19 February 2005 | theowinthrop
Aaron will never get a fair shake
Except for those Vice Presidents who ended up as President (14 of them)only one is remembered as a distinct personality: Aaron Burr. And it is for some questionable reasons. His ambitions were on the scale of Napoleon Bonaparte, aimed (supposedly) not only towards the U.S. but also Mexico, and against Spain (and supposedly willing to use French or British assistance). He managed to show that Thomas Jefferson, for all his brilliance as party leader and politician, could be momentarily thrown for a loop by a clever, unforeseen loophole. He helped destroy Alexander Hamilton's political career, and then ended Hamilton as well. And, despite facing political ruin, he managed to leave his political chief's political projects in ruins. To 90% of the American public, mention Burr and the word "traitor" or "unscrupulous" pops up.
There are those who deny this view of Burr. Jefferson and Hamilton were grown men, who played hard ball politics with each other and with each other's supporters. Burr was no different from them. Jefferson was willing, as John Adams' Vice President, to forget his old friendship with Adams and concentrate on derailing his chief's policies and aims (as Burr did towards Jefferson). Hamilton hit Burr pretty well in the New York Gubernatorial race of 1804, helping to defeat Burr in that election (and in the process so insulting Burr as to lead to Burr's challenge and their duel in Weehauken). As for the treason against the U.S., it is now questioned if Burr was really planning to overturn U.S. government control over the western states, or just jumping the gun on westward expansion (Burr died in 1836, and lived long enough to see the fall of the Alamo and the creation of the Texas Republic - he made some sharp and cutting comments that one age's treason was another age's patriotism, which seems well called for). But in any case, Hamilton had played around with similar expeditions in Latin America in the late 1790s. But he never went as far as Burr did, involving the ranking general of the U.S. Army as a co-conspirator. So Hamilton's actions are forgotten today but Burr's actions are not.
One day a creative script on Burr's career will be created, and a Scorsese director will handle it. Until then, the only film dealing with Burr's career (aside from a television version of "The Man Without a Country" made in the 1970s)is this odd little film that concentrates on the career of Dolly Payne Todd Madison, the wife of the "father of the Constitution", our 4th President James Madison. Ginger Rogers and Burgess Meredith play the Madisons (and give good performances), but the film is stolen by David Niven. Niven's darker side was rarely noticed in his climb to stardom, but when he played a figure with frailties (the Major in "Seperate Tables", or the scoundrelly heir in "Tonight's the Night") he actually gave his best performances. Here he played Burr as the ambitious politico who nearly stole the 1800 election from Tom Jefferson (but for Alex Hamilton's action to keep enough Federalists from supporting Burr), and as Hamilton's slayer turned into super traitor - who got acquitted in the treason trial of 1807 (the film does not show how poor the government's case against Burr really was). Unrepentent at the end, he manages to maintain our fascination, although the audience feels it was a blessing that he failed in the end. In reality, given his commitment to immigrants, abolitionism, and feminist rights (which neither Adams, Jefferson, nor Hamilton were fully committed to), one wonders if it would have been such a bad thing had he become President in 1800.