Was America's third vice president a certifiable psychopath?
“Absolutely not,” a commenter recently replied to the question on Quora. “He was brilliant, charming, and erudite. He was also one of this country’s very first feminists. He was brave in battle, fearless in politics, and quite the ladies man. He was also quite funny. I don’t recall the exact quote but one of his friends asked him why he didn’t contradict a woman who had falsely accused him of fathering her baby. Burr responded that if a woman chose to pay him the ultimate compliment that he would be ungenerous to contradict her. In short, if you were going to be trapped in a stalled elevator for several hours with any one of our Founding Fathers, then Burr’s your man!”
If the irony of this answer is lost on you, allow me explain: Charm, fearlessness, glibness, and sexual promiscuity are all symptoms of psychopathy.
“Psychopaths employ a mixture of charm, manipulation, intimidation, and occasionally violence to control others, in order to satisfy their own selfish needs,” according to a report on Serial Murder released in 2005 by the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit.
Other characteristics exhibited by psychopaths include a grandiose sense of self-worth, sexual promiscuity and deviance, the incapacity to form deep and lasting intimate relationships, and a complete lack of empathy, remorse, or guilt. We see all of these physiognomies operating throughout Burr’s life.
“According to contemporary observers, Burr’s features were dominated by great, expressive hazel eyes and an air of earnest urbanity,” wrote John Ferling in Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800. “Many were struck, too, by his gentlemanly bearing — some thought it an aristocratic manner — as well as by his self-assurance and, above all, an unconcealed pride in his superior intellect. Some thought him graceful, most found him to be friendly and agreeable, and all regarded him as a delightful conversationalist. Burr brought to public life better-than-average oratorical skills, a talent honed in countless courtrooms where he gradually jettisoned the pistonlike delivery and overbearing habits of his youth, substituting instead a ‘slow, circumspect manner’ that convinced listeners that careful deliberation and reasoned reflection underlay his every word. Yet for all his compelling qualities, aspects of his demeanor caused him harm. For instance, when Burr came to Virginia in 1796 to court support, some who met him not only discerned an active and scheming mind but concluded that he was not passionately committed to any political principle. Winning laurels and holding power, they suspected, were his only real objectives. They were not alone in this judgment. Throughout his career, many detected in him a frenetic ambition, an insatiable, indomitable craving for more wealth, material possessions, power, and acclaim — more of everything, a gluttonous avidity that they assumed drove him relentlessly.”
Rumors abounded of Burr’s sexual exploits and embrace of taboos. It was said he seduced married women and genteel young ladies, consorted openly with prostitutes, molested his adopted children (and perhaps his natural one as well), was cruel and controlling in bed, engaged in bestiality, and was a fixture at the scandalous balls where white men “hooked up” with black women. The truth, unfortunately, will never be known thanks to Matthew Davies, the friend and biographer who burned all Burr’s letters relating to his sexual conquests.
“It is a matter of perfect notoriety,” Davis wrote in the preface to Aaron Burr’s Memoirs, “that among the papers left in my possession by the late Colonel Burr, there was a mass of letters and copies of letters written or received by him, from time to time, during a long life, indicating no very strict morality in some of his female correspondents. These letters contained matter that would have wounded the feelings of families more extensively than could be imagined. Their publication would have had a most injurious tendency, and created heartburnings that nothing but time could have cured. As soon as they came under my control I mentioned the subject to Colonel Burr; but he prohibited the destruction of any part of them during his lifetime. I separated them, however, from other letters in my possession, and placed them in a situation that made their publication next to impossible, whatever might have been my own fate. As soon as Colonel Burr’s decease was known, with my own hands I committed to the fire all such correspondence, and not a vestige of it now remains.”
The above confession, when viewed alongside his subject’s psychological profile, suggest the rumors of Burr’s debaucheries might have only been the tip of the iceberg.
Hamilton frequently described Burr as “profligate” and “a voluptuary in the extreme,” suggesting it might have been more than Burr’s plentiful affairs to which his critic objected. Doing so, after all, would have made Hamilton a hypocrite, given his own established and rumored transgressions.
Hamilton also denounced Burr as corrupt, dangerously ambitious, and utterly unprincipled, as did Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and other men who knew him. In one spasm of anti-Burr rhetoric, Hamilton wrote that Burr was “bankrupt beyond redemption, except by plunder of his country. His public principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandizement ... [H]e will certainly disturb our institutions to secure to himself permanent power.”
Burr also fathered numerous illegitimate children, including two by his East Indian servant Mary Emmons (a.k.a. Eugénie Bearhani). While practicing law in New York from 1813 to 1835, he raised two young men in his home (Aaron Burr Columbus and Charles Burdett) who are presumed to be his bastard sons by former lovers.
Further evidence of psychopathy can be found in the following letter to his son-in-law the day after Burr shot Alexander Hamilton. “GENERAL HAMILTON died yesterday. The malignant federalists or tories, and the imbittered Clintonians, unite in endeavouring to excite public sympathy in his favour and indignation against his antagonist. Thousands of absurd falsehoods are circulated with industry. The most illiberal means are practised in order to produce excitement, and, for the moment, with effect.”
Here, we see his lack of empathy in action. Rather than expressing even the slightest guilt or remorse over the life he’s just taken, he paints himself as the victim, blaming others for what he perceives to be unjust persecution of him and undeserved admiration for Hamilton. His sentiments are bitter, resentful, and completely self-centered. He believes the Federalists and New York Republicans were venerating Hamilton not because he deserved their accolades, but as part of a plot to dishonor the lame-duck vice president.
Like the majority of psychopaths, Burr displayed anti-social tendencies early in life. His own mother described him in his toddler years as a “sly and mischievous” boy who required “a good governor to bring him to terms.” He found that governor in the guardians who took him in after he lost both his parents early in life. The first of these was Dr. Shippen, the father of the future Mrs. Benedict Arnold. At the tender age of four, Burr ran away over a clash with his tutor and “contrived to elude the search for three or four days.”
Later, his care was entrusted to his uncle, Timothy Edwards, a stern Puritan minister who regularly beat his young charge “like a sack.” At the age of ten, Burr ran away a second time. This time, he went to New York and signed on as a cabin boy aboard a ship preparing to launch. When his uncle came to take him home, his unruly nephew sprang into the rigging and climbed to the masthead. The boy was ordered to come down, but stubbornly refused to do so. Eventually, Burr yielded, but only after extracting Uncle Timothy’s promise not to beat him when they returned to Elizabethtown.
Biographers cite these stories of Burr’s boyhood misadventures as evidence of his innate daring and rebelliousness without realizing that parental abandonment, caretaker abuse, and running away are all childhood experiences common to psychopaths.
And then there is the matter of Burr’s motive for killing Hamilton. At the time he challenged the former secretary of state to the now-infamous duel, Burr was ruined, financially as well as politically. As a self-serving psychopath, he stood nothing to gain on either front by killing Hamilton, especially on such flimsy grounds.
Unless he was promised favors by someone who would benefit directly from Hamilton’s death. Someone who knew Burr was amoral enough to commit murder in exchange for money, power, and political favors. Someone in a position to offer such incentives. Someone who looked a lot like Thomas Jefferson.
Hi, I'm Nina Mason, an author, investigative journalist, history buff, and self-professed Hamilton fan (not the musical, the historical figure). Herein, I will share interesting tidbits related to my investigation into my belief that the Reynolds Affair and duel with Aaron Burr were part of a larger conspiracy against Hamilton directed by Thomas Jefferson.