Aaron Burr, Patriot and Vice President
On February 6, 1756, a boy was born into privilege in Newark, New Jersey. Young Aaron Burr, Jr. was son of the president of the College of New Jersey, and grandson of Jonathan Edwards, the Calvinist theologian regarded as a leader of the evangelical movement of the 18th century, an equal to the great preacher George Whitfield.
Privilege then wasn’t quite what privilege is today, of course; there were no Rolls-Royces to drive, no Waldorf Astorias to stay in during constant vacations, no jet-setting to Monte Carlo, no celebrity photographers and magazines to put one’s face in front of every shopper to keep their stars shining. But to the extent that there was privilege, young Burr had it.
He lost his famous grandfather and both of his parents when he was just a baby, so this child of Princeton University and the Great Awakening had not only fame on his side, but pity for his orphan status as well. All America knew who he was – everyone that mattered, anyway – and he was sure to succeed in life because of this background.
Aaron Burr attended the family college at 13, joined the American Whig Society and Cliosophic Society, and received his B.A. in 1772, at the age of 16. He joined the Continental Army as soon as the War of Independence began in 1775, and served under Generals Montgomery, Putnam, and Malcolm. He was even a member of General Washington’s personal staff – very briefly – but disliked that role so much he quit in a matter of weeks.
Still, Burr’s military service was honorable, distinguished, and long enough, ranging from 1775 through 1779, the lion’s share of the war, if not the whole thing. He went into the practice of law, and then politics, which is of course why we know him today.
Aaron Burr served as Attorney General of New York, then as a U.S. Senator from New York, and finally, amazingly, as Vice President of the United States, during President Thomas Jefferson’s first term, a reward for his brilliant skills as a New York state party-builder.
In the complex election of 1800, Aaron Burr very nearly became the President himself, during the weeks of unsure wrangling in the House of Representatives that resulted from the famous tie in the Electoral College.
Rising to Vice President at 44. The very image of success. But his fall was to be great as well, since during that very term of office, he was to challenge Alexander Hamilton to a duel, causing a collapse in his political capital so complete that he would become virtually unemployable, spending the rest of his long life grasping at ever more desperate straws to survive.
On February 6, 1911, more than a century after Aaron Burr’s precipitous fall, a baby was born in the tiny town of Tampico, Illinois. Ronald Wilson Reagan was born poor, the son of a good man with a poor work ethic and an addiction to alcohol. Reagan’s parents were no mansion-dwellers; they rented houses and apartments in small towns and large – from Tampico to Chicago to Dixon – as his dad struggled to hold down jobs as a shoe salesman and his mom struggled to feed the family on such meager earnings.
Still, his poor parents managed to raise him right; Reagan was raised in the evangelical Disciples of Christ church that his mom considered a second home, and he attended tiny Eureka College in Eureka, Illinois. Eureka was and is no Princeton; this small town college along the Mississippi is as far from the Ivy League as you can get. It doesn’t attract the wealthy or the famous, but Reagan always attributed his success in life to his mother’s church and to the small town college where he studied economics, played football, and trod the boards of the college stage.
He gained early fame on Midwest radio, working in WHO in Des Moines as the voice of the Cubs. He moved to Hollywood in 1937 and soon became a dependable actor in the small budget assembly line films of the era, gaining the nickname of “the Errol Flynn of the Bs.” While a fine actor, his greatest talents lay elsewhere, so he moved on to leadership of the Screen Actors Guild, work as a television host, then a traveling pitchman for General Electric, and eventually, finally, politics.
While Ronald Reagan had been a serious and vocal opponent of communism throughout his career, he didn’t actually enter politics until the age of 53, when he delivered a famous speech in support of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. This propelled him to his own elections in 1966 and 1970 as governor of California, the leadership of the conservative movement in the 1970s, and finally, his own amazingly successful two-term presidency in the 1980s that won the Cold War, saved the economy, and reawakened America’s almost-forgotten respect for the vision and philosophy of our Founding Fathers.
A Study in Contrasts
At this point, Gentle Reader, you may be wondering why the author thought to put these two historical figures together in a column. They shared a birthday; Burr was a privileged orphan while Reagan came from an intact but impoverished family. Both reached the top of American politics… but so have many others. Why look at the two of them together? What is the lesson? Consider this:
Aaron Burr was an anachronism. There is a reason why the election of 1800 took months to resolve, and there is a reason why Burr finally challenged Alexander Hamilton to the duel that took the former Treasury Secretary’s life.
Aaron Burr was a politician – a VERY modern politician – in an era in which there were no politicians. Burr was a master at organizing disparate interests, at sweet-talking an audience to his side. He was a charmer – in person, on the stump, in a political caucus or town meeting. He cared about his audience; he wanted the best for them. This wasn’t faked; he genuinely wanted the best for them.
But in an era of philosophers, Burr seemingly had no philosophy. It’s not that he was incapable of choosing sides, or supporting the United States; he was an early volunteer in the War of Independence, and served long and well. But he had no interest in the great questions of political philosophy. At a time when virtually everyone in politics was a deep thinker, Burr was as shallow as the next poll.
Burr was happy to side with the Federalists; he was equally happy to side with the Jeffersonians. Whichever side wanted him on their ticket, he would be open to their offer. Nobody knew where he stood on any issue; he could give a speech without pinning himself down. Burr wasn’t just an independent, or moderate, he was a mover and shaker, a leader, without an issue on which to lead.
