January 12, 2013

Counterfactual history - President Aaron Burr

Crazy idea for  the man who "murdered Alexander Hamilton," eh?

But, had he wanted the presidency in 1800 (he did NOT "grasp for it," a great triple biography reviewed just below shows) American history might have been a lot different. First, the review, then I'll pick up the train of thought further about how President Burr might have been different for America than President Jefferson.


Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in CharacterBurr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character by Roger G. Kennedy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a good re-evaluation for the better of Aaron Burr, basically freeing him from 200 years of accretion of the ... well, the lies that Thomas Jefferson had his minions spread about him. It also fits well in some recent columns and essays about Jefferson who, as Kennedy notes, was the first explicitly lying president, and able to be believed, anyway, by following on Washington, definitely, and also on Adams. And, we get dollops of Hamilton playing off of both.

First, Kennedy established that, when the electorally tied 1800 election went to Congress, Burr did nothing to "angle" for election himself. (It's well known that Hamilton worked against him.)

That said, Kennedy points out that, had Burr wanted the position it could have been his. Burr got electoral votes in 1792 and 96 as well as 1800. In the first two cases, many were in the South. In 1800, Jefferson’s agents specifically fought against this. Related to this,  Burr had Federalist as well as anti-Federalist friends, esp. in New York, and including John Jay. Hamilton, Burr, Jay worked together on abolition in New York as part of that.

A lot of the enmity went back to the Revolution. Burr was mistrusted by Washington due to his assn. with Gates and his clique, before, during and after Saratoga. Hamilton used this when Washington was prez to poison him against Burr. John Marshall was in the army at Valley Forge, as were Hamilton, and Washington. Marshall, as chief justice, presided over Burr's treason trial in 1807. All of the above, remembering Jefferson's "runaway" governorship of Virginia, had reason to disdain him.

A lot of Hamilton’s envy toward Burr may have been “projection,” Kennedy says, and makes a good case for this. He also hints that Hamilton may have seen the duel as a chance for "suicide by opponent" along with one last bit of revenge, having wrecked Burr's chance at the presidency, his chance at New York's governorship earlier in 1804, and before that, John Adams' presidency.

In any case, Burr’s post-duel plans in the Louisiana Territory, as an abolitionist, may have been part of why Jefferson was even further “set” against him. Jefferson himself had designs on  both the Floridas and Mexico himself, after all. But, with a chance to reset the "New World Order" in Louisiana, to meet the idealism of the Declaration and make it slave free, Jefferson took a pass.

But, that's not now. Kennedy informs us that Jeffersons’s Northwest Ordinance anti-slavery petition applied only to **new govts**  in the area. Given that, pre-Constitution, Virginia claimed the entire Old Northwest, as well as the future Kentucky, it was therefore largely vacuous.

There's lot more like this, combined with a "hail, reader" style of writing by Kennedy that I find generally ingratiating.

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OK, first, Burr would have bought Louisiana just like Jefferson. He probably would have created some expedition similar to Lewis and Clark up the Missouri, as well as Zebulon Pike up the Arkansas. He might have been more aggressive than Jefferson on trying to get East Florida, West Florida, or both from Spain.

And, he would have worked for a "reset of the New World Order," with Louisiana being admitted as a free state. He might even have encouraged it, like northern states at the time, to allow free blacks to vote. (They generally only lost or had restricted this right from the 1830s on.) Slavery would have been put on a path to eventual extinction.

That would have forced the South to look at diversifying its economy, including a mechanical cotton picker of some sort, perhaps.

Also, if Jefferson were defeated, we would have no "Virginia dynasty" of presidents. Madison might well have followed Burr, and out from under a Jeffersonian presidential shadow, done better than he did.

And, we wouldn't have had Jefferson's "Embargo," but Burr might have stood up to Britain even more, earlier, than Congressional "War Hawks."

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