The Last Word by Marcus Fisk

The Last Word – Once a Rascal…

May 1929 mug shot of Al Capone in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he had been arrested and charged with carrying a concealed weapon. (Photo – Pennsylvania Department of Corrections/FBI)

Alexandria, VA – “I’m the boss. I’m going to continue to run things. They’ve been putting the roscoe on me for a good many years and I’m still healthy and happy. Don’t let anybody kid you into thinking I can be run out of town. I haven’t run yet and I’m not going to.”

— Al Capone

It may be late summer, but in America that only means one thing – It’s Presidential Election Season. The 2020 election was barely over when the next Presidential Election Season was kicked off by multiple court filings alleging fraud, public relations campaigns citing corruption, and talking heads of all professions espousing theories of what it all means on all the media outlets. We, the people, complained that the brouhaha was adversely affecting our “democracy” and that the legal problems of a former President of the United States was “unheard of,” “unprecedented,” and “historic.” What we failed to recognize, however, is that politics in America and legal dalliances go hand-in-hand and are as American as Apple Pie, the 4th of July, and Barbie.

Litigation has never kept anyone from running for office in America. It’s in our blood. It’s a colorful part of who we are. For example, Labor leader and Socialist Party member Eugene V. Debs ran for president a total of five times. In 1920 he was found guilty of violating the 1917 Espionage Act and served time in a federal penitentiary due to his speeches against World War I and his advocating for men to refuse military service.

The Dynamic Duo of Aaron Burr and General James Wilkinson conspired to create their own new country out of chunks of the American Southwest, Louisiana, and several bits of Mexico here and there. (Photo: The Daily Sentinel, July 9, 2023)

Debs campaigned in 1920 with the slogan “For President — Convict No. 9653.” There were six political parties in that election[1], but he still managed 897,704 votes, a distant but still noteworthy 3rd place finish. Interestingly, the winner, Republican Warren G Harding, who was later plagued with multiple scandals, the most famous being the Teapot Dome oil scandal in his administration, pardoned Debs in December 1921.

The list of indicted politicians running for office is a veritable Who’s Who of American politics. Right in our own DMV backyard was former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry.[2] Despite spending six months in a federal penitentiary for drug violations, Barry made a Herculean political comeback to serve again on the D.C. City Council and a fourth term as mayor.

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry was indicted on two felony charges for threatening to cut off funding to the office of a Democratic District Attorney in Texas to get her to leave her position. Perry went on to run for president twice.

Lyndon LaRouche, an eight-time presidential candidate from the National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC) Party (and former resident of Loudon County, VA), was convicted on federal conspiracy and mail fraud charges and ran for president while serving his sentence.

Eugene V. Debs ran for President five times, coming in 3rd in 1920. (Photo: US

Finally, one of the most notorious examples of politics and the law being mutually exclusive was the charismatic James Michael Curley, former two-time Congressman, four-time mayor of Boston, governor of Massachusetts, and Boston city councilman. Curley was a master influence peddler. Despite his numerous administrations being mired in corruption, he served five months of his fourth term as Boston mayor in a federal prison. In Boston politics, being Irish carried more weight than any indictment or prison term ever could.

Probably the biggest political conspiracy during the formative years of our American Republic, where the battle cry became “No harm, no foul,” was what historians refer to as the Burr Conspiracy. In 1800 Aaron Burr was a candidate for vice president on Thomas Jefferson’s presidential ticket. Congress voted for the whole ticket but never determined who should be president and vice president until a vote was taken. Jefferson came in with the most votes, so Burr became vice president.[3] Jefferson never truly trusted the ambitious Burr and ultimately replaced him with Governor George Clinton, ironically also from New York, in the 1804 election as his running mate.

After being Veep, Burr ran for governor of New York in 1804. Alexander Hamilton[4] had been writing nasty letters to prominent New York politicians about Burr at the time. When all was said and done, Burr lost the election partly due to Hamilton’s feverish letter-writing campaign. When he learned about Hamilton’s writings, an enraged Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel that took place on 11 July 1804 in Weehawken, New Jersey.[5]

Journalists present that morning filed conflicting reports — who fired first, that Hamilton shot wide to miss Burr on purpose, or he couldn’t hit Burr because Burr had shot him in the arm. Hamilton was really popular back then, having served as aide-de-camp to General Washington in the American Revolution, later serving as President Washington’s secretary of the treasury and establishing the National Bank.

