The United States Constitution

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I am concerned about the direction of the United States economy and politics, and about our declining influence in the world. I feel we are losing our moral and ethical bearings.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Was Vice President Aaron Burr Guilty of Treason?


Ira Krakow - The United States Constitution - The United States Constitution





Here's my suggestion for a Final Jeopardy Answer: "Who was the only Vice President who was tried for treason?". I'll even add a hint: "He also was the only Vice President who killed a political opponent while in office". Think of Dick Cheney with better aim.


Give up? The answer is Aaron Burr (1756-1836), our third Vice President, Thomas Jefferson's running mate. As I described in my episode on the Election of 1800, he tied Jefferson in electoral votes, which led to the election being decided by the House of Representatives. With all the political intrigue rampant in that election, Burr could easily have become our third President instead of Jefferson.


Who was this enigmatic man? Aaron Burr, Jr., descended from an influential and powerful family. His father, Aaron Burr, Sr., was President of Princeton University. His maternal grandfather was Jonathan Edwards, a famous Puritan preacher. He majored in theology at Princeton, but eventually switched to law. By all accounts, he aspired to a political career.


Burr had a distinguished Revolutionary War career. He volunteered in 1775, participated in Benedict Arnold's march to Quebec, and joined General Washington's staff in 1776. He spent the winter at Valley Forge.


After the War, he married and started a successful law practice in New York. At one time, his law partner was Alexander Hamilton. His political aspirations were rewarded when Governor Clinton named him Attorney General in 1789. He was elected Senator in 1791, defeating Alexander Hamilton's father-in-law, Philip Schuyler, and served 6 years. Hamilton believed Burr had stolen the election. Burr became an influential member of the anti-Federalist Democratic party. New York's ratification of the Constitution was by no means a done deal. In fact, only one New York delegate - Alexander Hamilton - ratified the Constitution. It was no accident that two of the three authors of the Federalist Papers, Hamilton and Jay, were from New York. Burr was in the anti-Federalist camp. Because of his political views, and of his power in the New York Democratic party, he proved an attractive running mate for Thomas Jefferson. They basically ran as the anti-Federalist "ticket", first unsuccessfully in 1796 and then successfully in 1800.


Burr became Jefferson's Vice-President from 1801-1805. As Vice President, Burr was also President of the Senate. During his term, he ran for Governor of New York as an independent but was defeated by the Republican candidate, Morgan Lewis. Hamilton and Burr had, by that time, become political rivals. Hamilton supported Jefferson over Burr in the Election of 1800, as well as Lewis over Burr in the New York governor's election. The enmity had bcome so great (there were also some nasty personal articles about Hamilton's bastardy as well) that Hamilton and then Vice President Burr fought a duel. On July 11, 1804, they dueled in Weehawken, New Jersey. Hamilton fired first, missing Burr. Burr's shot hit Hamilton, piercing his liver and spine. Hamilton was evacuated to New York and died there.


After the duel, Burr's political career was effectively over. Although dueling was illegal in both New York and New Jersey, Burr was never tried for murder and he completed his term as Vice President. After his term ended, he fled to Philadelphia. There, he allegedly hatched a plan with his Princeton classmate, Jonathan Dayton, with the goal of creating a new nation out of a number of Spanish held territories in the Southwest, in what is Texas today. Burr's supporters claimed that he had simply leased 40,000 acres in Texas and wanted to retain title to it. However, Burr did have contact with General James Wilkinson, the Governor of Louisiana who was secretly in the pay of Spain, and Harman Blennerhassett, an Anglo-Irish aristocrat who owned land on the Ohio River. There were promises of help from Great Britain and Spain, and local Creoles in Louisiana were recruited as possible allies for this new southwestern "republic". Burr also recruited soldiers for this plot.

Wilkinson, afraid that the plot would fail, betrayed Burr to Jefferson. Burr was captured and, in 1807, was tried for treason before the circuit court at Richmond, Virginia. At that time, Supreme Court justices "rode circuit", presiding over the regional Federal circuit courts during the off-term period. The trial judge was none other than John Marshall, the Federalist Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and Jefferson's political foe. By the way, in Marbury v. Madison, the famous case on which Marshall established the principle of judicial review, Marshall was actually ruling on whether his act of not giving Marbury his commission was constitutional or not. By our current rules of judicial ethics, he should have recused himself.


It's important to note that, even though Jefferson had purchased the Louisiana territory from Napoleon, the Louisiana Purchase had not been officially accepted by Congress. The definitive annexation and boundaries of the Louisiana Territory did not become final until 1819, by the Adams-Onis Treaty. Jefferson was having second thoughts. Also, there was sizeable local opposition from local planters and soldiers to the annexation. Was Burr raising an army to liberate these lands and set up a republic under his control?


The Burr treason trial was the trial of the century, even though the century was barely 7 years old. The case turned on some letters that Jefferson possessed, that Marshall requested. Jefferson claimed "executive privilege", thus establishing that defense many years before Nixon did the same in the Watergate era. In the end, Burr was acquitted of treason because the court ruled that the government had not proved that he committed the overt act, in the presence of two witnesses, required by the Constitution. Whether this is a purely legal decision or an act of political revenge against his hated rival is something you can decide.


PBS, for the American Experience series, produced a documentary on the Hamilton-Burr duel and the Burr treason trial. After the trial, Burr fled to Europe, had a number of mistresses, and was even sued for adultery when he was in his 80s. By any standard, he had the most checkered career of any Vice President in our history. There's an interesting fictionalized biography, called simply Burr: A Novel, by Gore Vidal, that tells this story from Burr's eyes. Sometimes biographies of people like Jefferson and Marshall read like the lives of the saints. This one is a bit more earthy, and certainly paints Burr in a more favorable light than most history books do.

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