Eric Rauchway: Dick Cheney v. Aaron Burr

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Eric Rauchway is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and the author, most recently, of Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America and Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America. ]

Last week marked the bicentennial of the last time Americans thought a vice president posed a constitutional threat to the United States (no, the merely peculative Spiro Agnew does not count): On June 24, 1807, a grand jury returned an indictment for treason against Aaron Burr, who had till 1805 served as vice president under Thomas Jefferson. Current Vice President Dick Cheney's evident opinion, reported last week, that his office need not obey laws applying to the executive branch because the vice president presides over the Senate, reminds us that more than this coincidence of dates unites him with his predecessor. Burr held Cheney-like views of the relation between business and public life, and he had a gift for alerting his fellow Americans to constitutional anomalies.

Unlike most of the Constitution's framers, Burr thought of business and government as compatible pursuits. Alexander Hamilton, whom Burr would kill in a duel, embodied their generation's virtues: As secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton made discreet payments to a Mr. Reynolds. When questions arose about these funds, Hamilton confessed he had been sleeping with Mrs. Reynolds and had to pay her husband hush money. Hamilton could more easily admit philandering than endure suspicion of bribery; he had to maintain his reputation for keeping public and private business separate. By contrast, when Burr became vice president in 1801, he thought he had gained an asset in his career as a lawyer, and figured he might "go into Courts with the Weight & influence of office & thus retail out these." A friend dissuaded him from this unseemly strategy, but it suggests Burr had a more modern cast of mind than his peers. Were Burr vice president today, he would surely, like Cheney, set policy in conference with his former business associates.

And like Cheney, Burr would keep it secret. "Things written remain," he admonished a clerk. Burr concluded letters by urging secrecy: "Say nothing of this," and "You & I should not appear to act in concert," he wrote. Although Burr himself had no compunction about seeking personal advancement through the offices of the American republic, he knew his contemporaries would have looked dimly on his pursuit of personal happiness through public life....

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