Wednesday, June 8, 2016

June 6, 1807 – Burr Defends himself before Congress



In 1805, Aaron Burr’s life took an abrupt change that would change the course of the nation. He had seemed on a path toward greatness since his youth, yet fate always seemed to pull back the hand it offered. Burr was born as a grandson of the famed preacher Jonathan Edwards, orphaned at age two, and entered the College of New Jersey at 13. He abandoned his study of theology at 19 in 1775, deciding to turn to law as the American uproar grew toward revolution. At news of the first shots fired at Lexington and Concord, Burr enlisted, serving in the campaign in Quebec where he was promoted to captain. Washington invited Burr onto his personal staff, but Burr was determined to stay on the battlefield. Despite his heroism and national fame, he never received a commendation.

As the war came to a conclusion, Burr married in 1782 and settled in New York for his law practice, which soon led to politics. Governor George Clinton appointed him to the state attorney generalship in 1789, and two years later Burr was elected to the Senate. Already by 1796, he was getting attention for the presidency. It was then, too, that he had his first taste of political shenanigans. Burr spent great efforts campaigning for Jefferson in the north, trusting that the Virginian would do the same for him as the system of the electoral college at the time gave each member two votes. Instead of splitting their votes, however, Jefferson’s supporters gave them both to him and left Burr in a distant fourth place.

By 1800, Burr was savvier. He returned to local politics in the New York Assembly, where the deep rift between himself and Federalist campaigner Alexander Hamilton drove deeper still over water company rights and banking. Despite vicious campaigns on both sides, Burr was able to stir support from groups such as the Tammany Hall social club and won the 1800 election for Jefferson with himself as vice-president. Yet again Jefferson proved to be a short-lived ally, and it was clear that Burr would not be invited onto the 1804 ticket.

Instead, Burr stepped away from Washington politics and ran for governor of New York. The campaign was filled with brutal smears, both from rivals in his own party as well as Hamilton and his Federalists, who called Burr “dangerous… one who ought not be trusted with the reins of government.” After Burr’s bitter defeat, he demanded that Hamilton apologize for years of remarks. When Hamilton refused, Burr challenged him to a duel at the Weehawken Heights overlooking the Hudson River.

Hamilton wrote the night before that he intended to miss. After Burr shot Hamilton in the torso, he remarked that he would have hit Hamilton in the heart if not for blurry morning mist. Hamilton died of his wounds, prompting Burr to a hurried visit to his daughter in South Carolina. Ultimately there would be no penalty as Burr shot Hamilton in New Jersey, where dueling was not illegal, and Hamilton had died in New York, where the fatal shot could not be called murder. Burr ventured as far north as Washington to complete his vice-presidency, although his political ambitions died along with Hamilton.

Like many other Americans seeking a new life, Burr turned west. The Louisiana Purchase had been completed in 1803, and there seemed ample opportunity for anyone willing to take a chance. Burr leased a tract of 40,000 acres from Baron de Bastrop, a Dutchman some considered a con artist. Regardless, Burr began his colony with some eighty farmers, planting wheat since the lease stated that he could not start a plantation for cash crops like cotton.

Immediately, rumors began spreading about Burr. Some in the South feared that his strong abolition sentiments would create a haven for escaped slaves. Others throughout the nation felt that Burr had gathered a militia and sought to spark a war with Spain in which he could seize huge swaths of land in Florida or Texas as bounty. Allegedly even young Colonel Andrew Jackson was waiting to hear a declaration of war and charge into Spanish territory alongside him. With the latter suspicions of treason, Jefferson dispatched a warrant for Burr’s arrest.

Upon the news, Burr turned east. There is a difference of opinion about whether Burr was fleeing to Spanish Florida where he could make an escape into the Caribbean. In either case, he was quickly spotted and placed under arrest. Jefferson granted US Attorney George Hay carte blanche with pardons for anyone who would testify against the conspiracy. Hay intended to bring Burr to trial in the circuit court in Virginia, but initial arraignments before a grand jury could find no evidence. With the move clearly political, Burr managed to stir Congress into an impeachment hearing through his lawyer, Kentucky Representative Henry Clay. Burr himself had presided over the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase as vice-president and knew what damage could be done. Even though Jefferson escaped impeachment, the Jeffersonian wing of the Democratic-Republican Party broke up. In 1808, Burr’s old mentor George Clinton was elected president.

Burr, meanwhile, settled back to Bastrop. He ultimately purchased the land and resold it, building capital along with investments from old friends in New York. With Francophile Jeffersonians out of office, Burr established strong relations with London, importing a great deal of Newton’s Catalyst as he expanded his holdings to found Lake Providence as an industrial center on the west banks of the Mississippi.


