The Ridiculous Notion That No One Is Above the Law
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The Ridiculous Notion That No One Is Above the Law

History and present experiences say this isn’t true.

You probably think this story will be about a certain ex-president who likely committed dozens of crimes while in office and will likely never spend a day in jail. There are admitted similarities, but this story is about a vice president who literally killed someone and tried to overthrow the government. This person was ultimately charged with treason. While in confinement in Alabama, he took many meals with the camp commandant and his family. He slept in a comfortable bed. When he was transferred by boat to Richmond, VA, for trial, women lined the banks weeping at the sight of the former vice president as a prisoner. He was acquitted after the Supreme Court Justice overseeing the trial seemingly placed his thumb on the scale.

Aaron Burr was inconvenienced after committing his crimes. After killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, he ran away to Georgia and stayed with a friend from the Senate. Hamilton and Burr arranged to have the duel in New Jersey as opposed to New York, where they both lived. Hamilton helped pass an anti-dueling law in New York including penalties of losing the right to vote or hold office for twenty years. New Jersey had less harsh penalties and was less likely to prosecute duelists. Hamilton’s son had been killed in a duel in the same spot two years earlier, so he knew it well.

If you’ve seen the musical Hamilton, you will have seen a version where Hamilton purposely missed, expecting Burr to act honorably and do the same. Burr’s aim was true, and the mortally wounded Hamilton was taken back across the river to New York, where he died. Whether it happened that way will never be known as the seconds who came along to support the pair turned their backs so as not to be accomplices or witnesses. Hamilton may well have just missed.

Burr expected to be treated as a returning hero when he got back to New York but found they were looking to prosecute him both in New Jersey, where the illegal duel took place and in New York, where Hamilton died. Burr fled to New Jersey, then Philadelphia, and ultimately hid out on a plantation in Georgia. Burr was allegedly an abolitionist in his early years but found refuge with one of the nation’s largest slaveowners, Senator Pierce Butler. Politics makes strange bedfellows.

The last time I heard someone spout on television that “no one is above the law” was yesterday. The previous time was the day before, all in the face of describing actions proving some individuals are above the law. Aaron Burr is but one example, there are several others.

While a fugitive in Georgia, Burr was indicted for dueling and murder in New York and New Jersey. He was also still the vice president of the United States and needed to preside over the Senate, which was closely divided between Jeffersonian Republicans and Federalists. The Senate was considering the impeachment of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, who was accused of letting his partisan leanings affect his court rulings. Chase, to date, has been the only Justice ever impeached, though ultimately not convicted by the Senate. Nowadays, partisan leanings among SCOTUS members are taken as a given and often celebrated.

Burr was determined to return to the vice presidency and, through friends in high places, got the New Jersey Governor to pressure the county prosecutor to call Hamilton’s death a “fair duel” and drop the charges. New York also dropped the murder charge though Burr was found guilty of the misdemeanor dueling charge, which meant that he could neither vote, practice law, nor occupy a public office in New York for 20 years. This didn’t keep Burr from holding federal office, and he returned to finish his term as vice president. While facing charges, he wrote his daughter, Theodosia, about how he was being persecuted.

“There is a contention of a singular nature between the two States of New York and New Jersey," wrote Burr. "The subject in dispute is, which shall have the honor of hanging the Vice-President. You shall have due notice of time and place. Whenever it may be, you may rely on a great concourse of company, much gayety, and many rare sights.”

One might think Burr would be content with having escaped his brush with the law and slink into obscurity after serving as vice president. Burr had inherited both wealth and power. Although his parents both died when he was very young. He had a wealthy grandfather and the best education and placements. Burr’s preacher grandfather was a man of conviction and helped usher in The Great Awakening, known as the beginning of American Evangelicism.

Burr himself was never known for his passionate beliefs, favoring whatever was popular in an attempt to gain favor. He once almost became President in 1801 instead of Thomas Jefferson after reneging on an agreement related to electoral votes. Jefferson and Burr were tied, and it took weeks for the election to be decided. At the same time, Burr ended up as Jefferson’s vice president. Rest assured, the two didn’t get along. When he ran for reelection in 1804, Jefferson dumped Burr in favor of George Clinton, who served as vice president for Jefferson’s second term and two terms under James Madison. Burr, it seems, had nothing to do.

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Burr saw an opportunity with the recent Louisiana Purchase and America’s westward expansion. Given his unlikely chances of ever becoming President, he sought a land of his own to control. One witness quoted Burr as saying he would become “King of Mexico” after encouraging the secession of multiple Southwestern states. During the trial, President Jefferson refused a subpoena for documents that might have established Burr’s guilt. It seems the jury was inclined to convict Burr but for the instructions from Chief Justice John Marshall. Marshall ruled that Burr could not be found to have committed treason based on the events at Blennerhassett’s Island.

After his exoneration, Burr went to Europe for four years, eventually returning and living out his life in relative obscurity. His zest for living was diminished over the death of his daughter Theodosia, whose boat disappeared at sea while crossing the Atlantic on her way to see her father.

It can be argued that Burr did once get arrested for treason and stood trial. It cannot be said that he wasn’t above the law when it was politically expedient when murder charges against him in two states were dropped without legal cause. Hamilton and Barr conspired to evade legal recourse by holding their duel in New Jersey and having their seconds turn away so as not to be able to give evidence. Burr was above the law when a judge took a verdict out of the hands of the jury that he might go free.

Burr is but an example. In recent years, we’ve had a president who committed perjury. Though he faced a minor penalty by not being able to practice law, he didn’t face the jail time an ordinary citizen might face. A currently serving congressman is known to have paid for the transport of an underage girl across state lines to have sex, yet the Justice Department won’t prosecute. A current Supreme Court Associate Justice has taken and failed to disclose what can only be considered bribes as his mother is, in a sense, being held hostage to ensure performance. A different president resigned and was pardoned before criminal charges could be brought for the good of the nation.” Would not the nation be served by knowing that the rich and powerful face the same consequences as the rest of us?

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These are a few examples of people who have been above the law. The criteria for that privilege is changeable and often depends on political need or money, sometimes both. I’m betting I won’t make it the rest of the day without hearing that no one is above the law. History and our present experiences tell us this isn’t the case.

This post originally appeared on Medium and is edited and republished with author's permission. Read more of William Spivey's work on Medium. And if you dig his words, buy the man a coffee.