Aaron Burr & the Future of the VP

I really should have started this blog on July 11, it was the 204th anniversary of a seminal moment in the evolution of the Vice Presidency – the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

The story is told in many places and there was lots of bad blood between the two men. Burr apparently held Hamilton responsible both for robbing him of the Presidency in the election of 1800 and ruining his chances in the 1804 New York gubernatorial race. It is possible it was all an “honor” thing in which – like most duels of the day – everyone was supposed to fire blindly, miss and make-up.

Things didn’t go according to plan. Hamilton had actually been involved in about a dozen duels (10 as principle), but all of which were resolved without any actual shooting. But his son died in a duel. Burr did not stick to the script, he actually shot Hamilton, who died 36 hours later. It is possible that Burr panicked – it is also possible he really hated Hamilton.

At the time dueling was illegal, but tolerated in some places (such as New Jersey, where the duel was fought.)

The unseemly political fight combined with the duel itself destroyed Burr’s political career. He was charged with, but never tried for, Hamilton’s murder. He finished his term as Vice President, but was later charged with treason for some sort of bizarre plan to start an independent state in the Louisiana territory. Again, he was never tried.

The big question is what this did to the evolution of the office? The first VP, John Adams tried to establish the office – and failed. The Senate didn’t like him and Washington gave lip service to giving him a role, but didn’t really follow through. The office had no institutional base and was not well-positioned. Did the Burr fiasco condemn the role to second-raters? Under Jefferson and for the two administrations after him, Secretary of State was the figure being groomed for the Presidency – not the VP. Because of its weakness, but legal proximity to the Presidency, the office might have seemed a potential magnet for schemers – thus guaranteeing that nothing would be done to enhance the role.

Or maybe, no one saw any need for a powerful Vice President, when Senators answered their own correspondence, Presidents didn’t have bodyguards, and government overall didn’t do all that much governing.

SIDENOTE – After the Biblical Aaron (Moses’ brother) Aaron Burr was the first famous person I learned about who shared my name. So I always had a soft-spot for him. Maybe I was fated to write about the VP. The Biblical Aaron played second-fiddle in his career too. He however, was known as a peace-maker – Aaron Burr, most assuredly was not.

I was pleased to learn, a bit later on, about Henry Aaron, baseball great and health care policy analyst. Imagining excelling in such two different fields!

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  1. “Speaking” of names and “Aaron” -Moses once told God that he might not be the ideal person to spread HIS Word since he was not an eloquent speaker. (Moses had a speech impediment.) Well, God said, “Okay, I’ll send your brother, Aaron, to be your spokeman. Thus, Aaron ended up speaking for Moses. (Ex. 4:10-16). William O’ Casey also had a funny speech impediment. Whenever he speaks at the cabinet meetings, no one — least of which Reagan, understands what he’s trying to convey. Demosthenes, the Greek orator, had a speech problem, too. He had to practice speaking with small stones in his mouth before he addressed the Greek assembly which was a tough crowd. Back to the discussion of Vice Presidents, in particular, Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton was a hugely flawed, hugely talented man who did let his emotions get the best of him. To this day, I would like to know what the heck was he doing that morning on the Plains of Weehawken with Aaron Burr shooting at each other like a couple of drunken children.
    Kelly Yip

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