A stage for history
One hundred years ago, Paul Jasper sat in a Pittsburgh jail cell, holding a short diamond-encrusted chain that once was attached to an exquisite pocket watch.
Jasper, a former slave jailed for “trivial reasons,” caught the attention of Allegheny County's colorful jail warden, Edward Lewis, because of the watch chain in his jacket pocket.
Jasper, 65, who served in the Civil War, was a direct descendant of the personal servant to former Vice President Aaron Burr; the servant was with Burr when he mortally wounded former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in a pre-dawn duel in Weehawken, N.J.
Burr, according to Jasper, handed the watch chain to Jasper's great-grandfather before the duel “in case he would fall.” Instead, Hamilton fell that day; Burr didn't die until 1836, after 32 years marked by greed, ambition, public scandal and self-destruction.
History has a funny way of occurring right under our feet, most often without us knowing it, according to Rich Fitzgerald, Allegheny County's chief executive and a history buff.
“Big historical moments or even trivial moments probably happened in the neighborhood you live in, or on the same soil of the office space you enter every day,” he said.
Allegheny County, founded 225 Septembers ago, is rich in such events, Fitzgerald said: “Back in 1788, it was considered the edge of a new frontier.”
Aaron Burr spent considerable time here. After completing his vice-presidential term in 1805, he traveled to Pittsburgh to secure a keelboat — the most luxurious means of travel at that time — where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers become the Ohio, in order to leisurely drift down to the Mississippi. He told people he planned to visit his daughter.
In truth, he planned to wrest from Spanish control “the majestic empire of Mexico,” including the territory of Louisiana, and to create a monarchy extending from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes.
Pittsburgh would be his empire's eastern boundary; the Rocky Mountains, its western edge.
He even mustered an army for his conquest.
“It's amazing to consider a man with those kinds of ambitions was nearly our president,” said Fitzgerald. “Imagine the damage he could have done had he won.”
“Burr indeed was almost the president of the United States,” said Joel Goldstein, a respected St. Louis University scholar of the presidency and vice presidency. “It was during the tumultuous election of 1800, one of our nation's most bitter, which ended with an electoral tie between him and Thomas Jefferson.”
The election wasn't resolved until the following February when, after nearly 40 ballots, the House of Representatives elected Jefferson as president and Burr as vice president, Goldstein explained.
Imagine three months of outrage on the cable news networks and the social-media websites if such a thing happened today.
Burr served out his vice-presidential term before setting out on his quixotic quest to take over part of North America, Goldstein recounted. Until then, he was considered a capable politician who presided effectively over the Senate.
“It appears that ambition got the best of him,” he said, referring to Burr's duel with Hamilton, his attempt to become New York's governor while still serving as vice president, and his failed bid to carve off part of America's newly acquired Louisiana Territory for his own empire.
That final power grab caused Burr to be tried for treason, although he was acquitted, Goldstein said.
When people walk through the city or even their own neighborhoods, Fitzgerald hopes they will consider some of the historic figures, magnificent and tragic, who traversed the region.
Western Pennsylvania has served as a stage for our country in every century, he said. “We should all try to pause and remember that as often as we can.”
The county executive would like to erect a kiosk in the courtyard of the County Office Building to tell residents and visitors about the famous and the infamous who passed here throughout history — characters such as Aaron Burr, Paul Jasper and the colorful jail warden who once held Burr's diamond watch chain.
Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (412-320-7879 or firstname.lastname@example.org).