CONTEXT

September 1, 2011

Odd man out

Burr by Vanderlyn.

If politics these days seem trivial, malicious, personality-driven and underhanded, we shouldn’t be the least bit surprised – it’s entirely in the best American tradition.  And we haven’t, after all, regressed to the point where opposition pols shoot each other or use high office to convict their enemies of treason.

That is exactly what happened during the first years of this country – after Aaron Burr defeated Philip Schuyler in an election for Senator from New York, his old friend Alexander Hamilton took umbrage – Schuyler was his father-in-law – and things were pretty frosty from then on.  But it took the governor’s race ten years later to bring them to armed confrontation.

Burr had returned from the Revolution a hero, with a reputation as a brave soldier and outstanding leader.  He flourished in New York politics, serving in the Assembly and as Attorney General and he turned the Tammany Society from a social club into a political machine.  Tammany helped him dislodge the Hamiltonian Federalists – who dominated the legislature – and install his own chosen anti-Federalist slate as the election of 1800 approached.

In short, he had a lot of clout, and since New York was crucial for Jefferson, Burr was asked to help.  In exchange, he was given a spot on the ticket.

So far, so good.  But it all went pear-shaped in the Electoral College when Jefferson – who had defeated John Adams – tied with Aaron Burr. (See how that resulted in the Twelfth Amendment here.) That threw the election into the House of Representatives, where Federalists made enough mischief that it took 36 ballots before Jefferson was able to pull one vote ahead of his erstwhile vice-president.

Burr meanwhile had been keeping his own counsel, not attempting to influence the voting, and writing letters to Jefferson offering to withdraw altogether.

But something changed – and we might not ever know exactly what or why – in Jefferson’s brain and he not only developed a personal animus towards Burr, but did his damnedest years later to get Burr convicted of treason.

Alexander Hamilton

Burr meanwhile, could see which way the wind blew, that he would not be asked to stay on the ticket in 1804 and so he started looking for another job.  He ran for governor of New York, lost, and along the way encountered his old nemesis, Alexander Hamilton.  Hamilton had not only badmouthed him in the governor’s race, but continued to slander him after.  Burr challenged him to a duel.

Burr killed Hamilton and sadly, that would become his chief claim to fame.  And unfairly, it seems, since the pistols were provided by Hamilton and some historians now think he reset his to have a hair-trigger.  It may have gone off accidentally, but in any case Hamilton missed.

Alas, time presses and we haven’t even gotten to Jefferson’s enemies list.  Or why September 1 was a red-letter day for Aaron Burr.  More tomorrow.

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3 Comments »

  1. Fascinating details in an otherwise known story. More comment tomorrow.

    Comment by GALYA TARMU — September 1, 2011 @ 10:12 am | Reply

  2. Happy to know nothing’s new.

    Comment by Carol — September 1, 2011 @ 10:18 am | Reply

  3. Ding dong dang what a good story loved it.

    Comment by avery — September 3, 2011 @ 3:24 pm | Reply


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