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EP343: The Wonderful Origins of Everyday Expressions, The Museum Dedicated to Bad Art and The Opportunistic Patriot

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
June 9, 2022 3:00 am

EP343: The Wonderful Origins of Everyday Expressions, The Museum Dedicated to Bad Art and The Opportunistic Patriot

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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June 9, 2022 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, author, Andrew Thompson shares another slice from his ultimate guide to understanding these baffling mini mysteries of the English language. tells us about the museum in Somerville, Massachusetts with a collection of over 600 examples of bad art. Bill Bryk tells the story of America's first practical politician, Aaron Burr, in a tale of skill, bravery, honor, deception, and memory.

Support the show (https://www.ouramericanstories.com/donate)

 

Time Codes:

00:00 - The Wonderful Origins of Everyday Expressions

12:30 - The Museum Dedicated to Bad Art

25:00 - The Opportunistic Patriot

See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.

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Send them to OurAmericanStories.com. They're some of our favorites. Up next, we continue with our recurring series about the curious origins of everyday sayings, the stories behind them.

Here to join us again is Andrew Thompson, as he continues to share another slice from his ultimate guide to understanding these many mysteries, these many stories, of our precious English language. A nest egg is savings that are set aside for later use, which a person tries to add to. And that phrase has been used from as early as the 14th century in England. In those days before commercial factory chicken farming, chickens would lay their eggs in nests in a coop. As a means of giving the chickens hope and encouraging them to lay more eggs, farmers used to place a porcelain or china egg in the nest or the coop area.

The dummy egg was known as a nest egg and did often induce the chickens to be more productive. The expression then came to mean someone's financial savings by the late 1600s. In the nick of time means without a second to spare, and it began in England in the middle ages. At that time, during team games, there'd be a tally man to keep score. He would carry a tally stick and each time a team scored, he would carve a small nick or notch or groove into the stick. If the winning nick was added just before the end of the match, it was known as the nick in time.

The expression later became known as in the nick of time. Nineteen to the dozen means to be going at a very fast pace, and it originated in the Cornish copper and tin mines in the 18th century in England. Pumps were a necessary piece of equipment at the mines and were used to clear out the excess water that had been used in the mining or that had come in as a result of flooding. Hand pumps were used to clear the water until the advent of steam-driven pumps.

While the traditional hand pumps were slow and labour intensive, the steam pumps were fuelled by coal and were highly efficient. When running at maximum capacity, they could clear 19,000 gallons of water for every 12 bushels of coal burned, and that's where the 19 to the dozen came from. To say no dice means something is futile or nothing is happening, and it began in America in the early 20th century. Gambling was illegal in many states at the time, so if a game was interrupted by the police in a raid, men went to great lengths to hide their dice when challenged. Courts would throw out illegal gambling cases if no dice could be profited as evidence.

No dice meant no conviction. This led some gamblers to even swallow their dice to avoid arrest. The expression was then used colloquially by the 1920s. No such thing as a free lunch means you never get anything for nothing and there's always a hidden cost.

It began during the 1840s in America. Bars and restaurants at the time began offering a free lunch to any customer who'd buy a drink. However, the free lunch was usually something insubstantial like a salty snack, which did little more than encourage the patron to drink more and spend more money. It soon became apparent that after a free lunch, people were spending more money than if they'd just paid for a proper lunch in the first place.

This technique became a lucrative way for establishments to make money, and many even advertised the free lunch in local newspapers. Not worth is salt means to be ineffective or not deserving of one's pay. And it derives from Roman times. Before the invention of canned goods and refrigeration, salt was a valuable commodity in the preservation of food. Roman soldiers received some of their wages as an allowance of salt. This was known as a salarium, which takes its root from sal, the Latin word for salt, and our modern day word salary actually derives from it.

If a soldier did not perform well and was not up to scratch, it was said that he was not worth his salt. The expression nothing is certain except for death and taxes means literally that only those two things are the certain things in life. And it began in 1726 with a book by Daniel Defoe, who wrote Robinson Crusoe. But the book was The Political History of the Devil, where he wrote, things as certain as death and taxes can be more firmly believed. But it was Benjamin Franklin who coined the phrase and made it widespread. In writing about the new constitution in a letter in 1789, he wrote, our new constitution is now established and has an appearance that promises permanency.

