Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 55 Struggle with the Judiciary

ON January 26, 1804, Jefferson received a surprise visit from the Vice-President of the United States, Aaron Burr. The two men, so different in every respect, had gone their separate ways ever since their joint inauguration into office, and their relations had been placed on the most formal basis.

It was a strange visit, and Jefferson, immediately after it was over, set down his version of it in his private Anas. Burr's version was never similarly immortalized.

According to Jefferson, Burr commenced with the story of his life; how he had come to New York "a stranger" and found the state in control of the Livingstons and the Clintons. In the crisis of 1800, they had asked his aid to help them to the seats of power and he had given it. He had accepted the vice-presidential nomination only to promote Jefferson's "fame and advancement, and from a desire to be with me, whose company and conversation had always been fascinating to him." Then the Livingstons and the Clintons had become hostile, and "excited the calumnies which I had seen published." His attachment to Jefferson was as strong and sincere as ever; nevertheless, "attachments must be reciprocal or cease to exist."

He was willing, Burr continued, to retire at the end of his term for the good of the Republican cause, in order to avoid a schism. (A presidential election was due in the fall of 1804.) But he did not intend to retire under fire; his enemies were using Jefferson's name to destroy him; and "some mark of favor from me" was essential "which would declare to the world that he retired with my confidence."

Jefferson replied coldly that he had never interfered in any election in the past, and would not do so in the impending one. Then he turned the conversation to "indifferent subjects" and bowed Burr out.

Barely had the discomfited Vice-President quit the room when Jefferson hastened to his desk to record sarcastically that Burr had thought to placate him with strong doses of flattery; but that he, Jefferson, had always distrusted him, and that Burr seemed to be always "at market" for any job anywhere.1

Jefferson was not as naïve as he sounded. He knew very well the object of the visit. Burr was fighting for his political life in New York, and matters were coming to a head. For much of Burr's difficulties Jefferson was directly responsible. Ever since the first days of the administration when he had turned a deaf ear to all Burr's requests for patronage, and filled almost

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