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Indicted Vice President Bids Senate Farewell

March 2, 1805

Aaron Burr

Aaron Burr (pictured) continues to fire the imagination. In recent years, he has been the subject of a television documentary and two new books. Charming, shrewd, and brilliant, Burr won a Senate seat in 1791 by defeating Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton's father-in-law, Philip Schuyler. In the Senate, this brash New Yorker made many enemies among establishment Federalists by vigorously opposing Hamilton's financial system and President George Washington's foreign policy. Although he left the Senate after one term, he returned in 1801 as vice president.

Widely respected as a skilled parliamentarian and an impartial presiding officer, Burr took positions that alienated his fellow Jeffersonian Republicans. In 1804, with no chance of reelection as vice president, he sought the New York governorship. He credited his resulting defeat, in part, to Alexander Hamilton's private comment that he was a dangerous and devious man. This led to the infamous July 1804 duel at which he killed Hamilton. Although indicted for murder in New York and New Jersey, Burr never stood trial. Instead, he returned to Washington in November 1804 for the new congressional session.

Burr's previously chilly relations with President Thomas Jefferson and other key Republicans suddenly warmed and Jefferson even invited him to dine at the White House. This renewed show of respect related to the fact that Burr would soon be presiding at the Senate impeachment trial of Federalist Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase. Ignoring Republican efforts to sway him, Burr conducted that trial "with the dignity and impartiality of an angel, but with the rigor of a devil." On March 1, 1805, the Senate acquitted Chase.

Burr chose the following day to bid the Senate farewell. He ended his brief remarks with a singularly brilliant expression of the Senate's uniqueness under the Constitution. This Senate, he said, "is a sanctuary; a citadel of law, of order, and of liberty; and it is here — it is here, in this exalted refuge; here, if anywhere, will resistance be made to the storms of political phrenzy and the silent arts of corruption; and if the Constitution be destined ever to perish by the sacrilegious hands of the demagogue or the usurper, which God avert, its expiring agonies will be witnessed on this floor." As Burr walked from the chamber, his promising career in ruins, members spontaneously began to weep. No one present ever forgot the scene.