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The constitution was adopted through the genius and brilliancy of Hamilton (“Hamilton and the U.S. Constitution”). His name was on every tongue, his picture was in every federal household. A magnificent float bearing his name was paraded through the streets of New York in celebration of the great event of the adoption of the constitution. His party was victorious at the polls, national and state level; he sat at the council board of the first president, honored and obeyed.
This great victory demolished the organization of the Sons of Liberty.
Nevertheless, the spirit of discontent lurked in the hearts of its now disorganized members. Federalism to them was aristocracy, and aristocracy reigned. The time was at hand for organizing this discontent into a weapon for wresting the state from the hated champions of centralization and privileged interests. It was the psychological moment. There was needed only a leader, a leader whose genius would rival Hamilton’s, whose personality would inspire confidence, and whose courage would dispel fear.
Such a one was at hand. Fate and events had conspired to make Aaron Burr the rival of Hamilton. He was born of a parentage that has significantly influenced the course of scholarship in America. His father, Reverend Aaron Burr, was the distinguished president of Princeton College. His mother, Esther Edwards, was the gifted daughter of the most noted scholar of that period, Jonathan Edwards. These men’s genes of brilliant mental talents were transmitted to Aaron. On the contrary, their moral sensitiveness and lofty idealism found no lodgment in his soul.
At the age of eleven, the intelligent boy was ready to enter Princeton. The faculty refused to grant him admission on the basis that he was too young. Two years later, he entered the sophomore class, and graduated at the age of sixteen. Naturally, his family had urged him to pursue a career in ministry. Both of his parents had died before he entered college, and his uncle who was his legal guardian was unable to manage the self-willed and brilliant youth. Mr. Burr consented to consider the theological field before definitely refusing to devote himself his father’s passion. He then entered a private school of theology conducted by Dr. Bellamy. Young Aaron was disappointed with the theology of his famous grandparent and disgusted with the orthodox formulae of his tutor.
After a successful military career, rising to the rank of colonel by the time he was twenty-one, Burr himself plunged into the library of Judge Patterson at Haverstraw with the intent of passing the bar exam. After a brief six months, Aaron Burr had mastered the law. He was proving that rules prescribed for average mortals did not apply to a genius such as himself, and he sought admission to the bar, despite the law that applicants must spend three years at study. His admission was declined initially and was unable to find a lawyer to espouse his cause. A determined Mr. Burr pleaded for himself before the Supreme Court; arguing that had he not devoted himself to defending his country in her need, he would have studied for at least three years. The judges decided to dispense with the rule, if he could pass the examination. The bar exam was made as difficult and intricate as the court could devise, but Burr passed with great honor. At the age of twenty-six Aaron was a licensed attorney and admitted as counsellor. He began to practice in Albany, and his first his successes were phenomenal. An act of legislature had disbarred old Tory lawyers and brilliant Whig lawyers were in high demand.
Within three months from the time of his admission, he married Theodosia Prevost, a single mom of two. She was noted more for her good sense than her beauty, and was charming in intellect rather than appealing in manner. Burr took Mrs. Prevost’s two sons under the guiding care and proved himself a competent teacher. Theodosia and he together only conceived a single child. This one daughter was extremely close to her father. In her, Burr wished to perfect his ideal woman. He directed every detail of her education, and the voluminous correspondence that passed between them reveals how nearly he had succeeded in realizing his purpose.
Upon moving to New York for eight years, Mr. Burr devoted himself diligently to his profession. He paid little attention to politics although he had been elected twice to the state legislature. Aaron only attended sessions when important measures were discussed. Later Burr was appointed attorney general in 1789. He was a shrewd trial lawyer and was an expert at marshalling men and facts. He was associated with the clich “Always tripping, but never tripped,” and “Never gave quarter and never asked.”
