Our History & Our Heritage By Bill Kiefer

Last week was pretty exciting. I don’t know that the counting of electoral votes has been so contentious since Bush-Gore in 2000, and before that Hayes-Tilden in 1876. In the 1876 election President Ulysses S. Grant was expected to seek a third term. He defied expectations and did not. Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio was the Republican nominee. Samuel Tilden of New York led the Democratic ticket. Tilden won the popular vote 50.9% to 47.9%. He also had 184 electoral votes to 165 for Hayes. Twenty electoral votes were in dispute and it took 185 to win. In the states whose electoral votes were in dispute: Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina, each party claimed victory. A 15 person committee of five Senators, five House members and five Supreme Court Justices was appointed to resolve the matter. The result has been frequently called “The Compromise of 1877.” In exchange for all twenty electoral votes going to Hayes it was agreed that the Republicans who controlled the Senate would vote with the Democrats who controlled the House to end the post-civil war Reconstruction Period and to withdraw all federal troops from the South. Hello President Hayes, Hello KKK, good-by 13th and 14th Amendment.
Even before that, the election of 1800 involved similar deal making. At that time there was no popular vote for President of the United States. Instead, each member of the Electoral College cast two votes, with no distinction between a vote for President and one for Vice-President. (Okay, in elementary school we all learned that George Washington was the only President elected unanimously. It was a different system.) In 1796 this led to the election of John Adams, Federalist as President and Thomas Jefferson, Democratic-Republican as Vice-President. Adams was the leading vote getter and Jefferson finished second hence the result which was without regard to party affiliation. In 1800 there were tickets with Adams and Charles C. Pinckney on the Federalist ticket as candidates for President and Vice-President. The Democratic-Republican ticket was Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The plan of each nascent party was that one of the party’s electors would abstain or vote for a third person for Vice-President so that either Adams or Jefferson would receive one more vote than Pinckney or Burr. It was a close election with Jefferson winning 73 electoral votes to Adams 65. More significantly, on the Democratic-Republican side someone did not carry out the President/Vice-President Agreement and Jefferson and Burr finished in a tie with each receiving 73 votes. What to do? Who was President Jefferson or Burr? At that time the Constitution provided an answer. The out-going House of Representatives would decide, with each state delegation having one vote. Burr, seizing opportunity, campaigned against Jefferson. Most Federalist delegations, to whom Jefferson was the Devil incarnate, voted for Burr, while the Democratic-Republican delegations stuck with Jefferson. There were thirty-five deadlocked ballots. On the thirty-sixth ballot Alexander Hamilton worked hard and got some Federalists to switch their ballots to Jefferson. Can you say: “Hello President Jefferson, Hello Vice-President Burr?” A future repeat of this occurrence was prevented by the adoption of the 12th Amendment in 1804 specifying that electoral votes for President and Vice-President were to be made separately. This led to the election of 1804 in which the Democratic-Republicans and Jefferson who remained uncomfortable with Burr from his attempts to become President in 1800 and other issues, to select George Clinton as Jefferson’s running mate.
Alas, poor Aaron Burr, dumped from the ticket. We largely know of him from his duel with Alexander Hamilton, and from accusations of treason after his service as Vice-President. Obviously, he and Hamilton were political enemies. The recent biography of Hamilton by Ron Chernow brings much of the rivalry to life. Hamilton was a revolutionary war hero. He served in crucial posts in the Washington and Adams administrations, but not having been born in the colonies or United States he could never be President. The recent popular musical by Lin-Carmen Miranda brings the life of Hamilton and his rivalry with Burr to life. They were equals and rivals. Burr was well educated, a Princeton graduate and also was a hero of the Revolutionary War. Although he did not rise as high as Hamilton and felt slighted by Washington.
After being dumped from the ticket by Jefferson, Burr’s self-made troubles really began in that he allegedly, started plotting to take over either a part of the Louisiana Territory or Texas and set himself up as Emperor over that area.
He ventured into our region seeking support for his plot. Burr made three trips to Blennerhassett Island just south of Parkersburg to enlist the support of local people including Harman Blennerhassett in his expedition. Blennerhassett had allegedly built the finest home on the frontier for his wife. He intended to pursue scientific investigation there. In 1806, Blennerhassett was convinced by Burr to supervise the building of boats and the recruitment of men for the western invasion.
Burr contacted other prominent persons to help him. Also in 1806, Burr visited with Colonel George Morgan in Washington County, Pennsylvania at the estate known as Morganza. Today this is roughly the site of SouthPointe near Canonsburg. Morgan, in addition to being a Colonel in the Revolutionary Army Morgan had been the U.S. Government’s Indian Agent on the frontier. Burr tried to solicit Morgan’s support for his adventure. Colonel Morgan wasted little time in informing President Jefferson of the plot.
Arrest orders were issued and for a while Burr and Blennerhassett were on the run. Colonel Hugh Phelps of the Wood County Militia was tasked with arresting both Burr and Blennerhassett who both fled. Phelps pursued them, but left an unsupervised contingent behind which got into the wine cellar, destroyed art and furniture. (The home was destroyed by a fire in 1812. It has been rebuilt today.)
As a footnote Burr and Blennerhassett were captured. Burr went on trial in 1807 and after several months was acquitted. Burr’s acquittal led to the release of Blennerhassett. Disregarding the period of 1861 to 1865 this was the only time of which I am aware that a former government official as high as a Vice-President was charged with and tried for treason.