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Burr, Aaron

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Significance: A politician, adventurer, and vice president of the United States, Burr presided over the impeachment trial of Justice Samuel Chase in the Supreme Court in 1805. Two years later, he was tried and acquitted of treason by Chief Justice John Marshall on circuit.


Burr was born into a distinguished family and studied theology and law at Princeton University, graduating with honors in 1772. Following the Revolutionary War, he was admitted to the New York bar in 1782. The 1800 presidential electoral college deadlocked between Burr and Thomas Jefferson, and the election was thrown to the House of Representatives. On the thirty-sixth ballot, Jefferson was chosen president and Burr vice president. In 1804 Vice President Burr challenged Alexander Hamilton to a duel because, by Burr's standards, Hamilton had defamed him. Hamilton was killed in the duel, and Burr became a fugitive. He fled to the southwest where he envisaged a grand empire made up of Mexico and the states west of the Allegheny Mountains, which he thought would secede. Burr returned to Washington to preside over the impeachment trial of Justice Samuel Chase in 1805. He ran the trial as a model of decorum and fairness, and Chase was not impeached. In the meantime, Burr's plan for a southwestern empire collapsed, and he was indicted for treason. His trial was presided over by Chief Justice John Marshall on circuit. Marshall was under pressure to convict Burr, but he narrowly interpreted the Constitution regarding treason, ruling that acts of treason required two witnesses. Burr was acquitted in September, 1807, but his public life was over.