Year
1807

Aaron Burr acquitted

Former U.S. vice president Aaron Burr is acquitted of plotting to annex parts of Louisiana and Spanish territory in Mexico to be used toward the establishment of an independent republic. He was acquitted on the grounds that, though he had conspired against the United States, he was not guilty of treason because he had not engaged in an “overt act,” a requirement of the law governing treason. Nevertheless, public opinion condemned him as a traitor, and he fled to Europe.

Aaron Burr, born into a prestigious New Jersey family in 1756, graduated from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) at the age of 17. He joined the Continental Army in 1775 and distinguished himself during the Patriot attack on Quebec. A masterful politician, he was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1783 and later served as state attorney. In 1790, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. In 1797, Burr ran for the vice presidency on Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican ticket (the forerunner of the Democratic Party), but the Federalist John Adams won the presidency. In 1797 Burr left the Senate and returned to the New York Assembly.

In 1800, Jefferson again chose Burr as his running mate. Under the electoral procedure then prevailing, president and vice president were not voted for distinctly; the candidate who received the most votes was elected president, and the second in line, vice president. Jefferson and Burr each won 73 votes, and the election was sent to the House of Representatives. What at first seemed but an electoral technicality–handing Jefferson victory over his running mate–developed into a major constitutional crisis when Federalists in the lame-duck Congress threw their support behind Burr. After a remarkable 35 tie votes, a small group of Federalists changed sides and voted in Jefferson’s favor.

Burr became vice president, but Jefferson grew apart from him, and he did not support Burr’s renomination to a second term in 1804. That year, a faction of New York Federalists, who had found their fortunes drastically diminished after the ascendance of Jefferson, sought to enlist the disgruntled Burr into their party and elect him governor. Burr’s old political antagonist Alexander Hamilton campaigned against him with great fervor, and he lost the Federalist nomination and then, running as an independent for governor, the election. In the campaign, Burr’s character was savagely attacked by Hamilton and others, and after the election he resolved to restore his reputation by challenging Hamilton to a duel, or an “affair of honor,” as they were known.

Affairs of honor were commonplace in America at the time, and the complex rules governing them usually led to a resolution before any actual firing of weapons. In fact, the outspoken Hamilton had been involved in several affairs of honor in his life, and he had resolved most of them peaceably. No such recourse was found with Burr, however, and on July 11, 1804, the enemies met at 7 a.m. at the dueling grounds near Weehawken, New Jersey.

There are conflicting accounts of what happened next. According to Hamilton’s “second”–his assistant and witness in the duel–Hamilton decided the duel was morally wrong and deliberately fired into the air. Burr’s second claimed that Hamilton fired at Burr and missed. What happened next is agreed upon: Burr shot Hamilton in the stomach, and the bullet lodged next to his spine. Hamilton was taken back to New York, and he died the next afternoon.

Few affairs of honor actually resulted in deaths, and the nation was outraged by the killing of a man as eminent as Alexander Hamilton. Charged with murder in New York and New Jersey, Burr, still vice president, returned to Washington, D.C., where he finished his term immune from prosecution.

In 1805, Burr, thoroughly discredited, concocted a plot with James Wilkinson, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Army, to seize the Louisiana Territory and establish an independent empire, which Burr, presumably, would lead. He contacted the British government and unsuccessfully pleaded for assistance in the scheme. Later, when border trouble with Spanish Mexico heated up, Burr and Wilkinson conspired to seize territory in Spanish America for the same purpose.

