July 11, 2017—As we commemorate the remarkable life and contributions of Alexander Hamilton on this anniversary of his duel with Aaron Burr 213 years ago, we would do well to remember one of his lesser-celebrated, but crucial contributions–his role in defeating Burr as a possible president of the United States in the election of 1800. (His first contribution, of course, was to create the institutional basis for the American System of Economics in the U.S. Constitution and financial system.)
By 1800, Hamilton had become somewhat politically isolated, due to his conflict with the Adams Administration and the rise of the Jeffersonian party. However, he maintained tremendous personal prestige for his role in building the nation’s economy and Constitution. Probably no individual alive (Washington had died in 1799) considered him or herself more personally responsible for saving the republic.
Thus, when the 1800 Presidential election resulted in an Electoral College tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, Hamilton swung into action. According to the Constitution, the tie would be broken by the vote of the lame duck House of Representatives, where the Federalists were still well-represented. And the Federalist Party had made a collective decision to support Burr for President, creating a clear and present danger that the man Hamilton considered the “Cataline of America,” Aaron Burr, would become President of the United States.
Immediately upon hearing of the Electoral College result (the tie), Hamilton began a vigorous letter-writing campaign, urging key Senators and Federalists to resist the temptation to defeat their public enemy Jefferson by supporting Burr. Burr is “wicked enough to scruple nothing,” he wrote to then-U.S. Senator Gouverneur Morris. Personal ambition is Burr’s only cause, he wrote to Rep. James Bayard of Delaware; he wants permanent power. “For heaven’s sake, my dear Sir, exert yourself to the utmost to save our country from so great a calamity.” To Rep. John Rutledge, Jr. of South Carolina, he provided a long sketch of Burr’s character as “one of the most unprincipled” men, noting that Burr is full of “infinite art and cunning.”
Hamilton had an uphill battle. The New England state representatives (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire) were solidly for Burr. Others, such as Bayard, legitimately feared Jefferson’s track record both on states’ rights and foreign policy (affinity to France), and wanted to believe that Burr—who had made no commitments but clearly was keeping himself available to be elected President—would go along with the Federalist program. Hamilton insisted he knew Burr’s character, and while disagreeing with Jefferson’s principles, he did not believe Jefferson would fundamentally threaten the fabric of government.
For 35 ballots, taken Feb. 11 to Feb. 17, the situation didn’t budge. Each state had one vote, thus the delegation had to agree. Eight states voted for Jefferson, six states for Burr, and two were null ballots, due to a split in the delegation, or the casting of blank ballots. The winner needed nine states to be elected.
Ultimately it was Hamilton’s interchanges with Bayard of Delaware which ended the stalemate. Hamilton apparently convinced Bayard, who, as the only representative in his state, had been voting for Burr, that Burr would not benefit the Federalists, no matter what he said. In a lengthy letter January 16, 1801 Hamilton argued that Jefferson had to be preferred since Burr was corrupt (He used the example of the Manhattan Bank swindle), and a man of “great Ambition unchecked by principle.” Burr will attempt usurpation, Hamilton wrote to Bayard, and doublecross the Federalists, ultimately uniting with his old “Jacobin” allies among the Democratic-Republicans to achieve his grab for power.
Thus, on the 36th ballot, Bayard decided to withhold his vote—and convinced his friends in South Carolina to do the same. This led to Jefferson’s victory: 10 to 4 (Burr) to 2 (blank). This was not merely a victory for Hamilton, but a victory for the nation.
While it wasn’t until more than three years later, after Hamilton successfully prevented Burr from winning the New York gubernatorial race, that Burr demanded that Hamilton retract his trenchant criticisms of his character or face a duel, the die would appear to have been cast in 1801. Hamilton decided to go through with the duel, and the nation lost one of its most honorable sons.
British agent Burr lost his ambitions forever, and the republic survived.