From the viewpoint of modern onlookers, this may not seem so strange; the Federalists and the Jeffersonians look nearly identical to our modern eyes; they would ALL be conservative Republicans today.
But to them, their differences were real, and serious enough to matter. In the election of 1800, Adams was clearly a Federalist, and Jefferson was clearly a Jeffersonian. But Burr could go either way, and would clearly be happy to accept either’s nomination to office, anytime. There was something very wrong about that, terrifying to anyone who was paying attention.
Alexander Hamilton made it his personal quest to destroy the infection of Aaron Burr in our politics. From at least the baffling House wrangling of 1800 forward, Hamilton told everyone he could to watch out for Burr. Hamilton maintained that this nation could only succeed if its politicians – ALL its politicians – cared about liberty.
In Hamilton’s view, disagreements on the finer points – the relative strength of the Senate vs. the House, just how much authority the Senate’s “advice and consent” power was meant to hold over the executive branch, and so forth – were minor in comparison to the greater risk of electing politicians like Burr, who thought of elections before philosophy… who thought that being a caring and honorable person was sufficient, satisfied to leave the questions of philosophy to others.
Hamilton’s constant attacks on “the Burr Problem” – this risk of political success coming without philosophical conviction – were the catalyst to the final challenge that resulted in the Interview at Weehawken that ended Hamilton’s life and Burr’s career.
If you could ask him, Alexander Hamilton would say it was worth it.
The Return of Federalism
Now, Ronald W. Reagan, on the other hand, was the opposite of Aaron Burr in every way. In an era of politicians who put glad-handing and poll results ahead of philosophical concerns, Reagan was a champion of the philosophical underpinnings of the American experiment.
Reagan appeared on the scene like a skyrocket, in October of 1964, with a powerful, televised speech about the issues of the day entitled “A Time for Choosing.” The Speech was chock full of data, statistics, explanations of the Founders’ philosophy and the current political class’ many failings. It was a love letter to Austrian economics and the limited government view that our Framers designed for us. There wasn’t a feint to the center or a dodge from the issues anywhere to be found, in that speech or any other in his thirty-year political career.
The Democrats never knew what to do about Reagan. They tried to portray him as a genial, grandfatherly type, successful because he was sweet and lovable. The Democrats called him Teflon, in a largely successful effort to convince the uninformed that Reagan never talked about issues, that serious matters never stuck to him, that his popularity was in spite of his conservatism, not because of it.
But nothing could be further from the truth. Reagan was a wonk’s wonk; after years as an actor, his old training as an economist had finally returned to the front, and he immersed himself in data. Reagan loved being able to not just state what was right, but back it up with practical data from unimpeachable sources.
Ronald Reagan proved many things to an America that had grown nihilistic about its politics. Many didn’t care, but worse, many who did care had given up. You shake your fist, writer your letters to the editor, walk enough precincts and hold enough rallies, and you get disheartened when even all that fails to awaken the sheeple to the dangers of our current path.
But Ronald Reagan showed that the people COULD be awakened. His back-to-back successes in liberal California, followed by back-to-back landslides as president, proved that the Bob Michaels and Richard Nixons of the world, those dull leaders who thought the people could never again be enthused about policy, so why bother, were simply wrong. This nation CAN still be enthused by concrete issues, by great thoughts, by a return to advocacy of the philosophy of our Founders.
Read a Ronald Reagan speech – not just the drafts that came from the writing team, purged by bureaucrats of their meat, but the version he actually delivered, after Reagan reinserted his statistics and his firm stands – and you see that this was a statesman, unafraid to take a stand on the issues of the day.
Reagan was famous for his debates, both the presidential campaign debates of the run-ups to elections, and the issues debates on matters like the Panama Canal Treaty. If he could educate the public with a letter, a radio spot, a speech, or a debate, he’d never shrink from the opportunity.
And as a result, we have a whole movement of conservatives who came of age in the Reagan Era, who learned at his feet both what our Founding Fathers intended for us, and how to apply it today.
Aaron Burr and Ronald Reagan, a study in contrasts. Both men who served their nation, cared about their constituents, always had the best of intentions. But as we see from their legacies, and their lists of accomplishments, only Reagan truly succeeded. Burr’s heirs are the thousands of politicians, those who gauge their votes by how the wind blows, who fear live interviews and run from controversy. They blend together in the memory like interchangeable parts, political functionaries who do as they’re told by their party leaders without thought or understanding.
But Ronald Reagan was a statesman, in the tradition of the greatest of our Founding Fathers. He appreciated their vision, and showed us that their methods could still pave the way to success, even today. His love of the American thesis was infectious; when America watched him, we joined his excitement about all that it meant to be part of the American Experiment, even now, two centuries after the Founding Era.
Aaron Burr was just the first of many famous names to debase national public service with crass politics; Ronald Reagan was a return to the ways of old. He would have been at home in Philadelphia, in the summer of 1787. He would have been at home in the halls of Congress, in those early years of the new nation.
When all Washington DC was populated by Burrs and worse, Ronald Reagan was a patriot. Even today, in our long political and economic depression, we thank Providence for giving us Ronald Reagan as a reminder, and as an example to emulate.
Happy Birthday in Heaven, President Reagan!
Copyright 2014 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade compliance trainer. As a very minor movement conservative activist during the Reagan era, he was proud to carry water for the elephant that Ronald Reagan rode, as a board member of Illinois Ethnic Americans for Reagan, as president of the Ethnic American Council, and as a local Republican precinct captain in Maine Township. He has now been a recovering politician for over sixteen years; his frequent columns are found in Illinois Review.
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