But in this world, nothing can be certain except death and taxes. Off the cuff means to carry out a task spontaneously or without preparation. And it's a phrase that relates to public speaking from the 1800s when men wore shirts with detachable collars and cuffs, which made them easy to clean. Politicians and keynote speakers generally wanted to give an audience the impression that they were good speakers and could hold people's attention without any preparation or the need to refer to notes. It was a common practice at the time to write notes on their shirt cuffs before a speech. Only they could see the notes, so the audience would be none the wiser.

Politicians would also make additional last minute notes on their cuffs to counter the arguments of their opponents. And so the expression came off the cuff. On a wing and a prayer means to be hopeful but unlikely to succeed. And it's another expression that stems from World War Two. The story goes that an American pilot flew back to base with one wing of his plane badly damaged.

The other men at the base were amazed that he hadn't crashed and he told them that he'd been praying the whole way in. Another pilot then coined the phrase when he said, a wing and a prayer brought you back. The phrase then got worldwide attention when it was referred to in two Hollywood films. Flying Tigers starring John Wayne in 1942 and A Wing and a Prayer in 1944.

Coming in on A Wing and a Prayer was also a patriotic song released in 1943 that popularized the expression. And a great job as always on the production by Greg Hengler. And a special thanks to Andrew Thompson. He had us laughing out loud here in the studio, the whole crew. So many of these short stories, and they are a series of short stories about phrases, are laugh out loud funny. And Andrew Thompson is the narrator and the voice you were listening to.

And he's written a terrific book called Hair of the Dog to Paint the Town Red. The curious origins of everyday sayings and fun phrases. I particularly was laughing at nest egg because we're, well, we're raising eight chickens. And at key times when we want the chickens to be a little more productive, we throw in a fake egg. And it works. They think somehow that they need another one.

We have no idea why it works, but the fake egg has proved to be, well, a great way to get more eggs. So many good stories. Andrew Thompson on the curious origins of everyday sayings. Here on Our American Stories. Go to OurAmericanStories.com now and go to the donate button and help us keep the great American stories coming.

That's OurAmericanStories.com. Soon millions will make Medicare coverage decisions for next year. And UnitedHealthcare can help you feel confident about your choices. For those eligible, Medicare annual enrollment runs from October 15th through December 7th. If you're working past age 65, you might be able to delay Medicare enrollment depending on your employer coverage.

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Call your local State Farm agent for a quote today. Hey, you guys, this is Tori and Jenny with the 90210MG podcast. We have such a special episode brought to you by NerdTechODT. We recorded it at iHeartRadio's 10th poll event, Wango Tango. Did you know that NerdTechODT Remedipant 75 milligrams can help migraine sufferers still attend such an exciting event like Wango Tango?

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But thankfully, NerdTechODT Remedipant 75 milligrams is the only medication that is proven to treat a migraine attack and prevent episodic migraines in adults. So lively events like Wango Tango don't have to be missed. And we're back with our American stories and up next, a story about an art museum in Somerville, Massachusetts. But this art museum has a bit of a twist.

Here's Louise Riley Sacco with the story. I'm Louise Riley Sacco, and I'm the permanent acting interim executive director of the Museum of Bad Art. In 1993, Scott Wilson, an arts and antiques dealer, noticed a framed picture leaning against a trash barrel waiting for the collection truck to come by. The painting is a woman in a field of flowers, and the wind seems to be blowing the flowers one way and her clothes a different direction. She's either sitting in a chair or standing. That's unclear.

And the sky is yellow. It is a very compelling painting, but it's puzzling. Scott really liked the frame, and he was planning to throw out the painting, clean up the frame and sell it. But his friends, Jerry Riley and Mari Jackson, told him, you can't throw that out.

It's so bad it's good. And they hung it in their house. And that was the start of this whole thing. After that, Scott and other friends kept an eye out for really bad paintings in thrift stores, yard sales, things like that. And this collection kind of took on a life of its own.

Jerry and Mari had a party. What it was was a housewarming party. And we had hung the paintings around their basement and put up descriptions next to each one, narratives just explaining what we saw in the pieces. And it was going to be a one-time event, and then it just never stopped. The next morning, we decided that we needed to keep this going and continue the Museum of Bad Art, never dreaming in 1993 that this would still be going today. And it took a while and some talking and figuring on how to do that.

