Aaron Burr, Fallen Angel

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:56

    The charm that had borne him up remained potent: an old friend and longtime political opponent, Robert Troup, lent him $10 and a law library. He rented space at 9 Nassau St. He took out some newspaper advertisements. He ordered a small tin sign, "brightly lacquered," according to Milton Lomask, bearing his name, and tacked it to the outside wall. When he arrived to open his office on the morning of July 5, a line of clients awaited him.

    Hundreds more would follow. Within 12 days, his receipts totaled a staggering $2000. "However the inhabitants of New York viewed?the man," Lomask wrote, "they had not forgotten the skills of?the advocate." Thus, at 56, Aaron Burr resumed the practice of law.

    He was born Feb. 6, 1756, in Newark. He entered Princeton in the sophomore class at 13, took his degree with distinction at 16, and even spoke at commencement. He was elegant from youth: small, slender, broad-shouldered and handsome.

    He had fine taste in clothes, as unpaid tailors on two continents would attest. His manners were exquisite, his conversation never palled and whether in the courtroom or the United States Senate, he spoke quietly and conversationally, without bombast or literary allusion. He strove to see things as they are, not as they ought to be, and possessed a massive savoir faire: "dexterity enough to conceal the truth, without telling a lie; sagacity enough to read other people's countenances; and serenity enough not to let them discover anything by yours." He fought for American independence at the battles of Quebec, Brooklyn and Morningside Heights. He was a lieutenant colonel at 21, wintered at Valley Forge, had a horse shot from under him at Monmouth on June 28, 1778.

    The man of pleasure once singlehandedly suppressed a mutiny in his regiment. A ringleader leveled his musket at Burr, shouting, "Now is the time, my boys." The last syllable had barely left his lips when Burr's saber severed his arm just above the elbow. There were no more mutinies.

    During his service, he met Theodosia Prevost, the wife of a British officer serving in the West Indies, who lived in Bergen County. Burr wrote that Mrs. Prevost possessed "the truest heart, the ripest intellect, and the most winning manners of any woman" he ever met. She spoke French fluently, frequently quoted the Latin poets and read avidly. Burr admired her greatly. She responded with warmth and friendship. Her husband died in 1781. She married Burr the following year. Nothing so testifies to Theodosia Prevost's character, charm and intelligence than that this sensual, cynical man was her faithful husband. More, though Burr was a feminist by instinct?he admired Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women?his marriage made his beliefs heartfelt. He was among the first practical politicians?and Burr was nothing if not practical?to work for women's education on a par with men. "It was a knowledge of your mind," he wrote to her, "which first inspired me?the ideas which you have often heard me express in favor of female intellectual powers are founded on what I have?seen?in you." She died in 1794 after 12 years of marriage.

    In 1782, he was admitted to the New York bar. He was elected to the Legislature in 1784, where he fought to abolish slavery, and appointed attorney general in 1789. Within two years, he was a United States senator.

    Burr worked hard without taking politics seriously. For him, it was the pursuit of "fun and honor & profit." This earned the antipathy of Thomas Jefferson, who took politics almost as seriously as he did himself. Yet the Virginian and Burr needed each other. Burr controlled the country's first mass party organization: the Society of St. Tammany. If Thomas Jefferson was the Democrats' first ideologue, Burr was their first mechanic.

    In 1800, the Jeffersonians nominated Burr for vice president and his troubles began. Presidential electors then voted for two candidates without specifying a preference for president and for vice president. The candidate receiving the most votes became president; the second-place candidate became vice president. Jefferson and Burr tied with 73 votes each. The election went to the House of Representatives. The Federalists, who detested Jefferson, tried electing Burr instead. The House elected Jefferson president and Burr vice president only after 36 ballots.

    Jefferson froze Burr out and withheld patronage from his followers. In the spring of 1804 Burr, knowing he would not be renominated for vice president, ran for governor of New York. Alexander Hamilton, former secretary of the Treasury, had come to hate Burr, and Hamilton's rage was reflected in his intensely personal campaigning, which included indiscreet personal remarks reported in the newspapers. Burr was heavily defeated.

    Burr seized upon correspondence published in the Albany Register. Dr. Charles Cooper wrote, "General Hamilton and Judge Kent have declared, in substance, that they looked upon Mr. Burr to be a dangerous man," and "I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Burr." Burr requested an "acknowledgment or denial" of the "still more despicable opinion" of himself attributed to Hamilton. Two days later, Hamilton evasively replied with a dissertation on the meaning of "despicable." Burr responded that "...the Common sense of mankind" affixed to the word "the idea of dishonor." He then demanded Hamilton generally disavow "any intention?to convey impressions derogatory" to Burr's honor.

