Culture

How Aaron Burr Checked Thomas Jefferson’s Executive Overreach

Detail of Aaron Burr portrait by John Vanderlyn (Wikimedia)
President Jefferson tried to use the Senate to ‘purge’ federal judges. He hadn’t counted on his own vice president to stand up for due process.

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Senator Mike Lee’s Written Out of History: The Forgotten Founders Who Fought Big Government. It is reprinted here with permission.

Poor, frail, and doddering, Judge John Pickering had been the first victim of the Jeffersonian-dominated Congress. Jefferson’s lieutenants in the Senate — members of the president’s recently formed Democratic-Republican party — had begun targeting Federalist judges for removal from the bench, and Pickering, whose own defense counsel labeled him insane, offered an easy scalp. But on the day that Pickering’s trial in the Senate ended with a party-line vote to convict, the House of Representatives formally impeached Jefferson’s next intended victim. And this one was more formidable — Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, who had been appointed to the High Court by none other than George Washington.

For all of his election-year taunting of John Adams as a would-be monarch, Jefferson himself certainly seemed eager to rule by presidential fiat. He was especially ruthless when targeting his political enemies for impeachment. Justice Chase had been an outspoken opponent of the Jefferson administration, warning (correctly) that the president sought removal of all critical federal judges on various pretexts in order to install “timid and compliant judges” in their places. Others warned that the impeachment trial of Chase was “the entering wedge to the complete annihilation of our wise and independent judiciary.” Jefferson himself had directed a member of the Senate to file impeachment charges against Chase. But the pièce de résistance was that President Jefferson was personally overseeing the proceedings.

Since its opening on January 2, 1805, the impeachment trial of Chase had been riveting the capital. It also placed the focus squarely on the probity not only of the Jeffersonian-dominated Senate but also of the officer presiding over the trial — Vice President Aaron Burr.

Burr was a “lame duck” vice president, having been dropped from Jefferson’s reelection ticket in the 1804 election. The Hamilton duel had been the final straw that prompted the Democratic-Republicans to seek to remove Burr, and Jefferson was not sorry to see him go.

But in the days leading up to the Chase trial, during which Jefferson knew that Burr would play a key role, the president’s tone changed. Jefferson began to court Burr like a long-lost friend, literally and figuratively bringing him in from the cold. Burr had been invited to dine in the president’s house. Jefferson had even asked him to suggest nominees to fill important positions in the new Louisiana Territory (recently purchased for a pittance from France), and appointed three of his vice president’s favored candidates, among them Burr’s stepson and his brother-in-law.

But if Jefferson thought Burr was going to play ball with him, he would be disappointed. Burr had found his calling in the Senate and revered the institution, which he once proclaimed “a citadel of law, of order, of liberty.” “It is here, in this exalted refuge,” Burr said of the upper chamber, where robust, sincere debate could occur. “Here, if anywhere, will resistance be made to the storms of political frenzy and the silent arts of corruption; and if the Constitution be destined ever to perish by the sacrilegious hands of the demagogue or the usurper, which God avert, its expiring agonies will be witnessed on this floor.” As vice president and presiding officer of the Senate — the vice president’s constitutional role — Burr won surprising acclaim from across the political spectrum for his respect for the august body’s traditions and constitutional functions.

Burr may well have preserved the independence of the federal judiciary.

Burr also earned praise for his “judicial manner” in presiding over the Chase impeachment trial. He studiously resisted any effort to enforce Jefferson’s will on the outcome. His presence was felt in touches large and small. He demanded that Chase, who was afforded no place to sit or even a table to place his papers, be given a chair when he requested one. One newspaper wrote that Burr had conducted the proceedings with the “impartiality of an angel, but with the rigor of a devil.” Burr’s decision to respect the rule of law was at least partially responsible for swaying a few other Jeffersonians who would otherwise have been inclined to do the president’s bidding. Chase was acquitted on every count in what might fairly have been described as Jefferson’s Senate.

Burr may well have preserved the independence of the federal judiciary. When Jefferson’s key congressional ally, the Virginian John Randolph, introduced an amendment to the Constitution to give the president power to remove any judge with congressional approval, the effort went nowhere.

Still, in thwarting the designs of America’s chief executive, Burr had made a permanent enemy of Jefferson. He had also made enemies out of his Democratic-Republican colleagues.

The Chase trial was the final act of Burr’s national political career. On March 2, 1805, he delivered a farewell speech proclaiming his love for the Senate that left some of his fellow members in tears. Two days later, Jefferson was inaugurated for the second time, with another Founding Father from New York, George Clinton, serving as his vice president. Finished with politics at the federal level, Burr had made an attempt to run for governor of New York in 1804, which ended in failure. Now he was simply out of a job. He would ultimately head west to try his fortune there. That’s when he really got into trouble.

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