What would it be like to turn on the evening news, and learn that former Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin lay near death, following an “affair of honor”. A duel. Worse yet, the man who shot him wasn’t a man at all but a woman, Kamala Harris, the sitting vice president of the United States.
The year was 1804. President Thomas Jefferson’s Vice President Aaron Burr, had a long standing grudge against Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury under President George Washington.
The animosity between the two went back to the Senate election of 1791, when Burr won a United States Senate election over Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler. Animosity between the two men escalated during the presidential race of 1800, one of the ugliest elections in American history. It’s been called the “Revolution of 1800”, an election pitting Democratic-Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson, against one-term incumbent John Adams, of the Federalist party.
Both sides were convinced beyond a doubt, that the other side would destroy the young nation. Federalists attacked Jefferson as an un-Christian deist, a populist 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 of the Adams administration.
At the time, electors cast two votes, the first and second vote-getters becoming president and vice president.
“The father of modern political campaigning”, Aaron Burr had long since enlisted help from New York’s Tammany Hall, 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 candidates themselves.
The electoral vote tied at 73 between Jefferson and Burr, moving the selection to the House of Representatives. Hamilton was no fan of Thomas Jefferson but detested Burr and threw his support behind the former. Jefferson was elected on the 36th ballot, Aaron Burr, relegated to the second spot.
Vice President John “Cactus Jack” Nance Garner was the 32nd vice president of the United States, serving under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
With precisely zero influence over Roosevelt’s policies, Garner described the position as “not worth a bucket of warm piss”.
The sentiment is often cleaned up and retold as, “warm spit”. Be that as it may, such a prize was a distant second-best to a man like Aaron Burr.
Vice President Aaron Burr, 1802
As part of the new administration, the vice president was anything but a “team player”. Behind the scenes, Burr corresponded with British and Spanish ministers to the United States, offering in the first case to detach Louisiana from the Union and, in the second, to orchestrate an overthrow of Mexico. Either way, he himself would do nicely to found the new dynasty. Thank you very much for asking.
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 Marbury v Madison decision established the principle in 1803, a usurpation of power so egregious to Democratic-Republicans, as to bring about the impeachment of Associate Justice Samuel Chase, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Relations were toxic between Jefferson and Burr. The VP knew he wouldn’t be around for the 1804 re-election campaign so he ran for Governor of New York, losing in a landslide to a virtual unknown, Morgan Lewis.
“Nothing has given me so much chagrin as the Intelligence that the Federal party were thinking seriously of supporting Mr. Burr for president. I should consider the execution of the plan as devoting the country and signing their own death warrant. Mr. Burr will probably make stipulations, but he will laugh in his sleeve while he makes them and will break them the first moment it may serve his purpose.”Alexander Hamilton
It was a humiliating defeat. Burr blamed Hamilton, a tireless supporter of his victorious opponent, and challenged him to a duel. Dueling was illegal at this time but enforcement was lax in New Jersey. So it was, the pair rowed across the Hudson River with their “seconds”, meeting at the waterfront town of Weehawken. 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 went to trial.
As vice president, Aaron Burr went on to preside over Justice Chase’s impeachment, It was the high point of a career 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, one of the sleazier characters 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 the man, “In all our history, there is no more despicable character.”
Wilkinson took his payments in silver dollars, hidden in rum, sugar and coffee casks. All those clinking coins nearly 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 the money belonged to the spy, James Wilkinson. Payment for services rendered to their King. Wilkinson’s luck held, as the killers spoke no English. Thomas Power, interpreter for the Magistrate, was another Spanish spy. He threw those guys so far under the bus, they’d never get out: ‘They just say they’re wicked murderers motivated by greed.’
The nature of Burr’s discussions with Wilkinson is unclear but, in 1806, Burr led a group of armed colonists toward New Orleans, with the apparent intention of snatching the territory and turning the place into an independent Republic. It’s 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 skin, 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.
The size and shape of the “Burr Conspiracy” remain unclear, to this day. Historians claim the vice president intended to take parts of Texas and the Louisiana Purchase, forming his own independent Republic. Others claim he intended to conquer Mexico, That Aaron Burr had a following among prominent politicians and soldiers is beyond question, but estimates of their numbers range from forty, to over seven-thousand.
Burr himself claims only to have wanted the 40,000 acres in the Texas Territory, deeded him by the Spanish crown. On this there is no uncertainty. The lease still exists.
The one-time vice president who killed the man on our ten dollar bill went to trial for treason on May 22, 1807. Burr was acquitted in the end, on grounds he had not committed an “overt act” as specified in the Constitution. Not guilty in the eyes of the law. The court of public opinion, was another matter. Aaron Burr would ever be held in contempt, as a traitor.
He spent the next several years in Europe before returning to New York, and resuming his law practice. At the age of 77, Burr married Eliza Jumel, a wealthy widow 19 years his junior. After four months of watching her fortune squandered, she filed for separation. For her divorce attorney, Eliza hired Alexander Hamilton, Jr. The divorce was final on September 14, 1836. Aaron Burr, now relegated to a New York boarding house, died the very same day, at the age of 80.
“Aaron Burr was like a new refrigerator. He was bright, cold and empty.”American journalist, biographer and historian, Richard Brookhiser