Donald Trump’s recent impeachment trial in which the President was accused of incitement of insurrection against the United States recalls to mind a case from more than 200 years ago.
In that case another New York politician, former Vice President Aaron Burr, whose personality was arguably not dissimilar from Donald Trump, was tried and acquitted of treason in 1807.
Burr’s forceful, arrogant and in certain respects unusual and unconventional personality, as well as his significant success in achieving high political office, was in many respects similar to that of Donald Trump. Both championed anti-establishment ideas, and in many respects sought a political base of poorer working people despite their upper class birth and background. Both of their early careers were in New York City. Both were well known and had some success on Wall Street in periods of some social and economic change. Also it was often alleged that Burr, like Trump, was frequently in financial difficulty.
Burr’s Early Years
Burr was the orphaned maternal grandson of Jonathan Edwards, the prominent Massachusetts clergymen, and his father was the President of what is today Princeton University. At the age of four he was placed under the care of his uncle Timothy Edwards, a strict New Jersey clergyman from whom he tried to runaway at the age at the age of 10, but later returned to enter Princeton College at the age of 13 and graduated in 1772.
Like Alexander Hamilton with whom he would have a fateful encounter in 1804, as a young man he was a Revolutionary War hero being credited with having attempted to rescue the body of General Richard Montgomery after the disastrous Battle of Quebec on December 31, 1775. In that battle the Americans almost saw victory, but at the last minute collapsed when their leader, General Montgomery, was shot.
After the war Burr returned to New York City where he practiced law on Wall Street and was elected to the New York State Legislature in 1784 and 1785 as part of a wave of Revolutionary War heroes, who began to redistribute land of former Tories to Revolutionary War soldiers.
Burr later served as New York State’s Attorney General from 1789 to 1791, while in his early 30s. After the bitterly contested ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1789 however, the more conservative Federalist party, led by Hamilton, his father-in-law Phillip Schuyler, as well as John Jay, gained the upper hand in politics in the city of New York.
As a result of the provision of the U.S. Constitution stating that no state could impair the obligation of contract (which was widely interpreted as abrogating New York State’s land forfeiture laws providing Revolutionary War soldiers with Tory land) and strict restrictions on voting which permitted only landowners of certain wealth to vote, the Federalists and their allies began to undo the democratic land reforms of the period immediately following the Revolution.
Thus Tories, who had previously opposed the American Revolution and its democratic reforms, were restored to their pre-war position, while many men who had fought on the American side lost the benefits the government promised them. Burr became one of the leading opponents of these policies both as a lawyer and a politician. He allied himself with a civic and later political organization of many Revolutionary War enlisted men, the Tammany Society, which was in opposition to the increasingly conservative tendencies in New York politics. In the 1790s Tammany Society leaders would form an alliance with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in the hopes of ultimately wresting control of the Presidency from the Federalists and the increasingly autocratic Presidency of John Adams.
This effort culminated in the elections of 1800 in the city of New York, during which Burr, as strategist for the Tammany Society and the Democratic Republicans, helped convince his friend General Horatio Gates, the hero of the Battle of Saratoga, and also former Governor George Clinton, the Revolutionary War Governor of New York, to run for the New York State Legislature.
At that time the state’s legislature selected the electors to the electoral college. Though the city of New York had been considered strongly Federalist (in part because of its many Tories before the Revolution), Burr was able to convince his base of disaffected war veterans, as well as some rising businessmen and tradesmen, that their interest lay with the Democratic Republicans (Democrats).
Notwithstanding the voting restrictions against them, Burr and the Democrats won a significant plurality of the votes in the legislative elections. With this stunning victory in the city of New York’s legislative elections, the majority of the State Assembly consisted of Democratic legislators who selected electors pledged to Thomas Jefferson.
New York State thus voted in the 1800 Presidential election with Virginia and most of the Southern and Western States for Jefferson against the New England states who voted for John Adams. The power and influence of former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, whom many had considered a leading contender for the presidency after Adams, was broken by the defeat of the Federalists in the city of New York.
Burr: Almost President
As a result of his efforts on behalf of Jefferson and the Democratic ticket, Burr was offered the party’s Vice Presidential nomination. Although he might well have succeeded Jefferson as President in future years, it was at this point that his ambition and somewhat aberrational personality began to unravel his career.