And one of the moments that I always remember is we had it. There were five of us early on, and we had a time when we were kind of saying, wait a minute, is this just the five of us who think this is interesting? Maybe there is no wider audience for it. Someone had the insight that if you're walking past an art gallery with a group of people and someone says, wow, look at that, until you turn around and look, you don't know if it's going to be really bad or really good. But either way, there's this instinct to share it and talk about it and have fun with it.

And we decided we needed to be the people to plug into that. People in the early days just left the art or mailed it to us, and we ended up with a lot that we didn't want because we do have standards. And our standards are pretty basic. One thing is it's got to be art. And to us, that means it needs to be sincere and original and somebody trying to make an artistic statement of some sort. But something went wrong in a way that makes it interesting, compelling, worth talking about.

We don't collect kitsch. There's no velvet paintings, no big-eyed children or dogs playing poker, none of that. No paint by numbers. It just has to be our curator, Michael, that Mike feels like something went wrong. It can be a very skilled artist who's trying something new or who just missed something and it got messed up or, for instance, selected a topic that just didn't lend itself to painting. Or it could be someone who barely knows which end of the paintbrush to pick up. The heart and soul is there, and they just didn't have the skills to pull it off. The sincerity is apparent. People try to make a piece to get into our museum, and you can usually see right through it that this was someone just trying to make something bad.

That doesn't have the appeal of a sincere work. We have almost 800 pieces altogether. We've never had room to show more than 25 or 30 at a time.

But a couple of my favorites from over the years, there's a piece called Sunday on the Pot with George. It's a pointillist piece, and I'm not an artist, but from what I understand, pointillism is hard, you know, all those little tiny dots to make an image. And this image is a portly man sitting apparently on a toilet with a towel draped over him. And as we say, the artist ran out of canvas before he got to the feet.

They are not shown. It's a big piece, and all these little dots of paint and all the thought that goes into it, why would you spend all that effort on this subject, a portly man sitting on a toilet? I mean, it's just baffling. So I love that one for that reason. Another one I'm very fond of is called Sensitive.

It's a small yellow piece, and heavy black letters say sensitive, going in different directions, but it's this big sort of insensitive, sensitive. And there's a little cartoon with stick figures that a man is offering his heart to a woman, and she takes it and throws it on the ground and stomps on it. So it makes me picture a conversation where this man is saying, sensitive, you want sensitive, I'll show you sensitive, and paints this insensitive piece with the word sensitive in black paint across the middle of it. On that piece, one of the things that makes it so appealing is there's so much emotion in this.

It will never be shown in a fine art, traditional art museum, but the heart and soul really shows through. We can relate to it. You can't imagine yourself, most of us, can't imagine ourselves doing even a Banksy piece, never mind a Raphael or a Picasso.

But we can imagine ourselves making these attempts and having something go wrong, and that's fun. It's also fun to look at a piece and really think about what's wrong with it. What is going on in this painting? And it raises the same questions that fine art raises. Why was this created? What was in the artist's mind?

What alternatives might they have used? The parallels to fine art are immense. I grew up in Boston, less than a mile from the Museum of Fine Arts, and on rainy days we would go hang out there.

So from the time I was 10 years old, I was around a lot of very famous, wonderful art. And some of the same responses I have to things in the Museum of Fine Arts, I have to things in the Museum of Bad Art. But we never have called a museum on it and said this is really not that good.

It's up to the curators of each museum to decide on their own. But the idea that we have to decide that this is bad and this is good is maybe not useful. You know, am I enjoying looking at this? Does it make me happy or make me think?

Well then, don't worry about what the label is. I mean, I laugh a little bit at the popularity of Thomas Kinkade and his paintings of light, but there are people who think they're wonderful. And there's no reason that I want to stop them from thinking that. If you think that that's wonderful, then enjoy it. Share it.

Tell your friends about it. Who gets to say what's good and what's bad? It's unclear who or why in some cases. One of the values that we have brought, I think, to some audiences is that when people come into the Museum of Bad Art, they feel perfectly free to disagree with us. And that's fine, but they ought to be doing that everywhere. You know, traditional museums often intimidate people. How dare you disagree with what the Metropolitan Museum of Art thinks belongs on the wall?

