As sitting Vice President, in January 1805 AB presided over the Senate impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samual Chase. Chase was a signer of the Constitution and political enemy of Thomas Jefferson. AB had a personal history with Chase, and regarded the judge as a drunken, crude, and arrogant individual. Prior to Chase’s arrival in the Senate chamber for the trial, and armchair had been placed for the defendant to sit in. Burr had the chair removed. Chase arrived, requested a chair, and Burr is said to have uttered this famous line:
“Let the Judge take care to find a seat for himself.”
But there’s more to the story…
The quote attributed to AB was sourced to Federalist Senator William Plumber of New Hampshire. In 1803, Plumer just happened to be one of several New England Federalists who proposed secession from the United States due to lack of support for Federalists, rising influence of Jeffersonian Democrats and the diminished influence of the North due to the Louisiana Purchase. Plumer fanned the flames of discord by using the trial of Chase as yet another example of partisan hazing, which many argue it clearly was. But Plumer chose to single out AB as the tool of the administration, and seized the opportunity to paint Burr a Jeffersonian thug by claiming in the press that he heard AB say:
“In Great Britain when an officer is impeached & Appears before the House of Lords-instead of having a Chair, the Accused falls on his knees & rises not till the Lord Chancellor directs him.”
Thus the party most often accused of loyalty to the Crown would attempt to turn the tables on the francophiles & Jacobin’s! Burr’s reputation was already in the tank due to that little thing with Hamilton, and he had become a lightning rod for all partisan attacks, despite his reputation as being “his own man”.
Chase was ultimately acquitted by AB himself, in a move that has been pointed to as AB’s “final straw” with Jefferson.
Despite bipartisan praise for AB’s professional conduct and level handedness in executing his presiding duties at the trial, he’s often overlooked for the crucial role he played in helping to stop the executive purge (and puppet rule) of the judiciary. Because it’s Chase’s acquittal that many historians say helped ensure the independence of the judiciary. But funny enough, you have to dig very deep in the annals to find anyone willing to admit it!