The Perils of Nonpartisanship: The Case of Aaron Burr

Aaron Burr was a victim of his own nonpartisanship, his openness to working with political opponents as well as allies. Burr's story illustrates that Americans love nonpartisanship in principle but often disdain it in practice.
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The polls and the pundits agree that Americans detest the partisanship that nearly melted down the government this summer over the debt ceiling issue. The nation cries out for civil compromise as Republicans and Democrats wrestle over the national steering wheel, seemingly oblivious to economic catastrophe around the next curve.

Yet history teaches, and President Obama is discovering, that determined nonpartisanship can generate even greater public disdain. Americans despair of politicians who will not relinquish their narrow political preferences in times of crisis, but they absolutely despise those who seem to have no political views at all. Though the president claims he seeks bipartisan problem-solving, his fellow Democrats complain that he is slipping into the black hole of American political life: nonpartisanship.

An earlier discoverer of this hard truth was our third vice president, Aaron Burr, who died on Staten Island 175 years ago today. Burr was the bad boy of America's founding: he killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, led a shadowy expedition to liberate Spanish colonies and trigger an insurrection in New Orleans, and beat a treason rap before Chief Justice John Marshall.

But another part of Burr's story resonates in our era of divided and paralyzed government: he was a victim of his own nonpartisanship, his openness to working with political opponents as well as allies. Burr's story illustrates that Americans love nonpartisanship in principle but often disdain it in practice.

An adept politician, Burr became vice president to Thomas Jefferson in 1801. His two predecessors in that office both ascended to the presidency, and he hoped to follow their examples. Yet when he left the public stage six years later, Burr stood second only to Benedict Arnold in the pantheon of American villains.

What was at the core of Burr's precipitous fall? Chronic nonpartisanship.

"They Dread His Independence"

After winning glory as a young army officer, the charismatic Burr became a leading New York lawyer in the 1780s. He had no taste for political theory, so he avoided the fierce debates over the Constitution of 1787. Deeds, not ideas, fired Burr's imagination. He became New York's attorney general, then U.S. senator, then the leading Republican Party candidate for vice president in 1796.

Because Burr maintained friendships with Federalists and Republicans alike, both mistrusted him. As a friend observed, his allies "respect Burr's talents, but they dread his independence. They know, in short, he is not one of them."

Burr's uncertain party loyalty became pivotal in the mangled presidential election of 1800. Due to a flaw in the Constitution (somewhat repaired by the Twelfth Amendment), Burr and Jefferson finished in a dead heat in the electoral vote. The contest shifted to the House of Representatives in March 1801.

Deciding that Burr was the lesser of two evils, Federalist congressmen resolved to vote for him. Though he endorsed Jefferson's candidacy, Burr said he would accept the presidency if the House chose him, even if it did so with mostly Federalist votes.

Emboldened, Federalists backed Burr through 35 deadlocked ballots, until he instructed them to stop voting for him. Two ballots later, Jefferson prevailed.

Hamilton, a leading Federalist and former Treasury Secretary, scorned Burr's nonpartisan path, calling him "a mere matter-of-fact man" who lacked "theory." Hamilton added, "Is it a recommendation to have no theory? Can that man be a systematic or able statesman who has none? I believe not."

Man Without a Party

President Jefferson, the Republican leader, never forgave Burr for the 1800 election. He froze Burr out of governing, then dropped him from the Republican ticket in 1804. Burr became a man without a party. The press called him a "quid," shorthand for "tertium quid" ("third thing" in Latin), a term reflecting his political homelessness.

When Burr ran for governor of New York in 1804, he only underscored his unrepentant nonpartisanship. His only opponent? Another Republican. Once more, Hamilton denounced him; once more, Burr drew principally Federalist support. Once more, he lost.

Smoldering with resentment, Burr took umbrage at certain remarks made by Hamilton. He demanded a retraction or Hamilton's presence on a field of honor. Hamilton chose to fight the duel, which proved fatal to him and fatal to Burr's political career.

After the duel, Burr's public life was over, a casualty of nonpartisanship, yet Burr remained true to his nonpartisan soul. On his last day as vice president in March 1805, he told the Senate that he hoped his actions "had known no party -- no cause -- no friend."

As Burr's case shows, and as President Obama should beware, the nonpartisan is readily tarred as an opportunist, one without "theory," isolated politically without natural allies.

Beware of Americans who want leaders to solve problems and not worry about party labels. They don't really mean it. That, at least, was the experience of Aaron Burr, the first failed American nonpartisan.

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