Under the Constitution’s rules for electing a President at the time, the individual with the highest number of electoral votes would be elected President and the individual with the next highest number would be Vice-President. If a political faction ran two candidates jointly for President and Vice President, they might both receive the same number of votes, and this is exactly what happened. When Vice-President Thomas Jefferson first counted the 1800 electoral votes, he and Burr had 72 votes each.
In the case of a tie, the matter was thrown to the House of Representatives where each state would have a single vote. At first Burr announced that he would accept Jefferson’s election. However, as the election went into the house (where there was an equal number of Federalist and Democratic states (eight for each), some of Burr’s close associates and a number of Federalists (who opposed Jefferson) indicated to him they might be able to swing their votes his way.
The House voted 26 times and each time there was stalemate with Jefferson unable to obtain more than eight votes. Burr is said to have remained quiet. Finally Alexander Hamilton, a leading Federalist from New York who knew Burr well from New York law and politics, announced to his colleagues that notwithstanding his disdain for Jefferson, he thought Burr was an unprincipled man and not worthy of the Presidency. Hamilton urged all Federalists to vote for Jefferson and Jefferson was elected President, with Burr becoming Vice-President.
Burr’s attempted betrayal resulted in his being cut from participation in the Jefferson administration, and kept from controlling the important federal patronage in the city of New York. Burr retained his largely ceremonial position presiding over the Senate, including impeachments of federal judges, which brought him to a limited extent back into the good graces of Jefferson, who sought to eliminate as many Federalist judges as possible. An accomplished lawyer, Burr is considered to have done a fairly good job of trying the Jefferson inspired impeachment of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase (who was acquitted).
The Burr-Hamilton Duel
Burr retained some supporters in New York, where in 1804 he ran for Governor but was defeated by the much less well known Morgan Lewis. Hamilton and the Federalists attacked Burr mercilessly in that campaign. Although it was not Burr’s style to aggressively answer such attacks, Hamilton was quoted at an Albany meeting in a letter to a newspaper saying that Burr was a dangerous man who should not be trusted with the governor’s office.
The letter further alleged that others could offer a “still more despicable”opinion of Burr. Burr apparently viewed this as an attack on his honor, and demanded Hamilton retract his attack or face him in a duel. While dueling had in earlier times been considered a legitimate method for a gentleman to vindicate his honor, it was considered by many (particularly in Northern states like New York) to be barbaric and very much on the way out. In fact it was illegal in New York State. Nevertheless both Burr and Hamilton felt that their reputations required they follow through on the challenge and in any event most duels did not actually result in death, as they were often settled by negotiation beforehand.
As was the practice, Hamilton’s designated “second” (Nathan Pendelton) and Burr’s “second” (William Van Ness) went through several rounds of negotiations. Hamilton could have simply refused, as a number of his contemporaries did when faced with the same dilemma, including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Clinton.
Burr and Hamilton, who traveled in the same social and professional circles, saw each other a week before the duel on July 4, 1804 at the Society of Cincinnati‘s July 4th dinner at Fraunces Tavern in Manhattan. The artist John Trumbull, a member of the Society and participant at the dinner, later stated:
“On the 4th of July, I dined with the society of the Cincinnati, my old military comrades, and then met, among others, Gen. Hamilton and Col. Burr. The singularity of their manner was observed by all, but few had any suspicion of the cause. Burr, contrary to his wont, was silent, gloomy, sour; while Hamilton entered with glee into all the gaiety of a convivial party, and even sung an old military song.”
On July 11, 1804 Hamilton bid good bye to his wife and eight children and with Pendleton rowed across the Hudson River to the dueling grounds in Weehawken, New Jersey. Burr brought with him William Van Ness and a small delegation of friends as observers, among them Marinus Willett. Hamilton apparently drew the right to shoot first and to this day there is a dispute as to whether or not he deliberately fired into the air (as he had claimed he was going to in a letter to his wife read after his death).
Burr, who later claimed he had never intended to kill the man, fired into Hamilton’s abdomen, inflicting a mortal wound from which he died the next day. Many were shocked to hear that the sitting Vice-President and the former Secretary of the Treasury had engaged in a duel in which Hamilton had been killed. Public opinion almost immediately swung against Burr who was viewed as the aggressor.