It's hard to do. But with us, you can disagree. We've had fun.

That's huge. We've had a lot of fun. And we've learned that a lot of the ideas about art that we've had are universal. We have followers all over the world. We've learned that artists are not, as we feared at the start, worried about having their piece in a museum of bad art because artists want someone to see their work.

They want attention. And we've learned that sometimes a fairly ridiculous idea can have legs and can continue and grow. And a special thanks to Monty for the production on that piece and for the storytelling. And a special thanks to Madison for her work on the interview.

And thanks to Louise Riley Sacco. And you can reach Louise and the Museum of Bad Art at museumofbadart.org to find out more about the museum. By the way, if you're trying to get in, don't try and deliberately make it into the Museum of Bad Art.

They'll figure you out. It's just got to be art that had a good intention, but something went wrong. By the way, I love the logo on the Museum of Bad Art's website. It says, art too bad to be ignored.

The story of the Museum of Bad Art here on Our American Story. Soon millions will make Medicare coverage decisions for next year. And UnitedHealthcare can help you feel confident about your choices. For those eligible, Medicare annual enrollment runs from October 15th through December 7th. If you're working past age 65, you might be able to delay Medicare enrollment depending on your employer coverage.

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And I stay cool and confident. See, they're small business owners too, so they know how to help you best. State Farm is in your corner and on it. Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.

Call your local State Farm agent for a quote today. Hey, you guys, this is Tori and Jenny with the 90210MG podcast. We have such a special episode brought to you by NerdTech ODT. We recorded it at iHeartRadio's 10th poll event, Wango Tango. Did you know that NerdTech ODT Remedipant, 75 milligrams, can help migraine sufferers still attend such an exciting event like Wango Tango?

It's true. I had one that night and I took my NerdTech ODT and I was present and had an amazing time. Here's a little glimpse of our conversation with some of our closest friends. This episode was brought to you by NerdTech ODT Remedipant, 75 milligrams. Life with migraine attacks can mean missing out on big moments with friends and family.

But thankfully, NerdTech ODT Remedipant, 75 milligrams, is the only medication that is proven to treat a migraine attack and prevent episodic migraines in adults. So lively events like Wango Tango don't have to be missed. This is our American stories and our next story. Well, it's a bit of American history. It's the story of Aaron Burr. And you know him perhaps from your high school American history classes, what little you may remember from them, or maybe from the Broadway musical Hamilton. But who was Aaron Burr? Well, Bill Bryke is here to tell us a little bit more about the often reviled politician. Here's Bill. Lin-Manuel Miranda, in his extraordinary Hamilton, an American musical, brilliantly captures Aaron Burr in three lines. The free advice he has Burr offer to Alexander Hamilton when they first meet in 1776. Talk less. Smile more.

Don't let them know what you're against or what you're for. Around twilight on June 7, 1812, a 56-year-old man returned from six years self-imposed European exile. He landed in New York, somewhere near today's South Street seaport. He hastened to a friend's house at 66 Water Street, only to find no one at home. Only around midnight did he find a room, already occupied by five other men, in a plain house along a dark alley. In the morning, he returned to find his friend Samuel Swartout at home. And after an affectionate welcome, the Swartout brothers lodged him.

The charm that had borne Burr up throughout his life remained potent. A boyhood friend and longtime political opponent, Robert Troop, lent him ten dollars and a law library. Then, ten dollars was real money.

Then, as now, a law library is essential to one's practice. He rented space at 9 Nassau Street. He took out some newspaper advertisements. He ordered a small tin sign, brightly lacquered, bearing his name, and tacked it to the outside wall. When he arrived to open his office on the morning of July 5, 1812, a line of clients awaited him.

Hundreds more would follow. Within 12 days, his receipts totaled what was then a staggering $2,000. However, the inhabitants of New York viewed the man, Milton Lomax wrote, they had not forgotten the skills of the advocate. Thus, Aaron Burr, former colonel in the Army of the Revolution, former attorney general of New York, former United States senator, and former vice president of the United States, resumed the practice of law. He had been born February 6, 1756, in Newark, New Jersey. He entered Princeton in the sophomore class at 13, took his degree with distinction at 16, and even spoke at commencement. He was elegant from youth, small, slender, broad-shouldered, and handsome. He had fine taste in clothes, to which dozens of unpaid tailors on two continents would attest. His manners were exquisite, his conversation never palled, and whether in the courtroom or the Senate, he spoke quietly and conversationally, without bombast or literary allusion. He strove to see things as they are, not as they ought to be, and possessed a massive savoir-faire.

