Thursday, January 28, 2016

A timely rediscovery of Aaron Burr

Dear Hannah,

Nearly everyone knows that Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton, but almost nobody knows that Burr was wanted for murder while he was the vice president.  Few people are aware that Aaron Burr was even the vice president at all; and fewer would expect, given the historically serene nature of contemporary politics, that an American vice president has ever been wanted for murder while in office.  Nixon nearly went to prison for eavesdropping.  Bill Clinton was impeached over a series of consensual blow-jobs.  Because of the Hamilton affair, Burr was wanted by two states on charges of homicide.  He essentially spent part of his vice-presidency in hiding.

Even stranger than all of these relations is that Aaron Burr was very nearly our third president instead of Thomas Jefferson, who despised Burr's lack of character despite their being in the same political party.  Burr had been known, as biographer Ron Chernow notes, for his lack of any serious political principles.  He was known for his complete disregard for the sanctity of marriage, and even more infamous for his disregard for the sanctity of trust.  He lived in great debt, eventually went by a pseudonym, and was officially charged (and acquitted) by Jefferson of treason.

Other than Hamilton's death, there was a particular instance which sealed his infamy.  In the post-colonial era of the early republic, a deadly contagion might sweep across our coast and cause everyone to barricade their towns against outsiders.  Thousands would die in waves not unlike those experienced in the Middle Ages; men with carts were shuffling dead bodies around to cries of bring out your dead.   Armed men blocked streets.  Almost all commerce stopped.  Well-intentioned doctors bled their patients to death, and everyone feared that associating with his closest friends could possibly lead to the loss of his family.

It was in light of this fearful climate that a proposal was made to establish a water-works in Manhattan and thereby improve sanitation -- a proposal which quickly gained the approval of the public.  The plan was presented by Aaron Burr to Alexander Hamilton, and from Hamilton's noble soul to the fearful public.  But unbeknownst to Hamilton, the entire effort was an attempt to establish a bank -- a bank intended to fund and support Burr's anti-federalist political allies (who happened to be Hamilton's enemies).  At the last moment, right before the bill was to be passed, Burr slipped in a clause which gave him the right to mismanage the funds, and siphoned the money that could have saved neighbors' lives entirely toward his own political purposes.  It made Burr the pariah of both parties, while the republicans quietly accepted the political advantages resulting from it.  And this was public before Aaron Burr nearly defeated Thomas Jefferson in a presidential election.

The reason all this is worth mentioning is because a lot of people have been saying that Donald Trump will be the end of the Republican Party.  But someone who believes in reincarnation might easily be led to believe he was there for the beginning of it.  He appears unprincipled and untrustworthy; a man fueled less by spiritual conviction and more by avarice and ambition.  We have been here before, and we have left it behind only to find it again.  The political opportunist, like the scammer and the prostitute, seems to be a permanent fixture on the world-stage of history.  Donald Trump's character as a political figure has yet to be proved.  His character as a private figure suggests that we are in for a disappointment.

I don't believe that Donald Trump is the worst candidate in the world.  In certain respects he may even be the best.  In terms of honesty, he appears superior to Burr.  As an entire picture, he's better than any of the Democrats.  What I'm saying is that if it comes down to Jefferson and Burr, we have to be the kind of people who are ready for and deserving of Jefferson.  However highly we think of our ancestors, the truth is that they nearly weren't.  The question we have to ask ourselves is, why do we deserve better?  The answer ought to be, because we are better people.

As our ancestors proved, there is no inevitable slide into immorality.  Shy of the darkening of the universe and the Last Judgment, there is no irreversible trend of history.  We make history.  We have choices to make -- not about others, but about ourselves.  We have the ability to be the kind of people who can only be represented by the best kinds of people.  The only people standing in the way of the Republican Party are the Republicans.  The only reason we're led by anyone like Burr is because some of us aren't ready to be led by a Jefferson.

