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112420 Len’s Letter #34 Presidential Election Skullduggery
2020 and 1800 General Elections
Shot in New Jersey, Died in New York.
Some say that’s why Aaron Burr was not prosecuted for killing Alexander Hamilton. Aaron Burr is remembered for his duel with Hamilton — an important event in his life and in the life of the United States. Two of his failures may be more important for establishing the character of the United States of America – his failure to become President of the United States and his failure to become Emperor of Mexico.
I had been trying to think of who might have been an analogous character to Donald Trump – in American history, or elsewhere. As I wrote about Donald Trump’s apparently futile effort to remain President, I had a thought. Aaron Burr. Fortunately for our country, the historical character that Donald Trump may resemble most, Aaron Burr, never did get to be President.
First consider Aaron Burr’s grandfather – Jonathan Edwards, the great preacher of Northampton. Consider Edwards’ great sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of God”.
“The Wrath of God burns against them… the Pit is prepared, the Fire is made ready, the Furnace is now hot, ready to receive them, the Flames do now rage and glow…. there is Hell’s wide gaping Mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, not any Thing to take hold of: there is nothing be- tween you and Hell but the Air…Your Wickedness makes you as it were heavy as Lead, and to tend downwards with great Weight and Pressure towards Hell; and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend & plunge into the bottomless Gulf. your Righteousness, would have no more Influence to uphold you and keep you out of Hell, than a Spider’s Web would have to stop a falling Rock.”
Aaron Burr’s childhood was a kind of hell. Maybe Donald Trump’s, too. Certainly it was hell for Fred Trump Jr.
Aaron Burr was a year old when his father, then President of Princeton, died. His grandfather, Jonathan Edwards briefly replaced his son at Princeton. Aaron Burr lived briefly with his mother and his grandfather. Jonathan Edwards died shortly after becoming President of Princeton from a smallpox inoculation gone wrong. Aaron Burr’s mother and grandmother died the following year. After these terrible losses, he was removed from Princeton by the age of three and placed into the care of an abusive 21-year old uncle Timothy Edwards. At the age 13, after several attempts to run away, Aaron Burr escaped to study theology at Princeton. He earned his BA at sixteen; stayed for another year. He extended his study of theology before leaving at age 19 for Connecticut to study law with his sister’s husband. The American revolution interrupted his study.
Aaron Burr had a successful military career. He distinguished himself at the Battle of Quebec and he saved a brigade from capture when the British landed in Manhattan. Two oddities are worth mentioning. Through connections, he had become an aide de camp to George Washington but left on June 26, 1776 to join the battle. (Alexander Hamilton became a volunteer aide to George Washington on August 8). Burr was deeply disappointed in Washington. He had hoped Washington would cite him in a commendation for saving that brigade.
Aaron Burr had a successful civilian career as a lawyer in New York. He had completed his legal training after resigning from the army in 1779. While he was still in the military, he served in the New York State Assembly and, among other things, proposed the abolition of slavery. Ten years after resigning from the army, he was appointed NY Attorney General by Governor George Clinton. In 1791, the New York state legislature chose him to be a Senator from New York. He ran for president unsuccessfully in 1796 and was on the Democratic-Republican ticket in 1800.
In between 1796 and 1800, President John Adams appointed the retired President, George Washington, as the Commanding General of the United States Armed Forces. Burr applied for a commission as Brigadier General to participate in the undeclared (mostly naval) war with France. Adams turned him down apparently because Washington turned him down. Washington had written: “By all that I have known and heard, Colonel Burr is a brave and able officer, but the question is whether he has not equal talents at intrigue.” As the political parties consolidated in the last two years of John Adams’ term, Aaron Burr became identified as a Democratic-Republican, but with Federalist connections. When he ran again in 1800, he made a deal with the southern Democratic-Republicans. He would deliver New York’s support to Jefferson in exchange for being on the ticket.
During these years, Aaron Burr made some enemies, exacerbated enmities and made some money. Undermining the duopoly of the federal government’s Bank of the United States and Alexander Hamilton’s Bank of New York, Aaron Burr pretended to create a water company. He secretly changed the purpose of the company before it gained approval and founded the Bank of Manhattan. He also fought a duel with John Barker Church who had suggested that Burr had taken a bribe. Alexander Hamilton was well aware of that duel. His wife was John Baker Church’s wife’s sister. The duel was inconclusive but might have given Alexander Hamilton a false sense of security when he prepared for his duel with Aaron Burr. Burr and Church each shot. Neither hit anything.
