« AnteriorContinuar »
GENTLEMEN OF THE JURY
COLONEL BURR'S law practice had steadily increased-in alliance with various partners, Mr. Broome, Mr. Coleman-and it was not long before he was one of the leaders of the New York bar, appearing frequently before the Appellate Court to argue causes at the invitation of his colleagues, for which he received very substantial fees. "I have never undertaken the management of a cause of any Amount in Error under £40," he told Peter Van Schaack in 1790; annual receipts of more than twenty thousand dollars accrued to the firm of Burr and Broome; and he is known to have once been paid ten thousand dollars for a single case.
The two Prevost boys worked for several years in his office, and acquired a reputation for diligence and devotion to their employer; "the boys very attentive and industrious," Mrs. Burr was always writing her husband. "Bartow never quits the officeBartow's industry and utility are striking to the family and strangers. The Colonel himself was their inspiration and example, and prepared his
cases with a thoroughness and painstaking labor which earned him the gratification of many favorable verdicts, and the admiration, not unmixed with a very considerable envy, of other members of the profession. "His distinguished abilities," the English traveller, John Davis, wrote of him, "attracted so decided a leaning in his favour, a deference to his opinions so strongly marked, as to excite in no small degree the jealousy of the bar. So strong was this impression made by the general respect for his opinions, that exclamations of despair were frequently heard to escape the lips of counsel whose fortune it was to be opposed by the eloquence of Burr. I am aware that this language wears the colour of panegyric, but the recollections which the facts must excite in the breasts of his candid rivals will corroborate its accuracy.
In court, Colonel Burr was a whirlwind of technical precisions, an adroit demonstrator of significant facts, an astute contriver of legal pitfalls for his opponents, a fascinating, compelling persuader of juries. He stood erect and military, making the most of his five feet and six inches, a graceful, meticulously groomed figure, polished and courtly, the dark eyes shining in a countenance of striking nobility-and when he spoke, there was silence in the courtroom.
He came, of course, in constant contact with Alexander Hamilton. The two men shared a record of exceptional military service; there was between them the mutual attraction of a high intellectual
attainment; a friendly social intercourse, oblivious to political distinctions, united the two families; the daily concerns arising from their common profession brought them frequently together. Of the two, Hamilton was perhaps the more profound, the more erudite, the more long-winded; Burr the more superficial, the more concise and the more successful. When they met, as they often did, on opposite sides of a case, it was Hamilton who had need to look to his laurels, to fortify himself against defeat. It was Burr who could say as much in half an hour as it took Hamilton two hours to establish. And it was Hamilton who was sometimes obliged to ask favors of his rival, because his own procedure had "rendered me culpably negligent"; although on occasions it was the Colonel who was in the wrong, so that Mr. Hamilton must write him that "I observe in your warrant of Attorney a new error. You add the Shillings and pence to the penalty whereas they belong to the condition. The penalty is simply personal."
"Colo. Hamilton," so Major William Pierce saw the West Indian in 1787, "is deservedly celebrated for his talents. He is a practitioner of the Law, and reputed to be a finished Scholar. To a clear and strong judgment he unites the ornaments of fancy, and whilst he is able, convincing and engaging in his eloquence the Heart and Head sympathize in approving him. Yet there is something too feeble in his voice to be equal to the strains of oratory; it is my opinion that he is rather a convincing Speaker [than] a blazing Orator. Colo. Hamilton requires time to think-he enquires into every part of his subject
with the searchings of philosophy, and when he comes forward he comes highly charged with interesting matter, there is no skimming over the surface of a subject with him, he must sink to the bottom to see what foundation it rests on.
"His language is not always equal, sometimes didactic like Bolingbroke's, at others light and tripping like Stern's. His eloquence is not so defusive as to trifle with the senses, but he rambles just enough to strike and keep up the attention. He is about thirty-three years old, of small stature, and lean. His manners are tinctured with stiffness, and sometimes with a degree of vanity that is highly disagreeable."
A vanity which was to suffer a good deal, perhaps, in the course of varied encounters with his great contemporary.
On two occasions at least, they were retained together in important litigations, in which their combined efforts were rewarded with favorable decisions. One of these, the case of the People against Levi Weeks, in 1800, was perhaps the most celebrated affair of its day, and aroused an intense public interest throughout the community. It was, in fact, one of the earliest of New York's mystery murders.
On December 22, 1799, Gulielma Elmore Sands, commonly and perhaps none too virtuously known as Elma Sands, had left her home on Greenwich Street, never to return alive. On January 2, 1800, her body was discovered at the bottom of the Manhattan Well in Lispenard's Meadows. The corpse
was taken to the house in which she had resided, and exposed for a day to public view in the street; on January 6, the Grand Jury returned an indictment for murder against a certain young carpenter, Levi Weeks, who was known to have shared in the young lady's somewhat generous affections; and in a few days the town was flooded with handbills condemning Mr. Weeks and sacrificing him to the popular hysteria.
The trial opened on March 31, before Chief Justice Lansing, Mayor Varick and Recorder Harrison, and lasted forty-eight hours-an unusually lengthy proceeding in that day; opposed to Cadwallader Colden, the Assistant Attorney General, were Mr. Burr, Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Brockholst Livingston. In the face of the State's almost purely circumstantial evidence, Colonel Burr laid stress on the notorious character of the deceased, he denounced the prejudiced verdict of public opinion, and produced witnesses who presented a satisfactory alibi for the defendant. Whereupon the Chief Justice delivered an extraordinary charge favoring the defence-in which he informed the jury that the prisoner's alibi accounted for the manner in which he had spent the evening, "excepting a few minutes," and that in the opinion of the Court there was not sufficient proof to warrant a decision against the accused— and in five minutes the jury approved Mr. Lansing's findings with a verdict of Not Guilty; the only verdict, indeed, which could have been rendered in view of the State's failure to establish its case.
"If thee dies a natural death, I shall think there is no more justice in Heaven!" one of the relatives of