Burr continually frustrated his Southern neighbors. As Burr’s influence in the area grew, he campaigned to wrest land north of the Red River away from Orleans, creating the territory of Gloriana, which would later become the twenty-third state after years of its admission being blocked in Congress. Southern leaders were fearful the free territory would become a free state, which it of course it did. Burr’s legitimized son John Pierre Burr, himself mixed-race, was an active proponent of the Underground Railroad and is said to have escorted many slaves across the Mississippi to freedom.

With the borders of Gloriana set running from the Mississippi to the Red River and up into the Ozarks, Burr turned to modernizing his territory. He was an avid supporter of steamboat captain and inventor Henry Miller Shreve, who cleared the Great Raft blocking the Red River and opened the west for navigation. As railroads were introduced, Burr drove lines out across the Texas Trail and up through the Ozarks into Indian Territory.

Burr served as governor until 1836, handing over the reins just a few months before passing away. The railroad bridge built across Stack Island, connecting the Lake Providence railhead with Jackson, MS, was named in his honor. It was the first to cross the Mississippi River, a fitting tribute to a man who brought East and West so close together.


--

In reality, Burr faced his trial in Virginia. Despite being found not guilty, his reputation was destroyed. He fled to England, and the colony at Bastrop dispersed.

This alternate timeline serves as the setting for Hellfire released June 6, 2016, from Tirgearr Publishing.

Special thanks to Robbie Taylor for the use of “Gloriana!”

Friday, May 27, 2016

Guest Post by Chris Oakley - After Hours: The 1977 Los Angeles Blackout




(based on the “Electric Nightmares” series by the same author)


The 1965 West Coast blackout was one of the most alarming crises
in U.S. history. For several long hours many of the country’s largest
cities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, were plunged into a
total or near-total darkness and public safety in those cities became
precarious at best; Los Angeles in particular teetered on the verge of
a full-scale riot that might have equaled, if not surpassed, the violence
of the Watts riots that raged just a few months before the blackout. It
was partly in hopes of averting such chaos that in early 1966 Congress
passed what was formally known as the American Electrical Transmission
Safety Act but would be better known by its nickname “the Blackout Act”;
among its other provisions the law gave the U.S. Justice Department the
power to investigate and try sabotage of electrical equipment as an act
of terrorism.

   But as the Watergate scandal mushroomed and a growing segment of the
American public became disenchanted with government in general and the
Blackout Act in particular, the act’s security provisions would steadily
come under heavier and heavier criticism. By the time Jimmy Carter threw
his hat into the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination race, there was
massive sentiment in favor of scaling back most if not all of the powers
granted to the Justice Department to investigate and prosecute Blackout
Act-related crimes; sure enough Carter said in his nomination acceptance
speech he would make it a high priority during his first 100 days in the
White House to overhaul the Blackout Act’s security clauses.

   At the time Carter’s pledge earned him a standing ovation from the
convention delegates. But just one year later, his words would come back
to haunt him as another major power outage struck Los Angeles and laid
bare his administration’s shortcomings. Some political historians have
suggested it was the Los Angeles blackout rather than the 1979 Iranian
hostage crisis that truly doomed Carter’s hopes for a second term in the
White House; his first response to the blackout certainly didn't do much
to help him in his efforts to woo undecided potential voters in the 1980
campaign. In fact Carter's handling(or mishandling) of the blackout gave
his 1980 Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan, a perfect opening to take
Carter's domestic policies to task. Noticing that voters were alarmed by
the rising crime rate in America at that time, Reagan promised to (as he
put it) "take the cuffs off" the Justice Department in investigating and
prosecuting violators of the Blackout Act's security articles. Even now,
more than three and a half decades after it happened, the effects of the
blackout are still being felt well beyond southern California.

                                ******

   July 13, 1977, had been a normal summer evening in Los Angeles right
up until the moment the blackout started. It had been searingly hot for
most of the day, and as night fell the temperature was still registering
in the mid-70s. The main topics of conversation among people walking the
city's streets were the fortunes of the Dodgers, the phenomenal success
of Star Wars at the box office, the not-so-phenomenal performance of the
Carter Administration after six months in the White House, and of course
the heat.

    All conversation screeched to a halt around 8:37 PM Pacific time; a
lightning strike at an electrical substation north of the city triggered
a cascade effect that within minutes had plunged all of Los Angeles into
darkness. In sharp contrast to the 1965 West Coast blackout, when power
outages were being reported as far south as San Diego, only metropolitan
L.A. experienced any electrical failures. But those failures made for a
situation every bit as tense as the conditions that had prevailed twelve
years earlier during the '65 outage. The social, economic, and cultural
tensions which had been simmering within the City of Angels all through
those twelve years hadn't diminished much by 1977; if anything, in some
quarters it had actually intensified...