Dexterity enough to conceal the truth without telling a lie, sagacity enough to read other people's countenances, and serenity enough not to let them discover anything by yours. He was also throughout his life much pursued by women, and they never had to run very far or very fast. He fought for American independence at Quebec, Brooklyn, and Morningside Heights. He was a lieutenant colonel at 22, wintered at Valley Forge, and had a horse shot from under him at Monmouth on June 28, 1778. That means he had gone in harm's way, for he might have been hit by the shot that killed his charger.

Only one who has been thrown from a horse can understand what that means, the pains of having the wind knocked out of you if not muscles sprained and bones broken. The man of pleasure once single-handedly suppressed a mutiny in his regiment. A ringleader levelled his musket at Burr, shouting, Now is the time, my brave boys. The last syllable had barely left his lips when Burr, having drawn his sword, severed the man's arm just above the elbow.

The regiment knew no more mutinies. During his service, he met Theodosia Prevost, the wife of a British officer serving in the West Indies. Burr later wrote that she possessed the truest heart, the ripest intellect, and the most winning manners of any woman he had ever met. She spoke French fluently, frequently quoted the Latin poets, and read avidly. Burr admired and wanted her.

She responded with warmth and friendship. Her husband died in 1781. She married Burr the following year. Nothing so testifies to Theodosia Prevost's character, charm, and intelligence than that this sensual, cynical man was throughout their marriage her loving, faithful husband. More, though Burr was a feminist by instinct, he admired Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women and kept a print of Mrs. Wollstonecraft's portrait on his wall. His marriage made those beliefs heartfelt. He was among the first practical politicians, and Burr was nothing if not practical, to work for women's education on a par with men. It was a knowledge of your mind, he wrote to Theodosia, which first inspired me.

The ideas which you have often heard me express in favor of female intellectual powers are founded on what I have seen in you. She died in 1794 after twelve years of marriage. He never ceased to mourn her. Perhaps their relationship was the noblest achievement of his life. In Hamilton, Burr is asked, if you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?

Clearly, at least in his love for Theodosia and his passion for human rights, he stood for something. In 1782, he was admitted to the New York bar at the age of 26. He was elected to the legislature in 1784 at 28, where he fought to abolish slavery and appointed Attorney General in 1789, when he was 33. In 1791, he defeated Philip Schuyler, father-in-law of Alexander Hamilton, for the United States Senate. Thus, the feud between Hamilton and Burr began. The new senator worked hard without taking politics seriously. For him, it was the pursuit of fun and honor and profit. This earned him the antipathy of Thomas Jefferson, who took politics almost as seriously as he did himself.

To be fair, perhaps that is not entirely true. We know Jefferson had red hair in part because he preserved a letter addressed to him as you red-headed son of a bitch. Yet the Virginian and Burr needed one another. Burr controlled the country's first mass party organization, the Society of St. Tammany. If Thomas Jefferson was the Democrats' first ideologue, Burr was their first mechanic. In 1800, the Jeffersonians nominated Senator Burr for vice president, and his troubles began. Presidential electors then voted for two candidates without specifying a preference for president and for vice president. The candidate receiving the most votes became president. The second-place candidate became vice president. Jefferson and Burr tied with 73 votes each. The election went to the House of Representatives. The Federalists, who detested Jefferson, sought to elect Burr instead. After 36 ballots, the House finally elected Jefferson president and Burr vice president.

There is no evidence that Burr had plotted with the Federalists to win the presidency. Nonetheless, Jefferson, who always had a slight touch of paranoia, froze him out and withheld patronage from his followers. And you're listening to the remarkable story of Aaron Burr, and my goodness, Princeton at 13. And we often talk about the fact that, boy, in earlier days, people grew up faster, and maybe it wasn't a bad thing. And my goodness, knowing the sting of battle, which Aaron Burr did know, at 22 of Lieutenant Colonel, he wintered at Valley Forge. His horse was shot out from underneath him in the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey. And my goodness, the man knew battle, knew politics, and knew love.

