Thursday, November 12, 2015

Political Dealings and Duelings

What is the worst possible scandal you could imagine in American politics today? It would have to be something particularly outrageous, right? Something that put one or both political parties at risk, perhaps, or shattered the American people's trust to the breaking point. Maybe something like Watergate or the Clinton-Lewinsky Affair, major abuses of power or lurid sexual affairs by people high up in the government, like a President or a Supreme Court Justice. How about this: what if Vice President Joe Biden were to kill a high-ranking American official over a policy disagreement, perhaps someone like Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew. Do you think I'm being a little bit too specific here? Well, in 1804, the sitting Vice President, a man named Aaron Burr, shot and killed Alexander Hamilton- the former Secretary of the Treasury, one of the most famous Founding Fathers, and the current resident of the ten-dollar bill- in a duel over perceived slights and differences in opinion. This would contribute to the destruction of a major political party, the birth of new laws about dueling in the United States, and the ruin of two important early American's lives and careers. Here is how it happened.

Alexander Hamilton on the ten dollar bill.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton is widely regarded as one of America's most important Founding Fathers. Interestingly, though, he was not born in the United States, nor did he come from what would be called a "traditional family." Hamilton was born in 1755 as the result of an affair, on the Caribbean island of Nevis. Soon after his mother moved young Alexander to what we now call the Virgin Islands, where he lived until he was orphaned at the age of thirteen. Alexander was able to get an education despite his family's poverty. This education allowed him, at the age of sixteen or so, to get a job as a clerk for a large company that traded with the New England colonies. He also became an avid reader and writer. His skills as a writer were so pronounced that community leaders where Alexander lived decided to give him the money necessary to go to the North American colonies so he could further his education. This decision would change Hamilton and the North American colonies forever.
Alexander Hamilton

In 1772 Hamilton arrived in New Jersey, where he began attending the college that would eventually become Columbia University. As an undergraduate, he quickly became known as anti-British, promoting the rights of the Colonies against the British. When the Revolutionary War against Britain broke out in 1775, Hamilton joined a New York militia to help the fight. He  continued his studies, including personal studies on the tactics of war, and was soon recommended for promotion. His quick rise through the ranks ended with Hamilton being an aide to an American war hero and general, a guy by the name of George Washington. Hamilton was quickly Washington's senior aide, so trusted that, often, Washington's orders were sent out with Hamilton's signature.
Hamilton's boss and idol, George Washington.

When the war ended, Hamilton was appointed to the Congress of the Confederation, a precursor to the Constitutional Convention, as a representative from New York. Before he was appointed, he had been critical of the power held by this Congress, with his main argument against it being:
The fundamental defect is a want of power in Congress…the confederation itself is defective and requires to be altered; it is neither fit for war, nor peace.
This lack of government power was a major frustration for Hamilton throughout his career: he argued that a weak federal government made it difficult for a country to function. If a government had to rely on states willingly providing tax money for funding, how could a government fight wars, or even provide basic needs like policing or a banking system. After less than a year serving, Hamilton became increasingly frustrated with the lack of power. He submitted a proposal to revise the Articles of Confederation that looked much like the future Constitution would. Not long after, Hamilton resigned, returned to New York, and began practicing as a lawyer.

In 1787 Hamilton was chosen as a representative to the Constitutional Convention. The stated goal of the Convention was to fix the government that existed, but Hamilton (and others) had the goal of creating a new, more powerful government. While Hamilton did not have a huge effect on the decisions made at the Congress, he would be essential in getting it accepted afterwards. Alexander Hamilton's biggest effort to get the Constitution ratified is now called the Federalist Papers. These were a series of 85 essays written by Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay defending the Constitution, and especially the new, stronger government it was creating. Hamilton came up with the idea, recruited his partners, and wrote and published the majority of the essays. Each participant focused on their areas of expertise. Each of the papers, regardless of author, was signed with the pen name "Publius." The Constitution was officially ratified on June 21, 1788; Hamilton's home state of New York would not ratify it until more than a month later.
The Federalist Papers, one of Hamilton's many great accomplishments.
The Constitutional Convention.

A year later, the new President, George Washington, appointed his old aide Alexander Hamilton as the new U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, where he helped to shape the structure of the United States Government that still exists today. Some of Hamilton's biggest accomplishments in this role were the creation of a national bank, the establishing of the national mint, and, in what may be his least popular action today, a large role in the creation of what we now call political parties. This last development came out of the rivalry over economic policies between Hamilton and his allies versus men like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who did not want to see the Federal government have such strong control over the country's finances.

