Saturday, July 11, 2009

Aaron Burr: Thinking about the American Revolution

“The rule of my life is to make business a pleasure, and pleasure my business.”
— Aaron Burr

Aaron Burr, to say the least, was one of the more controversial of the founding fathers. He was, first and foremost, an American politician; not a first tier politician, but a dedicated public servant, none the less. He was also a soldier in the Revolutionary War and, in later life, an adventurer in the new west. He was a strong supporter of the Democratic-Republican (Jeffersonian) Party that opposed the Federalist Party of Alexander Hamilton. He became notorious through his feud with Hamilton and killed him during a duel in 1804 after an unforgivable insult. In his later life, he was in suspect dealing with Mexico and Spain and faced charges of treason.

So, let’s take a closer look at his contributions of Aaron Burr our emerging republic…

Aaron Burr (1756 – 1836)

“Never do today what you can as well do tomorrow, because something may occur to make you regret your premature action”
— Aaron Burr

So, why do we consider Burr as a worthy contributor to the American Revolution? Was he a brilliant military leader during the Revolutionary War? No he was not. But he did exhibit bravery during several battles, including the Battle of Quebec after which he was acclaimed a hero. He served his commanders well, but never received any commendations from General Washington. He did save the lives of many men during the Battle of Manhattan, including that of Alexander Hamilton. [History shows that Hamilton was a lifetime nemesis of Burr, especially in the political arena.] He did rise to the rank of lieutenant colonel before retiring from the army due to health reasons and returning to his study of law.

In 1782, Burr passed the New York bar and entered into legal practice in that state. He served in the New York Assembly for several terms followed by serving as state Attorney General. He lost his bid to become Governor, but defeated the then Senator Philip Schuyler, the father-in-law of Alexander Hamilton in 1791. After serving one term in the Senate, he returned to New York to serve once again as a member of the Assembly in 1798. This was not an outstanding political career, but was a solid foundation for his final public office, that of Vice President under President Jefferson in 1801.

Why then study Burr at all? The answer lies in the changes he triggered in the Electoral College system that brought about a new Constitutional Amendment, the twelfth Amendment. In the beginning, the Constitution was ‘blind’ to political parties; it assumed the filling of the top two positions in the Executive Branch, the President and Vice President, would be filled by the top two vote-getters in the Electoral College. This worked well during the first two Presidential elections due to the election of George Washington by a unanimous vote. However, during the elections of 1796, political parties had emerged; the Federalist Party of Alexander Hamilton supported a strong central government while the Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson supported states’ rights and a weak central government. During this election, John Adams ran as a Federalist and Thomas Jefferson ran as a Democratic-Republican. This resulted in the election of Adams (through Hamilton’s manipulation of the electors) as President with Jefferson serving as Vice President. This situation existed until the twelfth Amendment was ratified in 1804.

Going back to Burr, the election of 1800 ended up with both Burr and Jefferson receiving 73 votes in the Electoral College. Hamilton disliked both of these candidates, but Burr more than Jefferson; he attempted to manipulate the electoral vote so that neither one of these would win, but the Federalist candidate, Pickering, would be elected as President. The tie vote between the two Democratic-Republican candidates avoided this and sent the election into the House of Representatives. After thirty-six votes, the House elected Jefferson as the third President. But Jefferson distrusted Burr due to several factors and placed him in a more minor role.

Hamilton’s attempted manipulation of the vote further alienated Burr from him. After a perceived libelous statement by Hamilton for which he would not back off from, Burr challenged him to a duel in 1804. Ironically, Hamilton’s son had been killed in a duel about six months previous to Hamilton’s duel. During the duel, Hamilton was shot in the stomach and mortally wounded. He died the next day. This event had significant impact upon our emerging republic because after Hamilton’s death, the Federalist Party lost direction and ceased to be a factor much after 1812. These events involving Burr helped shape the political landscape of our country, especially in the structure of the Executive Branch and the operation of the political party system.

After leaving office in 1805, Burr involved himself with several attempts to establish himself as a political leader in the west, especially Texas. He was seen to want to become the ‘king’ in the Mexican and Spanish territories. In fact, he faced two trials on the charge of treason, but was acquitted in both on technical factors. These latter incidents tarnished his reputation as a war hero and Vice President. This left him in as a disgraced political figure despite his long public service.

“Go West, young man.”

— Aaron Burr

Burr helped us to truly become a nation ‘…of the People, by the People and for the People.’ We thank you, Mr. Burr, for helping to focus our system to make the transition to the modern world. It still is working today…

Next Time: We will wrap up this series with a review of the contributions of our founding fathers in the creation of a land of the free under a new form of governance. Join us for this review…

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