Burr's Finest Moment Was Overseeing Impeachment Trial
In a polarizing impeachment battle, partisans target this officeholder in part for what they deem his rowdy unbecoming conduct. Amid all this, the presiding official in the Senate trial even becomes an issue.
The tiff last year between President Donald Trump and Chief Justice John Roberts has prompted at least some Trump backers to call for Roberts’ recusal in the Senate impeachment trial likely to commence early 2020, presuming the Democratic House moves forward as expected. In summary, the tiff happened when the chief justice took exception to a Trump tweet about an “Obama judge” and decided to defend his branch of the government—the judiciary—in a statement to the Associated Press. Trump fired back with other tweets aimed at Roberts. There’s almost no chance of a recusal, as Article 1, Section 3, Clause 6 of the Constitution is clear, “… When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside.”
The presiding officer of the Senate trial was also relevant in the first and only impeachment of a Supreme Court Justice in 1805. For Vice President Aaron Burr, acting in his role as Senate president, was charged with judging the justice.
The Samuel Chase impeachment trial might well have been Burr’s finest moment in politics, as explained in my book “Tainted by Suspicion: The Secret Deals and Electoral Chaos of Disputed Presidential Elections.”
For Burr, finest moment is a very low bar to start with. After running on a ticket with Thomas Jefferson in 1800, he tried to steal the election away from Jefferson in the House of Representatives. In July 1804, he killed former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in a duel. By January 1805, he was presiding over the Chase trial.
During the trial, Burr was lauded for his fairness—and fairness has been an issue of constant debate in the current impeachment process.
Senator William Plumer, a Federalist from New Hampshire, observed Burr had “certainly, on the whole, done himself, the Senate and the nation honor by the dignified manner in which he has presided over this high and numerous Court.”
Dignity and honor are rarely adjectives applied to Burr’s legacy.
Massachusetts Congressman Manasseh Cutler, also a clergyman, seem to find Burr’s redemption in the impeachment trial, observing the vice president: “conducted with a propriety and solemnity throughout which reflects honor upon the Senate. It must be acknowledged that Burr has displayed much ability, and since the first day I have seen nothing of partiality.”
One newspaper reporter characterized Burr as having “the dignity and impartiality of an angel, but with the rigor of a devil.”
In that trial, the defendant spoke for himself on the Senate floor. Burr frequently interrupted Chase, reducing the justice to tears. Burr also scolded senators for walking in the Senate chamber during witness testimony.
Democratic-Republican Republican John Randolph of Virginia led the impeachment managers, essentially the prosecution team. Burr, the trial judge, would often intervene the prosecutors with questions.
The Senate Historical Office writes of the trial: “When either side objected to a question posed by the other, Burr took careful note of the objection, ordering that the offending question be ‘reduced to writing’ and put to the Senate for a determination.”
Some of that evenhandedness might have been the result of not being a lame duck VP, booted off the ticket with Jefferson in the 1804 re-election campaign. Pre-Twelfth Amendment, the designated vice presidential candidates of the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans—commonly called Republicans—were legally running for president.
The Jefferson-Burr ticket (such as it was) won in a landslide, sweeping a Republican majority into Congress. The problem was Republican electors were not on the ball and awarded 73 electoral votes to both Jefferson and Burr to be president. This sent the matter to the House of Representatives. Instead of graciously stepping aside, and making the House vote a formality, Burr schemed to convince the lame-duck Federalist majority in Congress to install him as president. Hamilton convinced his Federalist brethren to back away from the cliff, and Jefferson was elected in the historic peaceful transfer of power.
Chase, a George Washington appointee, was known for partisanship and accused of bias in trying cases for those charged with the hated Alien and Sedition Act. So, chiefly the articles of impeachment were for judicial misconduct. Chase also openly campaigned for John Adams re-election in 1800, and was openly partisan on other fronts.
The Chase matter was the backdrop to a larger clash. Jefferson and his faction controlled the executive and legislative branches. The Federalists were on life support electorally, but had a stranglehold on the federal judiciary. So, President Jefferson pushed his allies in Congress to get rid of this nuisance, and sent a warning to judges seeking too much independence.
As is the case with the pending Trump impeachment, and the impeachments of Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, the Chase impeachment occurred in the middle of a politically charged culture war.
Two impeachment articles gained a slim majority vote in the Senate—well short of the two-thirds required for removing the justice. The Senate voted unanimously to acquit Chase on other articles. On March 1, 1805, Burr announced the tally of the votes.
“Tainted by Suspicion” looks at four presidential elections that went into overtime after election day, 1800, 1824, 1876 and 2000. The book also looks at how different America would be if had the overtime turned out differently. In 1800, that would have meant President Burr, in which the book looks at his presidency of the Senate. The Chase impeachment was the biggest highlight of this era.
Most Americans would consider modern-day Washington politicians to be more like Burr than Jefferson, Washington and Adams. Still, if the Chase impeachment can teach us anything, it is that even the worst politicians can rise to the occasion in time of a national crisis such as impeachment.