America’s First Supervillain

If you think Donald Trump is a megalomaniac with grandiose ambitions for Presidential power, than you would be right. However, he is not the first man in American history to start a political frenzy over the Presidency. You may only know the name Aaron Burr from an old “Got Milk” Commercial, or simply as the guy who shot Alexander Hamilton, but there was so much more to this complicated, brilliant, and ambitious Founding Father. Unlike Donald Trump who is usually content to write his name across whatever building he happens to own, Burr proved that he would not be satisfied till his name was written across the face of an entire country.

An Origin Story
Aaron Burr was born in the great metropolis of Newark, New Jersey in 1756. His father, Aaron Burr, Sr. was the second president of the College of New Jersey, or as you might know it these days Princeton University. His mother was the daughter of John Edwards, -no not the John Edwards that talks with ghosts- the famous theologian who was a key player in the First Great Awakening. Like most comic book protagonists, Burr found himself orphaned at the age of 2 after both his parents passed away. However, that did not stop him from getting admitted to the College of New Jersey at the age of 13 and graduating with a Bachelors of the Arts at 17. He moved to Connecticut to study law, but put that aside when fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord.

Aaron Burr tried to receive an officer’s commission in Washington’s Army, but in a trend that would continue for the rest of his life, George Washington turned him down. So instead, the 19 year old Burr enlisted with General Benedict Arnold, and his Canadian Campaign. He distinguished himself during the Battle of Quebec, and General Richard Montgomery promoted Burr to the rank of Captain. Eventually, he made his way to Manhattan where he earned a place in Washington’s Staff. During the retreat from Lower Manhattan to Harlem, it was Burr’s vigilance that saved an entire brigade of troops, including an officer named Alexander Hamilton. Despite everything though, Washington notably never put in a commendation for his bravery. By some accounts, Washington never trusted Burr. Maybe he saw the budding villainy of the man or maybe he just wasn’t very fond of Aaron Burr’s ferret-like face.

Despite the public slight by Washington he did eventually make Lieutenant Colonel and served with distinction until 1779 when declining health forced him to retire from the Continental Army. He returned to his studies of the law and was admitted to the New York bar in 1782. From there he married Theodosia Bartow Prevost, a widow of a British officer who was 10 years his senior, and moved to New York City after the British evacuated it. He had one daughter who survived into adulthood, also named Theodosia. Burr’s wife died in 1794 from stomach cancer. In his private practice the war hero was an accomplished lawyer that commanded substantial fees for his services. By all accounts he was very generous with spending that money on lavish clothing, fine furniture, and other symbols of status and wealth. So naturally, he entered politics.

An Arch Nemesis is Born
Alexander Hamilton was shot and killed in a duel with Aaron Burr on July 11, 1804, presumably after a long winded monologue about how, “With Hamilton out of the way, the world will finally kneel before Burr.” [citation needed] Yet, as famous as the duel itself has become it is only the end of the story. Burr first served in the New York Assembly before unseating General Philip Schuyler as the Senator from New York. Incidentally, Schuyler was Alexander Hamilton’s father-in-law, and there are some accounts that it was that election which drove the first wedge driven between the friendship of Hamilton and his would be assassin.

Yes, because like any good villain, Burr and his arch rival were first friends, or at least acquaintances. They were both from the New York area, and even though they were in opposing political parties they still had a lot in common. So it was only natural that Burr and Hamilton would have been friends, at least until Burr started making some shady deals. In 1799, Burr went to Hamilton and other New York Federalists to get their support for a badly needed water company for Manhattan, but after it was approved Burr changed the charter for the water company to a bank. The more astute of you may notice that a bank has nothing to do with supplying water to a city. Burr founded the Bank of the Manhattan Company, which was later absorbed by Chase Banking which is now part of JPMorgan Chase… you know, career super-villains. Worst of all the false water company scheme delayed the construction of an actual water company for Manhattan which was suffering from a Malaria epidemic at the time… New York problems, right?

Aaron Burr ran for President twice, first in 1796 and then again in 1800. Back then the Electoral College -the group of men that vote for the President- were hand picked by the State Assemblies. After he lost in 1796, Burr quit the Senate and went back to the New York Assembly. While back in Albany, he began to make himself a key player in New York politics, even converting the infamous Tammy Society from a social club into a political machine. So when it came time for the 1800 elections, Burr had already positioned himself as a political power-broker by not only having a hand in selecting New York’s electoral delegates, but also by controlling the political aspirations of New York politicians. One of the largest of the northern states, New York, was a key State to any one’s Presidential candidacy. It was basically what Florida or Texas are today, except with less malaria.

The Plot Thickens
Because of his political influence and his successful opposition to Hamilton and the Federalists, Thomas Jefferson knew that he needed the support of Aaron Burr to win the 1800 election. So the two men struck a deal that they would run together on the same “ticket.” The idea was that their new political party, the Democratic-Republicans, would make Jefferson President and Aaron Burr Vice-President, at least that was what Jefferson believed.

