Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Aaron Burr - Patriot

Aaron Burr is a name that is synonymous with treason, treachery, and greed. A new biography of the man by Nancy Isenberg called Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr changes those perceptions. The book is excellent, and will completely change your opinion on the former Vice President.

One word of caution does need to be spoken. Nancy Isenberg won an award for a previous book entitled, Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America. One can guess she is a bit of a feminist, and this is probably why she wrote about Burr. Burr himself was apparently a feminist. He educated his daughter as if she were a man, he loved strong intellectual women, and he hobnobbed with European feminists from time to time. Ms. Isenberg never misses an opportunity to toot that horn, but it does not interfere with the parts of the book that answer all the questions surrounding Burr’s life.

The first thing many think of when thinking of Aaron Burr is the duel he had with Alexander Hamilton that killed Hamilton. Burr is usually portrayed as a violent, remorseless killer when these accounts are retold. Hamilton is usually viewed as a heroic figure who detested dueling, but was forced to the field. Some biographers like Broadus Mitchell in his Alexander Hamilton a Concise Biography even try to convince us that Hamilton did not fire his gun. All untrue. Most of it is taken from the work published by Hamilton after his death. He prepared it before the duel in case he died. In it Hamilton decried the practice of dueling, but felt he had no choice. The truth is that Hamilton dueled around eleven times, and his son died in a duel where Hamilton was the second. Hamilton was the offending party in his duel with Burr, but he refused to retract his incendiary remarks. It was the third time Hamilton had attacked Burr, and this time Burr could accept nothing less than an actual apology. Hamilton in reality was a cad who did everything he could to destroy his opponents through mud slinging. Burr fired second in the duel after Hamilton missed above his head.

The next thing most of us think about is the election of 1800 where Burr and Jefferson tied for the office of President. It led to the creation of the 12th Amendment. Most think Burr tried to cut back room deals to supplant Jefferson, and that is why Jefferson refused to have Burr stand for re-election as Vice President. The truth is that Jefferson cut the back room deals. Many letters from Federalists prove that Burr never even came close to stealing the Presidency from Jefferson. James Bayard wrote Hamilton saying, "The means existed of electing Burr, but they required his cooperation". Jefferson rejected Burr as Vice President in 1804 because Burr would have been a threat to James Madison in 1808. Jefferson actually systematically destroyed Burr by strengthening his opponents in New York by giving out patronage to those who opposed Burr, and refusing to clear Burr’s name when slanders came out in the press. Slanders which today are taken for granted as true.

The final thing we all think about with regard to Aaron Burr is his treason trial where he was accused of trying to separate the Western States and the territory of Louisiana. Again, these claims are found only in the newspapers (which were all politically motivated), and not in facts of any kind. The Federalist feared Burr would lead an armed rebellion and the Republicans feared he would win over the West through politics and entice the states to leave in that manner. Burr was quite popular in the West, after all he did kill Hamilton. Burr received aid from Senators Dayton, Adair, Smith, and Brown; bought boats from Andrew Jackson; was defended by Henry Clay; and encouraged to run for Congress by William Henry Harrison. The West truly loved Burr. In reality Burr had no intention of disunion or any action against the United States. Rather he was going to attempt a filibuster against Spanish Mexico if the United States went to war against Mexico, which would have made it a legal enterprise by the law of nations. Tensions were quite high and General Wilkerson, Burr’s co-filibusterer, helped make them higher through his advice to Jefferson and his advice to Spain, Wilkerson was on the Spanish payroll. Burr was actually cleared of any wrong doing several times. Twice in Kentucky Grand Juries were convened against Burr, but both cleared him. The first because no evidence was brought, and the second because the only witness was not credible and the Jury admonished the prosecutor for using the court of politics. He was cleared by a jury in Mississippi after surrendering to them after Jefferson put out a nation wide APB for his arrest on treason. No weapons were found on him or his group. Only supplies needed to start a new city on the large tract of land Burr purchased in Louisiana territory. Burr faced yet another trial in Richmond in front of Chief Justice Marshall, this is the one we all remember. The two chief witnesses against him were both laughable. General Eaton, a filibusterer himself, was considered an outright liar. It was not the first time in his career. He cried after the defense team finished with him. And General Wilkerson himself. Wilkerson turned on Burr when rumors hit to close to home about his Spanish involvement. It was shown that he altered a letter written to him by a friend of Burr. The evidence showed that his claims were exaggerated since no weapons could be found on Burr nor did the army of 10,000 people arrive. The place where the government did find weapons was on an island on the Ohio River, but Burr was never there. Marshall ruled the indictment flawed, the jury cleared Burr of treason.

Burr is maligned by history, but he did leave us a legacy that we ought to remember. Burr was a good politician. It was he who broke the hold of powerful political families in New York. He paved the way for men like Martin Van Buren, who considered himself a Burrite. It was Burr who laid the foundation for Tammany Hall as a political machine, not a corruption machine. It was Burr who helped the next generation of Republicans express their disenchantment with how Jeffersonianism turned out. The men who appreciated Burr like Van Buren, Jackson, and others would lay the foundation for a new party, the Democratic Party. That is what we should think of when we think of Aaron Burr. Hopefully one day the record will be set straight.