Monday, February 18, 2008

Almost-Presidents Day

When I was a still a student in the Atlanta Public Schools, we celebrated George Washington’s birthday, Feb. 22, and Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, Feb. 12. Now they have been consolidated into one Presidents Day, and I am unclear if we are honoring the Father of His Country, the one who Saved the Union, or just Presidents in general, those remembered, as well as the easily forgotten. I’ve always been partial to Lincoln, not a common hero in the South in which I was raised. Even today, I cannot see the great, monumental statue of the seated, brooding “O Captain, my Captain” at the end of the Washington Mall without getting a lump in my throat.

Nonetheless, if we are going to remember or even try to remember 40-something ex-Presidents, I think we should also consider having a special occasion when we remember the almost-Presidents, the ones who came close, like Al Gore. Among the most memorable, not because he should have become President or was even a good man, was Aaron Burr of New York.

He was almost-president in the election of 1800. Burr and Thomas Jefferson, both of the same party, which was called the Democratic-Republicans (say, what?), tied in the Electoral College, sending the election to the U.S. House of Representatives. Alexander Hamilton, also of New York but a member of the Federalist party, used his back-room influence in favor of Jefferson, who was thus elected President. As was the procedure in those days, Burr, the second place candidate, became Vice President. The relationship between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr never recovered.

While Burr still served as Vice President, personal and political differences between him and Hamilton festered to such an extent that they challenged one another to a duel. With pistols. No kidding. Actually Hamilton was an experienced participant in several duels in which no shot had ever been fired. Common practice also allowed participants to fire shots in the ground, just to prove their manhood. Or something. Although both men were natives of New York, dueling had been outlawed in that state, and the site of the duel was moved to New Jersey, as more hospitable for such activities, even in those days. When the two men faced off, Hamilton reportedly shot first, nicking the branch of a tree behind Burr. The shot from Burr’s pistol mortally wounded Hamilton, the first United States Secretary of the Treasury and a founding father of federalism.

Almost-President Burr was indicted for murder in both New York and New Jersey but never convicted. He served out his term as Vice President. Then he moved to Louisiana, which President Jefferson had purchased from the French so that the country could expand westward to meet its Manifest Destiny. Burr traveled the new territory, which ran from New Orleans up the Mississipi River to Minnesota and out to the Dakotas, and he plotted to launch a coup, was arrested, and tried for treason. He was again not convicted and eventually moved back to New York, where he re-entered private life and opened a law practice.

I’m so glad American politics has cleaned up its act.

Copyright 2008 by William C. Cotter


Tina said...

Violence among public figures im government continued on up into the 19th century. One particularly bad case in 1856: S.C. Congressman Preston Brooks decided to take revenge on abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner for a speech offensive toward slave owners and beat him so badly with a heavy stick that there was blood all over the senate floor. Sen. Sumner was so badly injured by the attack that it took him three years to recover. The incident was considered a matter of "honor" and Brooks was widely praised by southerners for almost beating the older man to death.

EHT said...

Most folks are surprised when you go back as far as the elections of 1800 and 1804 to show some of the shenanagans that went on. They think scandal is something brought on since Watergate.

I enjoyed your post very much. Stay turned to History Is Elementary. I plan to run a post of "also rans" next Thursday. Some poor men ran for president or vp five different times.

BTW I hate "Presidents Day". I'd much rather have the birthday for Washington and the birthday for Lincoln like they used to be.


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