Burr’s preliminary political success seemed miraculous. In four years, he lifted himself from private life through the legislature to the United States senate and rivaled Adams, Jefferson, and Clinton for succession to Washington. He accomplished these magnificent feats at the young age of thirty-six, without affiliating himself with any of the reigning families, nor committing himself fully to either of the two great parties, and without originating or piggybacking on top of any great cause that would lend character to his campaign for power and glory. This progress was not due alone to the prestige of his New England ancestry, as John Adams said; nor to mere wire pulling, as Hamilton wrote; nor to his military reputation, as Jefferson surmised; or to luck, as the populace cried. It was primarily due to the fact that Aaron Burr was the first American politician who saw the value of compact political organization.
Soon Aaron Burr had risen to a place of national eminence. In 1791 he was elected United States senator defeating General Philip Schuyler, whose seat he was contested. The General was a prominent figurehead; he was the father-in-law of Hamilton, who was currently the Secretary of the Treasury in Washington’s cabinet and considered the strongest man in political circles; he was a hero of the Revolution, to which he had contributed wealth and for which he willingly risked his life. Also at the time, the Federalists maintained the majority in both branches of the legislature, and General Schuyler was the perceived as the example of dignified Federalism. While on the other hand, the youthful Burr had never tampered with national politics, was scarcely known beyond his home state, had not held higher state office than attorney-general, was not from a wealthy family, had no claims at all on the Federalists, and no special claims on the Republicans. His victory in this election has always been considered one of the mysteries of his strange and adventurous career.
Burr’s election was a supreme disappointment to Hamilton. From that day forth he sought by all possible means, public and private, to institute the downfall of his successful rival.
The six years of Burr’s first term in the senate passed tranquilly. His fertile and active mind fitted naturally into a variety of tasks. He made a brilliant senator laboring daily without ceasing, from five in the morning until midnight. As a committee worker, he had no rival. Mr. Burr’s one distinct flaw was he was not a constructive political leader. The sound of his name did not conjure up in the citizens’ mind a noble cause, he did not have a single controversial, or litigious issue associated with his political career. He was first a politician, next a lawyer, and finally a legislator. He rarely opened debate, but was extremely effective at closing discussions, his compact arguments summarized in a few phrases while the majority of politicians took a half an hour to explain. He would focus precisely on the merits or faults of the cause disregarding the minutiae of the situation.
Underneath this quiet surface two great forces were at work. One was the ambition of Burr and the other the purpose of Hamilton. The ambition of one was the presidential chair; the purpose of the other was the absolute eradication of that ambition; the ambition of one was completely selfish; the purpose of the other was tainted by jealousy. Several events will indicate the quiet but powerful flow of these counteracting forces.
In those days, the governorship of New York was one of the great political prizes. Its extensive patronage and opulent salary combined to make it a place of dignity and power, sought by the most distinguished men of the day. While George Clinton had held the position for many terms, he was a thorn in the side of the Federalists. In 1792, a plan was set in foot to nominate Burr, thereby uniting the Federalists and the anti-Clintons following among the Republicans. Burr would undoubtedly have carried the state, but Hamilton promptly refused to sanction his nomination and named John Jay for the honor instead. Clinton was reelected and offered Burr a place upon the Supreme Bench of the state, which he promptly declined. He had his eye fixed upon a more glittering prize.
Also in 1792, there was some talk of making Burr Vice-President, and concurrently received one vote. Burr himself never took this seriously for he understood his time had not yet arrived. When this incident alarmed Hamilton and caused him to believe that Burr was running for Vice-President, he commented by saying, “…I feel it is a religious duty to oppose his [Burr’s] career” (The Duel: Aaron Burr & Alexander Hamilton). In the next presidential election, Burr received thirty electoral votes, enough to show that his reputation was no longer limited by the boundaries of his state and his abilities were ranked with those of Jefferson, Thomas Pinckney, Adams, and John Jay. In the presidential election of 1796, John Adams was elected by a majority of three electoral votes over Thomas Jefferson (Jefferson, Thomas). The Republican party were making penetrating further and further into the ranks of the Federalists. Hamilton viewed the result with unease. He seemed to believe that Jefferson was the archenemy of the Union, and that Burr was an evil genius whose manipulative words would plunge all things into utter ruin. He thoroughly succeeded in convincing Washington that Burr was a wicked, unprincipled, unworthy man; a perfect example of one of the great underground forces between Hamilton and Burr.