In 1795 Hamilton resigned his post, but this would not end his time as a force in national politics. In 1796 he tried, unsuccessfully, to keep his political rivals John Adams and Thomas Jefferson from gaining, respectively, the presidency and vice presidency. In 1798, President Adams was convinced by George Washington to name Hamilton inspector general of the United States army, which because of Washington's limited role and then death in 1799, meant that for about a year Hamilton was in charge of the Army. And then, in what was one of the last important actions of his life, Hamilton worked relentlessly to control the election of 1800. He wanted to ensure that not only the opposition party candidates like Jefferson would not win, but that the incumbent president, John Adams, who was from Hamilton's own Federalist Party, would not win. Hamilton began intriguing in the South to insure that Jefferson would not win, while simultaneously working to keep Adams from winning either. This effort would ultimately backfire. While Hamilton was successful in keeping Adams from being elected, his political rival Jefferson did become president. This ruined Hamilton's reputation among the Federalists- after all, he had worked to keep his own party's candidate from being elected. Jefferson's election had another drawback for Hamilton: his Vice President was a man by the name of Aaron Burr.
Hamilton's fellow Federalist and political rival, John Adams.

Aaron Burr

Aaron Burr was born in 1756, the son of a Presbyterian minister of the same name who was also the second president of Princeton University. His maternal grandfather was famed Christian theologian Jonathan Edwards ("Sinners in the hands of an angry God.") At the age of two Burr was orphaned, and went to live with his grandparents, who also died quickly thereafter. At the age of thirteen he was admitted to Princeton, where he graduated at the age of 16! After he graduated he studied theology, and then law, until 1775. When news reached him of the beginning of the hostilities that would ultimately become the American Revolution, Burr suspended his schooling and enrolled in the Continental Army.
Aaron Burr

Burr's first assignment was with the troops commanded by Benedict Arnold in Canada. His efforts in Canada led to a promotion that eventually placed him on General Washington's staff- like Hamilton.  He quickly resigned this position to return to the battlefield. Not long after, he gained renown for saving an entire brigade of troops from death, including, ironically, the brigade officer, Alexander Hamilton. In 1779, after receiving more military glory including surviving the Winter at Valley Forge, Burr resigned his position due to poor health and returned to finish his study of law. He was admitted to the New York bar in 1782.
Burr's grandfather, Jonathan Edwards.

In 1784 Burr was elected to the New York State assembly. In 1789 his political career became serious when he was appointed New York Attorney General. And then, in 1791, he was elected as a U.S. Senator from New York, which isn't exceptionally notable except that the man he defeated was Philip Schuyler, who was Hamilton's father-in-law! And if you think that this insult to Hamilton's family strained his relationship with Burr, you are absolutely right! It's unreal how many times the two men's lives intersected before the fateful day where Hamilton was killed.

In the 1796 presidential election Burr ran and finished fourth, with John Adams winning the presidency. When he did not win, he turned to law and public service. In 1799 he founded what is now JPMorgan  Chase Bank. This is believed to be another place where Hamilton and Burr disagreed: allegedly Burr founded the company as a much needed water company, and hid the fact that it was to be a bank instead until the last moment. Hamilton believed Burr had acted deceitfully and dishonorably.

In the 1800 election, Burr decided to run for president again. Soon after, Thomas Jefferson chose him as his running mate, rightfully believing that Burr's influence in New York would help bring that states important votes to him. The two men would campaign for each other, with the understanding that Burr would be Jefferson's vice president. Due in part to Burr's successful campaigning, and in part to the actions taken by Alexander Hamilton against his own party, Jefferson and Burr were able to secure election. But this was not the end of that election. At that time, all candidates for president ran separately, with the person with the most votes becoming president and second most votes becoming vice president. In that election, Jefferson and Burr finished with the same number of votes, so it became necessary to have a runoff election in the Electoral College.
Burr's running mate and 3rd President Thomas Jefferson.

The runoff election between Burr and Jefferson would be decided by a large amount of campaigning, back-room deals and mudslinging. Jefferson had intentionally brought Burr on as his running mate because he believed Burr would help him to get the required votes to become president. When they had the same number of votes, enemies of Jefferson tried to get Burr elected instead. After 35 votes could not produce the majority required to decide the election, on the 36th, Alexander Hamilton threw his support behind Jefferson and got him elected as the third president. Hamilton did this is in part because, despite his dislike of Jefferson, he saw Jefferson as the lesser of two evils when compared to Burr. Although Burr probably had nothing to do with this campaigning, and despite the fact that Jefferson's opponents were unsuccessful in getting Burr elected, Jefferson no longer trusted Burr. He was effectively shut out of political decision-making while vice president. When it became clear to Burr that he was not going to be invited back as vice president for Jefferson's second term, in 1804, he decided to run for governor of New York. This fateful decision would, at long last, put he and Alexander Hamilton at such odds with each other that the only possibility was conflict.