In the fall of 1806, Burr led a group of well-armed colonists toward New Orleans, prompting an immediate U.S. investigation. General Wilkinson, in an effort to save himself, turned against Burr and sent dispatches to Washington accusing Burr of treason. In February 1807, Burr was arrested in Louisiana for treason and sent to Virginia to be tried in a U.S. court. On September 1, he was acquitted on a technicality. Nevertheless, the public condemned him as a traitor, and he went into exile to Europe. He later returned to private life in New York, the murder charges against him forgotten. He died in 1836.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Wreck of the Titanic found

Seventy-three years after it sunk to the North Atlantic ocean floor, a joint U.S.-French expedition locates the wreck of the RMS Titanic. The sunken liner was about 400 miles east of Newfoundland in the North Atlantic.American Robert D. Ballard headed the expedition, which used ...read more

Germans invade Poland

At 4:45 a.m., some 1.5 million German troops invade Poland all along its 1,750-mile border with German-controlled territory. Simultaneously, the German Luftwaffe bombed Polish airfields, and German warships and U-boats attacked Polish naval forces in the Baltic Sea. Nazi leader ...read more

Qaddafi leads coup in Libya

Muammar al-Qaddafi, a 27-year-old Libyan army captain, leads a successful military coup against King Idris I of Libya. Idris was deposed and Qaddafi was named chairman of Libya’s new governing body, the Revolutionary Command Council.Qaddafi was born in a tent in the Libyan desert ...read more

Atlanta falls to Union forces

On this day in 1864, Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman lays siege to Atlanta, Georgia, a critical Confederate hub, shelling civilians and cutting off supply lines. The Confederates retreated, destroying the city’s munitions as they went. On November 15 of that year, ...read more

Germany invades Poland

On this day in 1939, German forces bombard Poland on land and from the air, as Adolf Hitler seeks to regain lost territory and ultimately rule Poland. World War II had begun.The German invasion of Poland was a primer on how Hitler intended to wage war–what would become the ...read more

Fighter pilot nominated for Medal of Honor

Lt. Col. William A. Jones III leads a mission near Dong Hoi, North Vietnam, to rescue a downed pilot. Locating the pilot, who had activated his emergency locator beacon, Colonel Jones attacked a nearby gun emplacement. On his second pass, Colonel Jones’ aircraft was hit and the ...read more

First Japanese player makes MLB debut

On September 1, 1964, pitcher Masanori Murakami becomes the first Japanese man to play in U.S. baseball’s major leagues. Murakami pitched a scoreless eighth inning for the San Francisco Giants in a 4-1 loss to the New York Mets in front of 39,379 fans at Shea Stadium.Murakami was ...read more

First Anglo women settle west of the Rockies

On this day in 1836, Narcissa Whitman arrives in Walla Walla, Washington, becoming one of the first Anglo women to settle west of the Rocky Mountains.Narcissa and Marcus Whitman, along with their close friends Eliza and Henry Spalding, had departed from New York earlier that year ...read more

P.T. Barnum brings Jenny Lind to New York

The iconic American huckster, showman and circus entrepreneur P.T. Barnum is most often associated not with refined high culture but of somewhat coarser forms of entertainment—the circus, yes, but also Siamese twins and various human oddities such as “Zip the Pinhead” and the ...read more

Robert Pirsig is born

Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), is born on this day in Minneapolis.Pirsig, the son of a Minnesota law professor, rose rapidly to fame with his novel, which was based partly on his own experiences. The book chronicled the motorcycle ...read more

Penn’s Into the Wild premieres

On this day in 2007, Into the Wild, a film directed and co-written by Sean Penn and based on the true story of a young adventurer who died in Alaska, debuts at the Telluride Film Festival before opening in wide release the following month.Into the Wild was based on Jon Krakauer’s ...read more

Minnesota town burns

The town of Hinckley, Minnesota, is destroyed by a forest fire on this day in 1894. A total of 440 people died in the area.The upper Midwest was particularly vulnerable to devastating fires at the end of the 19th century as European settlers cleared the land for agriculture and ...read more

A teenage boy murders his father

Fifteen-year-old Eric Witte shoots his father, 43-year-old volunteer firefighter Paul Witte, in the family’s Indiana home. Although Eric admitted to shooting his father, he claimed that the gun had accidentally gone off when he tripped on a rug. The bullet hit his father, who was ...read more