Saturday, October 19, 2019

Well if it isn't Aaron Burr, sir. (Further on Cataline . . . and Trump.)

Marty Lederman

À propos of Charles Fried's post invoking Cicero on Cataline, I couldn't help but recall once more what Alexander Hamilton wrote about Aaron Burr in his efforts in 1800-1801 to persuade his fellow Federalists serving in the House to actually vote for Hamilton's lifelong nemesis, Thomas Jefferson, for President.  (I wrote more about this fascinating story here.)  Notwithstanding his profound disagreements with Jefferson on virtually everything, Hamilton insisted that it wasn’t even a close call—that Burr would be far more dangerous to the Nation, for reasons that should sound painfully familiar.  Here's some of what Hamilton wrote about Burr in his letters to his fellow Federalists.  Uncanny, isn't it?:

■ “[T]there is nothing in his favour.  His private character is not defended by his most partial friends. He is bankrupt beyond redemption except by the plunder of his country.  His public principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandisement per fas et nefas.  If he can, he will certainly disturb our institutions to secure to himself permanent power and with it wealth.  He is truly the Cataline of America—& if I may credit Major Wilcocks, he has held very vindictive language respecting his opponents.”  [to Oliver Wolcott, Dec. 16]

■  “The appointment of Burr as President would disgrace our Country abroad.  No agreement with him could be relied upon.  His private circumstances render disorder a necessary resource.  His public principles offer no obstacle.  His ambition aims at nothing short of permanent power and wealth in his own person.”  [to Theodore Sedgwick, Dec. 22]

■  “Burr loves nothing but himself; thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement, and will be content with nothing, short of permanent power in his own hands.”  [to Harrison Gray Otis, Dec. 23]

■  “His ambition will not be content with those objects which virtuous men of either party will allot to it, and his situation and his habits will oblige him to have recourse to corrupt expedients, from which he will be restrained by no moral scruplesTo accomplish his ends he must lean upon unprincipled men and will continue to adhere to the myrmidons who have hitherto seconded him. . . .

Can it be doubted that a man who has all his life speculated upon the popular prejudices will consult them in the object of a War when he thinks it expedient to make one?  Can a man who despising democracy has chimed in with all its absurdities be diverted from the plan of Ambition which must have directed this course?  They who suppose it must understand little of human nature.”  [to Oliver Wolcott, late Dec.]

■ "[T]his man has no principle public or private.  As a politician his sole spring of action is an inordinate ambition; as an individual he is believed by friends as well as foes to be without probity, and a voluptuary by system, with habits of expence that can be satisfied by no fair expedients.  As to his talents, great management & cunning are the predominant features—he is yet to give proofs of those solid abilities which characterize the statesman. . . .

The maintenance of the existing institutions will not suit him, because under them his power will be too narrow & too precarious; yet the innovations he may attempt will not offer the substitute of a system durable & safe, calculated to give lasting prosperity, & to unite liberty with strength.  It will be the system of the day, sufficient to serve his own turn, & not looking beyond himself.  To execute this plan[,] as the good men of the country cannot be relied upon, the worst will be used.

Let it not be imagined that the difficulties of execution will deter, or a calculation of interest restrain. The truth is that under forms of Government like ours, too much is practicable to men who will without scruple avail themselves of the bad passions of human nature.

. . . [H]e cannot be satisfied with the regular emoluments of any office of our Government.  Corrupt expedients will be to him a necessary resource.  Will any prudent man offer such a president to the temptations of foreign gold? . . .

Let me add that I could scarcely name a discreet man of either party in our State, who does not think Mr Burr the most unfit man in the U. S. for the office of President.  Disgrace abroad ruin at home are the probable fruits of his elevation.

For Heaven’s sake my dear Sir, exert yourself to the utmost to save our country from so great a calamity.  Let us not be responsible for the evils which in all probability will follow the preference [for Burr].  All calculations that may lead to it must prove fallacious."  [to James Bayard, Dec. 27]

■  “Of an ambition too irregular and inordinate to be content with institutions that leave his power precarious, he is of too bold and sanguine a temper to think any thing too hazardous to be attempted or two difficult to be accomplished.

As to [his] talents they are great for management and intrigue—but he is yet to give the first proofs that they are equal to the art of governing well.

As to his theory, no mortal can tell what it is.  Institutions that would serve his own purpose (such as the Government of France of the present day) not such as would promise lasting prosperity and glory to the Country would be his preference because he cares only for himself and nothing for his Country or glory.

Certain that his irregular ambition cannot be supported by good men, he will court and employ the worst men of all parties as the most eligible instruments.  Jacobinism in its most pernicious form will scourge the country.  [to James Ross, Dec. 29]

■  “As to Burr these things are admitted and indeed cannot be denied, that he is a man of extreme & irregular ambition—that he is selfish to a degree which excludes all social affections & that he is decidedly profligate. . . .

[I]t is said . . . that he holds no pernicious theories, but is a mere “matter of fact man.”  But is it a recommendation to have no theory?  Can that man be a systematic or able statesman who has none?  I believe not.  No general principles will hardly work much better than erroneous ones. . . .  Ambition without principle never was long under the guidance of good sense.”  [to James Bayard, Jan. 16]

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