You may have missed the memorials but a couple weeks ago was the 185th anniversary of the death of my family’s only vice president, Aaron Burr. He’s a first cousin on my mother’s side, eight or nine times removed.
Since the nation’s population was only 5.3 million when Burr held the job from 1801-1805 during Jefferson’s first presidential term, one could say being elected VP at the time was no big deal. Since only a small fraction of adults were able to vote, it’s probably harder to be elected Minnesota’s state auditor now than it was to be elected to the nation’s No. 2 job in 1800.
Nevertheless — at least in part since my family has no claim to other illustrious vice presidents like Schuyler Colfax, Garret Hobart, Alben Barkley or even Mike Pence — for years I’ve bragged up and defended Burr.
It hasn’t always been easy. Because he shot Alexander Hamilton in their famous, legal-in-New Jersey, duel, Burr has been seen for over two centuries as one of the few villains among our Founding Fathers. Burr raps it right in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, Hamilton, “History Obliterates — in every picture it paints, it paints me in all my mistakes…Now I’m the villain in your history.”
Like most, I confess I haven’t always seen Burr positively. I learned of the man via the usual Route — the Hamilton-Burr duel. I was in fourth or fifth grade and my instructor, as on many of the peculiarities and disasters of American history, was my older brother Bill. He convinced me of Hamilton’s virtues vis a vis Burr by explaining he was our first Treasury Secretary. Besides, Hamilton’s image was on the $10 bill for which I then occasionally made change while collecting payments for delivering the old Minneapolis Star. Burr didn’t get anything like that despite being vice president and winning their duel, so I reasoned he must have been little more than a scoundrel.
My faith in that reasoning began to weaken in high school when I learned we’re both descended from the great New England fire and brimstone evangelist, Jonathan Edwards. Burr was his grandson while my relationship is more tenuous being eight or nine generations later. Still, we’re family if only a bit of the old preacher’s blood flows in my veins as it once did so generously in Burr’s.
Then in the late 1970s, I read Gore Vidal’s best-selling novel, “Burr.” Regardless of your interest in Burr, it’s a fascinating, gossipy tutorial on our republic’s early days. Vidal presents my kinsman not in black or white, but as full of contradictions and complexities as any of us. His Burr is also a refreshing critic of his peers opining that Washington was an incompetent general and Jefferson a pedantic hypocrite. As a good DFLer, I also liked Burr’s politics since he helped start the Democratic party in the northern states.
My fondness for the man grew when I learned that, along with Babe Ruth and Ronald Reagan, Burr and I have the same birthdate — Feb. 6. Under the laws of the stars, we four share a certain dreamy quality and an Aquarian interest in making the world a better place. Also, according to at least one astrologer, our feelings can be easily hurt and sometimes we overreact which makes me glad that dueling is now outlawed everywhere, even in New Jersey.
In recent years I’ve read a lot about Burr. I’ve learned today’s historians are more sympathetic to the man so that he is no longer seen as a malignancy on the nation’s early days. In addition to biographies and character comparisons. I’ve read separate books and articles on the three most significant events of Burr’s political life — the election of 1800 when he and Jefferson essentially tied for the presidency; the Hamilton duel of 1804 and the events leading up to it; and finally, his Jefferson-forced trial for treason in 1808 in which he was acquitted when the prosecution couldn’t produce witnesses as required by the Constitution (Art III, Sec. 3).
After all that, I’ve decided like some other extended family members and more than a few pols, Burr was an ambiguous individual. Talented, likable, smart but at critical times, such as in the three events mentioned in the last paragraph, he worsened difficult situations by not understanding the needs of others and being an awful judge of his own self-interest. As Burr himself supposedly said near the end of his life, “I should have known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and I.”
In any event, albeit with qualifications, I remain a Burr supporter. I certainly agree with the historians who say he wasn’t such a bad guy but I’m really for Burr because, as with the Twins, Vikings and other local teams, he’s one of ours.
Ken Peterson of St. Paul is a former state Labor and Industry Commissioner. He claims, along with his wife and two children, to be one of the few Minnesotans to ever visit Aaron Burr’s grave site in Princeton, N.J.
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