In 1794, there was a loud clamor for the removal of Gouverneur Morris, the American minister in Paris. A congressional committee of Republicans recommended Burr for the place. Headed by Madison, they made known their wish to the President. Washington simply replied that he had made it a rule of his life never to nominate a man for high office of whose integrity he was not assured. Later, when war with France seemed imminent and Washington was placed in command of the national army, he appointed Hamilton to a high command, but refused to recognize Burr, who was by far the ablest soldier of them all. This animosity for Burr from Washington was most likely the harvest of Hamilton’s planting.
In 1797, the Federalists were again in the ascendant in New York. Finally succeeding in electing John Jay to governor they controlled both branches of the legislature by large majorities, and electing General Schuyler to succeed Burr in the senate by a unanimous vote. It seemed that Burr’s sun had set. Hamilton was shortsighted enough to agree. Aaron had other ideas on his mind. Before the result of the ballot had been announced, he was laying the foundation for the overthrow of Federalism in the election of 1800, another example of the great underground forces between Burr and Hamilton. First, he secured his own election to the state legislature. At Albany, he was busied in forming the friendship of party leaders from the rural districts. He would dine them, play skillfully upon their unsophisticated minds, and then flatter their pride by requesting that they introduce bills and resolutions he had prepared.
In the session of 1799, he resorted to a trick that reminds one forcibly of the present day methods. At that time, the banking business of New York City was monopolized by wealthy Federalists, and Republican merchants often found it difficult to obtain accommodations from them. The yellow fever had ravaged the city the year before, and it was commonly supposed the epidemic was due to impure water. Burr saw his opportunity and introduced a bill chartering “The Manhattan Company,” ostensibly for the laudable purpose of supplying the city with pure water. The amount of capital necessary for the bill could not be definitely foretold, so the petitioners prayed for authority to raise two million dollars, thinking it more desirable to contend with a surplus than a deficit. In order to utilize properly a surplus, should they have one, they asked that “…the surplus capital might be employed in any way not inconsistent with the laws and constitution of the United States or of the State of New York.” Burr introduced this bill near the very end of the session and it was hurried through, members voting for it without even reading it. Even Governor Jay signed the bill in spite of warnings from the Chief Justice of the state that the surplus capital clause was too vague. The waterworks were never built but the Manhattan Bank was at once established. Now thanks to Mr. Burr’s careful planning the Republicans had a secure financial institution. This bit of deception defeated Burr in April of that year for reelection to the legislature. Once again, Burr had his sights set on a greater goal.
The pinnacle of Aaron Burr’s political career was the presidential election of 1800. To overthrow the Federalists was his lifelong dream and had spent a lifetime of preparation and planning. While in the national senate, Mr. Burr concentrated on winning loyal supporters among the representatives of the southern and western states because he knew New England would remain Federalist majority beyond the reach of any Republican.
First, he selected a notable list of candidates for the legislature. The boldness and wisdom displayed in his choice along with the skill and rare delicacy required to persuade them to accept, dazzled even his friends. Burr, of course, must be in the legislature, for at this time the legislators selected the presidential electors. One concern was his Manhattan antic, for it had made him many enemies. Instead, Aaron became a candidate from Orange County, where he was very popular.
In the city, he chose George Clinton to head the ticket. Clinton an aspirant for presidency who received fifty electoral votes out of 132 in 1793; the same election Jefferson won only four electoral votes. He was an aging man, who had been in the public eye for nearly half a century, a big, honest, strong-willed Irishman. For three days, he resisted the attacks of Burr, of committees, of subcommittees. Finally, Burr said that in a crisis, it is for the people to demand service, and that he would be nominated anyway. The old warhorse stubbornly conceded not publicly to withdraw his name.
Second in the list stood General Gates, the gallant conqueror of Burgoyne, a firm supporter of Burr, and an antagonist of Hamilton and the Schuylers. Even though his aversion to running for the legislature was greater than his hatred for the Schuylers, his love for Burr convinced him so that he would remain on the ticket if Clinton would.
Third on this remarkable list stood Brockholst Livingstone, a gifted member of an influential tribe that identified itself with the Republican Party. He proved himself a little more dutiful, and promised to accept the nomination on condition that Gates and Clinton did.
