- - Monday, July 10, 2017



By Mike Lee

Sentinel, $27, 232 pages

Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a former federal prosecutor who serves on several key Senate committees and chairs the Senate Steering Committee, is also author of “Our Lost Constitution: The Willful Subversion of America’s Founding Document.”

A highly regarded, energetic and principled conservative Republican, Mr. Lee believes strongly in our Constitution and in the separation of powers it established. As such, his treatment of Aaron Burr here is as “an early victim of big government,” whose “trial of the century in the early 1800s,” involving President Thomas Jefferson “defined the limits of executive power and warned of its potential for abuses.”

That trial was the culmination of a series of events and years of bad blood, both personal and political, between Burr and Alexander Hamilton, all growing in intensity during the confused and confusing election of 1800, the machinations of which Mr. Lee succinctly describes.

Among the players in our first partisan presidential campaign were Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who were feuding. Neither liked Aaron Burr, and Burr returned the sentiment. Alexander Hamilton didn’t like Jefferson or Burr. Jefferson was labeled a Deist infidel and friend of France, at a time when the French Revolution was underway. Adams was a friend of England, and Burr an opportunist who’d willingly start a war to win an election.

The results of the election were inconclusive. The electoral vote deadlocked at 73 votes for Jefferson, 73 for Burr, leaving it to the House of Representatives to decide the winner. It required numerous votes and intense campaigning on both sides before Jefferson was chosen, in large part, Burr believed, because of Hamilton’s active intervention on Jefferson’s behalf, throwing Federalist support to Jefferson, whom he disliked less than Burr.

In 1804, toward the end of his term as Jefferson’s vice president, an office he was awarded as the second-place finisher, Burr ran for governor of New York and lost, again blaming Hamilton. He challenged Hamilton to a duel, Hamilton accepted, and the results, as they say, are history, with Burr the historic loser because he won.

(When Hamilton’s face on the $10 bill was briefly threatened by bureaucrats blinded by political correctness, the politically correct Broadway musical Hamilton caused them to transfer their attentions to the now-politically incorrect face of Andrew Jackson on the $20. Interestingly, as Mr. Lee points out, Jackson was a supporter of Aaron Burr.)

During the presidential race of 1800, Burr had earned the personal and political enmity of Thomas Jefferson for continuing to campaign while the House was voting on the outcome. In 1807 Jefferson attempted to take his revenge and remove Burr from the scene permanently by bringing him to trial for high treason.

On the basis of dubious evidence, some of it obviously rigged, Burr was charged with attempting to organize an uprising in the Western territories, where he’d gone to make a fresh start. But despite Jefferson’s strenuous efforts to influence the outcome, Chief Justice John Marshall stood firm and acquitted Burr of the treason charges.

“In a dictatorial America,” writes Mr. Lee, “Jefferson might well have gotten his way. Had he done so, he would have made a mockery of the justice system . It reminds us that the temptation among presidents toward excess is a strong one — so strong that, for a time at least, it overcame the good judgment of one of our greatest presidents.”

Other figures from our early years treated by Mr. Lee are less well remembered, if at all. Among those “who are not household names but who should be,” are Mercy Otis Warren, a writer and protege of John Adams, “who spent her life warning against the encroachment of federal power;” Canasatego, an Iroquois chief who helped Benjamin Franklin formulate “the basic principles behind the separation of powers and confederate government.” Also discussed are Luther Martin, Elbridge Gerry, James Otis, George Mason.

And finally, Mum Bett, a Massachusetts slave “who saw her country struggle for freedom and was inspired to seek her own in a landmark case in which she argued that certain natural rights superseded unjust laws.”

She sued and in 1781 she won, changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman, and died at 85, “a free woman, in her own home.”

Her case, writes Mr. Lee, “showed an early glimmer of the idea that the principles of individual freedom could — and must — be applied to all Americans.”

• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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