Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)

Chapter 37. DEADLOCK

Hamilton, Adams, and other Federalists had proved far more realistic about the course of the French Revolution than their credulous Republican counterparts. On dozens of occasions, Hamilton had prophesied that the revolutionary chaos would culminate in a dictatorship. This forecast had been borne out on November 9, 1799, when Napoleon Bonaparte grabbed power in a coup d’état that made him first consul of the French Republic. When Talleyrand, the eternal foreign minister, declared that it was time to settle differences with America, Napoleon agreed.

On October 3, 1800, the American envoys concluded a treaty with France at Château Môrtefontaine, ending the Quasi-War, which had so bedeviled the Adams presidency. Most Americans had grown tired of the undeclared war and were happy to close this chapter. The diplomatic breakthrough was not reported in American newspapers until November, and the treaty itself arrived at the Senate in mid-December. Unlike many die-hard Federalists, Hamilton favored the treaty, or at least realized the futility of opposing it, telling Gouverneur Morris that “it will be of consequence to the Federal cause in future to be able to say, ‘The Federal Administration steered the vessel through all the storms raised by the contentions of Europe into a peaceable and safe port.’”1 Hamilton was, shall we say, a belated convert to this more peaceable approach to the conflict.

For John Adams, who had defied the High Federalists and stuck to his policy, it was a stunning vindication of his stubborn faith in diplomacy against Hamilton’s saber rattling. He established a vital precedent that timely, well-executed diplomacy can forestall the need for military force. In fact, Adams had won such a major diplomatic victory that many historians have tended to condone the antic, unreasonable behavior that preceded it. Even Hamilton biographer Broadus Mitchell has called Adams “the hero of the piece. His annoying inconsistencies drop away because when resolution was needed he was right. He saved the country from war with France as Hamilton and others had saved it shortly before from war with Britain.”2 Adams described the preservation of peace during his presidency as the “most splendid diamond in my crown” and requested that the following words be incised on his tombstone: “Here lies John Adams, who took upon himself the responsibility of peace with France in the year 1800.”3 Adams later cited the “diabolical intrigues” of Hamilton and his colleagues, contending that he had pursued negotiations with France “at the expense of all my consequence in the world and their unanimous and immortal hatred.”4

Adams’s success came too late to sway the presidential election and therefore bore a bittersweet flavor. The bad timing only exacerbated his sense of being unlucky, unloved, and unappreciated. His admirers have echoed his view that he had acted in a noble, self-sacrificing manner, but his motives were not entirely saintly. He had adopted a hawkish stance toward France when that was popular early in his administration and then taken a more conciliatory posture to curry favor with Republicans as the 1800 election beckoned. By that point, his moderation was popular with electors in some critical states. George Clinton said that Adams having “sent a special mission to France and effected a peace came very near preventing the election of Mr. Jefferson to the Presidency. If the Republicans had not already named Jefferson for president, we should have supported Mr. Adams.”5 The peace mission to France was unquestionably the supreme triumph of the Adams presidency, but it testifies to political agility as well as wisdom.

By mid-December 1800, it was evident that Jefferson and Burr would garner an equal number of electoral votes, throwing the presidential contest into a lame-duck House of Representatives that was still dominated by Federalists. While no constitutional mechanism differentiated between the votes for president and vice president, it had been understood among Republicans that Jefferson was the presidential candidate. Afraid of jeopardizing Burr’s chances for the vice presidency, Jefferson had held back from asking Republican electors to drop a few votes for Burr to insure that he himself would come out on top. At first, Burr reacted to the tie vote in a gracious, honorable way, just as Jefferson had expected. He wrote to Republican Samuel Smith and renounced the sacrilegious thought of challenging Jefferson for the presidency: “It is highly improbable that I shall have an equal number of votes with Mr. Jefferson, but if such should be the result, every man who knows me ought to know that I should utterly disclaim all competition.”6

At least one knowledgeable observer doubted that Burr’s intentions were quite so benign. Hamilton was privy to rumors that Federalists in Congress might prefer Burr to Jefferson. So when he learned of the projected tie vote, he fired off a letter to Oliver Wolcott, Jr., to nip trouble in the bud:

