“The ladder of his ambition”- Hamilton, Burr, and the 1804 New York Gubernatorial Race

In 1804, as Thomas Jefferson was running for a second term as President of the U.S., the race to be governor of New York was heating up.  Burr (who was still the sitting vice president) ran against Morgan Lewis (a Democratic-Republican) on a Federalist platform.  Although Burr had previously run for political office as a Democratic-Republican, he tried to build Federalist support for his campaign.  (The popular sitting governor of New York, George Clinton, was replacing Aaron Burr in the presidential race as Thomas Jefferson’s choice for Vice President, and would be Vice President of the U.S. until his death in 1812… it’s a tangled web)

Morgan Lewis from Hall of Governors NY

Hamilton’s notes, from a February 10, 1804 speech at a Federalist meeting in Albany lay out eight reasons why the Federalists should not support Burr for Governor and should instead support a Democratic-Republican candidate.

The first reason centered on Hamilton’s belief that Burr was a calculated politician, governed by his own ambition rather than by set principles.  He wrote that Burr had been aligned with the Democratic-Republicans, either because he believed in those values (“from principle”) or because he thought that it would make it easier for him to win (“from calculation”).  If Burr’s decision was based on his principles, Hamilton stated that he would not change his principles at a time when the Federalist party was struggling.  If Burr had made a strategic decision, he was not going to “relinquish the ladder of his ambition” for the good of the Federalist party.

“Col Burr has steadily pursued the ⟨track⟩ of democratic policies. This he has done either from principle or from calculation. If the former he is not likely now to change his plan, when the federalists are prostrate and their enemies predominent. If the latter, he will certainly not at this time relinquish the ladder of his ambition and espouse the cause or views of the weaker party.”

Second, Hamilton described with begrudging respect that Burr was a talented politician who would be able to rally people around him

“it will be no difficult task for a man of talents intrigue and address possessing this chair of Government to rally the great body of them under his standard and thereby to consolidate for personal purposes the mass of Clintonians, his own adherents among the democrats and such federalists as from personal good will or interested motives may give him support.”

Hamilton also expressed his fear that Burr becoming governor would unite the democratic party:

 “The effect of his elevation will be to reunite under a more adroit able and daring chief the now scattered fragments of the democratic party and to reinforce it by a strong detachment from the federalists.”

Hamilton expressed the fear that Burr would capitalize on the tendency of popular governments to “dissolution and disorder” and would build up popular prejudices and vices.

If he be truly, as the federalists have believed, a man of irregular and insatiable ambition; if his plan has been to rise to power on the ladder of Jacobinic principles, it is natural to conclude that he will endeavor to fix himself in power by the same instrument, that he will not lean on a fallen ⟨and⟩ falling party, generally speaking of a character not to favour usurpation and the ascendancy of a despotic chief. Every day shews more and more the much to be regretted tendency of Governments intirely popular to dissolution and disorder. Is it rational to expect, that a man who had the sagacity to foresee this tendency, and whose temper would permit him to bottom his aggrandisement on popular prejudices and vices would desert this system at a time, when more than ever the state of things invites him to adhere to it?

Although Lansing was a political enemy and an anti-Federalist who had vigorously opposed the Constitution and ruled against Hamilton as a judge, Hamilton believed that Lansing’s strength of personal character would protect the office.

If Lansing is Governor his personal character affords some security against pernicious extremes, and at the same time renders it morally certain, that the democratic party already much divided and weakened will moulder and break asunder more and more. This is certainly a state of things favorable to the future ascendancy of the wise and good. May it not lead to a recasting of parties by which the fœderalists will gain a great accession of force from former opponents?

Burr ultimately lost the election, and Morgan Lewis became the Governor of New York.  Burr’s loss, in April 1804, happened just a few months before his duel with Hamilton in July 1804.

Hamil-Fam: Alexander Hamilton, Jr. and Aaron Burr’s Divorce

Alexander Hamilton’s third child, Alexander Hamilton, Jr. was born in 1786.  Like his father and older brother Philip, Alexander completed a course of study at Columbia College.  Hamilton, Jr. was active in politics and had a military career, spending some time in Spain and Portugal before the War of 1812, and serving as aide-de-camp to General Morgan Lewis.  After time in Europe and Florida, Hamilton, Jr. returned to New York and practiced as a lawyer in the Court of Chancery.