                                 ******

    ...a development that in the long run would cost President Carter
dearly when it came time for him to confront the situation arising from
the blackout. It was just after 9:45 PM Pacific time (12:45 AM Eastern
time July 14th) when Carter was first notified of the power failure in
Los Angeles. Because of incomplete information regarding the nature of
the blackout and its origin, he misjudged the seriousness of the event,
which in turn delayed the release of federal resources that might have
otherwise enabled state and local authorities to get the situation under
control sooner.

    By the time Carter finally did get around to releasing federal funds
and resources to aid L.A. authorities in dealing with the blackout, more
than half the city was engulfed in chaos and the rest was bracing itself
for everything short of the Apocalypse. Even in the most upscale corners
of Los Angeles there were incidents of looting and violence; two Beverly
Hills jewelry stores were ransacked around 11:00 PM Pacific time while a
third was forty minutes later, while in Hollywood an LAPD riot squad had
to be called in to break up a melee near the Paramount backlot. The less
affluent sections of the city were in danger of becoming urban war zones
by that point. In the South Central district homeowners and businesses
were going so far as to set up improvised barricades against what seemed
like an inevitable assault by L.A.'s criminal elements. A local arsonist
who had been dodging the LAPD for weeks prior to the blackout took great
advantage of the chaos the blackout produced to set fires in a number of
abandoned buildings in the heart of Los Angeles, prompting a sportscaster
who was covering that evening's Dodgers game to comment despondently to
his viewers: "Ladies and gentlemen, the City of Angels is burning." Huge
black columns of smoke rose from the torched buildings, visible in every
direction for at least ten miles and bringing back what must have been a
Pandora's box of unpleasant memories for those who had lived through the
Watts riots a decade earlier.

    The California National Guard was activated just before midnight
on July 14th to restore order in metropolitan Los Angeles; to their
considerable credit, the Guardsmen acted quickly and effectively to
accomplish this mission. Their first move was to deploy fire control
teams to assist the beleaguered L.A. Fire Department in putting out the
multiple blazes raging in the heart of the city; simultaneously, squads
of MPs moved to back up the LAPD and CHP in arresting looters. Once the
fires were under control and the looting had been stopped, the National
Guardsmen's next task was to provide medical assistance for injured L.A.
residents who had been unable to get to a doctor or hospital. As a Times
editorial columnist said in the aftermath of the blackout, the Guardsmen
were "the glue that held Los Angeles together". Many of them would later
return to the city as extras when a movie based on the Times' reports of
the blackout was filmed in downtown L.A. in 1991.

     L.A. County sheriff's deputies also played a significant role in
restoring calm to the City of Angels. Many former deputies actually came
out of retirement to support their active-duty colleagues in keeping the
peace while utility crews worked to get the power back on. In some cases
they even had assistance from Hollywood studio security guards who’d been
released by their employers from their regular duties to give overtaxed
regular police personnel a hand with crowd control and guarding life and
property.

                              ******

     Electrical power was restored to most sections of L.A. by 5:30 AM
Pacific time(8:30 AM Eastern) on the morning of July 14. At that point,
much of the city looked like Genghis Khan had rampaged through it. Weeks
after the last light had been turned on in Los Angeles, the city’s public
works department was still picking up trash and debris left behind by the
orgy of crime and looting the blackout had generated; in terms of paying
overtime salary to LAPD personnel and L.A. County sheriff’s deputies, the
blackout was the most expensive civil emergency to hit the City of Angels
since the 1971 Sylmar earthquake. And still more financial headaches were
to come as the inevitable civil damage lawsuits from disgruntled business
owners and ordinary citizens began making their way through the state and
federal courts.

    But as bad as things had been and would get for the administration of
then-Mayor Tom Bradley, there were about to get exponentially worse for
the Carter Administration. At the time of the blackout, Jimmy Carter had
been president less than six months but was already starting to receive a
torrent of criticism from conservative opponents of his government; once
the extent of Carter’s mishandling of the blackout began to sink in those
critics went after him like hounds after the fox. On July 18th, just four
days after the lights came back on in Los Angeles, two GOP senators went
before Congress to introduce a resolution calling for the appointment of
an independent counsel to look into the Carter administration's response
to the blackout. That same day the Manchester Union-Leader printed one of
the most blistering editorials in its history, a vitriolic anti-Carter
rant essentially accusing the incumbent president of abandoning L.A. in
its hour of need. Even by the Union-Leader's own notoriously belligerent
standards the editorial was a shot across the president's bow; no sooner
had the paper hit newsstands than multitudes of angry Carter supporters
throughout New England starting bombarding the Union-Leader offices with
a barrage of letters, telegrams, and phone calls coming to his defense.

