Scraps of Paper

Like yesterday’s post, this is going to be another list of things. I’m sorry about that. It just blows my mind how much history is on display at your fingertips in Washington D.C.

Today I went to the National Archives. Most people go there to see the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. They’re all there, and I was suitably awed to be in their presence. I was last in D.C. over fifteen years ago, and it appears to me that the Declaration of Independence has deteriorated even more since I last saw it. Virtually none of the letters or signatures are readable on it anymore. Granted, it’s kept in such low light that it’s hard to read anyway, but still, it’s kind of sad that such a historically vital document will inevitably weather away.

I do have a comment regarding the fact that, for a big chunk of the other documents, they display facsimiles instead of the original document. I totally get why this has to be done. Over time, light does bad thing to ink on paper. Still, it does take away from the magic, that no matter how realistic it is, in most cases you’re looking at a copy. Now you can console yourself with the knowledge that somewhere in the building is the original, but still some of the power is lost knowing that it is a facsimile.

But still, the unimaginable array of documents that they have is absolutely mind blowing. I wrote yesterday about how objects inspire in me a sense of historical connectedness. Viewing the original source documents, especially those written, read, or signed by historically significant people, sends chills down my spine.

OK, here’s some of the things that I saw:

  • Rosa Parks arrest report
  • The Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision ending segregation (with that well meaning but horribly abused phrase) “with all deliberate speed”
  • The handwritten petition that Clarence Gideon wrote to the Supreme Court that ultimately resulted in the right to counsel
  • A note that the 14 year old Fidel Castro wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt asking him for $10 (WTF??!! Seriously?)
  • Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation
  • A 1777 draft notice from the Revolutionary War
  • A letter from Reagan to Gorbachev
  • JFK’s notes during the Cuban Missile Crisis
  • Al Capone’s guilty jury verdict

This is the kind of stuff that blows my mind.

Way back in 1800, the Democratic-Republican party ticket of Thomas Jefferson / Aaron Burr had pretty clearly beaten the Federalist ticket headed by John Adams. In those days, each elector had two votes and the top two vote recipients became President and Vice President.

Well in a cluster fuck of epic proportions, the Democratic-Republican electors did not throw away one of their votes so that Jefferson could win the tally. Instead they all voted both for Jefferson and Burr. They both ended up with 73 votes. No winner. A tie.

With no winner, that sends the vote to the House of Representatives to decide. Two problems crop up.

One problem is Aaron Burr. Everyone knew that the plan was for Jefferson to be President and Burr to be Vice President. However, Burr is, to put it mildly, one of the more interesting politicians that no one really talks about anymore. He later allegedly tried to procure a major chunk of South-Eastern territory from Spain to set up an independent state led by himself. Here, he sees the chance to steal the presidency from Jefferson, so he quietly sits back and sees how it will all play out.

The other problem is that even though the Democratic-Republicans have won decisively in the House elections, it’s actually the sitting House that conducts the vote. The sitting House is not only majority Federalist, but as a party they pretty much hate Jefferson, so this might be a good time to give a big fuck you to him by denying him the presidency (not to mention the fact that some of them legitimately feared that a Jefferson presidency could turn into some kind of Jacobin revolution).

The house casts many ballots over several days. Jefferson gets close but keeps falling just short. Here the plot thickens. Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr are both aggressive, ambitious politicians from New York and they detest each other. So, even though Hamilton is a Federalist and himself has had many clashes with Jefferson, his hatred of Burr is stronger than his fear of a Jefferson presidency. Behind the scenes he does just enough political magic that finally allows Jefferson to squeak through and gain the presidency.

From that cluster fuck, there was general recognition that perhaps the electoral college voting process has not yet been optimized. In fact, before the next presidential election, an amendment is proposed, voted on by Congress, and approved by the requisite number of states to have the electors separately vote for President and Vice President.

As can be imagined, this did not do great things for the already battered relationship between Burr and Hamilton. It would deteriorate even further when Hamilton thwarted Burr’s bid to become governor of New York. Ultimately, their fates would be forever intertwined in the interview at Weehawken.

Why did I go into all of this detail? Well, at the National Archives, on display, is the original hand-scrawled electoral college count of 1800, showing both Jefferson and Burr at 73 votes.

Just seeing that scrap of paper filled my brain with all that I just wrote about. Having such thoughts flood my brain is the reason why I planned a vacation to D.C. and it has exceeded all of my expectations.


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