Under the old system of conducting presidential elections, that candidate who received the highest number of votes became President, the next Vice-President. Mr. Jefferson in 1796 had not been a candidate for the second place; nobody had voted for him to be Vice-President; yet he took the vice-presidency, because that was the law. He and John Adams had each striven for the presidency, while other candidates contested the second place. Yet neither of the candidates whom the people had voted for as Vice-President was allowed to serve. Such was the law, and it should be remembered in gaging the moral guilt of Aaron Burr.
Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr in the campaign of 1800 received 73 votes each; John Adams, on the opposition ticket, had 65. Thus the election was thrown into the House, and the law plainly directed that a President should be chosen by the House from the candidates who had received the highest number of votes. Apparently the makers of the Constitution intended to vest the House with some discretion. The area of this discretion was limited, but it was there. Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams acted upon this idea when they afterward combined to defeat the will of the people, and to oust the majority candidate, Andrew Jackson. They were punished politically for this combination, but history has not placed Clay and Adams in her Rogues' Gallery.
Now in 1800 the custom as to presidential elections was not settled. By law, the electoral colleges were vested with the power of choosing for President and Vice-President men whose names had not been before the people at all. The Hamiltonian anti-Democratic plan gave them this power for the express purpose of depriving "the great beast" of the right to choose its rulers. Only by the irresistible force of popular sentiment have the electors been made the mere registers of the will of the people.
In 1800 the ideas controlling the case were so vague that nobody claimed the election of Jefferson to the first place, and Burr to the second. Ballots did not specify for which place the presidential candidate had contested. Therefore the Republican ticket of 1800 was simply Jefferson and Burrrepresented by 73 votes in the electoral college.
These two names being the highest, the law required that they should both go before the House to be voted for as candidates for the presidency. Now, then, what ought Burr to have done? His party had not intended him for the presidencyno voter had so intended. Should he take the office by operation of law? If Congress chose to exercise its discretion and make him the President, should he accept?
That is the case, and the whole case. Jefferson had taken the office of Vice-President by operation of law, excluding the candidate who had been chosen by the people for that lower place. Should the rule work both ways?
A man of the nicest honor like John Jay or James Madison would not have hesitated. He would have spurned even the appearance of evil, would not have allowed his name used to defeat the will of the people, would not have allowed political enemies in Congress to thrust upon him an office which political friends had not intended to give. When Federalism resorted to strategy to divide and conquer the Republicans by elevating Burr over Jefferson, the simplest dictates of honor required that Burr should stand by his friends and help to defeat the plots of the enemy.
That he did not do so was his unpardonable sinunforgiven by his party and by the historian. He did not actively aid the Federalists. He stayed at Albany, where his daughter was about to marry,2 and where legislative duties engaged him. He wrote a letter repudiating the plot of the Federalists and declining to give aid to the intrigue. He may have meant that Federalism should consider him a Barkis who was willing, but there is no proof that he went further than that.
As to Hamilton, the record is positively painful. To see a really great man degrade himself to gratify a personal spleen is never an inspiring sight. During the previous campaign, Hamilton had exerted himself in a most treacherous, unscrupulous manner to have Pinckney, the Vice-presidential candidate on the Federalist ticket, come in ahead of John Adams.
Now that Federalism was snowed under, he set himself to sow discord between Jefferson and Burr. He wrote to that wily knave Oliver Wolcott a letter which is surely one of the meanest extant. After denouncing Burr for being bankrupt, Hamilton, who was himself insolvent, says in reference to Burr's supposed ambition to be President: "Yet it may be well to throw out a lure for him, in order to tempt him to start for the place, and then lay the foundation of disunion between the two chiefs." So it would seem that Burr needed tempting, required a lure, and the Federalists were to lay the net in order to bring about strife between Jefferson and Burr.
When it is borne in mind that it was the political strategy of the Federalists to play off one of these Republican chiefs against the other, and the only pretense of evidence we have against Burr as to his conduct at this time comes from Federalist sources, the whole case assumes a new aspect.