     Some of those defenders would later reverse their stances as the
investigation into the Carter Administration's handling of the blackout
exposed Carter's errors in judgement as well as those of his advisors.
But at the time the Union-Leader editorial was published, Democrats all
throughout New England were unanimous in blasting the paper for what in
their eyes constituted an intolerable and deliberate slight of the chief
executive. A few of the more vocal critics of the Union-Leader editorial
even went so far as to picket the newspaper's printing plant or threaten
lawsuits against the publishers for allegedly slandering the President.
The suits never went forward, but just the same they reflect the outrage
the editorial had stirred among Carter's supporters.

     The resolution to appoint an independent counsel to probe the White
House's handling of the Los Angeles blackout was debated in Congress for
weeks before finally being approved on August 2, almost one month after
the blackout. And even after its approval many of Carter's allies in the
House and Senate continued to bitterly criticize the decision; one junior
Vermont representative labeled the inquiry “a politically motivated smear
job.” Nor for that matter was the GOP unanimous in agreement on the need
for a Congressional probe into Carter's response to the blackout--one of
the members of Montana's GOP Congressional contingent labeled it “a waste
of good money” and questioned the timing of the inquiry at a moment when
there was an economy to be revived and Soviet expansionism to be opposed.

                               ******

     The Congressional inquiry into President Carter's handling of the
Los Angeles blackout didn't officially convene until October 10, 1978,
slightly over two months after the resolution appointing the independent
counsel who would lead the inquiry had been passed. Right from the start
the independent counsel's office was dogged by allegations that they were
engaged in a political witch-hunt; it didn't help matters any when one of
the law clerks assigned to the office was photographed sporting a 'Reagan
For President 1980' button on his lapel. Many Carter White House staffers
viewed the inquiry as at best an intentional slight of the commander-in-
chief and at worst the beginning of a right-wing attempt to overthrow the
Carter Administration via a questionable impeachment proceeding.

     But in January of 1979, just as the Pahlavi monarchy in Iran was on
its last legs, a former White House staffer gave devastating testimony to
the inquiry that would make many of Carter's defenders start to question
whether he was worthy of defense. In a two-hour hearing that was the talk
of the Beltway for days after it ended, the witness painted a devastating
portrait of an Oval Office whose right hand didn't know what its left one
was doing. He described people giving President Carter getting a hundred
different reports from a hundred different sources about what was taking
place in Los Angeles-- reports often blatantly contradicting each other.
He portrayed a cabinet that was seriously if not totally flustered in the
face of a major urban crisis. He spoke of a president who had been asleep
at the switch at a time when alertness was critical. He pointed to scores
of misjudgments by Carter's senior disaster preparedness officials which
served to make an already grave situation that much worse. By the time he
finally left the stand, some members of the inquiry panel members who had
been listening to the staffer's testimony were ready to at the very least
censure Carter if not impeach him outright.

    And it wasn't just the Republicans who were incensed about Carter's
mismanagement of the Los Angeles blackout; many of the President's fellow
Democrats were equally fed up if not more so. The chairman of California's
state Democratic committee published a blistering op-ed in the Los Angeles
Times essentially accusing President Carter of abandoning Los Angelenos to
the whims of fate. A leading Democratic member of Alabama's Congressional
delegation painted a grim picture of what would happen to the United States
if terrorists attacked during an L.A. blackout-type crisis, suggesting such
an event could sow the seeds of nationwide anarchy. Even in constituencies
where Carter usually enjoyed heavy support, critics of the incumbent chief
executive were preparing attack ads on behalf of those who would challenge
him for the Oval Office. In many southern states a certain conservative PAC
started running a notorious commercial now known simply as “the 3:00 AM ad”
that implied Carter's mismanagement of the L.A. blackout had left the door
open for enemies of the United States to wreak havoc on its citizens while
they were at their most vulnerable.

    The controversy over Carter's handling of the Los Angeles blackout had
serious consequences for his 1980 re-election bid. Carter's main rival for
the Democratic nomination, Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy, relentlessly
exploited the incumbent's vulnerability on this matter; had it not been for
Kennedy's own perceived transgressions, he might easily have supplanted the
President as his party's nominee. As it was, Carter just barely managed to
squeak past Kennedy for the nomination and would find himself operating at
a serious disadvantage when he faced Republican candidate Ronald Reagan in
the general election.

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