Saturday, September 15, 2012

Aaron Burr: American Soldier/Statesman or American Napoleon?

Aaron Burr (1756--1836) was the third Vice President of the United States of America from 1801-1805.  Every one who studies something of early American history knows two things about this man--one, that he shot and killed the legendary Founding Father Alexander Hamilton in 1804 in a duel with pistols over some  libelous accusations Hamilton reportedly made against Burr, and, two, that he was arrested and charged with treason in 1807.  The former VP  allegedly  indented to create his own empire by force from on or near New Orleans and parts of the vast Louisiana Purchase bought by Jefferson from Napoleon for 15 million dollars in 1803. A trial in Jefferson's home state of Virginia, presided over by the Supreme Court Justice
John Marshall, acquitted him.  He left the country after that and went to Europe where he tried to get Napoleon and later the British government interested in a plan to liberate Mexico from Spain. He got no takers on that.  A few years after his self-imposed exile he returned to the United States and practised law and dabbled in some land speculation schemes until he died from complications from a stroke at 80.

Burr had fought in the American Revolution, attaining the rank of Colonel at a very young age.  He took part in then-American General Benedict Arnold's invasion of Canada in 1775-6 (which failed to capture Quebec City and later withdrew after months of an ineffectual siege) and also was briefly an aide to George Washington.  Burr and Washington never got along. .

Burr  resigned from the army in 1779 due to ill health caused by injuries and sun stroke mainly from the Battle of Monmouth Court House in New Jersey.   He began to practice law and built himself a power base in New York City, founding the first powerful city machine in the new country, Tammany Hall, and later creating a bank for immigrants, housing projects and a safe water supply piped into the city from Upper Manhattan Island.

Burr played no direct role in the creation of the federal government at the Constitutional Convention in 1787.    He built a localized power  base instead.   As Gore Vidal, the author of the excellent historical novel "Burr" (1973) pointed out, he was perhaps the first  modern politician, coaxing support from the largely under-represented urban groups in New York state.  It would be another twenty years before full male white suffrage would come to America during the era of Andrew Jackson.

 Back to the election of  1800. He did form an alliance with Thomas Jefferson of the Democratic-Republican Party against the Federalist party led by Alexander Hamilton (Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington) and the Second President of the United States, John Adams.   When Jefferson and Burr tied for the Presidency in 1800, the Federalists swung their votes to Jefferson after three dozen ballots in the House of Representatives.

 Burr's "adventures" in the western territories began only after he was left out of hope for the Presidency by President  Jefferson, knew he would be dropped from the ticket in the latter's second term, and was defeated for Governor of New York by a Federalist candidate in 1804, helped in part back attacks by Hamilton.   Thus it was Jefferson's going back on his bargain with Aaron Burr that led indirectly to the death of the Virginian's old adversary in George Washington's cabinet, General Hamilton.

Dueling was hardly unusual back then ,although it was illegal in the many northern states. The second point is more interesting; exactly what was it that Aaron Burr was up to in 1807 out "west" (i.e., the Trans Appalachian territory of the United States?  Did he mean to annex the newest parts of the republic for himself and some of his "Little Band" as they were called, or was he simply anticipating a war with Spain over Texas and Mexico and was headed south to recruit money and ships to take advantage of anti-Spanish hostility?  Was he really a traitor (he was never convicted)  or simply an adventurer who happened to be mad at Jefferson for not keeping the bargain the Virginian had made in 1800 to support Burr for President after his term (s) in office were over?

This is some of the background to the so-called "Burr Conspiracy", courtesy of a  History Channel website article by Martin Gottlieb:

"A colonel in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, Burr began his “conspiracy” by pressing two schemes: First, he met with the fussy British minister Anthony Merry, proposing to sever the United States’ western territories from Washington by exploiting the unhappy inhabitants of the region acquired through the Louisiana Purchase. All he needed was help from the British Navy. Second, he continued his designs on attacking Spanish-held land: an invasion of Mexico, Texas, or perhaps both. With word spreading about both aims, the former military leader pushed over the Appalachians, reached Pittsburgh, boarded a large boat, and with all the subtlety of a circus parade floated his plans—which now included a third option of invading Spanish-held Florida—down the Ohio River, the Mississippi, and finally into New Orleans. Andrew Jackson and others along the route, viewing Burr as the champion of Western rights, embraced the plan to invade Spanish territory. Burr soaked up more approval as he worked his way back east and plotted his next move.

"Although he garnered acclaim in the west, citizens along the Atlantic Coast viewed the trip with suspicion. The land beyond the Appalachians was filled with conflicting loyalties and aspirations. Newly acquired New Orleanians particularly resented the intrusions of the American government, and Westerners chafed under the remote national government’s dictates. When farmers in the mountains mobilized against the Union during the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, federal troops crushed a potential secession. Frontier borders with Spain and England were vague, and worries emerged as Burr tapped into the increasingly restless pioneer energy. By the late summer of 1805, Philadelphia’s influential Federalist newspaper The Gazette of the United States wondered, “How soon will the forts and magazines in all the military ports at New Orleans and on the Mississippi be in the hands of Col. Burr’s revolution party?” Accusations of treason, possibly spurred by Spain’s ambassador, spread across the nation."
(read more at the link below)

Whatever the verdict of historians, Aaron Burr has to count as one of the most fascinating and perhaps unfairly maligned figures in early American history.  It wasn't that he was a saint, but consider the behavior of those who also sought and attained power in his day.  

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