Commentary / History

Alexander Hamilton, Patriot to the End

By Nancy Spannaus

July 11, 2019—On this 215th anniversary of the assassination of Alexander Hamilton, the sad truth is that very few will publicly mourn this leading patriot, the founder of the American System of political economy. Yes, moving tributes are being sponsored in New York City by the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society, which is waging a valiant campaign to “set the record straight” on our First Treasury Secretary’s extraordinary career in building our nation. But the event will largely go unnoticed by politicians and the general public.

Alexander Hamilton, Patriot to the End

Hamilton grave site at Trinity Church, in the Wall Street area of Manhattan.

This reflects a serious problem in our republic. For the fact is, that Hamilton’s political economy and the principles on which it was based are critical for restoring the United States to a prosperous economy and unified nation.  Those principles were turned to again and again by those American statesmen who made the greatest strides in advancing our productivity and prosperity. John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt all established systems of Hamiltonian public credit which led to revolutionary upgrades in our living standards. And we need to do the same today.

My book Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics is devoted to supporting this thesis, and I urge you to get a copy as soon as possible. We need a vigorous national debate on these policies right now.

But on this occasion, I want to address the question of Hamilton’s murder by Aaron Burr.

Hamilton Died Fighting

Alexander Hamilton was officially retired when he accepted the challenge for a duel with Aaron Burr in Summer 1804, but he had not abandoned the fight for his principles and the welfare of the nation. He had founded the New York Post, and routinely consulted with its editor, William Coleman, on the contents.  He had recently thrown himself into fight for press freedom by arguing for the defense of newspaper editor Harry Croswell, who was being prosecuted for libel of public figures, including President Jefferson. Indeed, Hamilton was successful in getting the New York Supreme Court to take a step toward recognizing truth as a defense against libel—a standard which flew in the face of British legal standards and those of other monarchies.[1]

Of equal importance was Hamilton’s ongoing fight to prevent the Federalist Party from becoming a party of treason. This fight represented a direct challenge to the plans of the British to split up and destroy the United States, plans that had been explicitly embraced by New England Federalists such as Timothy Pickering. Pickering had written to Hamilton about just such a prospect prior to the New York gubernatorial election of 1804, and excited his vigorous condemnation. But Hamilton had been waging the political battle with the New Englanders since at least 1800, when many were also closing ranks behind Burr in the presidential stalemate.

According to the editors of the Hamilton papers, Hamilton’s very last letter, written to New England Federalist Theodore Sedgwick, addressed this question. He wrote: “Dismemberment of our Empire will be a clear sacrifice of great positive advantages, without any counterbalancing good; administering no relief to our real Disease, which is DEMOCRACY, the poison of which by subdivision will only be more concentrated in each part, and consequently the more virulent.” (emph. in original)

By democracy, of course, Hamilton meant Jacobinism, the surrender of a deliberative process of government to the whims of popular opinion. What is unstated by him, but should be well known to students of history, is that Jacobinism has lawfully been used over the centuries by autocrats who are maneuvering to maintain their own power. Such periods of popular enthusiasm have with regularity led into chaos, to be followed by outright dictatorship.

The industrial complex Alexander Hamilton began in Paterson, NJ in 1791. It began to thrive in the early 1800s.

It is essential to keep in mind that the British Crown was by no means reconciled to American independence in the first decade of the 19th Century. The British continued to support and sponsor Indian raids against the western settlements, in addition to impressing American seamen in the course of its war against France. The policy of attempting to “stifle American manufactures in the cradle,” which was pronounced by Henry Lord Brougham to Parliament in 1816 in support of free trade, was already in effect.

Thus, Hamilton was still a threat to British plans.

Ironically, over the last months of his life, Hamilton had spent a good deal of effort challenging lies from both New York Governor Clinton and President Adams that he was in the pocket of the British, and wanted to restore the monarchy by bringing a son of George III to the United States.  Hamilton denied this vigorously, professing his adherence to a republic.

Burr’s Character: A Man for Hire…

Burr’s murder of Hamilton was not an act of personal revenge for attacks on his reputation, but a strategic move by his British sponsors to remove the most powerful organizer of the American System of economics who was on the scene. Eliminating Hamilton permitted European oligarchical agent Albert Gallatin, then Secretary of the Treasury, to move to take down the defenses of the United States, and the Federalist Party to move even closer to the British camp—thus threatening the destruction of the country.

As far as this author knows, Alexander Hamilton never identified Aaron Burr as an agent of a foreign power. However, from the time the two became acquainted, in the earliest days of the Revolutionary War, around the staff of Gen. George Washington, Hamilton had identified Burr as dangerous and untrustworthy. Indeed, Burr never hid the fact that he was motivated by pure ambition, his motto being, “Great souls care little for small morals.” Burr was constantly countermanding instructions in order to aggrandize his own role.

Burr cannot be defined by his political positions, which frequently changed, depending upon whether he was currying the favor of Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, or the Federalist Party. But he did generally ally with his cousin Gallatin, the son of a Swiss aristocrat, in demanding a cutback in the nation’s defenses, in favor of paying debt.