Had Burr been willing to go to Washington and canvass for the presidency, had he made the pledges which the Bayards of Federalism demanded, and which Jefferson's friends (unknown to Jefferson) did make, there can be no doubt that he would have been President of the United States. It only needed that he should crook his finger in the way of active self-help. And had Aaron Burr become President who can say that he would not have made a good oneas good as R. B. Hayes, for example?
There were turns in the tide of national fortunes during the next few years when his indomitable courage, his fertility of resource, his decision of character, his address and firmness, might have been infinitely valuable to his country. Let us deal justly with this man. His nature had in it the seeds of good and of evil, and when his fortunes became desperate he soured on a world which he thought had been too hard on him, and the evil of his nature developed. It made him a criminal, an outlaw, an Ishmaelite.
But who is so very wise as to know that, had success continued to reward his ambition, he would not have identified that ambition with the best interests of his native land?
Burr's ability was conceded. He had been a brilliant soldier. As New York's Attorney-General and as United States Senator his record was so good that his name had been voted for in the electoral colleges twice before this. By sheer force of will and intellect he had wrested New York from the Hamilton-Schuyler faction, in defiance of the money power and the ultra-British aristocracy. It was believed that his morals were loose, but there had been no sickening Maria Reynolds exposures about him, and his family relations were as beautiful as those of Jefferson himself.
It was thought that he was politically tricky, but nobody had accused him of betraying his own party. His tricks were weapons aimed at the opposition, and they were popular with the Republicans, for they had gained New York. He had never knifed a friend, as Hamilton and Wolcott stabbed John Adams. He had not tried to cut the ground from under the feet of his chief, as Hamilton had done in the recent campaign. He was a hard fighter, a fertile schemer, a selfish office-hunter, a man whose opinion of human nature was low. In other words, he was the earliest specimen of what afterward became recognized as a distinct typehe was a New York politician.
He founded Tammany, and set it going upon its missionheavenward or hellward, according to the point of view. Health and recreation were not his political objects. Patriotism and principles were not supposed to be disturbers of his slumbers. Politics was a game, its stakes the spoils of office. The loser got out; the winner got in. Against one's adversary all was fairfor it was war. Hard blows were to be given and taken, mines to be sprung and countermines detected; nets to be laid and snares avoided.
This was New York politics, mildly drawn, and the record shows that Burr was no whit worse than the average. So immoral had become the tone that Alexander Hamilton, wishing to shirk the French treaty of 1778, had argued to Washington that the change of government in France had annulled the contract, and wishing to set aside the presidential candidate already virtually chosen by the people of New York, had applied to Governor Jay to reconvene the old Federalist Legislature in extra session, so that a new election by districts could be ordered and the will of the people defeated. So far had the feet of reputable statesmen wandered from the path of common rectitude that Hamilton paid the husband of his paramour almost as regularly as he paid his cook, used Wolcott as a spy upon Adams, and entered upon a secret league with Miranda to draw Washington and the United States army into wild expeditions of conquest. . . .
In a letter to Burr, dated December 15, 1800, while congratulating the brilliant New Yorker on his election as Vice-President, Jefferson expresses a regret that he, Jefferson, will not have the benefit of Burr's services in his administrationevidently meaning the Cabinet. "I had endeavored to compose an administration whose talents, integrity, names, and dispositions should inspire unbounded confidence in the public mind, etc. I lose you from the list, etc."
Mr. Jefferson classes Burr among those men of integrity who inspired unbounded confidence in the public mind, and with whom he had expected to compose his Cabinet. And there is nothing in Jefferson's writings, written at this time or previous to this time, which is in contradiction to what he wrote Burr.
1From Watson's "Life of Jefferson." By permission of the publishers, D. Appleton & Co. Copyright, 1903. Mr. Watson, whose home is in Georgia, has served in Congress and been the candidate of the Populist Party for VicePresident (1896) and the candidate of the People's Party for President (1894). He has written a history of France and a life of Napoleon,
2 Theodosia Burr, who was afterward lost at sea off Hatteras.