by Gore Vidal
New York: Vintage Books, 1973
Burr is a fictionalized version of the life and times of Aaron Burr whose 1800 Presidential run threw the election into the House of Representatives. Burr also became Jefferson’s Vice President, killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel and was tried for, but not convicted of, treason for an alleged conspiracy to form a new country along the Mississippi Valley, annex Texas and conquer Mexico. He fathered one daughter by his wife but also likely sired multiple illegitimate children after his wife’s death. Among such offspring was probably Martin Van Buren who was elected President the same year that Burr died in 1836.
The book leaves four impressions pertinent to the Civil War.
First, our country barely remained united during her first forty-four years from 1789 to 1833. Disunion was an ever present threat. Ties to the states were far stronger than links to the Federal Union. Those ties were particularly strong when your region lacked power in Washington. Secession was often discussed throughout the country although the reasons varied from region to region. Here are some examples:
1. Alexander Hamilton warned President Washington and his Secretary of State Jefferson that the Northeastern states threatened to secede if the Federal government declined to assume their Revolutionary War debts. Virginia and North Carolina were particularly opposed because they had made large land donations to the western territories and their debts were lower. In the spirit of national unity Washington and Jefferson agreed to debt assumption.
2. New Englanders discussed secession at least three more times. First, over objections to President Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Territory. New Englanders wanted to avoid losing political influence in the Federal government, which would be the result if new states were carved out of the Louisiana Territory. The second time was over President Jefferson’s 1807-1809 trade embargo intended to avert the War of 1812. The embargo idled the region’s maritime industry. The final time was toward the end of the War of 1812 when the British finally blockaded New England thereby preventing her from continuing to her voluminous smuggling. She refused to put her militia into the National Service as ordered by President Madison and loaned more money to the British enemy than she did to the Federal government.
Second, the Federal government had early tendencies to seize power from the states and become despotic. Hamilton favored a strong central government ruled by aristocrats and had more influence on Washington than any cabinet member. Hamilton disdained a democracy. Our second President, Massachusetts’s John Adams, pressed Congress to approve his Sedition Act, which made it a crime to speak ill of the President or Congress. The Supreme Court quickly tried to assume authority over the states in a case that permitted an individual from one state to sue a second state without the second state’s consent. The ruling was rejected by the states with prompt ratification of the 11th Amendment because they considered the court decision to be a usurpation of their sovereignty.
Third, opposing political parties and geographic regions tended to favor states’s rights when they were out of power and minimize them when they controlled the Federal government. During John Adams’s presidency, for example, future Presidents James Madison and Thomas Jefferson opposed the Sedition Act. The former wrote the Virginia legislature’s resolutions against the act and Jefferson wrote similar resolutions for Kentucky’s legislature. When Jefferson became President, however, he assumed authority to buy the Louisiana Territory, although he eventually got a two-thirds Senate vote approval for the purchase as a treaty. New Englander’s leaned heavily on state’s rights in their disputes with Presidents Jefferson and Madison.
Fourth, the occupants of all branches of the Central (Federal) Government were constantly trying to provide that government more power. The conflict that resulted in the 11th Amendment noted earlier is one example. Chief Justice John Marshall, who served for 34 years, led a number of rulings that took sovereignty away from the states. In McCulloch v Maryland, for example, the court denied Maryland the authority to tax the Bank of the United States even though the constitution enumerated no power to form such a Bank. Even though Marshal was related to strict-constructionist Jefferson, Marshall interpreted the Constitution liberally.
The question that I will not answer is a spoiler: Why did Burr challenge Hamilton to a duel? For many readers Vidal’s answer will excuse Burr.
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