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Aaron Burr and Ambition

125 min
  • What specific actions did Aaron Burr take that demonstrated self-serving ambition? 
  • How did Burr’s self-serving ambition lead to his fall from political leadership and prestige?
  • Students will differentiate between self-serving ambition and noble ambition by defining and providing specific examples. 
  • Students will analyze the impact of self-serving ambition on a constitutional republic. 
  • Students will identify areas in their own lives where their own noble ambition may offer a service to their community. 

Teacher Resources

  • Aaron Burr and Ambition Answer Key

Student Handouts

  • Ambition Graphic Organizer
  • Ambition: Aaron Burr and Ambition Essay 
  • Virtue in Action – Aaron Burr and Ambition 
  • Discussion Guide – Aaron Burr and Ambition 
  • Ambition Worksheet

  • Ambition
  • Duplicitous
  • Machinations
  • Treason

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.

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

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, to the detriment of civil society. 

ACTIVITY 

  1. Break the students up into groups of three or four. Have them brainstorm a few examples of self-interested ambition and betraying public trust. 
  1. 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. 
  1. 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? 
  1. Ask a follow-up: Why is ambition directed toward self-sacrifice and public service a civic virtue whereas self-interested ambition a vice? 
  1. 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. 

  1. Read: Aaron Burr and Ambition Essay.  Ask students to annotate with the guiding questions in mind.  They should also make connections to prior knowledge and record questions for clarity and extension. 
  2. Pair Share: Aaron Burr and Ambition Essay.  Give students a copy of the discussion questions and allow them an opportunity to answer the questions with a partner.
  3. Discuss: Aaron Burr and Ambition Essay as a whole class.  Using the discussion guide, lead students through an analytical conversation about Burr’s self-serving ambitious actions. 
  4. Reflect: Ambition Worksheet.  Students work independently to make and support a claim to explain why ambitious persons seem ultimately to fall. 
  5. Apply: Virtue in Action.  Students work independently.  Consider noble ambition and reflect on ways you can integrate this civic virtue into your own life. 

Part I – Snowball Activity

After the Virtue in Action Reflection, students tear a half sheet of paper and record “one contribution they can make with their talents and ambitions to serve others.”  They do not write their name.  Students crumple the paper up and teacher asks the whole class to throw their “snowballs” into the air at the same time.  All students should retrieve a “snowball.”  Have students read their classmate’s idea to themselves and then ask students to share the anonymous ideas.  Teacher may opt to record a list of themes or ideas on the board as students share to remain for the unit to keep students thinking about the lesson application.

Part II – Ambition Exit Ticket

Students reflect on what they’ve learned and record answers to the following two questions:

  1. What is the most important thing you learned in today’s lesson?
  2. What is one question you still have?  It may be for clarity or extension.

Constitutional Safeguards against Self-Serving Ambition – apply the lessons of Aaron Burr to our responsibilities as citizens. 

The Jefferson Awards – write a letter of nomination to a non-profit organization that honors individuals with an extraordinary commitment  to public service.