When we come back, more of the story of Hamilton's chief antagonist, telling his side of the story, Aaron Burr's story, here on Our American Stories. Soon millions will make Medicare coverage decisions for next year. And UnitedHealthcare can help you feel confident about your choices. For those eligible, Medicare annual enrollment runs from October 15th through December 7th. If you're working past age 65, you might be able to delay Medicare enrollment depending on your employer coverage.

It can seem confusing, but it doesn't have to be. Visit UHCmedicarehealthplans.com to learn more. UnitedHealthcare, helping people live healthier lives. I know everything there is to know about running a coffee shop. But for small business insurance, I need my State Farm agent. They make sure my business stays piping hot.

And I stay cool and confident. See, they're small business owners, too, so they know how to help you best. State Farm is in your corner and on it. Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.

Call your local State Farm agent for a quote today. It's true! I had one that night and I took my NURTEC ODT and I was present and had an amazing time. Here's a little glimpse of our conversation with some of our closest friends. This episode was brought to you by NURTEC ODT Remedipant 75 mg. Life with migraine attacks can mean missing out on big moments with friends and family.

But thankfully, NURTEC ODT Remedipant 75 mg is the only medication that is proven to treat a migraine attack and prevent episodic migraines in adults. So, lively events like Wango Tango don't have to be missed. And we're back with our American stories and the story of Aaron Burr. When we last left off with Bill Bryke, after being elected president, Thomas Jefferson froze Burr and his constituents out.

We return to Bill Bryke with the rest of this story. In April 1804, Burr, knowing Jefferson would not allow his renomination later that year, ran for governor of New York. Hamilton had come to hate Burr, and Hamilton's rage was reflected in his intensely personal campaigning, which included indiscreet personal remarks reported in the newspapers. Burr was heavily defeated.

Burr seized upon correspondence published in the Albany Register. Dr. Charles Cooper wrote, General Hamilton and Judge Kent have declared, in substance, that they looked upon Mr. Burr to be a dangerous man, and I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Burr. Burr requested an acknowledgment or denial of the still more despicable opinion of himself attributed to Hamilton. Two days later, Hamilton replied with a lengthy dissertation on the meaning of despicable.

Burr responded, The common sense of mankind affixed to the word the idea of dishonor. He then demanded Hamilton generally disavow any intention to convey impressions derogatory to the honor of Mr. Burr. Hamilton was trapped.

This would have meant denying a great deal of his political conversations, speeches, and correspondence over two decades. Hamilton now feebly offered that he could not recall using any term that would justify Dr. Cooper's construction. Burr again demanded a disclaimer. Hamilton refused. On June 27, 1804, Burr challenged and Hamilton accepted. On Wednesday, July 11, 1804, at 7 a.m. the two men stood 10 paces apart on the Weehawken Shore in New Jersey, pistols in hand. Hamilton, perhaps a second before his opponent, fired into the air.

Burr shot true. He was indicted for murder in New York and in New Jersey. While his lawyers and friends worked to quash the indictments, he returned to Washington, D.C., where he resumed his duties as vice president.

On March 2, 1805, his last day in public office, Burr rose from the chair. He stood before a hall of professional politicians familiar with every rhetorical device, many of whom hated him. Without changing his customary conversational tone, he spoke briefly of the United States and the Senate itself. The Senate, he said, is a sanctuary, a citadel of law, of order, and of liberty. And it is here, it is here in this exalted refuge, here, if anywhere, will resistance be made to the storms of political frenzy and the silent arts of corruption.

And if the Constitution be destined ever to perish by the sacrilegious hands of the demagogue or the usurper, which God averts, its expiring agonies will be witnessed on this floor. Then, having spoken for once from the heart, he stepped down, walked across the chamber, and went out the door. He was only 49 years old. Behind him, the Senate sat in silence. Senator Samuel Mitchell of New York wrote, My colleague, General Smith, stout and manly as he is, wept as profusely as I did.

He did not recover for a quarter of an hour. Even before leaving office, Burr had begun a conspiracy. Precisely what Burr planned remains a mystery, a puzzle, a lock without a key. He told his first biographer, Matthew L. Davis, The scheme he called X was intended to revolutionize Mexico and settle some lands he had in Texas.

