What would it be like to turn on CNN or Fox News, to learn that Former Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew had been party to a duel, and that he was near death after being shot by Vice President Mike Pence.
The year was 1804, and President Jefferson’s Vice President, Aaron Burr, had a long standing personal conflict with one of the Founding Fathers. Alexander Hamilton, the only signer of the Constitution from the state of New York, had been the first Secretary of the Treasury serving under President George Washington.
The animosity between Hamilton and Burr probably began in 1791, when Burr defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law Philip Schuyler in a US Senate election. The conflict escalated during the 1800 Presidential election, one of the ugliest election seasons in our nation’s history. Called the “Revolution of 1800”, the contest pitted Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic-Republicans, against former Vice President John Adams and his Federalist party.
Both sides were convinced as an article of faith, that the other side would destroy the young nation. Federalists attacked Jefferson as an un-Christian deist, whose sympathies with the French Revolution would bring about a similar cataclysm in the young American Republic. Democratic-Republicans criticized the alien and sedition acts, and the deficit spending the Adams administration used to support Federal policy.
“The father of modern political campaigning”, Burr enlisted the help of New York’s Tammany Hall in his pursuit of election, transforming what was then a social club into a political machine.
The election was a decisive victory for the Democratic-Republicans, not so much for the selection of President and Vice President. At the time, electors cast two votes, the first and second vote-getters becoming President and Vice President. The electoral vote tied at 73 between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, moving the selection to the House of Representatives.
Hamilton exerted his influence on behalf of Thomas Jefferson, who was elected on the 36th ballot, making Burr his VP.
Today we’re accustomed to the idea of “Judicial Review”, the idea that Supreme Court decisions are final and inviolate, but that wasn’t always the case. The Landmark Supreme Court case Marbury v Madison established the principle in 1803, a usurpation of power so egregious to Democratic-Republicans that it led to the impeachment of Associate Justice Samuel Chase, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. As VP, Aaron Burr presided over Chase’ impeachment.
Relations became toxic between Jefferson and his VP. Burr knew that he wouldn’t be kept on for the 1804 re-election campaign, and so he ran for Governor of New York, losing the election by a decisive margin to a virtual unknown, Morgan Lewis. It was a humiliating defeat, the largest in New York electoral politics up to that time.
Burr blamed Hamilton for his defeat, challenging him to a duel over comments made during the election. Dueling was illegal at this time but enforcement was comparatively lax in New Jersey. The pair rowed across the Hudson River with their “seconds”, meeting at the waterfront town of Weehawken, New Jersey. It was July 11, 1804. Hamilton “threw away” his shot, firing into the air. Aaron Burr shot to kill.
Murder charges were filed in both New York and New Jersey, but neither ever went to trial.
Aaron Burr went on to preside over Justice Chase’ impeachment trial, later that year. It had to have been the high point of the Vice President’s political career, a career that otherwise ended the day he met Alexander Hamilton in Weehawken.
Burr headed for New Orleans, where he got mixed up with one General James Wilkinson, possibly the sleaziest character of the founding generation. At that time, Wilkinson was a paid agent for Spanish King Charles IV. 100 years later Theodore Roosevelt would say of Wilkinson, “In all our history, there is no more despicable character.”
Wilkinson would take his payments in silver dollars, hidden in rum, sugar and coffee casks. All those clinking coins almost undid him, when a messenger was caught and killed with 3,000 of them. The messenger’s five murderers were themselves Spaniards, who testified at trial that the money belonged to the spy Wilkinson. Payment for services rendered to their King. Wilkinson’s luck held out, as the killers spoke no English. Thomas Power, interpreter for the Magistrate, was another Spanish spy. He translated: ‘They just say they’re wicked murderers motivated by greed.’
The nature of Burr’s discussions with Wilkinson is unknown, but in 1806, Burr led a group of armed colonists toward New Orleans, with the apparent intention of snatching the territory and turning it into an independent Republic. It’s probably safe to assume that Aaron Burr saw himself at the head of such a Republic.
Seeing no future in it and wanting to save his own hide, General Wilkinson turned on his former ally, sending dispatches to Washington accusing the former Vice President of treason. Burr was tracked down in Alabama on February 19, 1807, arrested for treason and sent to Richmond, Virginia, for trial.
Burr was acquitted on September 1 of that year, on grounds that he had not committed an “overt act” as specified in the Constitution. He was not guilty in the eyes of the law, but the court of public opinion would forever regard him as traitor. Aaron Burr spent the next several years in Europe before returning to New York, and resuming his law practice.
The Vice President who killed the man on our $10 bill, died in obscurity on September 14, 1836, at the age of 80.