The  Intersections of their Lives

As mentioned previously, there were a number of times where the lives of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr intersected, usually for the worst. I talked in more detail earlier about the parallels between their military careers- they both served under Washington, both had exemplary careers in the battlefield, and Burr even saved Hamilton's life during one battle. I also talked about how Burr won his New York Senate seat at the expense of Philip Schuyler, Alexander Hamilton's father-in-law. The two also had major disagreements over Burr's founding of the bank that is now JP Morgan Chase. And finally I talked about Hamilton's role in ensuring that Burr was not elected as president during the runoff election between Burr and Thomas Jefferson. But there are two other important times where the two men's lives would intersect- one which is not especially relevant to the climax of the story, but which I find incredibly fascinating; the other is the major driving force behind the climax- the argument that would result in the two men dueling.

The first story is a rare example of partnership between the two men. In New York in 1799- the New York of both Hamilton and Burr- a young woman named Elma Sands was found, murdered, at the bottom of a well. Quickly accused of the murder was Levi Weeks, a young carpenter living in the same boarding house Sands lived in, which was run by Sands' cousins. It was common knowledge in the community that the two were a couple; many believed they had been planning to marry. The public quickly called for Weeks' head- they believed the evidence to be strong enough to convict and execute Weeks. But Weeks had one piece of luck going for him- his brother, Ezra, was the city of New York's most prominent building contractor. Ezra used his influence to convince two of the cities preeminent lawyers- Hamilton and Burr- to represent his younger brother at trial. This was before the election of 1800, at a time where Hamilton and Burr were rivals but not bitter ones, what author Paul Collins calls "the best of enemies- or perhaps the worst of friends." The hiring of this defense team was called the "greatest criminal defense team New York had ever seen..." The two men would work together to exonerate Weeks, proving his innocence in what has become known as "America's First Murder Mystery" and nationally followed murder trial. If you are interested in reading about this trial more specifically, I strongly suggest reading Paul Collins book on the subject, Duel with the Devil.
A wonderful book about the murder trial Hamilton and Burr served as lawyers for.

The second time that Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr's lives intersected would prove to be a fateful, deadly interaction. In 1804, after four years as vice president, it became clear to Aaron Burr that he would not be asked to be Thomas Jefferson's running mate for a second term. Burr decided that he would run for governor of his home state of New York. His opponent in that election would be the barely-known Morgan Lewis. Alexander Hamilton and his allies would lead a smear campaign against his old rival Burr. The result was a resounding and shocking defeat for Burr- the most one-sided loss in New York history up until that time. Soon after, a letter between two of Hamilton's allies, Dr. Charles Cooper and Philip Schuyler, was published in the newspaper. Cooper claimed Hamilton had said Burr was "a dangerous man, and one who ought not be trusted with the reins of government," and claiming to know of "a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr."

Burr soon sent a copy of this letter to Hamilton, asking him to confirm or deny the truth of it, and demanding that Hamilton take back all the slander he had said over the previous fifteen years. A few more letters were exchanged, with Hamilton basically refusing to take back what he had said about Burr's character. In part, this may have been because Hamilton's reputation was already so damaged in his own Federalist Party that admitting he had been wrong about Burr, which Burr surely would have published as revenge, would have been political suicide in his own party. Regardless of why Hamilton refused to recant, he did not, and this was the final insult for Burr. Burr challenged Hamilton to a formal duel.

The Duel

Dueling was, by 1804, illegal in much of the United States, and was punishable by death in New York. Regardless, at that time dueling was still a part of American culture: unsurprisingly, Hamilton and Burr had both been involved in duels before (no one liked these guys!). Hamilton had been in as many as ten, and his son had died in a duel the year before.  Because of the harsh legal consequences of dueling in New York, the men agreed to have their duel in New Jersey, where dueling was merely illegal. They had agreed to duel at Weehawken, a popular dueling spot where eighteen known duels occurred. Everyone involved in the duel did as much as they could to maintain plausible deniability and avoid possible future prosecution.
The most famous image from the duel that killed Hamilton.

On July 11, 1804, the two men and their supporters met at Weehawken to settle their differences. This is where the story becomes rather unclear: the different sides portrayed the events of that morning differently, hoping to maintain their innocence. Another reason it is unclear what happened is because the few men besides Burr and Hamilton who were present had their backs turned so as to maintain they had not seen shots fired. What we do know is this: at least two shots were fired. Hamilton fired a shot into the trees above Burr's head. Burr also fired a shot, and it struck Hamilton in the abdomen. We do not know who shot first. We do not know whether either man intentionally shot the way that they did. There is some belief that Hamilton shot first, but intentionally missed so as to fulfill the honor of dueling without actually harming his opponent. Hamilton had written a letter the night before that he was morally opposed to dueling and that he would intentionally miss. But if he did so, Burr would not have known this and would have no reason to miss as well, after seeing Hamilton fire a shot over his head. There are also some who believe Burr fired first, and that his shot striking Hamilton caused Hamilton to fire into the air. These are just two of a number of different theories of what happened that morning. All of these theories cast varying degrees of guilt on the two men and are flavored by the allegiance of the person who proposes it. Regardless, Hamilton was shot in the abdomen, with the bullet ricocheting off his rib and into his vital organs. He immediately collapsed, and was quickly taken by boat back to New York. Apparently, Hamilton knew the wound was fatal and told the people around him as much. He died the next day, surrounded by family and in considerable pain.

