Nearly everyone knows that Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton, but almost nobody knows that Burr was wanted for murder while he was the vice president. Few people are aware that Aaron Burr was even the vice president at all, and fewer would expect, given the historically serene nature of contemporary politics, that an American vice president has ever been wanted for murder while in office. Nixon nearly went to prison for eavesdropping. Bill Clinton was impeached over a series of sexual episodes. Because of the Hamilton affair, Burr was wanted by two states on charges of homicide. He essentially spent part of his vice presidency in hiding.
Even stranger than all of these relations is that Aaron Burr was very nearly our third president instead of Thomas Jefferson, who despised Burr's lack of character despite their being in (what many of the founding fathers claimed to abhor but would very easily pass today for) the same political party. Burr had been known, as biographer Ron Chernow notes, for his lack of any serious political principles. He was known for his complete disregard for the sanctity of marriage and was even more infamous for his disregard for the sanctity of trust in general. He lived in great debt, eventually went by a pseudonym, and was officially charged (and acquitted) by Jefferson of treason.
Other than Hamilton's death, there was a particular instance that sealed Burr's infamy. In the post-colonial era of the early republic, a deadly contagion might sweep across our coast and cause everyone to barricade his town against outsiders. Thousands would die in waves not unlike those experienced in the Middle Ages; men with carts were shuffling dead bodies around to cries of bring out your dead. Armed men blocked streets. Almost all commerce stopped. Well-intentioned doctors bled their patients to death, and everyone feared that associating with his closest friends could possibly lead to the loss of his family.
It was in light of this fearful climate that a proposal was made to establish a waterworks in Manhattan and thereby improve sanitation – a proposal that quickly gained the approval of the public. The plan was presented by Aaron Burr to Alexander Hamilton, and from Hamilton's noble soul to the fearful public. But unbeknownst to Hamilton, the entire effort was an attempt to establish a bank – a bank intended to fund and support Burr's anti-federalist political allies (who happened to be Hamilton's enemies). At the last moment, right before the bill was to be passed, Burr slipped in a clause that gave him the right to mismanage the funds, and he siphoned the money that could have saved neighbors' lives entirely toward his own political purposes. It made Burr the pariah of both parties, while the republicans quietly accepted the political advantages resulting from it. And this was public before Aaron Burr nearly defeated Thomas Jefferson ina presidential election.
The reason all this is worth mentioning is because a lot of people have been saying that Donald Trump will be the end of the Republican Party. But someone who believes in reincarnation might easily be led to believe Trump was there for the beginning of the party. He appears unprincipled and untrustworthy – a man fueled less by spiritual conviction and more by avarice and ambition. We have been here before, and we have left it behind only to find it again.
The political opportunist, like the scammer and the prostitute, seems to be a permanent fixture on the world stage of history. Donald Trump's character as a political figure has yet to be proved. His character as a private figure suggests that we are in for a disappointment.
I don't believe that Donald Trump is the worst candidate in the world. In certain respects, he may even be the best. In terms of trickery, he appears superior to Burr. As an entire picture, he's better than any of the Democrats. What I'm saying is that if it comes down to Jefferson and Burr, we have to be the kind of people who are ready for and deserving of Jefferson. However highly we think of our ancestors, the truth is that they nearly weren't. The question we have to ask ourselves is, why do we deserve better?The answer ought to be, because we are better people.
As our ancestors proved, there is no inevitable slide into immorality. Shy of the darkening of the universe and the Last Judgment, there is no irreversible trend of history. We are history. We have choices to make – not about others, but about ourselves. We have the ability to be the kind of people who can be represented only by the best kinds of people. The only people standing in the way of the Republican Party are the Republicans. The only reason we're led by anyone like Burr is because some of us aren't ready to be led by a Jefferson.
I don't believe, to steal the words of the immortal Chesterton, that we're pessimistic enough to believe that the best men always rise to the top. Americans are optimists at heart, and an optimist isn't anyone who believes we have it best. An optimist celebrates the immensity of our squandered goodness. An optimist knows that where we are isn't the best place to be, and that it isn't where we have to stay. So it's been said that our best days are behind us – and by whom? It's been said that our children will be our salvation – and why can't we be our own? Everyone wants to make the best children, but nobody's convinced he can first save the parents. Whether we look backward or forward, we find ourselves cowardly avoiding the present.
The problem with America's conservatives is that they think too highly of themselves to get any better. Anyone who misses the founding fathers ought to make himself like one. Anyone who wants the best Americans ought himself to be the best of the Americans. We've all heard women complaining that there aren't any good men out there. It should seem highly suspicious that none of the complaints is coming from great women.