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 aggrandizement…. If he can, he will certainly disturb ourinstitutions to secure to himself permanent power and with it wealth. He is truly the Catiline of America.7

This was a powerful indictment: in ancient Rome, Catiline was notorious for his personal dissipation and treacherous schemes to undermine the republic. In order to stop Burr, Hamilton decided to back his perpetual rival, Thomas Jefferson, telling Wolcott that Jefferson “is by far not so dangerous a man and he has pretensions to character.”8 He also thought that Jefferson was much more talented than the overrated Burr and that the latter was “far more cunning than wise, far more dexterous than able. In my opinion he is inferior in real ability to Jefferson.”9 Hamilton’s endorsement of Jefferson was the most improbable reversal in an improbable career. Nobody enjoyed Hamilton’s embarrassing predicament in having to choose between his two enemies more than John Adams. “The very man—the very two men—of all the world that he was most jealous of are now placed above him,” Adams said with pardonable gloating.10

Even in the thick of the campaign that summer, Hamilton had noted Burr’s electoral intrigues in New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Vermont and surmised that he was only feigning deference to Jefferson. Burr alone had engaged in open electioneering, while Jefferson, Adams, and Pinckney stuck to the gentlemanly protocol of avoiding the stump. The alliance between Burr and Jefferson had been a marriage of convenience to pull New York into the Republican camp. “I never indeed thought him an honest, frank-dealing man,” Jefferson later said of Burr, “but considered him as a crooked gun or other perverted machine, whose aim or shot you could never be sure of.”11 That Jefferson twice recruited this crooked gun for his running mate indicates just how cynical he could be. Burr, in turn, still believed that he had been betrayed by Jefferson in the 1796 election, when he got only one vote in Virginia. “As to my Jeff,” he wrote with mordant whimsy, “after what happened at the last election (et tu Brute!) I was really averse to having my name in question…but being so, it is most obvious that I should not choose to be trifled with.”12

Despite Burr’s declaration that he would yield the presidency to Jefferson, Federalist leaders pelted Hamilton with letters about the expediency of supporting Burr and ending Virginia’s political hegemony. Because Burr lusted after money and power, they thought they could strike a bargain with him. They worried less about Burr’s loose morals than about what they perceived as Jefferson’s atheism (clergymen were telling their congregations that if Jefferson became president, they would need to hide their Bibles) and his doctrinaire views. Better an opportunist than a dangerous ideologue, many Federalists thought. Fisher Ames feared that Jefferson was “absurd enough to believe his own nonsense,” while Burr might at least “impart vigor to the country.”13 John Marshall and others thought Burr a safer choice than Jefferson, who might try to recast the Constitution to conform to his “Jacobin” tenets.

If forced to choose, Hamilton preferred a man with wrong principles to one devoid of any. “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 Federalists,” Hamilton told Wolcott. If the party elected Burr, it would be exposed “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.”14 Hamilton had never spoken about Adams and Jefferson in these terms. “The appointment of Burr as president would disgrace our country abroad,” he informed Sedgwick. “No agreement with him could be relied upon.”15 Unlike other Federalists, Hamilton did not think Burr would be a harmless, lackadaisical president. “He is sanguine enough to hope everything, daring enough to attempt everything, wicked enough to scruple nothing,” Hamilton told Gouverneur Morris.16 From his legal practice, Hamilton knew that Burr had exorbitant debts and might be susceptible to bribes from foreign governments. He briefed Federalists about the scandals involving Burr and the Holland Company and the gross trickery behind the Manhattan Company.