The Aftermath

In the months and years after the fatal duel, several major events happened that were linked to it.

The death of Hamilton would be a harsh blow to the Federalist Party. With the loss of Hamilton, combined with the death of George Washington and the retirement of John Adams, the party was left without a strong leader to unite the party around. Although it was still in existence into the 1820s, the party would never again have a president or control of Congress. By 1816 the party was no longer a factor in national politics, seen as traitors for their opposition to the War of 1812. The vacuum of leadership after Hamilton's untimely death has to be viewed as a contributor to the death of this country's first political party.

The national shock also led to an anti-dueling movement in the nation and especially in New York. Soon after, several prominent preachers in the area had given anti-dueling sermons. Dueling, which had already been in decline in much of the country, saw a steady decline thereafter, especially in the Northeastern United States, where it was seen as a useless shedding of blood. Dueling would continue to be more popular in the South and West, although even in those places, it declined heavily in the aftermath of the Civil War, and the last major American duel happened in 1859 in California.

As for Aaron Burr, his career would never be the same. He was charged with murder in both New York and New Jersey, though he was never indicted for the crime in either state. In New Jersey, he was apparently not tried because, while he had shot Hamilton in New Jersey, Hamilton had actually died in New York. Burr soon fled to the South, living for a time with his daughter in South Carolina. Soon after, he had the audacity to return to Washington, where he finished his term as vice president! As vice president, Burr actually oversaw the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, the first impeachment trial in American history, which Burr apparently handled with dignity. When March 1805 rolled around, and Burr's term as vice president finally ended, he gave a speech so heartfelt that apparently, he left many of his harshest critics in tears. He then walked out of Congress, his career ruined.

After the tragedy that had befallen Burr's career, you would expect him to quietly retire, but he would have none of that. Burr traveled into the West, where it is alleged that he made plans to try to create a new Empire in the Western United States with himself as leader. His plan was complicated and is not completely known, if it was even something that he was actually planning. But what Burr was accused of was trying to accumulate the army necessary to attack the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase, taking the land and naming himself ruler. This plan possibly also involved attacking Mexico, Texas, or Spanish Florida and adding that land to his empire as well. This farfetched plot (if it was a plot) was derailed before it ever really began. Rumors began to circulate about his plan, and he was called before the court in Kentucky several times to face charges of treason. It soon became apparent to his co-conspirators that the plan was going to fail, and one of them reported Burr to President Jefferson. Jefferson ordered Burr arrested, and soon after, he was. He was charged with treason in Mississippi but managed to escape and flee into the wilderness. Soon he was recaptured and brought to Virginia to face trial.
The darker red on this map was much of the land Aaron Burr may have been trying to capture as his new "empire."

In Virginia, Burr was again charged with treason, During the trial, Burr adamantly denied that he was a traitor or that he had any plans to commit treason. Although a large amount of evidence was presented against Burr, Supreme Court Justice John Marshall decided to use the Constitution as his final determinant of guilt. And the Constitution stated that treason was the committing of an overt act against the government that required two or more witnesses. Marshall ruled that Burr had not committed an overt act of war upon the United States, and that his right to voice opposition to the government was protected by the First Amendment. The prosecution could not find two witnesses to provide evidence that Burr had in fact committed a "treasonous act." And so, on what appears to be a series of technicalities, Burr was again acquitted of any crime.

While he was not arrested for a crime, Aaron Burr did not escape the wrath of the Court of Public Opinion. With additional charges filed against him in several states, and with the public calling for his head, Aaron Burr again fled, this time to Europe. He spent four years in Europe, mostly in England. His previous disaster with political intrigue could not dissuade him from trying again- he tried to convince several influential friends to help him gain funding for an attempt to conquer Mexico. He was eventually thrown out of England for his intrigues. He then traveled to France, trying to convince Napoleon to provide funding for a similar venture in Spanish Florida, though he was rebuffed. Burr then returned to the US, where he took his mother's maiden name of Edwards to avoid attention and creditors. Somehow, incredibly, he was allowed back into the United States, and even allowed to continue working as a lawyer for the state of New York. He would live the rest of his life in relative obscurity as a lawyer and land speculator. He died in 1836 in New York from the effects of an earlier stroke. He died alone, obscure, and powerless- a large fall for a man who had once been vice president but could never conquer his need for power.
Aaron Burr as an old man, returned from Europe.


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