One common criticism of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is a lack of a political core. Another famous New York politician, Aaron Burr, was so lacking in principle that as Thomas Jefferson’s running mate, he sought to snatch the presidency after the 1800 Electoral College tie. “Tainted by Suspicion: The Secret Deals and Electoral Chaos of Disputed Presidential Elections,” (Stairway Press, 2016) looks at the four most controversial presidential elections in American history, and what if the outcome had occurred the other way – such as a presidency of Aaron Burr, as explained in this excerpt.
Had Aaron Burr won the presidency, two things are near certain: his own life and legacy would have turned out far better, and Alexander Hamilton would have lived longer. But beyond that, very few things are certain. A Burr presidency would assuredly not have been identical to a Jefferson presidency. The political atmosphere would have been different with Burr the New York politician as opposed to Jefferson the Virginia philosopher, and it might have overturned the entire political chain of events for centuries.
As president, the ever pragmatic Burr would have only one option about where to cast his lot, said Edward J. Larson, the Hugh & Hazel Darling Chair at the Pepperdine University School of Law, and Pulitzer Prize winning author who wrote A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign.
“I don’t think he would have had any choice but to side with the Federalists. They would have been the ones who lifted him to office,” Larson said. “Burr was driven, power hungry and a crafty, brilliant politician. He would have been crafty enough not to have been a tool. He would have tried to craft coalitions to focus on self interests of various Republican members.”
Then again, the Federalist lawmakers that made him president were in the minority. So attorney David O. Stewart, author of American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America, doesn’t think the Federalists would have gotten the president they were seeking: “They would have found that President Burr was profoundly ungrateful.”
Above all, Burr would have sought the best deal, which would not have been with the Federalists in the near term but possibly the majority Democratic-Republicans in the long term, said Adam Carrington, a professor of politics at Hillsdale College.
“I don’t think Burr would have done much to repay the favor to the Federalists for making him president,” Carrington said. “Given that the Democratic-Republicans won majorities in both the House and Senate, he would have seen where the winds were blowing.”
Politicians were fickle even in those days. It might well have been that their loyalty to Jefferson—subjugated to the vice presidency for another four years—would have been fleeting. Do not forget, the Democratic-Republicans could not have won the 1800 elections without Burr’s clever work to ensure his party won the New York state legislative races. Absent that, Adams would have won a second term. Democratic-Republicans knew this. Would President Burr have been able to mend fences with the party faithful? Or would the Democratic-Republican majority in the House retaliate with the political noose of impeachment to move Jefferson up?
“A Burr presidency would have been a disaster,” University of Dayton history professor Larry Schweikart said. “Burr was out for Aaron Burr. He had no loyalties, no principles, no philosophy and almost no friends. He might have been impeached. If either side proposed it, the other party would probably say ‘fine by me.’”
The ill will that would have been established from a Burr victory should not be underestimated, said Ronald Feinman, an adjunct history professor with Florida Atlantic University and author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama. Feinman believes a President Burr would face a significant risk of impeachment.
“There would have been a lot of anger over a stolen election. Thomas Jefferson was much more respected,” Feinman said. “The chances of a second term for Burr would have been unlikely. He could have even been impeached by a Democratic-Republican majority. Burr could not have united the country. He almost certainly would have been a one-term president and one-term presidents don’t unite the country.”
There is one area where Feinman thinks there is at least some slight possibility that Burr would have made a difference—a very, very big area. Burr opposed slavery, though he was somewhat squishy about the matter, having owned slaves in the past.
“As president, Burr might have been more open minded than Jefferson to opponents of slavery,” Feinman said. “It was an issue that caused trouble for the Democratic-Republicans. There might have been more turmoil if there had been a northern president.”
Joshua Spivak, Senior Fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College, believes a northern president would have expedited the end of slavery at least to some degree.
“It’s hard to claim one president would have ended it. But with Burr, maybe the country would have moved away from it,” Spivak said. “Burr is a more merchant based politician on his economic views, as opposed to the more agriculture based Republicans. Also, with Burr, maybe southerners Madison and Monroe would not have been president.”
Larson of Pepperdine University believes there might well have been a long-term regional political shift, but that would not have altered the debate over slavery in a meaningful way.
“The next Republican candidate would have been either Jefferson or [George] Clinton. Jefferson, if he had lost the presidency for a second time in1800, might have been frustrated and walked away from running,” Larson said. “So it could have been Clinton from New York. Clinton would have won. It might have sped up the decline of slavery. But I don’t think so. I view all politicians of that time—with the exception of John Quincy Adams—as such compromisers.” …
Burr’s megalomaniacal attempt to become an emperor [which led to going on trial for treason] came in the middle of what could have been his theoretical second term of his presidency. As unlikely as most historians consider a second term, one can recall at various points where conventional political wisdom shunned the prospect of a second term for Barack Obama over the economy, George W. Bush over the Iraq war or Bill Clinton after losing the Congress in 1994.
If Burr had managed to win in the House over Jefferson in 1800, would he really have “stolen” anything? Certainly Jefferson was supposed to be at the top of the ticket. But pre-Twelfth Amendment, there were no tickets. Burr in fact ran for president.
He declined to step aside. For Jefferson, this was unforgivable, but in reality, Burr violated no constitutional or legal rules. Had Burr become president, regardless of the unusual circumstances, he might have gained some party loyalty by virtue of being its first president. If Burr could overcome a Vice President Jefferson trying to undermine him, and secure the Louisiana Purchase, a second term might have been very feasible.”
Jefferson established the embargo against British ships during his second term. Burr might have handled things differently.
“There was a struggle with Britain at sea and the British were really mistreating our sailors. British warships were openly firing on American ships,” Stewart said. “Jefferson chose not to go to war when a lot were demanding we go to war with Britain. Jefferson left it to Madison to clean up. If Aaron Burr had been president, he would have gone to war. He was more militaristic and he might have gotten public support. America was no less ready to go to war then than in 1812. It is a war the United States might have won. Burr was a very good military leader.”
However, there is the domestic political situation to consider. If President Burr was beholden to the Federalists, a pro-British party, he might have been very reluctant to lead the country into combat, Larson argued.
He would have been aligned with the Federalists,” Larson said. “He might have been prone to go to war to boost his credibility domestically. If so, he would have gone after France. He would have cut a deal with the British.”
Fred Lucas is the White House correspondent for The Daily Signal and the author of “Tainted by Suspicion: The Secret Deals and Electoral Chaos of Disputed Presidential Elections” (Stairway Press, 2016). Before coming to Washington, he reported on state capitols in Kentucky and Connecticut. He is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School.