The other nine men were comparatively easy of conquest. They were all men of ability, chosen for their influence over various groups. It is safe to assume that a stronger legislative ticket has never been placed in U.S. history before any electorate. Hand in hand, no one but Burr could have conceived such a list, and talents less captivating than his would have failed in persuading the men to stand.
All eyes now turned toward Jefferson. It should be remembered that in those years the presidential electors were chosen by the various state legislatures, and not all upon the same day; that there was no general nomination of any one man for the high office, but that each elector was left free to vote as he chose. It was conceded by all that Jefferson was the choice of the people. What mattered though was if he was the choice of the electors. The result was not known until the middle of December. It was disappointing to the Republicans, and startling to the Federalists. Jefferson and Burr each received 73 votes, Adams 65, Pinckney 64, and Jay 1. There was a tie. Since the electors had not made a choice, the House of Representatives must decide for them.
All eyes were now turned toward Aaron Burr. For he was faced with two options: to attempt to undermine the popular will and plot with the Federalists to place himself at the head of the government or actively engage his remarkable political talents in behalf of Jefferson. The great majority of his contemporaries, and historians, believe the former and his friends would not admit the latter. I believe that such evidence as can be gathered proves that he did neither.
He did plan, before the election, to become the candidate for Vice-President. In May, 1800, an informal meeting of Republicans was held in Philadelphia, in which it was determined to give New York the vice-presidency, since Jefferson being the only man considered for presidency. For the second place, Chancellor Livingstone, Governor Clinton, and Aaron Burr were mentioned. Albert Gallatin was asked to summon these men. He wrote to Commodore Nicholson of New York requesting him to see them and to converse with party leaders in order to determine their availability.
Livingstone was old and deaf and therefore dropped at once. Clinton was a popular choice, but advanced in age, ill in health and family emergencies all combined to disincline him toward the position. Nicholson insisted that the welfare of the party required his acceptance of the nomination, and Clinton reluctantly yielded. Nicholson was so favorably impressed that he wrote a letter to the Philadelphia group recommending Clinton. He showed this letter to Burr before it was mailed and when the seal was finally put on the envelope, the name of Clinton had mysteriously been erased and Aaron Burr had been written in its place.
The Federalists of New England preferred Burr to Jefferson and was the popular New England attitude. Had the House of Representatives convened in December 1800 to choose a president the New England Federalists would have given their support to Burr. What influence then overcame their partiality from Burr to Jefferson? There was only one power in the Federal party persuasive enough to avert the election of Burr over Jefferson. Hamilton; the genius ness of that gifted man was now applied to the single task of keeping his hated rival out of the presidential chair. First Alexander attempted to steal New York’s electoral vote by having Governor Jay call an extra session of the legislature and pass a bill that the presidential electors be appointed by districts and not by the newly elected legislature. Governor Jay refused to be a participant to such a scheme. Two years before Burr had tried to introduce a similar method of choosing the electors and Jay had been roundly denounced for supporting this trickery.
Hamilton now turned to his personal friends in the party. He wrote, argued, and pleaded. To all he depicted Burr as a man without principle, inefficient, and selfish. An inspection of Hamilton’s letters reveals the skill with which he adapted his arts to the various individuals he desired to sway, and leaves one wondering how much the spirit of jealousy prompted his patriotism.
The constitution then prescribed that the choice should be restricted to the two receiving the highest number of electoral votes. If only a majority of the members had been enough Burr would have been chosen on, the first ballot but he could not secure a majority of the states. The House, before beginning to ballot, resolved not to adjourn until an election had been effected. After taking 29 ballots, they eluded this resolution by taking a recess. After seven days of voting, Bayard of Delaware, changed the cast of his vote for Jefferson terminating one of the most memorable contests for the presidency in our country’s history.
Throughout the entire period, Burr bore himself with the dignity and poise that became a candidate for the office of Vice-President. Aaron spent most of his days either at Albany as a member of the legislature or in New York attending to his practice.
