It Happened Once Before

The other plot against America

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It has become a commonplace that President Donald Trump’s post-election fabrications, culminating in his speech to the mob that stormed the Capitol, amounted to acts of sedition unprecedented in American history – a loser seeking to overturn a democratically decided election.  In fact, a variation on the theme occurred once before in American history, so long ago that the episode has been almost entirely forgotten. Besides, like Trump’s perfidy, the earlier venture was unsuccessful.

I am thinking of Aaron Burr. His name is very familiar now to many people, however superficially, thanks to the success of the “Hamilton” musical. I bring him up not because he mortally wounded Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804, but because of his activities before and after that event. In particular, I have in mind the Burr Conspiracy, of 1804-1807.  Having been vice president of the United States during the first term of President Thomas Jefferson, Burr is the only other presidential aspirant to have behaved as badly as Trump.

Born in 1756, Burr graduated from Princeton University (his father was its president) and, after participating in the capture of Montreal, applied to George Washington and Alexander Hamilton for a commission in 1776. They declined. He served instead in New York for three years before retiring to practice law. Elected to the Senate in 1791, he ran for president in 1800 as a Democratic-Republican Party candidate, same as Jefferson.  Both men received 73 Electoral votes. John Adams, the incumbent, received 65. Burr considered that he was the winner.

After 36 ballots, the House of Representatives elected Jefferson president and Burr vice president. Burr was relegated to the sidelines, and the Twelfth Amendment, clarifying the process of selecting a president, was ratified four years later.  Jefferson acquired the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, Burr was defeated for governor of New York the same year. The duel with Hamilton took place in the summer of 1804.

Foreclosed from a political future, wanted for murder in several states, Burr opted for a plan first broached to him two months before by Gen. James Wilkinson, commander of the US garrison in New Orleans and newly appointed (by his friend Jefferson)  governor  of the Louisiana Territory. The basic outlines were these. Burr would raise a volunteer army in the west, using his friend’s New Orleans command as a base. With the aid of Anthony Merry, Great Britain’s ambassador to the United States, Great Britain would be enlisted as an ally. Wilkinson would dispatch to the southwest an expedition led by a protégé, Lt. (later Gen.) Zebulon Pike to provoke a war with Spain. Volunteers from all over the west would rally to the cause, and Burr and Wilkinson would take control of much of the American west, and perhaps Mexico in the bargain.

The plan fizzled.  The British Foreign Office declined the offer. Pike got lost and never found his way to Santa Fe (he discovered the Rocky Mountains instead and named Pikes Peak). On the verge of being discovered, Wilkinson betrayed his co-conspirator, and Burr was captured in 1807.  He was tried in federal court before Chief Justice John Marshall and acquitted of treason, on grounds that the war he had sought to precipitate never began. He left soon after Europe, but returned in to Manhattan in 1811 to practice law under an assumed name.  He died in 1836, in a rooming house, on Staten Island.

Historians have studied the matter carefully, most recently James E. Lewis Jr: The Burr Conspiracy: Uncovering the Story of an Early American Crisis (2017). Naturally, Burr has his defenders as well.  Readable books by two talented journalists lay out the details from different perspectives: Mr. Jefferson and the Gun Men: How the West Was Almost Lost (2000), by M.R. Montgomery; and  An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson (2007), Andro Linklater. In 1973, novelist Gore Vidal published Burr, one of series of historical novels, portraying his subject as a hero of his times.

The horizon of possibilities in 1804, never mind American culture then, is too different from the present day to permit any very direct comparison of one episode to the other. But the cast of characters of Trump’s presidency bear some resemblance to the lead actors of Burr’s misadventure: the ambitious general, Michael Flynn; the unprincipled owner of Fox News, Rupert Murdoch; the foreign enemy all too ready to lend a hand, Vladimir Putin; the motley army of self-styled “patriots” whose surge their commander-in-chief watched on TV. Whatever it was Trump hoped to achieve with his banquet of lies about the election, it was not very different from what Burr had in mind in his quest to become, as one author put it, an American Emperor.

The fact that the Burr Conspiracy is all but forgotten is reassuring.  America went on to face many greater perils after Burr was cast aside, and those greater crises became the fabric of its history.  So it will certainly be with Donald J. Trump. Two presidential-grade scoundrels in 250 years (and any number of two-bit rascals) doesn’t seems like a tendency to fragility, more like the inevitable luck of the draw. The scary thing is how close Trump came to being re-elected. Let that be the moral of the story, the basis of bipartisan discussions of political reform, and the future of the Republican Party.

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The fact that I know anything at all about Burr I owe mostly to my friend and former colleague M.R. Montgomery, who knew a good story when he saw one, and enjoyed telling one, too.  Like his several other good books, Mr. Jefferson and the Gun Men sold relatively few copies, but it pleased a small legion of fans and has a long shelf life. Monty is no longer here to enjoy its success, but you can if you like – from your local library, from Kindle, or with a second-hand copy. The book is about much more than the trivial low-lives whose doings give it both snap and charm.

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It turns out a familiar aspect of EP’s public broadcasting model won’t work on Substack: the lag between the bulldog edition’s arrival at midnight (EST) via email and weekly’s appearance early Sunday evening on the web. The platform offers only two options: Publish” – the weekly goes up on the web; and “Publish & Send” – the weekly appears on the web and goes to subscribers via email.

The Substack model depends on offering subscribers something more than that lag and the knowledges that many more persons will read the same news a few hours later. “Generally speaking,” the company says, “readers subscribe to paid newsletters because they want a closer connection.” EP traditionally has offered more-or-less quarterly reports on what goes on behind the scenes. Certainly he would continue with that.

But before taking the plunge, he’ll take another week or two to consider how much more to offer  of his “unfiltered experimental self” (if any!), in hopes of enticing new readers to sign up for more.