Donald Trump has been attempting to turn a loss into a victory in 2020. He has claimed fraud by opponents, taken those who count the vote to court, and even encouraged Republican state legislators to choose Republican Electoral College delegates in places that Joe Biden and the Democratic Electoral College slate won. Trump has contemplated ways of forcing the choice of President into the House of Representatives.
Aaron Burr was in a position to similarly abuse the Electoral College system. As a result of the deal with southern Democratic-Republicans, both Burr and Jefferson received the same number of Electoral College votes. The Constitution, which was later amended to remedy the problem Burr had taken advantage of, had not made a provision for political parties. It simply specified that the candidate with the most votes from the Electoral College would become President; the candidate with the second highest vote would become Vice President. If no one got a majority, the House of Representatives would decide who would be President.
The Democratic-Republican political party had intended that Thomas Jefferson become president and Aaron Burr Vice President. The tie vote threw the election of the President into the House of Representatives. Conscious of how Jefferson was hated by his Federalist opponents, Burr’s allies (certainly with Burr’s approval) attempted to persuade Members of the House to support Burr for President. Burr would have been a more acceptable Democratic-Republican to some of the Federalists than Jefferson was. No Federalist was more opposed to that logic than Alexander Hamilton who opposed Burr vigorously.
Burr’s effort failed. The House elected Jefferson President. The Senate elected Burr Vice President.
What trust Jefferson had in Burr was destroyed and Burr was shut out of Jefferson’s governing. Burr did fulfill his role as President of the Senate, including overseeing the impeachment trial of Justice Samuel Chase with fairness and skill. Nothing Burr could do was enough to get him back into the good graces of the Democratic-Republicans. Furthermore, the duel with and death of Hamilton, which occurred while Burr was Vice President, overshadowed all.
When Aaron Burr’s term as Vice President was over, he went West. He kept a cohort of armed men with him – for defense, he said, in case war broke out. Jefferson issued a warrant for Burr’s arrest for treason. Burr was violating the Neutrality Act of 1794 which was intended to prevent American citizens from meddling in the territories west of the United States.
In a trial presided over by the Chief Justice, John Marshall, Burr was acquitted. Burr was not acquitted in the annals of history. We know that Aaron Burr had designs, even while he was serving as Vice President, on invading Mexico (a territory that then included all of Texas and north and west to include almost all of California).
Burr was acquitted. Much of the evidence against Burr has been found by historians since the trial. Nevertheless (and those who consider trials against Trump might take notice), Aaron Burr’s popularity plunged after the trial and he moved to Europe. Burr returned to the United States after a few years, but never was a political factor again.
Brown University history professor Gordon Wood suggested that Aaron Burr’s character put him at odds with the various founding fathers – Declaration of Independence writers, Constitution writers, Members of the earliest Congresses. Burr put his self-interest ahead of the interests of the country undermining “disinterested politics” undertaken by educated gentlemen as espoused by Washington and Jefferson. Hamilton had described Burr as so self-serving that he was unfit to be President of the United States, unfit perhaps to hold any political office. During his vigorous opposition to Burr being elected President by the House of Representatives, Hamilton described Burr as immoral, as unprincipled, as seeking permanent power for personal gain. While comparing Burr unfavorably to Jefferson in this contest, Hamilton also described Burr as a voluptuary.
As we compare Aaron Burr to Donald Trump, we might consider Aaron Burr’s sexual adventures. Not that he was contemptuous of women. He ensured that his daughter, Theodosia was well educated. In the state legislature, he proposed that women have the right to vote and hung a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft above his mantel.
Nevertheless, he had several children out of wedlock. After Theodosia died at sea, he adopted two sons: Aaron and Charles, both reputed to be his children. In the 1830s, he acknowledged two daughters. He never acknowledged his children of an East Indian servant – a boy and a girl. Their descendants have demonstrated, through DNA and documents, Aaron Burr’s paternity.
It might be a proper summary to describe Aaron Burr as less careful than Donald Trump, less successful politically than Donald Trump (who, after all, did have one term as President of the United States), more talented than Donald Trump, equally unscrupulous in attempting to use loopholes in the constitution and the law to gain election as President, similarly subject to descriptions that he looked to his personal interest first rather than the country’s interest, and equally grandiose in his ambitions. After all, who would suggest that Donald Trump would refrain from seeking to be emperor if there was a way?