So, What Was All That Fuss About Aaron Burr?
Continuing my study of Spanish West Florida, and still unable to come up with works created by the expert on the area, Isaac Cox, I picked up a recently published work by Nancy Isenberg, Fallen Founder, The Life of Aaron Burr. Now as you probably all remember from your elementary school days, Aaron Burr was that perfidious personage who “murdered” Alexander Hamilton in a duel and then, in disgrace, set out west to establish a “kingdom,” which would, reputedly, include not only our western states/territories between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi, but would extend across Texas into Mexico (with all its Spanish gold). Shoot, Burr might have even kept going until he hit the Pacific.
I have never considered Aaron Burr particularly terrible for having shot Hamilton. They fought a duel. Hamilton lost. I now know in detail why they fought that duel. Briefly, the two were old enemies and their feud (more Hamilton’s feud, since he was the one who felt he was losing political control) went part and parcel with New York politics.
Indulging in works related to our Founding Fathers always makes me pause and wonder how we ever “got up and going good,” much less how we’ve managed to continue for so long. Maybe it’s my reading of modern material, which all too often is “revisionist” history. Modern historians will tell us, “No, now is the time when all the facts are straight and we can look back and dispassionately decipher everything that happened before without prejudice.” “Without prejudice” my ass [excuse my use of the vernacular, please]. A modern historian is, as often as not, no less prejudice than those who came before him. His take is, as always, how he wants things remembered. I thoroughly enjoyed Fallen Founder. The picture Ms. Isenberg painted of Aaron Burr is not at odds with how I’d always imagined him—the story is simply clearer now. Political infighting hardly shocked me, except that I now have a fuller appreciation for how far back it existed—“Oh duh, since the beginning.” And it was nastier then.
With the ratification of the Constitution (1787), the Federalists (think Hamilton) had control of the Federal offices and the presidency—as opposed to the anti-federalists; there was no two-party system. But that group of social elites (Federalists) was living on borrowed time. I never realized the role Burr played in the eventual success of the two-party system and the presidential election of 1800 that put Thomas Jefferson (republican) in the White House. I won’t go into the nitty-gritty of the parties and “tickets” of those days. Suffice it to say, president and vice president ran separately, but in 1800, in order to break the Federalists’ hold on the presidency, the republicans had to put together a combination that would give the challenger the most electoral votes. The Southern candidate was Jefferson—but he needed Northern votes to win. Sectional divides have existed in the United States since before the beginning (by that, I mean well back into colonial days), and the state electors cast their ballots for president based on regional needs. New York was the largest and most populous of the Northern states. Virginia was the biggest state of all (remember, now, there was no West Virginia in those days—it was all one huge state). The parties (Federalist and republican—actually, anti-federalist might be a better term for the latter) existed in each state—but despite how they presented themselves, the republicans did not have a national party. What drove republicans in New York was different from what fueled them in Virginia. Their common trait was that they were not Federalists. For the republicans to win the presidency, state parties, North and South, had to team up.
In the North, republicans put forth the very popular Revolutionary War hero, ex-New York state assemblyman, senator, gubernatorial candidate, lawyer, etc. [suffice it to say he was active in politics and civil service] Aaron Burr. As a whole, the “Republican Party” agreed Jefferson was the presidential candidate, Burr the vice presidential, but when the electoral ballots were tallied, both men had an equal number of votes for the presidency. The way the Constitution was written, the largest number of votes decided the president; second place went to the vice president. A tie was not addressed. In fact, the Federalists made a point of ensuring Jefferson and Burr tied in hopes of circumventing the whole process, scrapping the election results (the Federalists didn’t have a prayer of winning, so they were acting as saboteurs), and maintaining their hold on the presidency until a new election could be conducted.
To make a long story short, a Federalist elector eventually changed sides, broke the tie, and gave Jefferson the presidency and Burr the vice presidency. One of the most despicable things credited to Burr’s long and infamous career is that he worked in the background to try to steal the 1800 election from Jefferson, but Ms. Isenberg makes a good case debunking that.
Now let me briefly address New York politics during this time. The Clinton dynasty, which had a stranglehold on the Governor’s office and the mayoral position in New York City, was republican. George Clinton was the governor of New York from 1777 until 1795. He gained his wealth and power during the Revolution—he was not an aristocrat and just because the Federalists won at the Constitutional Convention, he wasn’t about to give up his political clout—to anyone, and that included a threat from other non-Federalists such as the popular Burrite republicans. The political infighting that went on in New York was vicious and much of the sexual and fiscal slander levied against Burr was the result of Clinton republicans and Hamilton federalists trying to maintain their hold on power within the state. The funny thing is all these characters had slander and rumor levied against them—they publicly exposed their opponents’ weaknesses, ignored their own, and occasionally demanded duels when their opponents besmirched their honor. Now, and this is just me thinking out loud, what sometimes passed as ‘honor’ to these men could be pretty darn dubious.
Most of the time, these cutthroat tactics were taken in stride, but occasionally someone tossed out a challenge, and on even rarer occasions, someone died. Hey, Hamilton, who had been “besmirching” Burr for years, finally “besmirched” one too many times. Burr tossed down the gauntlet, Hamilton picked it up—and Burr proved the better shot. Duels must have been considered more efficient than slander suits—well, “shoot,” let’s face it, they are.
On a personal and social level, Jefferson appears to have gotten along well with his vice president, but when it came to the business-as-usual slander heaped upon Burr by New York federalists and the Clinton republicans, Jefferson remained quiet and unsupportive. Legend has it that the subsequent killing of the nation’s ‘darling’ Hamilton, sounded the death-knoll for Burr. It’s true that Jefferson did not choose him to run with him in 1804, but would he have anyway? Ms. Isenberg makes the argument that once the Southern republicans had the presidency the requirement for Northern support lessened. The fall of the Federalists and the weakening of the Northern republicans left the presidency in the hands of the Virginians. Even in 1800, Thomas Jefferson’s first choice for his vice president had been James Madison, another Virginian, but he couldn’t have won that election without Northern support. [An aside here—remember that question I put forth, “…how did we ever get up and going real good?” I like to think those years of Virginia dominance had something to do with that.]
Popular legend implies that Burr’s slaying of Hamilton and his subsequent abandonment by the “republican” administration he helped put in power, prompted him to bid goodbye to the American way and head west where he fomented war and treason.
Well, he headed west all right, but "said goodbye to the American way?" I do not agree. War and treason (at least the kind of "treason" his enemies accused Burr of) was the American way in 1805. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a story worthy of its own article.
My primary source for this article is Nancy Isenberg’s Fallen Founder, The Life of Aaron Burr, Viking, 2007. Even if you do not agree with Ms. Isenberg’s gentle handling of Burr (she hails from New Jersey, Burr’s home state) and her portrait of Jefferson as perfidious in dealing with his vice president, she, nevertheless, provides detailed references and copious notes and the book is an easy and entertaining read. If this period in history interests you, I think you’ll like the book. My biggest complaint is she did not create a formal bibliography.
"Loblolly Writer's House Site" Copyright © 2006 by Charlsie Russell
All rights reserved on all material on all pages in this site, plus the copyright
on compilations and design, graphics, and logos except as noted. For information
on reprinting material from this site, please contact
|Home Page||About Loblolly Writer House's Books||Mississippi History Page||Go here to buy books||Go here to learn about forming your own small press||Contact us|