While inspector general, Hamilton had had a disturbing conversation with Burr that he now repeated to Robert Troup and two other friends. “General, you are now at the head of the army,” Burr had told him. “You are a man of the first talents and of vast influence. Our constitution is a miserable paper machine. You have it in your power to demolish it and give us a proper one and you owe it to your friends and the country to do it.” To which Hamilton said he replied, “Why Col. Burr, in the first place, the little army I command is totally inadequate to the object you mention. And in the second place, if the army were adequate, I am too much troubled with that thing called morality to make the attempt.” Reverting to French, Burr pooh-poohed this timidity: “General, all things are moral to great souls!”17

So unalterably opposed was Hamilton to Burr that he told Federalist friends that he would withdraw from the party or even from public life if they installed Burr as president. By endorsing Burr, he warned, the Federalists would be “signing their own death warrant.”18 Hamilton feared that Burr might supplant him as de facto party head or might even foster a third party composed of disenchanted elements from the other two. Either way, Hamilton feared he would be shunted aside. Had he risked his career to block Adams’s reelection only to have Aaron Burr fill the void?

By late December 1800, as Hamilton had forewarned, Burr changed his mind: he would not seek the presidency, but neither would he reject it if the House chose him over Jefferson. Burr told Samuel Smith that he was offended by the presumption that he should resign if elected president. It bothered him that Republicans, who had embraced him for expediency as vice president, now blanched at him becoming president. By adopting this defiant stand, Burr pushed the situation to the brink of crisis. In early January, Hamilton heard of a Burr bandwagon gaining force among Federalists. By late January, his sources were saying that the Federalists were decidedly, even unanimously, in favor of Burr over Jefferson.

Faced with this terrifying vision of a Burr presidency, Hamilton was forced to come up with his most candid, fair-minded, and perceptive appraisal of Jefferson. During the 1800 campaign, Federalists had vilified Jefferson as a coward, a spendthrift, and a voluptuary, not to mention a potential demagogue wedded to noxious dogmas. Federalist Robert G. Harper mocked Jefferson as fit to be “a professor in a college or president of a philosophical society…but certainly not the first magistrate of a great nation.”19 Now Hamilton had to combat rooted notions that he himself had helped to propagate.

In one letter, Hamilton confessed to having said many unflattering things about Jefferson: “I admit that his politics are tinctured with fanaticism[,]…that he is crafty and persevering in his objects, that he is not scrupulous about the means of success, nor very mindful of truth, and that he is a contemptible hypocrite.”20 At the same time, he admitted that Jefferson was often more fervent in rhetoric than in action and would be a more cautious president than his principles might suggest. He predicted, accurately, that Jefferson’s penchant for France, once it was no longer politically useful, would be discarded. (In an abrupt volte-face, on January 29, 1800, Jefferson, after learning that Napoleon had made himself dictator, wrote, “It is very material for the…[American people] to be made sensible that their own character and situation are materially different from the French.”21 Hamilton had been saying this for a decade.) Hamilton was also dubious about Jefferson’s past preference for congressional power. He shrewdly noted that, whenever it suited his views, Jefferson had supported executive power, as if he knew he would someday inherit the presidency and did not wish to weaken the office. Hamilton told James A. Bayard of Delaware, “I have more than once made the reflection that viewing himself as the reversioner [i.e., one having a vested right to a future inheritance], he was solicitious to come into possession of a good estate.”22

The fierce debates about Jefferson and Burr took place amid a welter of reports that the Federalists would refuse to yield power. One Republican scenario hypothesized that desperate Federalists would prevent both Republican candidates from being elected and that President Adams would choose a Federalist successor to head an interim government. One of Hamilton’s adversaries from the Whiskey Rebellion, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, envisioned Hamilton descending upon the capital with an army that would seize control of the government during the deadlock. Governor Thomas McKean of Pennsylvania swore that if Republicans were denied their victory, the Pennsylvania militia, twenty thousand strong, would march upon the capital and arrest any congressman who named someone other than Jefferson or Burr as president. Burr concurred that any Federalist attempt to subvert the election should be met by “a resort to the sword.”23

Nobody was more upset by talk of extralegal schemes than Hamilton, who thought that any interference with the election would be “most dangerous and unbecoming.”24 The Federalists nourished their own fantasies of Republican plots, and Hamilton himself later claimed that Republican groups had colluded to “cut off the leading Federalists and seize the government” if Jefferson did not make it to the presidency.25 One Federalist newspaper quoted Jefferson’s partisans as issuing shrill threats that, if Burr became president, “we will march and dethrone him as an usurper.” If Federalists dared to “place in the presidential chair any other than the philosopher of Monticello…ten thousand republican swords will instantly leap from their scabbards in defence of the violated rights of the people!!!”26 This hysterical atmosphere only intensified as congressmen tried to resolve the stalemate between Jefferson and Burr.

