Day By Day

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

This Day In History

Today is "Random Acts of Kindness Day". So go out there and do something nice for someone. It will make you feel good and in a small way might make the world a little bit better.

On this day in 1801 the House of Representatives voted to make Thomas Jefferson President. In the general election Jefferson had tied with Aaron Burr. The reason was that the "Founders", in their infinite wisdom, had written into the constitution a provision that each member of the Electoral College would cast two votes. The person getting the greatest number of votes would become President, and the person in second place would become Vice President. The problem with this was the emergence of political parties. It ensured that the President and Vice President would belong to different parties. Not a good idea. What happened in 1800 was that the "Jeffersonian" Republican Party won the popular election and instructed its electors to vote for Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, ensuring that both President and Vice President would be Republicans. One of the electors was to refrain from casting their second vote [for Burr]. That way Jefferson would be assured of becoming President while Burr would become his Vice President.

The trouble was that the Republican electors screwed up. They all voted for both Jefferson and Burr and so the two men were tied in the Electoral College. That threw the election into the House of Representatives where the losing party, the Federalists, could influence the outcome. For several days the House could not choose between Jefferson and Burr and tempers grew ever shorter. Burr refused to step aside and the Federalists refused to vote for Jefferson, whom they hated. Finally, though, Alexander Hamilton who led the New York Federalists, decided that he hated Burr [who was also from New York and had engaged in long and bitter political fights with Hamilton in the past] more than he hated Jefferson. On the 36th ballot he instructed his allies to switch their votes to Jefferson and the crisis was resolved. Thomas Jefferson became the third President of the United States.

One of the results of this breakdown of the electoral system was the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution which stipulates that electors must distinguish between their votes for president and for vice president. But the personal consequences were much more interesting.

Jefferson, himself a world class hater, decided that Vice President Burr had to be driven from national politics. He made it clear that Burr would not be on the ticket in 2004 so the Vice President shifted his attention back to the State level, deciding to run for Governor of New York. That put him directly in competition again with his old enemy, Alexander Hamilton. The campaign got really nasty and eventually Burr demanded that Hamilton recant some of his outrageous statements. Hamilton refused to do so; Burr then challenged him to a duel. The two men met on a field in Weehawken, New Jersey. Hamilton shot and missed, Burr's shot hit and Hamilton died.

There remained the animosity between Burr and Jefferson. Burr became involved in a scheme to promote settlement on land he had purchased in Texas, which at the time was still part of Mexico. One of his partners in the deal, General James Wilkinson, was a scoundrel and a spy for Mexico. A number of other shady characters were involved in various ways. Just what Burr intended is not clear, but President Jefferson, suspecting the worst, decided to charge him with treason and ordered his arrest. Burr tried to flee the country, but was apprehended and brought back to Washington for trial. Since there was no solid evidence against him Burr was acquitted. He remained a free man but his political career was over.

On this day in 2009 Barak Obama signed a mammoth, $787 billion economic stimulus bill into law; he also approved adding some 17,000 U.S. troops for the war in Afghanistan. Make of those what you will.

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