In 1800, the electoral delegates were tasked with casting two votes -instead of one as they do today- because the candidates with the most votes became President and the runner-up became Vice President. However, that leaves a lot of room for confusion. You see, there was no President vote and seperate Vice-President vote. All the votes were for the Presidency, and though it cannot be substantiated by historians, it seemed pretty obvious that Burr tried double-crossing old Tommy boy. With the power of the New York electorate and with political influence in many Northern states, Aaron Burr drummed enough support so that the election became a tie between himself and Jefferson. Each man got 73 votes. Even though most people understood that Jefferson was meant to be President and Burr Vice-President the tie still had to be decided by the Federalist-controlled House of Representatives. Most Federalists hated Jefferson. So the assumption was that the House would swing the vote toward Burr, and that is exactly what almost happened.

You need to understand that Hamilton and Jefferson were famously bitter rivals dating back to the Articles of Confederation. it was like Tom and Jerry, but Hamilton still threw his political influence behind Jefferson over Burr, convincing others to vote for Jefferson. Meanwhile Burr and William Van Ness tried vehemently to turn the election in their favor. It took 36 ballots but finally the tie was broken and Jefferson was elected President and Burr was made Vice President. After that fiasco, Jefferson -understandably- never fully trusted Burr again and kept him his as far away from the Presidential office as possible, presumably because he feared Burr might one day tie him to the railroad tracks -which didn’t exist yet. It was painfully clear that Jefferson would drop Burr as his Vice President during the 1804 election, so instead Aaron Burr tried running for the Governorship of New York. There he was embarrassingly defeated again because of Hamilton. This was the what l;ed to the duel.

‘Kneel Before Burr’
There are varying accounts of the duel and much like Han and Greedo, no one can seem to agree who shot first, or if Hamilton missed on purpose or was just a lousy shot. What is clear is that after Burr became the only sitting Vice President of the United States to kill a man -that we know of- he became wanted in New York and New Jersey. The duel was fought in Weehawken, NJ because laws were less stringent about shooting people in the Garden State. Once accused Burr fled to South Carolina, because back then murder charges did not follow you across state lines, but this was not the end of Burr’s villainy.

The accounts differ, but it seems clear that Burr went full super-villain by that time and tried to carve out a little empire for himself in the American midwest/Mexico. He enlisted the help of several prominent conspirators, including General James Wilkinson, the Commander-in-Chief of the US Army, and Andrew “freaking” Jackson. Jackson even allegedly congratulated Burr on “removing Hamilton from the political arena.” The future President and $20 bill mascot, along with the Army’s Commander-in-Chief pledged support and troops for a “military expedition” that Aaron Burr was planning. The particulars get a little fuzzy, buthe basically believed that war with Spain was inevitable and that the US Federal Government could not enforce its jurisdiction past the Appalachian Mountains. Thus, from all accounts it seemed as if the former Vice President had every intention of marching an Army into Spanish America and carving out a slice for himself.

Most notably, he expressed a belief that the Mexican people were not suited for democracy, and that it would be best if they were ruled by a king. After saying that he probably winked while pointing toward himself vigorously. Emperor Burr sent then envoys into Mexico to get a feeling for the people’s acceptance of Spanish rule and to whisper “Hail Hydra” to one another as they did it. Basically, Aaron Burr was trying to do exactly what Texas did thirty years later, except with more overtones of “King Aaron” thrown into the mix. There was even talk about taking Baton Rouge and New Orleans away from the United States.

‘Curse You, Jefferson’
Eventually, word of this got back to Thomas Jefferson who understandably issued a warrant for Burr’s arrest. James Wilkinson then got cold feet and would up turning on Burr. Jackson was similarly no where to be seen when the tides started turning, and Burr was easily arrested in March of 1807. He was brought to trial in front of Chief Justice John Marshall on charges of treason, but despite extreme pressure from the White House, Marshall ruled in favor of Burr, claiming that were was not sufficient enough evidence to convict him.

After being acquitted and flat broke Burr fled to Europe where he continued to try and drum up intentional support and backing for his American Empire idea. He even tried to get a meeting with Napoleon, but the French Emperor would not see him. His only legitimate daughter, Theodosia, then died in the winter 1812-1813 aboard the schooner Patriot. She was either shipwrecked or killed by pirates, which admittedly are pretty bad-ass ways to go, but Burr was devastated by the loss. He returned to the United States -having been acquitted of that pesky murder charge- and resumed practicing law. He married a rich widow, she divorced him for blowing her money on land speculation, and he died due to complications of a stroke in 1836.

And, that is the story of one of America’s most notorious Founding Father. So, just remember, whatever you think of this year’s election at least Donald Trump hasn’t tried invading Mexico… yet…

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