There was an elaborate funeral down Broadway attended by many political, religious and social figures, which served to solidify Hamilton’s reputation as one of the city’s great historical figures. Burr was indicted for murder in New York County and subsequently in New Jersey. He fled to Washington, D.C. and Virginia where he continued to serve his term as the Vice-President (including presiding over the trial of Samuel Chase). When his term expired, he was replaced by George Clinton.
Burr’s Western Misadventures
Notwithstanding his troubles with Jefferson, Burr’s fertile mind apparently retained hopes for a personal and professional resurrection on the frontier. In the South, his having killed a Federalist in a duel was not as great a disability as it was in New York. In 1805 at a reception in Virginia he was celebrated. Furthermore, before his term as Vice President had expired he reportedly contacted the English Ambassador in Washington with a plan to raise a force that could separate Western territories from the United States and establish a new country under either English or independent control in which he would have a major role.
At the time, the allegiance of those living in west of the Appalachian Mountains was not as clearly established as it is today. The United States had just acquired significant land there in the Louisiana Purchase, and the population consisted of French, Spaniards, Native People and frontier Americans. Burr hoped to assemble a force of land hungry adventurers, including disaffected veterans of the Revolution. He hoped to occupy United States territory and either establish a state, or a loose Spanish or French principality which Burr would lead. The profits the project could be significant for Burr, and would help him pay his debts.
In formulating this plan Burr met a kindred soul of similar background and temperament, James Wilkinson. Wilkinson had been a medical student from an old Maryland family who had dropped out to join the Revolution. A glib but good administrator, at the age of 21 he had served as the Chief of Staff to Gates at Saratoga and was later promoted to the rank of Brigadier General.
Wilkinson was a close associate, like Burr, of New Jersey federalist Senator Jonathan Dayton. Although he would later betray Burr’s schemes to Jefferson, initially he was a perfect conspirator for Burr’s schemes. Beginning in May 1805, Burr undertook an extensive trip through the Ohio Valley and down to New Orleans where he was relatively well-received by local political figures. These included Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson, for whom his having killed Hamilton was an asset, not a liability. One of the people Burr met with was Harman Blennerhasset, an Anglo-Irish lawyer and politician who owned an island in the Ohio River that could serve as a staging area for Burr’s forces.
At the same time, Dayton met with the representatives of both the British and Spanish governments seeking financial backing. He later claimed that Burr intended, after secession of his new southwestern territory, to launch an attack on Washington, kidnap the President and Congress, and neutralize the U.S. government as a force hostile to monarchical European powers. Although the British rejected these proposals, the Spanish government provided limited funding. In 1806 Burr twice met for more than an hour with President Jefferson at the White House to brief the President on his travels through the Louisiana Territory and to appeal to the President to appoint him to a high U.S. government position.
Jefferson, who had heard rumors of his treasonous activities, rejected these entreaties, and upon hearing credible reports of Burr’s plans from Wilkinson and the U. S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky, had him arrested and brought to trial in Richmond, Virginia for treason. This set up what was considered the trial of the century before Justice John Marshall, a bitter Federalist opponent of Jefferson.
The prosecution presented testimony from co-conspirator James Wilkinson, who apparently had turned on Burr after failing to secure sufficient foreign funding. Wilkinson provided a cipher letter, allegedly written by Burr, in which he outlined the plan to assemble a force at Blennerhasset’s Island to move against New Orleans.
Burr’s lawyers, which included a former Attorney General of the United States, argued that the definition of treason in the U. S. Constitution was in fact quite narrow and included a requirement that the prosecution show two overt acts in furtherance of the scheme. Much to the chagrin of President Jefferson who was said to closely follow the trial, Justice Marshall adopted the defense’s narrow interpretation of the charge and ruled that without evidence that Burr had actually been present at Blennerhasset Island at the exact time of the incitement of the force that gathered there, the crime of treason had not been proved. The jury thus acquitted Burr.
Notwithstanding his acquittal on what was widely considered a technicality, most of the country assumed that Burr was guilty of insurrection against the United States. Facing a potentially similar charge in Ohio, he fled to Europe for the next five years. He returned to New York in 1812 to his law practice, and after a number of affairs married Eliza Jumel, who was alleged to have been a former prostitute but was at the time the widow of Stephen Jumel, one of the wealthiest men in New York. The Burrs lived in what is now known as the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights. When in his seventies Jumel accused Burr of having an affair with a servant in her 20s and sued for divorce, which became final on the day he died – September 14, 1836.