Monday, July 11, 2011

History: Strange Bedfellows

Today marks the 207th anniversary of the much storied duel between Alexander Hamilton and then Vice President of the U.S. Aaron Burr. As most of us know, Hamilton died of wounds suffered at the hands of Burr and, despite the fact that both men had glaring character flaws acknowledged by their peers, Burr became a political and social pariah as a result. Now, before I go further, I’m sure more than one of the Brethren in wondering what the heck the Hamilton/Burr affair has to do with pirates and privateers. The answer is simply, quite a lot. If it had not been for Burr’s post-duel career, two of America’s greatest pirates would probably never have become Lords of Galveston.

Though there is a reinvention of the exploits of Aaron Burr going on in modern American history, the facts of the man’s life speak for themselves. After serving in the Continental Army during the Revolution and receiving a law degree from Princeton, Burr plunged headlong into politics. Though he was a charming and intelligent gentleman, he was perhaps too vociferous about his largely unpopular opinions particularly after taking the office of V.P. His various smoldering animosities came to a head when he challenged Hamilton. The men met in Weehawken, New Jersey; Hamilton died on July 12, 1804.

Burr would finish his term as V.P. despite litigation brought against him for Hamilton’s murder (of which he was cleared). All his future political opportunities, however, died with Hamilton. Unfortunately, though, this did not change his aspirations. Some time in 1805, Burr began to get very cozy with the ambassadors from Spain.

Spain was still gnashing her teeth over Napoleon’s sale of what she perceived as her Louisiana Territory. Getting it back would occupy a good deal of her U.S. ambassadors’ for the first two decades of the 19th century. Britain was also contesting the legality of the Louisiana Purchase and her Ambassador Merry joined Spain’s Yrujo and the former Vice President in a plot to try to dissolve it. Though many modern historian’s discount Burr’s involvement, that he was in touch with both ambassadors is documented by correspondence. What is not clear is why Burr backed out of the operation after a visit to New Orleans in 1806. Burr was arrested on a treason charge, of which he was later acquitted, in 1807.

Left without local operatives, Spain would cast about until after the War of 1812 when Britain officially abandoned the idea of returning Louisiana to Spain. In 1815, however, through Spanish spy Father Antonio de Sedella, Ambassador Onis would be introduced to the Laffite brothers. Pierre and Jean would feed the ambassador fictional but plausible stories – including that their maternal grandmother was a Spanish Jew – and collect monetarily for their trouble. It was Spain, for the most part, that backed their largely successful privateering operation at Galveston in the hope of catching and prosecuting the very privateers who used the port.

The duplicitous conduct of the Laffites did far more to hinder Spain’s ambitions than they did to help them. One has to imagine, however, that had Burr continued in – and been more successful at – his dealing with Spain, the Laffites might simply have drifted into obscurity after the Battle of New Orleans. Instead, their anti-hero image has been preserved for all time. Politics, greed and narcissism frequently make strange bedfellows. This instance seems to be no exception.

Header: Aaron Burr by Gilbert Stuart


Capt. John Swallow said...

Nice post - and reminded me o' the play that Michael Martin cast and read for us during NOLA Pyrate Week 2010 - The Many Deaths Of Theodosia - the only US President's daughter to be captured by Pyrates!

An interesting character herself
In fact it's rumoured her ship was captured by none other than Dominique Youx!

Pauline said...

Thankee, indeed, Captain. Theodosia, often listed as "lost at sea", came to my attention while researching this post. Your added information (especially the speculation about one of my favorite privateers!) makes me quite certain that we'll hear about her again at Triple P.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! It's also the 5 year anniversary of the death of another great man (if I do say so myself)... My Dad. Not that that has anything to do with your post. Speaking of which, it is interesting how the events you noted (plus the links provided by the good Captain above) all intertwine.

Pauline said...

Indeed. Those kind of losses are ones that will never be forgotten. And yeah; more on the Burrs in future, no doubt.