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The Fateful Encounter
IN THE MOST FAMOUS DUEL IN AMERICAN HISTORY AARON BURR IS USUALLY SEEN AS THE VILLAIN, ALEXANDER HAMILTON AS THE NOBLE VICTIM, BUT WAS IT REALLY THAT SIMPLE?
August 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 5
In time both men resigned from the Cabinet for reasons unrelated to the feud, but Hamilton continued to be Washington’s closest adviser. In fact, he may have been more powerful than when in office. Still, it was a delegated power. Hamilton never succeeded in creating a broad political base of his own. He believed that loyalty to the new country should be created through self-interest. The selfinterest of the moneyed and educated class should come first, however, as it was the natural prime mover, while the masses should come to realize that their own self-interest was best served by this arrangement. He was humane and just enough to realize that this might seem a lopsided equation, and he struggled to balance it in some fashion but never succeeded. It is only fair to him to remind ourselves that the problem is still with us.
Burr had much the same theory but was clever enough to keep it to himself. The French Revolution had made a deep impact upon most Americans. They felt the Age of the Common Man was come. Though he often misjudged the public mind, Burr did not misjudge this. He became the people’s champion, using the Sons of Liberty and the Tammany Society as his base and the Democratic-Republicans—eventually to become the Democratic Party—as his instrument.
Burr had placed himself on the winning side, yet when he ran for reelection to the Senate he was beaten by General Schuyler, thanks to an all-out effort by Hamilton, who hit below as well as above the belt. A pattern was beginning to form. Hamilton, who would never again hold public office, whose Federalist Party was waning fast, was still capable of checkmating Burr when it counted. He was aided by his sincere conviction that Burr was evil; it gave his words a persuasive power that mere political polemics would not have had. But it was probably only now that Burr began to feel personally affronted by him.
There were to be more such major checkmates. During the undeclared war with France invasion was feared, and President Adams persuaded a reluctant George Washington to become commander in chief of an almost non-existent army with the proviso that he would take the field only if invasion actually occurred. This meant that the second-in-command would have the job of raising and organizing a fighting force. Washington wanted Hamilton to be that man. So did Hamilton, though it would mean great financial sacrifice, as his law practice was booming. John Adams, who detested Hamilton for opposing his nomination in 1796, objected. But Washington was adamant, and after much bickering Hamilton got the post over many officers senior to him during the Revolution, and with it the rank of major general. Burr wanted a commission as a brigadier. Hamilton’s influence with Washington scotched that. Burr was naturally infuriated—and so was President Adams, who complained that Washington, after forcing him to approve “the most restless, impatient, artful, indefatigable and unprincipled intriguer in the United States, if not in the world, to be second in command under himself … now dreaded an intriguer in a poor brigadier!”
True … in part. Both were intriguers of the first rank, but most historians agree that Hamilton was not “unprincipled” in the usual sense. He wanted power, he wanted fame, he would have welcomed a land war with France, or, failing that, one with Spain; but when none of these opportunities was forthcoming, he worked ceaselessly and imaginatively at the humdrum and relatively thankless task of laying the groundwork for a truly professional army, one that would survive him for many years.
The next checkmate came in the election of 1800. It must be remembered that at that time the winner in the Electoral College became President and the runner-up the Vice President. However, among candidates of the same party there was usually an understanding as to which office each was aiming for. When Jefferson ran for President and Burr entered the race, it was generally understood by the Democratic-Republicans that he was aiming for the second spot, and they voted for him accordingly. It was soon obvious that John Adams was out of contention, as Burr had anticipated, because Federalist votes were divided between him and the Southerner Charles Pinckney.
When the electoral votes were counted in November, the country was astonished to find Jefferson and Burr tied. No matter, thought most Jeffersonians; Burr knows the people’s choice and will gracefully concede. But these innocents did not fully realize that their party was in the grip of the same North-South cleavage that had doomed Adams. The tie transferred the battle to the House of Representatives, where the North had more votes than the South. Aaron Burr seemed to be sitting in the catbird seat.
But Hamilton, his old nemesis, now went to work in earnest. Despite his loathing for Jefferson he recognized him as a man of integrity, unlikely to do the country as much damage as the serpentine Burr. The Federalists, weak as they were, now became the key to the situation, but they were of many minds and by no means subservient to Hamilton. After repeated tie votes in the House, which actually threatened to tear the country apart, making “Secession!” a familiar cry in several areas, Hamilton succeeded in persuading enough Federalist delegations to refrain from voting or to cast blank ballots to swing the election to Jefferson.