Interestingly, Hamilton, Jr.’s legal career would place him on a collision course with Aaron Burr.

On July 3, 1833, 77-year old Aaron Burr had married wealthy widow Eliza Jumel.  Philip Hone, a successful merchant and the mayor of New York from 1825-1826 wrote in his diary:

Wednesday, July 3. — The celebrated Colonel Burr was married on Monday evening to the equally celebrated Mrs. Jumel, widow of Stephen Jumel. It is benevolent in her to keep the old man in his latter days. One good turn deserves another.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/5/53/Lithograph_of_Eliza_Jumel.jpg/220px-Lithograph_of_Eliza_Jumel.jpg
Image of Eliza Jumel from Wikipedia

In The Morris-Jumel Mansion, Carol Ward writes:

“Upon Stephen Jumel’s death, Eliza was one of the wealthiest widows in New York.  However, she sought additional security in terms of her place in society.  Her marriage to former vice president Aaron Burr in 1833 bolstered her footing among the New York elite.  The marriage was solely out of convenience for both sides.  Aaron Burr was 77 when they married, and he was looking for a source of funds to assist him to cover his expenses.  Eliza quickly saw his endgame and also learned of his infidelity with a much younger woman.  Eliza sued for divorce.  In an interesting turn of events, her lawyer was Alexander Hamilton’s son.  Perhaps this was delayed karma for Aaron Burr, who had shot and killed Hamilton 30 years prior.”

William Henry Shelton wrote that during the divorce trial, Jumel and Burr were “hurling correspondents at each other, and on the part of Burr, in the unfair proportion of four to one.”

The divorce case based on Burr’s alleged infidelity proceeded privately in the Court of Chancery.  Hamilton, Jr. represented Eliza Jumel, and Charles O’Conor represented Burr.  On September 14, 1836, coincidentally the day of Burr’s death, the divorce was granted by Judge Philo T. Ruggles.

LA Nerd Nite: Manhattan Well Murder Talk Tomorrow Night

On August 11, 2016, I’ll be giving a talk entitled “Murder in Manhattan!: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and America’s first recorded murder trial.”  Tickets are available here and a description of my talk is below!

In March of 1800, the nation was transfixed by a high profile murder trial involving the death of a young woman found in the Manhattan Well. The defendant, Levi Weeks, was represented by a legal dream team of Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and Brockholst Livingston (less than four years before Burr would kill Hamilton in a duel). Pooja Nair will delve into the trial, which is the first recorded murder trial in American history, offering us unique insight into the workings of the criminal justice system of the era.

I’ve been focusing on research and on preparing talks for the past few months, but will be updating this blog more frequently and have some exciting posts scheduled for the end of August!

New Exhibit- Alexander Hamilton: Striver, Statesman, Scoundrel

The New York Public Library has announced a new free exhibit on Alexander Hamilton that they will be hosting from June 24, 2016 through December 31, 2016.  The library’s press release describing the exhibit states:

Alexander Hamilton: Striver, Statesman, Scoundrel features more than two dozen items on display from the Library’s collections, focusing on his ambitious early life, work as a statesman and creation of the Federalist Papers, as well as the scandals that marred his legacy. The exhibition also explores Hamilton’s volatile relationships with Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.

Some of the exciting highlights of the new exhibition include:

  • Hamilton’s draft of George Washington’s farewell address alongside Washington’s version
  • The Federalist (commonly known as the Federalist Papers) as originally published in a historic newspaper
  • Hamilton’s proposed plan for a U.S. Constitution
  • The Reynolds Pamphlet, in which Hamilton’s admits to an affair with Maria Reynolds
  • Letters from Hamilton to his wife Eliza, and  her sister Angelica Schuyler Church; correspondence Hamilton sent on behalf of Washington, and a letter he sent to Washington about the Newburgh Conspiracy
  • Letter introducing Burr to the Schuyler family
  • Broadside of the letter that incited the duel that led to Hamilton’s death

The exhibit is open to the public for free, and will be at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on 5th Ave and 42nd Street.  I’ll certainly be checking it out this summer!

Hamil-Swag: Shotglasses

Fishs Eddy offers this dueling gift box of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton shot glasses on their website for $12.  I received these as a Christmas present this year, and love them! They are very sturdy and well made (but be warned, they pour pretty large shots).

duelingshotglasses.PNG

Cafe Press offers this Fight Club Hamilton shot glass, combining A. Ham + one of my favorite movies, for $13.99.

