September 14, 1836—On the same day his second wife was granted a divorce from him, 80-year-old Aaron Burr died at a hotel in Staten Island. The former Revolutionary War colonel, lawyer, U.S. Senator, and Vice President, who had moved with a rapidity through politics that startled and even angered his contemporaries, had, in the end, been stilled by a stroke suffered two years before.
It was characteristic of Burr that the last public episode involving him would be controversial. It was uncharacteristic that it would bear all the hallmarks of a Restoration comedy.
Burr had married Eliza Jumel while he was in his late 70s. He had lost his first wife nearly a half century before, charming a succession of women since then. Perhaps he hoped that Madame Jumel, believed to be the wealthiest woman in New York, would provide him an element of safe harbor.
As so often happened with this too-clever-by-half man, he was badly mistaken. He had grabbed onto a tigress, a woman described in this way: “born a bastard, in youth a prostitute, in middle age a social climber, died an eccentric.“ The marriage foundered within a year, as the couple quarreled over how rapidly Burr was running through her money.
Madame Jumel gave him a strong legal kick on the way out the door. A simple divorce wasn’t enough for her: she charged him with taking a 26-year-old woman as his mistress. She did so because the woman in question, Jane McManus, was at that point in New Orleans and, therefore, unable to appear in court to contest the charge.
At first, Burr had pleaded that he was too old to be guilty of adultery. It could be called a tribute to his virility that so many refused to accept that as an excuse.
At last, exhausted by the legal struggle, Burr did not contest the adultery charge, but he refused to admit it and declined to provide alimony.
Burr had as much intelligence and charm as any leader in the early American republic. But now, in the declining days of his life, he had set tongues wagging again.
This time, people asked how a smart lawyer such as himself could get into this kind of mess. Thirty years before, they had asked how he had fallen from power so precipitously. If his enemies were hardly the paragons of virtue posterity long believed, it remains the case that his own character, not their excesses, is why his legacy is so radically different from theirs.
None of this is to say, though, that he left no mark on the future republic. It just so happens that his DNA runs through methods rather than words or institutions.
''He is as far from a fool as I ever saw,'' Andrew Jackson said, ''and yet is as easily fooled as any man I ever knew.''
By the same token, it can be said, no man was in a better position to understand Burr than Andrew Jackson. Old Hickory had also killed a man in a duel. Moreover, Burr laid the groundwork for Jackson’s destruction of the deferential style of politics in which Americans had continually turned to aristocrats to lead them, from George Washington to John Quincy Adams.
But Jackson had survived his involvement in dueling. For all political intents and purposes, Burr had not. I think much of it had to do with the fact that most people judged, correctly, that Burr was too clever by half.
In a syndicated column from the 1970s, Garry Wills disputed President Richard Nixon’s comparison of himself with British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, instead likening him to Burr. The parallels that Wills underscored were strong, including that:
· Both men served in the U.S. Senate before ascending to the Vice-Presidency;
· Both men attracted enemies early on because of their no-holds-barred tactics;
· Both men, when out of public office, were highly skilled attorneys;
· Both men served as Vice-Presidents under older men regarded as national heroes;
· Both men, after losing their chance to go directly from Vice-President to the Presidency, entered close, bitterly fought, unsuccessful statewide races;
· Both men fell from power and spent the rest of their lives in disgrace.
In the years since the column appeared, other historians have also pursued this historical analogy, though perhaps in not the way Wills intended.
Most notably, both men have become the poster boys of historical revisionism, with their causes advanced, oddly enough, by the liberals who once despised them. The likes of Gore Vidal, Tom Wicker, and Howard Dean have praised Nixon for his foreign-policy prowess (especially in his overtures to Communist China) and even for a more benign attitude toward big government than his GOP successors would display. Burr is now praised not only for believing in the equality of women (he provided his beloved daughter with an education equal to any learned man's), but for opposing the hegemony of the “Virginia Dynasty” of the Democratic-Republicans Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe.
But there was a reason why the odor of disreputability clung so strongly, despite his best efforts, to this antic, elfin (he was hardly taller than our smallest President, Madison) figure: the meanings and intentions behind words were fungible to Burr. He did not like to openly commit to strategems lese his freedom of action be inhibited. Thus, he gave one set of people one thing to believe, another group something else.
After all these years, it is still impossible to say exactly what Burr was up to in the chain of events that landed him before the U.S. Supreme Court in a trial for treason. Burr escaped with his life at that point because Chief Justice John Marshall insisted on more legally rigorous evidence for treason than that favored by the Jefferson Administration.
Before he had alarmed Jefferson with his ambiguous adventures in the Western states and the Louisiana Territory, or disgusted the Virginian with his opportunistic, equivocal positions on whether he’d let the Federalists vote for him over Jefferson in the House of Representatives in the disputed election of 1800, Burr had proven that he could be very useful indeed to the Democratic-Republicans in New York, where he had used newly formed Tammany Hall to move the state out of the grasp of Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists.
It was Burr's genius to see the potential for a benevolent association to be refashioned into a political machine--one that, under later leaders, would be epitomize the boss system in the United States.
Burr represented “a new power in the government,” according to Henry Adams’ epic History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson: “for being in public and in private life an adventurer of the same school as scores who were then seeking fortune in the antechambers of Bonaparte and Pitt, he became a loadstone for every other adventurer who frequented New York or whom the chances of politics might throw into office. The Vice-president wielded power, for he was the certain centre of corruption.”
As discussed in Gustavus Myers' history of Tammany Hall, Burr's top lieutenants, who continued to worship their old chief, remained in power well into the late 1830s. Martin Van Buren, an early admirer of the Vice President, would use and expand on Burr's methods in forming his own version of the machine, the Albany Regency. Finally, once Irish emigrants took power in Tammany, they took the machine to its ultimate level.
Joseph J. Ellis' American Creation includes less than a page on Burr, but in the methods he used to build Tammany Hall, the little colonel helped create the democratic process we know so well in America today--one in which participation in voting and even public office is open to a wider range of people than simply the elites contemplated at the time of the Constitution. That same process, of course, has also left the system for more open to corruption and demagoguery.