I don't believe, to steal the words of the immortal Chesterton, that we're pessimistic enough to believe the best men always rise to the top.  Americans are optimists at heart, and an optimist isn't anyone who believes we have it best.  An optimist celebrates the immensity of our squandered goodness.  An optimist knows that where we are isn't the best place to be, and that it isn't where we have to stay.  So it's been said that our best days are behind us -- and by whom?  It's been said that our children will be our salvation -- and why not us?  Everyone wants to make the best children, but nobody's convinced they can first save the parents.  Whether we look backward or forward, we find ourselves cowardly avoiding the present.

My challenge -- not to anyone but myself -- is to be worthy of great leaders and manly liberty.  I may not be able to refuse Donald Trump, but I refuse to be the kind of person who deserves him.  The problem with America's conservatives is that they think too highly of themselves to get any better.  Anyone who misses the founding fathers ought to make himself like one.  Anyone who wants the best Americans ought himself to be the best of the Americans.  We've all heard women complaining that there aren't any good men out there.  It should seem highly suspicious that none of the complaints are coming from great women.

Your father,

P.S.  I've recently heard a lot of people saying that Donald Trump is very similar to Hitler, which is a very unfair accusation to make -- both to Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler.  It's unfair to Trump because Trump lacks the villainy of the Nazi vision.  But it's even more unfair to Hitler, because trump lacks the tainted virtues of the Germans.  Neither Donald Trump nor the Americans have the appreciation for rhetoric and philosophy and willpower of the Germans.  We don't even believe in ourselves enough to be the Germans.   The only reason anyone thinks Donald Trump is a Nazi is because they've never heard of Silvio Berlusconi.  We aren't like the old Germans at all.  We're the most embarrassing of the Italians.  People say that Donald Trump represents New York values, but they would do better to say he represents Jersey Shore.

I would also like to add that there's a possibility that Trump may be an excellent president -- as there was the possibility that Henry V turned out to be a great king.  Winston Churchill, a man of indomitable virility and genius, changed parties twice and was generally considered (as William Manchester noted in his masterful biography) to be someone whom everyone was watching, but nobody wanted to follow.  He lacked the public's confidence.  He lost more elections than anyone else during his generation.  He was unquestionably a better man than Trump, but nobody knew it until we needed him.  Churchill proves it's possible to lack confidence in the right man until the right time.  Churchill proves that our greatest heroes are very possibly a surprise.


  1. "The reason all this is worth mentioning is because a lot of people have been saying that Donald Trump will be the end of the Republican Party. But someone who believes in reincarnation might easily be led to believe he was there for the beginning of it."

    A quibble: Burr's Republican Party is the Democratic Party of our time -- and its stripes have not changed since then ... it *still* exists to siphon off monies extracted from the public to well-connected cronies.

  2. As for being "worthy of Jefferson" ... he wasn't much better than Burr; the man was a weasel. What we should aspire to be is worthy of a Hamilton or a Washington.

  3. "Burr's Republican Party ..."

    These days, we call Burr's and Jefferson's party the "Anti-Federalists", but *they* called themselves the "Republicans". And a major reason they called themselves that was to keep before the public's mind their calumny that the Federalists were monarchists who were secretly plotting to re-impose a king on us.

    [Jefferson] was a weasel.

    One example: Jefferson was Washington’s Secretary of State; Jefferson hated Alexander Hamilton; when the two men offered Washington conflicting opinions on some matter of policy, Washington almost always went with Hamilton’s opinion (which was generally backed up with facts and figured and tight reasoning, whereas Jefferson’s was generally the opposite). So, rather than working to present stronger arguments to Washington, Jefferson began to use his position to secretly undermine Washington – he didn’t’ even have enough honor to publicly oppose Washington, much less to resign his position.

  4. In the 1800 election some states did not have a popular election for President. In Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Georgia and South Carolina the electors were selected by the legislature. The Constitution allows each State Legislature to determine how it selects the Electors. And those States which had popular elections were of two types: a general winner-take-all election, or an election by electoral district. The tactical politics of the year had States switching formats to achieve desired outcomes.