In recent weeks I have returned to several of Gore Vidal's excellent historical novels after I read the extraordinary "Lincoln" novel several months ago and commented on it in my blog. "Burr" is a masterpiece of historical fiction about Aaron Burr's career in the Revolutionary War and later as Vice President to Thomas Jefferson. No wonder it was on the bestseller list for over 50 weeks after its publication in 1973.
Many of you may have heard interviews with the insufferable "presidential historians" that CNN brings on from time to time to comment on the state of democracy in the US. For Americans, the Constitution is the crown jewel of their democracy. There is an almost holy reverence for the Constitution, the American Revolutionary War and for presidents, Washington, Adams and Jefferson. In "Burr", we discover just how overrated was the American Revolutionary War and how totally inadequate were those first three presidents. If Former President Donald J. Trump had lived in those times, he would have found those early years to his liking. He would have been able to indulge in just about any corruption that he fancied and to subvert the laws of the land at every turn.
The Revolutionary War was a disaster by any comparison. The dour General George Washington couldn't win a single battle. His generals eventually turned against him for his sheer incompetence and tried to have him replaced but Washington hung on with support from the Continental Congress and the war was ultimately saved by the French. They arrived with their fleet of ships, their canon and 3,000 soldiers to turn the tide of the war at Yorktown. The only real war heroes were General Gates and his second in command, Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, who won the Battle of Saratoga against British General John Burgoyne in 1777, and, of course, Aaron Burr who served under Arnold in his attack on Quebec in 1775. Arnold later became a famous traitor when he went over to the British and Burr was tried for treason by President Thomas Jefferson, who by this time was as mad as King George III.
Vidal suggests that no one believed that the constitution drawn up by the Continental Congress would last more than a couple of years and none of the early presidents had any respect for its laws. They realized that James Madison's text looked lovely on paper, but the Constitution would be impossible to enforce. President George Washington wanted to be the king of the nation and tried to arrest the press barons for publishing negative reviews of his office. The same happened with John Adams who succeeded Washington, but the worst abuse came from the third president, Thomas Jefferson, who launched an impeachment trial in Congress against Justice Samuel Chase who refused to do his bidding.
Chase had served on the Supreme Court since 1796 and was a staunch Federalist with a volcanic personality, who showed no willingness to tone down his bitter partisan rhetoric against the Jeffersonian Republicans. Jefferson wanted him impeached for reasons of drunkenness and insanity. He asked Vice-President Burr to handle the impeachment trial in the senate after the house had voted in favour of Chase's removal. Under pressure from Jefferson, Burr stuck to his guns and handled the case as fairly as was possible. One Washington reporter remarked: “Burr conducted the hearings with the dignity and impartiality of an angel, but with the rigor of a devil.” Because of his impartiality, a Democratic-Republican majority voted to acquit the judge on all charges. Hence began the falling out of Jefferson and his vice-president Aaron Burr.
Then there is that famous duel with Alexander Hamilton, Burr's old friend during the Revolutionary War, and First Secretary of the Treasury under Washington. Hamilton had been lapdog to General Washington during the war years and later sided with the Federalists in Congress. He was a political muckraker of the worst kind and he was tasked with destroying Colonel Burr's reputation in his run for public office as Governor of New York. It is surprising to me that they ever made a musical about a man like Alexander Hamilton. In the press Hamilton called Burr a "dangerous man" who ought not to be trusted with public office and went so far as to suggest that there was "something despicable" about his old friend's relationship to his daughter Theodosia. After Hamilton refused to explain himself to the satisfaction of Burr, Burr challenged him to the famous duel across the Hudson in the Heights of Weehawken, New Jersey. Burr mortally wounded Hamilton and was soon charged with murder in New York and New Jersey but the case never went to trial and the charges were eventually dropped.
Perhaps the most stunning event in the novel is the Stalinist show trial of Aaron Burr for treason against the State, a complete fabrication by President Jefferson and his cronies in 1807. After Jefferson had dropped Burr as his running mate for a second term and Burr lost the New York gubernatorial election, Burr left for the west in 1805. While his ambitions remain unclear, his accusers believed that he wanted to steal parts of the Louisiana Territory along with Spanish lands to form an independent nation. Burr's so-called co-conspirators were British diplomats, Spanish ministers, and even Mexican revolutionaries.
Burr's real aim had been to mount an attack on Mexico in concert with US Army troops under the command of James Wilkinson stationed in Louisiana. Wilkinson later turned out to be a spy for the Spanish and put in motion a plan to discredit Burr. At the request of Jefferson, Wilkinson produced a letter written by Burr suggesting that he was busy putting together an army to take the Western States out of the Confederation and had plans to attack Washington DC. Jefferson immediately arrested his former vice-president for treason and fed false reports about his plans to the newspapers. At Burr's trial which dragged on for months in Richmond, Virginia, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall couldn't find any evidence to prove the case against Burr and was obliged to acquit him for lack of evidence. He argued that Burr had not conspired to break up the Union and had never taken any action against the US government. Despite being acquitted, the trial completely destroyed Burr’s political career and public image.
When one looks back at the early days of the American State, we are appalled by the level of corruption, the electoral fraud, the muckraking, and the greed. A country that invents a posystem as obscure and open to abuse as the Electoral College is bound to be subjected to all kinds of potential fraud and influence peddling. Remember the stolen presidential election of 1876 when Rutherford B. Hayes and the Republicans bought the necessary electoral college votes to steal the election from the democrat Samuel J. Tilden after he won the popular vote. In his sequel to "Burr" entitled "1876", Vidal describes in detail how the Republicans bought the election with money from the railroad lobby who had gotten immensely rich under President Grant's administration. Today, we only have to look at the mayhem President Trump caused during the January 6 insurrection and his attempt to seize power by manipulating the electoral college vote to realize how precarious democracy is in America.
Vidal's novels are essential reading for anyone trying to come to terms with the threat to democracy posed by Donald J. Trump and the blatant partisanship in American politics today.
*Originally posted in August 2021