    Hamilton was trapped. This meant denying most of his political conversations, speeches and correspondence for nearly two decades. Hamilton now feebly offered that he could not recall using any term that would justify Dr. Cooper's construction. Burr again demanded a disclaimer. Hamilton refused. On June 27, 1804, Burr challenged and Hamilton accepted. On Wednesday, July 11, at 7 a.m., the two men stood 10 paces apart on the Weehawken shore, pistols in hand. Hamilton missed. Burr did not.

    Burr was indicted for murder in New York and in New Jersey. While his lawyers and friends worked to quash the indictments, he returned to Washington, where he resumed his duties as vice president. On March 1, 1805, his last day in public office, Burr rose before a hall of professional politicians familiar with every rhetorical device, many of whom despised him. Without changing his customary conversational tone, he spoke briefly of the United States and the Senate itself, "a sanctuary; a citadel of law, of order, and of liberty." He implored Divine protection upon the Constitution, and then, having spoken from the heart, stepped down, walked across the chamber and went out the door. Behind him, the Senate sat in absolute silence, profoundly moved.

    Even before leaving office, Burr had begun a conspiracy. Precisely what Burr planned remains "a mystery, a puzzle, a lock without a key," in Lomask's phrase. He told his official biographer, Matthew L. Davis, the scheme he called "X" was intended to "revolutionize Mexico" and settle some lands he held in Texas. Perhaps it was. But the legends remain, and the papers tantalize: the maps of New Orleans, Veracruz and the roads to Mexico City, and the correspondence hinting he would not liberate but seize Mexico, draw the Western states from the Union and, combining them into one nation, stand at the throne of the Aztecs and crown himself Emperor of the West. "The gods invite us to glory and fortune," Burr wrote to his coconspirator, Gen. James Wilkinson. John Randolph of Roanoke, most ferocious of politicians, called Wilkinson "the mammoth of iniquity?the only man I ever saw who was from the bark to the very core a villain." Wilkinson, whose self-designed uniforms, encrusted with gold braid and frogging, failed to conceal his massive girth, was then general-in-chief of the U.S. Army. He was also a paid agent of Spain.

    At some point, Wilkinson told President Jefferson everything. On Nov. 27, 1806, Jefferson issued a proclamation that led to the collapse of the plot, Burr's arrest and his indictment for treason by levying war against the United States. Burr was tried in Richmond before Chief Justice John Marshall, Jefferson's third cousin (they detested each other). The United States attorney insinuated during the trial that Marshall would be impeached if he did not rule for the prosecution on the evidentiary motions. Marshall noted the threat in his decision. He then excluded all evidence presented by the government as "merely corroborative and incompetent." Within 25 minutes, the jury found Burr not guilty.

    He had beaten the treason rap and quashed the murder indictments. Now, in a self-imposed exercise in discretion, Burr left for Europe, not to return for four years. At first, he sought financial support for "X" from the British and the Spanish. Nothing came of it. From the exile's beginning, Burr recorded his experiences in his private journal, in which he reveals himself as nowhere else. Perhaps its saddest revelations are that this vital, charming man was so easily bored. Yet, as Lomask writes, "There was a limit to how many parties he could attend, how many ceremonies he could watch, how many books he could read, how many bright and articulate people he could draw within the radiant circle of his charm." He devoted increasing energies to fornication, with prostitutes if necessary. Lomask notes he described his amatory encounters as muse, "a French hunting term meaning 'the beginning of the rutting season in animals.'" Yet some principles remained untainted despite boredom and lack of money. He never descended to drinking cheap wine.

    After his return to the United States, he only dabbled in politics. In 1812, he was pulling strings for "an unknown man in the West, named Andrew Jackson, who will do credit to a commission in the army if conferred upon him." When Jackson became president in 1829, Samuel Swartwout, whose hospitality Burr had enjoyed on his return from exile, was appointed collector of the Port of New York with Burr's help. As M.R. Werner relates, Swartwout later "hurried to Europe when his accounts showed that he had borrowed from the government's funds?the sum of $1,225,705.69? The public, with that charming levity which has always characterized its attitude towards wholesale plunder, made the best of a bad situation by coining a new word?when a man put the government's money into his own pocket, it was said?he had 'Swartwouted.'"

    In July of 1833, Burr married Eliza Jumel, probably the richest American woman of the time, for her money. A year and twelve days later, she began divorce proceedings on the grounds of adultery, a remarkable, even heartening charge against a man of 78. On Sept. 14, 1836, the old man died in a second-floor room at the Hotel St. James, 2040 Richmond Terrace in Port Richmond, Staten Island. Two days later, he was buried by his father and grandfather in Princeton, NJ. Lomask wrote, "For nearly twenty years the grave went unmarked. Then a relative arranged for the installation of a simple marble slab."