Hamilton’s popularity was a big deal. Even the Maria Reynolds incident, an intimate affair with a married woman (Reynolds) who became his public mistress lasting some 23 years, didn’t dim his luminosity among the Founding Fathers. Burr had a terrible, widely known reputation as a womanizer, but that didn’t move the public much back then either.[6] After Hamilton took the big dirt bath at Burr’s hand in the duel, however, Burr’s popularity plummeted.

Always a man of action, on Burr’s way out the door as Veep after the schism with Jefferson, he ran an idea past Anthony Merry, Britain’s Minister to the U.S. If Britain would help Burr secure the Southwest and create a new country, he, in turn, would give Britain a big chunk of Louisiana and the Royal Navy access to the Gulf of Mexico – a 19th-century version of The Empire Strikes Back.

Merry’s dispatches to London about the idea went over about as well as Burr’s duel with Hamilton. All Merry heard in response to his missives was crickets.

When Burr heard rumblings of federal arrest warrants being executed accusing him of murder (dueling was illegal in America), he fled to Philadelphia where he cozied up to an old friend, General James Wilkinson.[7] After the Revolution, where Wilkinson had served as adjutant general for General Horatio Gates, he retired to Kentucky. Wilkinson was governor of Louisiana and “consulting” for Spain when he and Burr re-connected. A plan was hatched to occupy Spanish lands in Mexico and then conquer and annex chunks of the American Southwest. Essentially, Burr would become El Supremo in a Napoleon-style empire under his control and Wilkinson would run any military campaigns.

It’s tough when your major hatchet man gets nervous, but that’s what happened. Wilkinson spilled his guts to President Jefferson, the feds arrested Burr, and he went to trial in Richmond, VA, in February 1806. Wilkinson presented evidence to the court, presided over by Justice John Marshall, that implicated Burr as a conspirator to create a separate country from the existing U.S. and add some Mexican/Spanish territory as well.

It turned out that Wilkenson had forged some conspiracy documents implicating Burr, so there were questions about the veracity of the evidence. Then, when Burr spoke in his own defense about his service in the Revolution and as vice president to the country, journalists said that even his most virulent opponents broke out in tears. Justice Marshall ultimately acquitted Burr on the grounds that since Burr never fired a shot against the country and there was no war on at the time, he couldn’t have committed “treason.” Well, at least that’s how the Constitution was interpreted back then.

Burr quietly left the country for Europe and, after some time and a divorce, he settled in Britain and tried his Empire idea again. This time Britain told him to hit the trail for good and not to come back. Burr crept into the U.S. under the assumed name of “Edwards” and practiced law again. He met and married Eliza Jumel, a wealthy widow, but the marriage lasted only four months due to his mismanagement of her land holdings and other financial assets.

So, there you have it. Even an attempt to secede from the Union, form your own Army, invade a neighboring country, strip off territories from two European powers, and set yourself up as Emperor didn’t move the political or ethical scale much back in the 1800s. I guess that given America’s love of the rascal, the country better not hold its collective breath. Al Capone may have been right — “They’ve hung everything on me but the Chicago fire.”


[1] They were: the American Party, Prohibition Party, Farmer-Labor Party, Socialist Party, Democrat Party, and Republican Party.

[2] He was known nationally for major events such as 1) missing a disastrous, paralyzing blizzard in January 1987 by attending Superbowl XXI in sunny Pasadena instead of supervising disaster relief; and 2) for his famous quote after an FBI crack cocaine sting operation when he was quoted as saying, ‘B—h set me up” — one of America’s greatest political quotes.

[3] Burr’s scenario has been labeled by psychologists as the “Buzz Aldrin syndrome.” In 1969, NASA determined that Astronaut Neil Armstrong would be the first man on the moon, thereby making Aldrin the second. From interviews and eyewitness reports, it appeared that Aldrin never got over the fact he wasn’t first on the moon.

[4] Centuries before he became a hit Broadway musical.

[5] Before that date historians noted that not much happened in Weehawken. It appears that not much has happened since then, but it’s what the town is best known for.

[6] Locker room talk back then was called “Tavern Talk.”

[7] No relation to the sword of the same name.

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