July 10, 2020
Last week, Disney+ released a film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s original Broadway production of “Hamilton.” July 11, marks the 216th anniversary of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr’s infamous duel in Weehawken, New Jersey.
Whether one’s understanding of the Burr and Hamilton feud was gleaned from history books or the Broadway stage, Hamilton cost Burr the presidency and that cost Hamilton his life.
In 1800, Thomas Jefferson was running for president and Burr vice president on the Democratic-Republican ticket against President John Adams, seeking reelection on the Federalist ticket. Because the Constitution did not distinguish between president and vice president in the votes cast by each state’s electors in the Electoral College, both Jefferson and his running mate Burr received 73 votes.
According to Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, if two candidates each received a majority of the electoral votes but are tied, the House of Representatives would determine which one would be president. As a result, the Federalist-controlled House of Representatives would select the president. This quirk in the Electoral College was later remedied by the 12th Amendment.
Although Hamilton, a Federalist, was no friend of Jefferson he wrote a letter to the House of Representatives zealously urging fellow Federalists to choose Jefferson over Burr.
Hamilton wrote “a man without theory cannot be a systematic or able statesman.” Burr is “more cunning than wise ... inferior in real ability to Jefferson.” Hamilton continued, “Great Ambition unchecked by principle ... is an unruly Tyrant.”
Jefferson became president and Burr vice president. In 1804, Burr killed Hamilton in a duel, but Burr’s story doesn’t end there.
Little more than three years later, in the summer of 1807, Burr was accused of treason, one of the gravest crimes in American law - punishable by death. How did a man who only a few years earlier was vice president end up on trial for treason?
Burr was disgraced by killing Hamilton and dropped from Jefferson’s reelection ticket. Burr then sought to raise a small army on the American frontier. It was alleged he planned to lead an independent campaign against Spanish-held territories in Texas and Mexico, but it was also possible that he planned to wrest a portion of the newly-acquired frontier from the United States. According to associates, Burr had sought to form a new western nation with himself as emperor.
Although it wasn’t entirely clear what Burr had been up to between 1804 and 1807, President Jefferson demanded that he be charged with treason. Burr fled toward what is now Florida. He was arrested in early 1807 in Wakefield, a town in Mississippi Territory. He was confined to a military fort and brought to Richmond, Virginia, for trial. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall presided over a trial that took prosecutors several months to present.
Burr’s lawyers presented a zealous defense. They argued that the definition of treason, outlined in the Constitution, required evidence of an “overt act” not just a plan or conspiracy. Chief Justice Marshall said that to prove treason, “war must actually be levied against the United States ... conspiracy is not treason.”
When Marshall ruled in favor of Burr’s interpretation of the law, the prosecution’s case unraveled, and the jury found Burr not guilty.
For several years after the trial, Burr lived in self-imposed exile in Europe. He returned to New York and resumed his law practice. He remarried late in life. His new wife was a wealthy widow who filed for divorce after only four months of marriage. She hired Alexander Hamilton Jr. to prosecute the divorce. Hamilton finalized the divorce on Sept. 14, 1836, the day Burr died.
It is a good thing Hamilton, Burr and Jefferson have become subjects of everyday conversation in the last half-decade - even if it’s because of a Broadway musical. It would be even better if their names were bantered about in 2020 because of independence, government, personal rights and presidential politics.
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