February 19, 1807 Burning Ambition

Behind the scenes, the vice president secretly corresponded with the 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.  He himself would do nicely to found the new dynasty, thank you very much, for asking.

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 he was near death after being shot by Vice President Mike Pence.

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.

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Aaron Burr

The animosity between the two went back to the Senate election of 1791, and escalated during one of the ugliest election seasons in American history.  It’s been called the “Revolution of 1800”, the election pitting Democratic-Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson, against one-term incumbent John Adams, of the Federalist party.

Both sides were convinced beyond 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 the Adams administration employed to support Federal policy.

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 exerted influence on behalf of Jefferson, who was elected on the 36th ballot.  Aaron Burr was relegated to the vice-Presidency.

John Nance Garner served as 32nd vice president between 1931 – ’41. With precisely zero influence over Presidential authority, Garner described the position as “not worth a bucket of warm piss”.  The sentiment is cleaned up and commonly retold as, “warm spit”.

A man with the towering ambition of Aaron Burr could certainly relate.  Behind the scenes, the vice president secretly corresponded with the 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.  He himself would do nicely to found the new dynasty.  Thank you very much, for asking.

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Justice Samuel Chase

We’re accustomed today 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.

As VP, Burr presided over Chase’ impeachment.  It was the high point of the only term he would ever serve.

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.

It was a humiliating defeat.  Burr blamed Alexander Hamilton over comments made during the election, and challenged him to a duel.  Dueling was illegal at this time but enforcement was lax in New Jersey. 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.

missedinhistory-podcasts-wp-content-uploads-sites-99-2015-07-hamilton-burr-660x357Murder charges were filed in both New York and New Jersey, but neither went to trial.

Aaron Burr went on to preside over Justice Chase’ impeachment, 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 Wilkinson, “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 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 skin, 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.

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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.

Burr was acquitted on September 1, on grounds 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.

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September 25, 1789  Bill of Rights

Today the American system is often described as “democracy”, but such a description is in error.  Four wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner, is a democracy.  The genius of the founders can be demonstrated in a system which protects the rights of All its citizens, including that individual.  The proverbial lamb.

The Founding Fathers ratified the United States Constitution on June 21, 1788.  In so doing, our forebears bestowed on generations yet unborn, a governing system unique in all history.  A system of diffuse authority, of checks and balances, and authority delegated but Never relinquished, by a sovereign electorate.

Today the American system is often described as “democracy”, but such a description is in error.  Four wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner, is a democracy.  The genius of the founders can be demonstrated in a system which protects the rights of All its citizens, including that individual.  The proverbial lamb. The specifics are enumerated in our bill of rights, twelve amendments adopted by the first Congress on this day in 1789, and sent to the states for ratification.

bill-of-rightsEven at the Constitutional Convention, delegates expressed concerns about the larger, more populous states holding sway, at the expense of the smaller states. The “Connecticut Compromise” solved the problem, creating a bicameral legislature with proportional representation in the lower house (House of Representatives) and equal representation of the states themselves in the upper house (Senate).

The 62nd Congress proposed a Constitutional amendment in 1912, negating the intent of the founders and proposing that Senators be chosen by popular election.  The measure was adopted the following year, the seventeenth amendment having been ratified by ¾ of the states.  Since that time, it’s difficult to understand what the United States Senate even is,  an institution neither democratic nor republican.  But I digress.

Five states: Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut, ratified the document in quick succession. Some states objected to the new Constitution, especially Massachusetts, which wanted more protection for basic political rights such as freedom of speech, religion, and of the press. These wanted the document to specify, that those powers left un-delegated to the Federal government, were reserved to the states.

sherman-ellsworthA compromise was reached in February, 1788 whereby Massachusetts and other states would ratify the document, with the assurance that such amendments would immediately be put up for consideration.

With these assurances, Massachusetts ratified the Constitution by a two-vote margin, followed by Maryland and South Carolina. New Hampshire became the ninth state on June 21. The new Constitutional Government would take effect on March 4 of the following year.

Amendments 2-12 were adopted on December 15, 1791, becoming the “Bill of Rights”.

It’s interesting to note the priorities of that first Congress, as expressed in their original 1st and 2nd amendments.  As proposed to the 1st Congress, the original 1st amendment dictated apportionment of representation. It was ratified by only 11 states, and technically remained pending. Had the states ratified that original first amendment, we would now have a Congress of at least 6,345 members, instead of the 535 we currently have.

The original 2nd amendment was an article related to Congressional compensation, that no future Congress could change their own salaries.   The measure would in fact, pass, becoming the 27th amendment in 1992.  Following a ratification period of 202 years, 7 months, and 10 days.

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July 4, 1826 Friends and Rivals

In an ending no fiction writer would dare put to paper, both men died on the same day, July 4, 1826.  Fifty years to the day from the birth of the Republic, they had helped to create. 

Delegates to the 2nd Continental Congress originally pushed for Richard Henry Lee to write the Declaration of Independence.  It was he who delivered the all-important resolution on June 1, 1776:  “Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States...”

committLee was appointed to the Committee of Confederation, assigned to write the Articles by which the fledgling nation would govern itself.  Lee believed that two such committees were too much and, soon, he would be called home to care for a critically ill wife.

