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Aaron Burr and Ambition

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book IV

Brands, H.W. The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr. New York: Anchor, 2012.

Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin, 2004.

Faulkner, Robert. The Case for Greatness. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Fleming, Thomas. Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Hoffer, Peter Charles. The Treason Trials of Aaron Burr. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008.

Isenburg, Nancy. Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr. New York: Viking, 2007.

Steward, David O. American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011.

Wheelan, Joseph. Jefferson’s Vendetta: The Pursuit of Aaron Burr and the Judiciary. New York: Caroll and Graf, 2004.

Ambition is a characteristic of human nature that can be driven by different impulses and put to different purposes. Honorable ambition can drive one to become great and serve the public as a lawgiver, a military hero, a builder of great art and culture, a great inventor, or a business leader. Examples include Cicero, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and Charles De Gaulle. On the other hand, self-serving ambition for power and glory can lead one to put their own ambitions above those of the public, and lead to destruction and a tragic fall. Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Aaron Burr sought their own glorification.

ACTIVITY

  • Break the students up into groups of three or four. Have them brainstorm a few examples of self-interested ambition and betraying public trust.
  • Distribute the graphic organizer handout and ask students to complete it. Make a list of three examples in stories or movies of characters who were ambitious to serve the larger good and three who pursued their own self-interested ambition.
  • Invite the groups to share their answers and evidence to explain how the characters pursued self-sacrificing or self-interested ambition. As a large group, discuss: How do you know when ambition is self-sacrificing or self-serving?
  • Ask a follow-up: Why is ambition directed toward self-sacrifice and public service a civic virtue whereas self-interested ambition a vice?
  • Transition to the Aaron Burr narrative and ask students to think about the ambitions of Aaron Burr. He served the republic briefly in the Continental Army, as a New York politician, and as Vice-President under Thomas Jefferson from 1800 to 1804. Burr seemed to have an early career that was dedicated in part to serving the republic. However, he helped to organize a plot to invade and seize Spanish North American territory and become ruler over it while dividing the new United States. Ask students: What are the differences between healthy ambition to serve the republic as a ruler or military leader as opposed to the unhealthy ambition to serve only one’s own interests.

This optional introductory activity is designed to support you in the classroom. However, the primary narratives and photos in the section that follows can be used with or without this introduction.