Campaigning in the 19th Century

By Madison Petrella

Because of the popularity of the Broadway production of Hamilton, Historic Huguenot Street thought an artifact belonging to Aaron Burr would be an exciting object to look at this week. Since the next presidential election is coming up soon we thought Aaron Burr’s campaign poster from his run for governor of New York would be the perfect choice.


For those you are not aware, Aaron Burr was the Vice President under Thomas Jefferson. Fans of Hamilton also know him as the man who killed Alexander Hamilton in their infamous duel. Fewer people are aware that after his term as Vice President and before the dual that ruined his reputation, he had set his sights on the governorship of New York.

Born in 1756 in Newark, New Jersey, Burr was considered to be brilliant from a young age, graduating from Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) at the age of 17.1 He decided he wanted to direct his focus towards politics with much initial success. He was admitted to the bar in 1782 and began practicing law.2 Over the next few decades he was elected to the New York Assembly, as well as to the Senate, the Office of the District Attorney of New York, and even as Vice President of the United States under Thomas Jefferson. However, Burr had a number of powerful enemies, namely Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. It was the latter whom he blamed for the misfortunes he endured during his political career, particularly his loss of the presidential race to Jefferson, which he attributed to Hamilton’s influence in Congress.

It was in 1804, just one year until the end of his term as Vice President, when Burr, in an attempt to salvage his honor and his reputation, challenged Hamilton to a dual.1 The dual ended in Hamilton’s death and Burr was indicted for murder but was later acquitted on a technicality. After his term as Vice President ended Burr left Washington. He is known for hatching a scheme to overtake land in the Louisiana Territory, overthrow the authority of the US government there, and rule the land himself. He failed after being betrayed by his co-conspirator and was labeled a traitor. He was indicted on charges of treason but was acquitted. After fleeing to Europe for a time (where he tried for a second time to overthrow the US government with little support) he returned to New York and began to once again practice law. He remained there and in 1836 he died at the age of 80 in near obscurity.1

It was in the middle of his tenure as Vice President when Burr realized that Jefferson intended to prevent him from running again in the next presidential election. It was then that he decided to run for governor of New York in the 1804 election, which he lost to Morgan Lewis in what was at that time the largest margin of loss in New York’s history. Burr attributed his loss to a brutal smear campaign orchestrated by Alexander Hamilton, which only furthered his hatred of Hamilton.

DSCN7549The campaign poster reads more like a newspaper than the quickly read ones we are used to nowadays. However, similar to many modern political commercials, Burr’s campaign poster takes the time to argue, rather backhandedly, why his opponent Morgan Lewis, as well as then-governor Clinton (who wasn’t even running), were unfit to be elected into office. On the poster, Burr lists the Clintons and Livingstons (the family of a prominent lawyer and good friend of Burr) who were in office at the time along with roughly the amount of money they were making while in office. Perhaps this was his way of saying to the American people that 1) there were too many members of these two powerful families in government, some of them probably because of their familial connections, and 2) these families obtained their fortunes from government funds. Burr then goes on to discuss Morgan Lewis. He critiques his judgment on one case and his behavior during another, reminds readers that Lewis was once a Federalist before abandoning them, and then states that those who make laws should not also govern. Overall, not much different than today’s campaigning.


1The Duel.” The American Experience: PBS Online, 2000. Web. 22 June 2016.

2Burr, Aaron.” West’s Encyclopedia of American Law. 2005. Web. 22 June 2016.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s