So it is that a committee of five were appointed to write the Declaration of Independence, including Massachusetts attorney John Adams, and a young Virginia delegate named Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson had no interest in writing the Declaration of Independence and suggested that Adams pen the first draft. Adams declined, and described the following conversation, in a letter to Massachusetts politician Timothy Pickering:

“Jefferson proposed to me to make the draft. I said, ‘I will not,’ ‘You should do it.’ ‘Oh! no.’ ‘Why will you not? You ought to do it.’ ‘I will not.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Reasons enough.’ ‘What can be your reasons?’ ‘Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.’ ‘Well,’ said Jefferson, ‘if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.’ ‘Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.”

Thomas Jefferson would spend the following seventeen days, writing the first draft.  He and Adams had only just met during the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.  The two would develop a close personal friendship which would last for most of their lives.

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The friendship between the two men came to an ugly ending during the Presidential election of 1800, in which the mudslinging from both sides rose to levels never before witnessed in a national election.

Jefferson defeated one-term incumbent Adams and went on to serve two terms as President of the United States.  Upon Jefferson’s retirement in 1809, one of the Declaration’s signers, Dr. Benjamin Rush, took it upon himself to patch up the broken friendship between the two founding fathers.

Dr. Rush worked on this personal diplomatic mission for two years.  In 1811, he finally succeeded.

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Jefferson Seal

There followed a series of letters between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, which together constitute one of the most comprehensive historical and philosophical assessments ever written about the American founding.

The correspondence between the pair touched on a variety of topics, from the birth of a self-governing Constitutional Republic, to then-current political issues, to matters of philosophy and religion and issues related to their advancing years.

Both men understood that they were writing not only to one another, but also to generations yet unborn.  Each went to great lengths to explain the philosophical underpinnings of his views, Adams the firm believer in strong, centralized government, Jefferson advocating a smaller federal government which was more deferential to the states.

By 1826, Jefferson and Adams were among the very last survivors among the founding generation.  James Monroe alone, would survive these two.

In an ending no fiction writer would dare put to paper, both men died on the same day, July 4, 1826.  Fifty years to the day from the birth of the Republic, they had helped to create.  Adams was 90 as he lay on his deathbed, suffering from congestive heart failure.  His last words were “Thomas Jefferson still survives”.  There was no way of knowing.  The author of the Declaration of Independence had died of a fever,  five hours earlier at his Monticello home near Charlottesville, Virginia.  Jefferson was 82.

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John Adams son John Quincy was himself President at the time of the two men’s passing, and remarked that the coincidence was among the “visible and palpable remarks of Divine Favor”.

A month after the two men passed, Daniel Webster spoke of the pair at Faneuil Hall, in Boston.

“No two men now live, (or) any two men have ever lived, in one age, who (have) given a more lasting direction to the current of human thought. No age will come, in which the American Revolution will appear less than it is, one of the greatest events in human history. No age will come, in which it will cease to be seen and felt, on either continent, that a mighty step, a great advance, not only in American affairs, but in human affairs, was made on the 4th of July 1776″.

 

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

July 4, 1826 Founding Fathers

The letters between Adams and Jefferson together constitute one of the most comprehensive historical and philosophical assessments ever written about the American founding.

Thomas Jefferson met John Adams at the 1775 Continental Congress in Philadelphia, the two forming a close personal friendship which would last for most of their lives.   They were two of the committee of five assigned to write the Declaration of Independence, and worked closely together throughout the era of our founding.

The friendship between the two men came to an end during the Presidential election of 1800.  Mudslinging on both sides rose to levels never before seen in a national election, an election in which both sides firmly believed the election of the other, would destroy the young nation.HamJeff

Jefferson defeated one term incumbent Adams and went on to serve two terms as President.

On Jefferson’s retirement in 1809, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush, took it upon himself to patch up the broken friendship between the two founding fathers. Dr. Rush worked on his personal diplomatic mission for two years.  In 1811, he finally succeeded.

There followed a series of letters between Adams and Jefferson, which together constitute one of the most comprehensive historical and philosophical assessments ever written about the American founding.

Their correspondence touched on a variety of topics, from the birth of this self-governing Republic, to then-current political issues, to matters of philosophy and religion and issues of aging. Both men understood that they were writing not only to one another, but to generations yet unborn.Letters

Each went to great lengths to explain the philosophical underpinnings of his views.  Adams the Federalist, the firm believer in strong, centralized government.  Jefferson was the Democratic-Republican, advocating for smaller federal government and more autonomy for the states.

In 1826, Jefferson and Adams were the last of the founding fathers.  In an ending no fiction writer would even dare to contemplate, both men died on this day in 1826, fifty years to the day from the birth of the Republic they had helped to create.

Adams was 90. His final words as he lay on his deathbed were “Thomas Jefferson still survives”.  Adams had no way of knowing that Jefferson had died five hours earlier, at Monticello.  He was 82.

Daniel Webster spoke of the pair a month later, at Faneuil Hall, in Boston. “No two men now live” he said”, (or) any two men have ever lived, in one age, who (have) given a more lasting direction to the current of human thought. No age will come, in which the American Revolution will appear less than it is, one of the greatest events in human history. No age will come, in which it will cease to be seen and felt, on either continent, that a mighty step, a great advance, not only in American affairs, but in human affairs, was made on the 4th of July, 1776″.