Fight Club - Alexander Hamilton Shot Glass

Cafe Press also offers this I Love Federalists shot glass for $13.99.

I love Federalists Shot Glass

And if you’re looking for something to put into these shot glasses, food writer Casey Barber has an exciting recipe for an Alexander Hamilton cocktail she named “My Shot” on Good Food Stories.  She writes:

As the Hamilton musical grows into more of a phenomenon, I feel compelled to celebrate its genius. I don’t have an acre of land, a troop to command, or a dollop of fame, but I can make a damn good cocktail. So here’s my way of adding my voice to the narrative: a boozy homage to the checkered, complex life of Alexander Hamilton, using spirits—rum, whiskey, cider, pimento dram, and applejack—that were popular during Hamilton’s lifetime.

Jefferson or Burr? Hamilton’s Letters in the Election of 1800

I’ve written before about Hamilton’s pivotal role in the the Election of 1800. Below are some excerpts from Hamilton’s letters in December 1800 on the presidential contest between Jefferson and Burr.

On December 23, 1800, Hamilton wrote to Harrison Gray Otis, a prominent Boston Federalist expressing his fears about Burr’s character and boundless ambition:

Burr loves nothing but himself; thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement, and will be content with nothing, short of permanent power in his own hands. No compact that he should make with any passion in his breast, except ambition, could be relied upon by himself. How then should we be able to rely upon any agreement with him. Jefferson, I suspect, will not dare much. Burr will dare every thing, in the sanguine hope of effecting every thing.

A digitized image of Hamilton’s original letter to Gray is available via the Gilder Lehrman Collection.

Alexander Hamilton to Harrison Gray Otis, December 23, 1800. (Gilder Lehrman Collection)
Image from the Gilder Lehrman Collection

In December 1800, Hamilton wrote to Oliver Wolcott, Jr., President Adams’ Secretary of Treasury (who would resign from the position days later) with the purpose of dissuading him from favoring Burr’s candidacy.  Wolcott, Jr. and other Federalists were so opposed to Jefferson’s policies that many saw Burr as a more palatable alternative.  Hamilton fiercely resisted this position:

There is no circumstance which has occurred in the course of our political affairs that has given me so much pain as the idea that Mr. Burr might be elevated to the Presidency by the means of the Fderalists. I am of opinion that this party has hitherto solid claims of merit with the public and so long as it does nothing to forfeit its title to confidence I shall continue to hope that our misfortunes are temporary and that the party will ere long emerge from its depression. But if it shall act a foolish or unworthy part in any capital instance, I shall then despair.

Such without doubt will be the part it will act, if it shall seriously attempt to support Mr. Burr in opposition to Mr. Jefferson. If it fails, as after all is not improbable, it will have rivetted the animosity of that person, will have destroyed or weakened the motives to moderation which he must at present feel and it will expose them to the disgrace of a defeat in an attempt to elevate to the first place in the Government one of the worst men in the community. If it succeeds, it will have done nothing more nor less than place in that station a man who will possess the boldness and daring necessary to give success to the Jacobin system instead of one who for want of that quality will be less fitted to promote it.

Let it not be imagined that Mr. Burr can be won to the Federal Views. It is a vain hope. Stronger ties, and stronger inducements than they can offer, will impel him in a different direction. His ambition will not be content with those objects which virtuous men of either party will allot to it, and his situation and his habits will oblige him to have recourse to corrupt expedients, from which he will be restrained by no moral scruples. To accomplish his ends he must lean upon unprincipled men and will continue to adhere to the myrmidons who have hitherto seconded him. To these he will no doubt add able rogues of the Federal party; but he will employ the rogues of all parties to overrule the good men of all parties and to prosecute projects which wise men of every description will disapprove.

These things are to be inferred with moral certainty from the character of the man. Every step in his career proves that he has formed himself upon the model of Catiline, and he is too coldblo[o]ded and too determined a conspirator ever to change his plan.

On December 16, 1800, Hamilton wrote to Wolcott again:

“There is no doubt but that upon every virtuous and prudent calculation Jefferson is to be preferred. He is by far not so dangerous a man and he has pretensions to character.

As to Burr there is nothing in his favour. His private character is not defended by his most partial friends. He is bankrupt beyond redemption except by the plunder of his country. His public principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandisement per fas et nefas. If he can, he will certainly disturb our institutions to secure to himself permanent power and with it wealth. He is truly the Cataline of America—& if I may credit Major Wilcocks,he has held very vindictive language respecting his opponents.”