Perhaps it was. But the legends remain, and the papers tantalize. The maps of New Orleans, Vera Cruz, and the roads to Mexico City, and the correspondents hinting he would not liberate but seize Mexico, draw the western states from the Union, and combining them into one nation, stand at the throne of the Aztecs and crown himself Emperor of the West. The gods invite us to glory and fortune, Burr wrote to his co-conspirator, General James Wilkinson, then General-in-Chief of the United States Army. John Randolph of Roanoke, most ferocious of politicians, called Wilkinson, The mammoth of iniquity, the only man I ever saw who was from the bark to the very core a villain.

Wilkinson, whose self-designed uniforms, encrusted with gold braid and frogging, failed to conceal his enormous girth. He was, as we now know, a paid agent of Spain, a man on the take. At some point, Wilkinson ratted out Burr to Jefferson. On November 27th, 1806, Jefferson issued a proclamation that led to the collapse of the plot, Burr's arrest, and Burr's indictment for treason by levying war against the United States. Wilkinson was not the subject of prosecution, though we now know that Jefferson too knew Wilkinson was taking money from the Spanish. Perhaps Wilkinson knew too much in an age not yet so cruel as to eliminate those who knew too much. Burr was tried in Richmond, Virginia, before Chief Justice John Marshall, Jefferson's third cousin.

The cousins detested one another. The prosecutor insinuated that Marshall would be impeached if he did not rule for the prosecution on the evidentiary motions. Marshall noted the threat in his decision. He also noted the Constitution requires treason to be proven by the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act of treason. Of the dozens of witnesses presented by the government, none had testified to an overt act.

Marshall then excluded all evidence presented by the government as merely corroborative and incompetent. Within 25 minutes, the jury found Burr not guilty. Now, in a self-imposed exercise in discretion, Burr left for Europe. At first, Burr sought financial support for X from the British and then the French.

Nothing came of it. From the exile's beginning, Burr recorded his experiences in his private journal. Perhaps its saddest revelations are that this vital, charming man was so easily bored. Yet, as Lomask writes, there was a limit to how many parties he could attend, how many ceremonies he could watch, how many books he could read, how many bright and articulate people he could draw within the radiant circle of his charm. He devoted his energies to fornication with prostitutes if necessary and other women when possible.

Lomask notes he described his amatory encounters as muse, a French hunting term meaning the beginning of the rutting season in animals. This suggests that he despised himself for treating sex in this way. Yet some principles remained uncompromised despite boredom and the lack of money.

He never descended to drinking cheap wine. After his return to the United States, he only dabbled in politics. In 1812, he was pulling strings from an unknown man in the West named Andrew Jackson, who will do credit to a commission in the army if conferred upon him. When Jackson became president in 1829, Samuel Swartout, whose hospitality Burr had enjoyed on his return from exile, was appointed collector of the Port of New York with Burr's help.

As M.R. Werner relates in his history of Tammany Hall, Swartout later hurried to Europe when his accounts showed that he had borrowed from the government's funds the sum of $1,225,705.69. The public, with that charming levity that has always characterized its attitude toward wholesale plunder, made the best of a bad situation by coining a new term. When a man put the government's money into his own pocket, it was said he had Swartout it. In 1833, Burr married Eliza Jummel, perhaps the richest American woman of the time. She had, after what may have been the most successful career of her age as, shall we say, a working girl, married an extremely wealthy man. By the time she married Burr, Madame Jummel was a widow. Burr probably married her for her money.

Within the year, she began divorce proceedings on the grounds of adultery, a remarkable, even heartening accusation against a man of 78. On September 14, 1836, the day on which the decree of divorce from Madame Jummel was entered by the court, Aaron Burr died in a second floor room at Winans Inn, 2040 Richmond Terrace in Port Richmond, Staten Island. Two days later, he was buried beside his father and grandfather in Princeton, New Jersey. Lomask wrote, for nearly 20 years the grave went unmarked. Then a relative arranged for the installation of a simple marble slab. In 1995, the Aaron Burr Association placed a bronze plaque on the grave that recites his services to the Republic. And great job on that by Robbie, our producer, and Bill Bryke. Aaron Burr's story, here on Our American Stories.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-16 11:28:53 / 2023-02-16 11:45:14 / 16

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