People: Early Republic


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Aaron Burr was born in New Jersey, the son of a Presbyterian cleric and grandson of theologian Jonathan Edwards. After studying theology for two years he turned to the practice of law. During the American Revolution, he served in the Continental Army. After moving to New York, he got involved in New York politics, helped organize the new Democratic-Republican Party (later called the Jeffersonian Republican Party and still later the Democratic Party we know today), and for a while held elected political office. In 1800, the Democratic-Republican Party chose Thomas Jefferson as its candidate for President and Aaron Burr as its candidate for Vice President. At that time, electors did not cast separate votes for President and Vice President. All of the Democratic-Republican electors cast one electoral vote for Jefferson and one electoral vote for Burr. As a result, Jefferson and Burr tied in the electoral vote. The House of Representatives controlled by the Federalist Party now had to choose the new President. Voting by state with each state having one vote, the House eventually chose Jefferson largely because Alexander Hamilton, the new leader of the Federalists, threw his support to Jefferson. Jefferson won the presidency and Burr became Vice President. To minimize the danger of another deadlock, Congress passed the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution in 1803; the states ratified the amendment in 1804. This amendment required each elector to cast one vote for President and one vote for Vice President. Burr never forgave Hamilton for costing him the presidency, and his animosity for Hamilton grew when, in 1804, Burr ran for governor of New York and lost. Burr blamed his loss on Hamilton’s political maneuvering. In July of 1804 he challenged Hamilton to a duel. Burr’s shot mortally wounded his rival. Burr was charged with murder but was never brought to trial.

After the duel Burr went south to New Orleans. At the time, the Spanish were conspiring for control of the Mississippi valley. Burr allegedly made plans with James Wilkinson, the governor of the Louisiana Territory, to support a rebellion. He was arrested and charged with treason – he was accused of attempting to establish an independent republic in the Southwest. Chief Justice John Marshall presided over his Virginia trial. Burr was acquitted in the first application of the Constitution’s provisions for the crime of treason.

Alexis de Tocqueville was a French historian and political scientist. As French foreign minister, he traveled to the United States in 1831. It was the experiences during this visit that led him to write to his most famous work, Democracy in America. In this book, he details his observations of society and culture in the United States. He predicted that democratic institutions like those of the United States would eventually replace the aristocratic governments in Europe.

Tocqueville criticized individualism and believed that associations among people would lead to the greatest happiness for society. He emphasized responsibilities of citizenship and the value of compromise. Further, he analyzed the American attempt to foster equality among citizens through the promotion of liberty, while contrasting that approach to more socialistic systems that attempt to foster equality through government control.

Matthew Lyon was born in Ireland and came to Connecticut when he was fifteen. He fought in the Revolutionary War, founded the town of New Haven, and helped write the Vermont state constitution. He served in the state legislature and later in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Throughout the 1790s he worked as a writer and printer, publishing pamphlets and a weekly newspaper, the Fair Haven Gazette. Lyon was particularly critical of the Federalists in Congress, President John Adams, and the Alien and Seditions Acts, which Lyon believed violated freedom of speech and press protected by the First Amendment. In his newspaper, he published letters from people criticizing President John Adams, and he himself wrote that President Adams was “foolish” and “selfish” and “in a continual grasp for power” for signing this law. Lyon became the first person charged under the Alien and Sedition Acts.

At his trial, Lyon argued that the law was unconstitutional. The court disagreed and Lyon was fined and sentenced to four months in jail. While serving his sentence, he was reelected to Congress in a landslide. Public opinion turned against John Adams and the Congress responsible for the Alien and Sedition Acts. Many were turned out of office, and the new Congress allowed the Alien and Sedition Acts to expire in 1801.

John Marshall was the fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, serving from 1801 until his death. Born in Virginia, he served in the Virginia legislature and at the Virginia Ratifying Convention where he fought for ratification of the Constitution with James Madison. He also served in the US House of Representatives. Marshall was appointed to the Supreme Court by President John Adams.

Marshall’s most important decision was Marbury v. Madison (1803) which established the doctrine of judicial review. He also decided Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819), which clarified the Contracts Clause; McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), which examined implied powers of Congress under Article I, section 8 and affirmed the supremacy of the Constitution over state law; and Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) which affirmed that Congress had control of interstate waterways under the Commerce Clause. He also presided over the treason trial of Aaron Burr.

Marshall’s interpretations of the Constitution, including his understanding of federalism, proved definitive and laid the groundwork for much of current constitutional theory and a strong national government.

Born in Virginia in 1758, Monroe was the 5th President of the United States. He attended the College of William and Mary, fought in the Continental Army, was a lawyer, and a politician. Monroe joined the Anti-Federalists in Virginia and opposed ratification of the new U.S. Constitution. He was an advocate of Jefferson’s policies and was elected a U.S. Senator from Virginia. Monroe helped negotiate the Louisiana Purchase. During the War of 1812 he served as Secretary of War and Secretary of State under President Madison. His presidency was called the “Era of Good Feelings.” He is known for the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 which provided that the Western Hemisphere should be free from future European colonization and that the U.S. should be neutral in European wars. This was the basis of American foreign policy for many years.