Burr might easily have secured the election had he put forth personal effort but he did not make the requisite movement to secure these votes. He remained utterly passive. He pursued the attitude of a man who would accept the presidency if elected, but would not as much as raise a finger, either in his own behalf, or in behalf of his rival.
Brave as a soldier, brilliant as a lawyer, unrivaled as a politician, he was now in the pinnacle of his splendor. If his political persona rested upon a great cause, the clouds that now gathered rapidly about him they would not have obscured his glory. His station had been reached by the arts of the politician; design not greatness of purpose had won him his power. He could organize and inspire a machine, but he could not dazzle the multitude. Since the death of his wife, in 1794, he became as careless of his morals as he was immoral with his money. There is a time in the career of every public man when he must rely on something greater than political devices for his power over the people but for Burr, he lacked this one thing.
In office, Aaron Burr was impartial, immediate in his rulings, and non-partisan when he held the casting vote. He was a very popular man in the capital and was famous as the general who had led his party to its first national victory. Burr though was in Jefferson’s way. The Virginia dynasty had selected Madison, secretary of state, as the successor to Jefferson and in turn all the power of the Federal patronage was used against Burr.
The coldness of Jefferson was diverting Republican support from Burr, and the unflinching efforts of Hamilton were distancing the Federalists who had regarded him with so much favor. Even to a genius with the resource of an overshadowing issue, such a dual attack must be fatal.
The years of his Vice-Presidency were passed amid such political ferment. Burr made it a rule of his life never to answer a charge or to heed a slander. He paid apparently no attention to the newspapers. They did not disturb his tranquility by day or his rest by night. His many friends, loyal and true, could not sit by idly while their chief was being insulted. They hotly answered the attacks.
After Burr’s term as Vice-President expired, he decided in the best interests of his party not to run for president again. Burr’s hope for further political promotion now rested in the arms of the people of his own state. If he were chosen governor of New York, his prestige as the leader of his party would be unquestioned and he would come forth as a rival of Jefferson and peer to Madison. A legislative committee, held in the Tontine Coffee House, nominated him for the place and subsequently ratified by great meetings held in New York and Albany.
Rapid had been Burr’s ascent toward the summit of political achievement, thrice rapid was his decline. If Burr had been content to bide his time, he would not have ventured into the struggle for governor but would have allowed the opposition to subside. If Mr. Burr had retired to his law practice, in time, he would have been restored to public favor but he was not the man to submit to defeat without a struggle. He realized that of the factors that contributed to his overthrow, none was less excusable and more purely personal than the relentless antagonism of Hamilton. During his election battles, he paid little attention to this, but six weeks after the evidence was placed in his hands of unwarranted personal attacks upon his character he wrote to Hamilton asking for explanations. The correspondence that ensued culminated in the duel that deprived Hamilton of his life and Burr of his honor.
When he learned that the grand juries of New Jersey and New York were about to indict him, he fled to Philadelphia. New England and New York would neither forgive nor forget. His political career ends here. Burr’s judgment fled with the life of Hamilton.
Jefferson pursues his deflated political enemy even though two juries have acquitted him and the populace of the Mississippi Valley has received him with loud acclaim. If Jefferson cannot reach his foe by legal process, he will have him by military force. Aaron Burr is marched through the murky swamps and uninhabited forests of the southern states to Richmond to be tried for high treason. He is charged with attempting to split the union by uniting Louisiana with Mexico to form one great nation. John Marshall is the prosecuting attorney while Aaron Burr conducted his own defense. The trial ended with an acquittal.
After the trial Burr disguised himself under an assumed, name and fled to Europe. In England, a project was put in motion to provide a seat for Burr in the House of Commons. Upon hearing this news Jefferson pursued him across the wide ocean, and instead of a seat in the Commons, the English government politely informed him that his absence from England would be appreciated. Jefferson and Madison’s appointees took care to ignore the one man whose political manipulations had placed their president in power.
Burr now a wandering exile visited England, Sweden, Holland, Germany, and France. After many years of begging and borrowing money to satisfy his daily needs of survival Aaron was eventually allowed to return to New York. He spent the last twenty-four years of his life in New York City conducting law. His law practice was sufficient to keep him in comfort, but he was not retained for great cases.
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