Heroes and Villains

Aaron Burr and Ambition

Students will explore the vice of ambition in a constitutional republic and civil society in this lesson on civic virtue.  Students will examine the difference between self-serving ambition and noble ambition of great deeds, and then explore the character and career of Aaron Burr who engaged in various machinations to establish an empire out West and was put on trial for treason.  Students will analyze a historical narrative, discussion guide, and various activities to explore the effect of self-serving ambition in a constitutional republic and on civil society.

Founding Principles

Civic Virtue image

Civic Virtue

A set of actions and habits necessary for the safe, effective, and mutually beneficial participation in a society.

Suggested Launch Activity

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.


  • 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.

About Launch Activities

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.

Lesson Background

Many historical figures, and characters in fiction, have demonstrated great ambition and risen to become important leaders as in politics, the military, and civil society. Some people such as Roman statesman, Cicero, George Washington, and Martin Luther King, Jr., were interested in using their position of authority to serve the republic, promote justice, and advance the common good with a strong moral vision….

Essay PDF

Sources and Further Reading

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.

Virtue Across the Curriculum

Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, a classic which explores biographies of famous Greek and Roman figures to examine the virtue and vice in their characters. Plutarch has several character sketches noting the dangers of ambition.

Hamlet, by William Shakespeare
Macbeth, by William Shakespeare

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