In both letters to Wolcott, Hamilton describes Burr as the Catiline of America, referring to a Roman Senator of the 1st Century BC who attempted to overthrow the Senate and the Roman Republic, but was stopped by Cicero and then exiled.

On December 24, 1800, Hamilton wrote to Gouverneur Morris:

Another subject—Jefferson or Burr?—the former without all doubt. The latter in my judgment has no principle public or private—could be bound by no agreement—will listen to no monitor but his ambition; & for this purpose will use the worst part of the community as a ladder to climb to perman[en]t power & an instrument to crush the better part. He is bankrupt beyond redemption except by the resources that grow out of war and disorder or by a sale to a foreign power or by great peculation. War with Great Brita[i]n would be the immediate instrument. He is sanguine enough to hope every thing—daring enough to attempt every thing—wicked enough to scruple nothing. From the elevation of such a man heaven preserve the Country!

He followed this up with a second letter to Morris two days later on December 26, 1800, stating:

“That on the same ground Jefferson ought to be preferred to Burr.

I trust the Federalists will not finally be so mad as to vote for the latter. I speak with an intimate & accurate knowlege of character. His elevation can only promote the purposes of the desperate and proflicate. ⟨If t⟩here be ⟨a man⟩ in the world I ought to hate it is Jefferson. With Burr I have always been personally well. But the public good must be paramount to every private consideration. My opinion may be freely used with such reserves as you shall think discreet.”

Blast from the Past: Hamilton Broadway Lines and their Historical Sources

In his script for Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda merges the American Founding with the tenor of modern America, such that history is both relived and reimagined.  The characters in Hamilton recite excerpts from historical documents such as Washington’s Farewell Address and Hamilton’s History of the United States for the Year 1796, In Which the Charge of Speculation against Alexander Hamilton, Late Secretary of the Treasury, is Fully Refuted (aka The Reynolds Pamphlet).  Miranda also weaves in fragments of real quotes from Hamilton and his contemporaries, effortlessly fitting them into the fabric of the whole production.

Below are a few lines that jumped out at me along with excerpts of the historic primary source documents that contain either the exact phrase or are very similar.  (Note that this short list is by no means exhaustive and is entirely based on my memory from seeing the show in previews- if you think of others, add them into the comments section!)

Image from hamiltonbroadway.com

“I wish there was a war.” (Hamilton to Burr)

“…my ambition is vigilant, so I continue the groveling condition of a clerk, or the like to which my fortune condemns me, and would willingly risk my life, though not my character, to exalt my station. …  I shall conclude by saying I wish there was a war.” – Letter from Hamilton to his friend Edward “Ned” Stevens dated November 11, 1769 (reprinted in Reminisces of James A. Hamilton, available here through Google Books).

At the time of this letter, Hamilton was still in St. Croix working as a clerk.  Hamilton realized that in order to rise up and advance his station in life, something dramatic would need to happen and he expressed his willingness to take any risks that would not endanger his honor.

“I’m just saying, If you really loved me, you would share him!” (Angelica to Eliza)

“…by my Amiable you know that I mean your Husband, for I love him very much and if you were as generous as the old Romans, you would lend him to me for a little while, but do not be jealous, my dear Eliza, since I am more solicitous to promote his laudable ambition, than any person in the world…” – Letter from Angelica Church to Elizabeth Hamilton, July 30, 1794 (Reprinted in the Intimate Life of Alexander Hamilton by Allan Mclane Hamilton, available on Google Books)

“Best of wives and best of women.” (Hamilton to Eliza before the duel)

“Fly to the bosom of your God and be comforted.  With my last idea; I shall cherish the sweet hope of meeting you in a better world.

Adieu best of wives and best of Women.  Embrace all my darling Children for me.

Ever yours.    AH”  – Letter from Alexander Hamilton to Eliza Hamilton written July 4, 1804

Hamilton gave this letter to Nathaniel Pendleton, his second in the duel, as part of his efforts to put his affairs in order prior to his interview with Aaron Burr at Weehawken on July 11, 1804.   (Reprinted in the Papers of Alexander Hamilton, available here via Google Books).  Interestingly, Hamilton and Burr had dinner together with a group of fellow former Revolutionary War officers just days before the duel.