Where Was Aaron Burr?* (First Essay)
Bill Long 10/28/07
From Mid-December 1800 to Mid- February 1801
[*This essay should be read in conjunction with the series on the Election of 1800.]
When it was first reported by the National Intelligencer, a Washington newspaper, on Dec. 12, 1800 that neither Adams nor Pinckney had received a single electoral vote from SC, anyone who could add realized that Jefferson and Burr most likely earned more than the required 70 electoral votes to be named President. Burr's numbers were uncertain, however, because he knew that several electors from the South had not voted for him when they cast votes for Jefferson in 1796--and that maybe this would be repeated in 1800. Others believed that party discipline, which really didn't exist in 1796, would remain strong and Burr and Jefferson would tie in the electoral balloting. If they tied, the House of Representatives, meeting on Feb. 11, 1801, would choose the next President.
Thus, from mid-December 1800 until the House finally elected Jefferson on its 36th ballot on February 17, 1801, the spotlight was really on Aaron Burr. What would he do? If, as became clear by the end of Dec., he had the same number of electoral votes as Jefferson, would he take the "humble pie" approach and decline all interest in the Presidency? Would he subtly try to work behind the scenes for his own election? Would he just "wait this one out" and let the political process make its own selection? Especially since Burr was a man whom even George Washington had called a man of "intrigue," one might have expected all kinds of subtle machinations from Burr. This and the next essay describe what he did in these crucial two months.
My thesis is that Burr went through three "stages" of reaction: (1) Disclaiming Interest in Being President (Dec. 15-Jan. 1), (2) Searching out Possible Federalist Support for a Presidential Bid (Jan. 1-Jan. 15), and (3) Retreating to Albany, NY and Absenting Himself from the Process (Jan. 15-Feb. 17). The result of all this was that Jefferson was elected President and, rather than leaving others grateful for his "statesmanship," Burr left both Federalists and Republicans livid at him. The Federalists thought they had wasted their time on him and the Republicans were angry because he didn't unequivocally say at the outset that he was only interested in the Vice-Presidency. In a sense, then, his reaching the 2nd highest office in the land was the beginning of his political downfall.
At age 45 (he was born in 1756), his political wave had crested. It would reach further lows through the "pamphlet wars" in 1802-04, his victory over Hamilton in their July 11, 1804 duel at Weehawken and his three year plot, capture and treason trial from 1804-07. Aaron Burr was not found guilty of a crime in the duel nor was he convicted of treason, but he was so roundly scorned in the country after 1807 that he had to exile himself to Europe for several years until he could even return and live in peace. Until OJ Simpson in 1995, Aaron Burr was the American who was most vilified after being found not guilty of committing significant crimes. Now, the details.
I. Stage One--The "Cooperative" Burr
Until the uncertainty over Burr's electoral vote total was resolved, he took the following attitude, as captured in a Dec. 16, 1800 letter to General Samuel Smith of Maryland--a Republican Congressman and friend of both Burr and Jefferson:
"It is hightly improbable that I should have an equal number of votes with Mr. Jefferson; but if such should be the result, every man who knows me ought to know that I would utterly disclaim such competition. Be assured that the federal party can entertain no wish for such an exchange. As to my friends, they would dishonour my views and insult my feelings by a suspicion that I would submit to be instrumental in counteracting the wishes and expectations of the United States..."
This letter seems pretty certain, doesn't it? But is there some "wiggle room" in it? I think so. The context is the "improbability" of an equal number of votes with Jefferson. Even though "every man who knows me" would think that Burr would disclaim a competition with Jefferson, he doesn't say anything of what Aaron Burr himself would do. He, like Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID), knew how to leave small loopholes in a statement [didn't you think that if the MN judge refused to re-open Larry Craig's case that Craig would resign? But re-read his statement closely; he doesn't say that explicitly...]
Jefferson wrote to Burr during this time and he tried to downplay a possible tie between the two. He said, before the report of SC's electoral votes came in,
"It is said that they [the SC Electors] would withdraw from yourself one vote. It has also been said that a General Smith of TN had declared that he would give his second vote to Mr. Gallatin [who ended up becoming Jefferson's Treasury Secretary]...it is also surmised that the vote of Georgia will not be entire. Yet nobody pretends to know these things of a certainty [but]...we know enough to be certain that [you have] four or five votes at least above Mr. Adams," (quoted in Lomask, Aaron Burr, vol. 1, p. 272).
Notice what Jefferson is trying to do. Under the guise of encouraging Burr ('you have 4 or 5 more votes than Adams), he is also trying to tell his running mate not even to entertain the hope that he has the same number of electoral votes as Jefferson. Thus, the message is, 'be happy that you will be Vice-President.'
When it became common knowledge around the end of Dec. that Jefferson and Burr each had 73 electoral votes, General Smith decided he would take matters into his own hands. He decided to publish Burr's Dec. 16 letter to him, and so it appeared on Dec. 30 in the mouthpiece of the Federalists, in the Washington Federalist. By having it published, Smith wanted to put to rest once and for all any speculation that any might have that Burr might want the Presidency.
But then, as often happens, things backfired on General Smith. The next essay describes that process.