Alexander Hamilton, Patriot to the End

Aaron Burr (daily.jstor.org)

One of Hamilton’s most thorough indictments of Burr was summarized by biographer Robert Hendrickson, as Hamilton was fighting to prevent the Federalists from electing him to the Presidency in the aftermath of the 1800 elections:

Be assured, my dear sir, that this man has no principle, public nor private…. [H]is sole spring of action is an inordinate ambition as an individual, he is believed by friends as well as foes to be without probity; and a voluptuary by system—with habits of expense that can be satisfied by no fair expedients…. Daring and energy must be allowed him; but these qualities, under the direction of the worst passions, are certainly strong objections, not recommendations. He is of a temper to undertake the most hazardous enterprises, because he is sanguine enough to think nothing impracticable; and of an ambition that will be content with nothing less than permanent power in his own hands.

And more:

To a man of this description, possessing the requisite talents, the acquisition of permanent power is not a chimera. I know that Mr. Burr does not view it as such, and I am sure there are no means too atrocious to be employed by him. In debt, vastly beyond his means of payment, with all the habits of excessive expense, he cannot be satisfied with the regular emoluments of any office of our government… No engagement that can be made with him can be depended upon; while making it, he will laugh in his sleeve at the credulity of those with whom he makes it;—and the first moment it suits his views to break it he will do so.[2]

Burr knew exactly what Hamilton thought of him, long before he decided to challenge Hamilton to a duel on the basis of a newspaper publication alluding to Hamilton’s comments on Burr’s “despicable” character. He had probably heard most of the statements face to face. Hamilton had aggressively organized against Burr’s getting the Presidency in 1800, and then again publicly in the New York gubernatorial campaign. Yet, having found his path to power blocked, once again, by Hamilton’s organizing, Burr decided to act.

The British Pawprint

Burr’s murder of Hamilton brought him immediate popular opprobrium, including indictments in New Jersey and New York. (They were ultimately quashed.) While he was laying low in New York, awaiting the coroner’s finding, Burr was given $41,783 by John Jacob Astor, a tycoon of questionable American loyalties, on a very odd basis, viz., for leases Burr didn’t own.[3]

Alexander Hamilton, Patriot to the End

These pistols, used in the duel which killed Alexander Hamilton, are appropriately displayed right outside Jamie Dimon’s office in New York. (New York Historical Society)

But even Burr’s public activity, from that point on, shows him to be acting directly in cahoots with, and for, the British enemies of the United States.

  • As of early August (a few weeks after killing Hamilton), Burr went to Philadelphia where he met a Colonel Williamson to convey an offer to the new British Ambassador to the United States, Anthony Merry. According to Merry’s report to the Foreign Office, “I have just received an offer from Mr. Burr … to lend his assistance to his majesty’s government in any matter in which they may think fit to employ him, particularly in endeavoring to effect a separation of the western part of the United States from that which lies between the Atlantic and the mountains, in its whole extent.”[4]
  • After leaving the Vice Presidency in 1805, Burr traveled extensively in those western areas in 1805-06, organizing in favor of such a separation, until such time as the second Jefferson Administration took note, and issued warrants for his arrest. He was acquitted at trial, because the proof presented did not meet the strict Constitutional standard, including two witnesses to his actions
  • In June 1808, Burr set sail, surreptitiously, for England, where he established contact with top levels of British intelligence, including Jeremy Bentham, at whose estate he sometimes resided. While arguing for the right to stay in England indefinitely, Burr made the argument that he was by law a British subject (!), and thus should be accorded that consideration. According to his favorable biographer, J. Parton, Burr’s preoccupation continued to be to find a sponsor for his earlier proposal to split off the West of the United States, including conquering Spanish territory, including Mexico. An unknown sum of money was expended in supporting him in England—and in subsequent travels throughout the Continent—until he returned to the United States in 1812.
  • From his return in 1812, until his death in 1836, Burr practiced law in New York City, dying a natural death at the age of 80. There is no indication that he ever showed signs of remorse for his mortal blow against the leading economist of the United States.

What Did Burr Accomplish?

It could be argued that Burr’s assassination of Hamilton in fact aided Hamilton’s reputation, and did not serve British aims. Certainly there was a huge outpouring of sentiment in favor of Hamilton immediately after this death, and Burr’s political standing suffered an irreparable blow.

Burr shoots Hamilton at Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11,1804.

But the long-lasting effects on Hamilton’s murder were devastating to the country. The ten years following his death saw the utter collapse of the Federalists into a virtual party of treason, and the destruction of the economy and defenses of the United States under the incompetent Democratic-Republicans. It was no thanks to the party leaderships that the United States succeeding in beating off the British attempt to dismantle country in the War of 1812.

It was only with the offensive by the Mathew Carey grouping, allied with Henry Clay and others, in the mid-1810s, and specifically the publication of Carey’s Olive Branch, that a nationalist faction came together around Hamiltonian economics, and established the American System tradition that led to Lincoln, and the transformation of the United States into the industrial envy of the world.

[1] Under the European monarchies, the truth of a scandalous charge against a government official was not only not exculpatory, but was considered an aggravation of the crime of libel.

[2] These statements come from a December 27, 1800 letter by Hamilton to Delaware Federalist Congressman James A. Bayard.

[3] Contained in Kenneth Wiggins, John Jacob Astor: Business Man, as cited by Anton Chaitkin, Treason in America, From Aaron Burr to Averell Harriman, p. 70.

[4] Merry to Harrowby, Aug. 6, 1804, taken from the British archives in the late 19th Century and quoted in Henry Adams, History of the United States of America in the First Administration of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1921) Vol. II, p. 395.

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2 Comments

  1. William C. Reber says:

    I am eagerly looking forward to begin reading your Publication….. and start to
    increase my knowledge vis-vis this very important subject matter. Thanx.

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