revered by his countrymen? It is probably because Washington, a staunch patriot who sacrificed years of his life to lead Revolutionary troops and to lead the new nation through its perilous infancy, was an honorable man.
Sadly, he was a shining example of what a man and leader should be but was surrounded by more conflicted comrades. While the Revolutionary leaders were undoubtedly brilliant, audacious and motivated by the teachings of the Enlightenment, citizens of the new Republic could not look to many of them for virtuous, disinterested behavior.
Thomas Jefferson, governed by his promise to his dying wife not to remarry, lusted after another man’s wife and may have fathered five children by his slave, Sally Hemings. Benjamin Franklin was a noted roué who relished the licentious court life of France. Alexander Hamilton, founder of the nation’s financial system, was also involved in the nation’s first political sex scandal. And Aaron Burr, the nation’s third vice president, not only was a confirmed ladies’ man, but also shot and killed Hamilton in a duel and was tried for treason against the country he helped establish.
It was Burr’s treason trial that drew listeners to the Litchfield Historical Society recently to listen to R. Kent Newmyer, a professor of law and history at the University of Connecticut School of Law, who discussed his book, “The Treason Trial of Aaron Burr: Law, Politics, and the Character Wars of a New Nation.”
Burr, the professor said, was a fair-haired child of the new Republic. Handsome, charismatic, a grandson of the noted New England divine Jonathan Edwards, he was educated at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), which was headed by his father. Later he came to Litchfield to continue his tutelage under his brother-in-law, Tapping Reeve, founder of the nation’s first law school.
Soon after the outbreak of the War of Independence, in 1775, the younger Burr joined George Washington’s army in Cambridge, Mass., and accompanied Benedict Arnold’s expedition into Canada in 1775. He served on the staffs of Washington and Israel Putnam in 1776-77, and in the retreat from Long Island saved an entire brigade from capture. Clearly, he was the stuff of which heroes are made.
Following his military service—which he terminated because of ill health—he resumed the practice of law, married and became a father. In 1784, he entered politics in New York and, as political parties began to form, associated himself with the Democratic-Republicans. In the election of 1800 he was placed on the presidential ticket with Thomas Jefferson, and each received the same number of electoral votes. Jefferson was expected by his followers to be president and Burr vice-president, but owing to a defect in the Constitution the responsibility for the final choice was thrown upon the House of Representatives.
The attempts of a Federalist faction to secure the election of Burr failed, partly because of the opposition of Alexander Hamilton and partly because Burr made no efforts to obtain votes in his own favor. On Jefferson’s election, Burr became vice president.