It was not until February 11, 1801, that votes cast by presidential electors in the various states were actually opened in the Senate chamber, confirming what was already common knowledge: that Jefferson and Burr had tied with seventy-three votes apiece. It was a snowy day in the brand-new capital. The helter-skelter site was a swampy, ramshackle village with a few boardinghouses clustered around an unfinished Capitol (Henry Adams quipped that it had “two wings without a body”), as well as some houses and stores near an unfinished executive mansion.27 The north wing of the Capitol still lacked a roof, and Pennsylvania Avenue was studded with tree stumps. Quail and wild turkey abounded, and the sharp reports of hunters’ guns punctuated construction sounds. It was very much a southern town, with ten thousand white citizens, seven hundred free blacks, and three thousand slaves. As a result, the majority of the six hundred workers who erected the White House and the Capitol were slaves whose wages were garnisheed by their masters. The federal government was still so small that when it had moved from Philadelphia the previous year, the complete executive-branch archives fit neatly into eight packing cases.

Once the ballots were counted, the high drama moved to the House of Representatives. Each of the sixteen states was allowed a single vote for president, reflecting the majority sentiment of its delegation, and the winner would need a simple majority of nine votes. Since Federalists had dominated the outgoing Congress, their preference for Burr might have seemed conclusive. But matters were more complicated, since the Federalist votes were so concentrated in New England. On the first ballot, six states voted for Burr versus eight for Jefferson, who fell one vote short of winning. The delegations of the two remaining states, Vermont and Maryland, were evenly divided and therefore cast no votes. Since neither Jefferson nor Burr had nine votes, an impasse ensued that opened the door to further mischief, and rumors flew about that the Virginia militia was preparing to march on Washington.

After Hamilton’s infamous Adams pamphlet, his power over the Federalists had dwindled. His judgment was now suspect, his actions imputed to personal pique. The first ballot deadlock confirmed his sense of his own waning power. Robert Troup reported, “Hamilton is profoundly chagrined with this prospect! He has taken infinite pains to defeat Burr’s election but he believes in vain…. Hamilton declared that his influence with the federal party was wholly gone, that he could no longer be useful.”28 Nonetheless, Hamilton was not one to give up easily. He had already told Gouverneur Morris that he could support Jefferson with a clear conscience if the latter provided “assurances on certain points: the maintenance of the present system, especially on the cardinal articles of public credit, a navy, neutrality. Make any discreet use you think fit of this letter.”29 Jefferson had seemed to resist any deal. In the early republic, secret agreements behind closed doors were regarded as distasteful relics of monarchical ways. Nevertheless, the outlines of Hamilton’s deal were to linger and ultimately prevail.

It was a long, hard road to the final ballot at the Capitol. The first session, which droned on for twenty hours, did not adjourn until 9:00 the next morning. Refreshments were brought to parched members at their seats. Some dozed in overcoats or lay down on the floor. One sick legislator who had not been present at first was carried through the snow and set down on a cot in an adjoining room, ready to vote if necessary. For five grueling days, the legislators suffered through thirty-five ballots that continued to replicate the original eight-to-six vote for Jefferson. The tedious pace only fostered concerns that disappointed Federalists would stall the vote until after the March 4 inauguration date and then anoint their own candidate as president.

Afterward, both Jefferson and Burr swore that they had chastely refrained from politicking during the thirty-five ballots. Recent scholarship has tended to exonerate Burr from charges that he did anything untoward, and he certainly did not bargain outright. In the weeks before the balloting, his romantic liaisons seemed to bulk far larger in his correspondence than the presidential contest. (His wife, Theodosia, had died of stomach cancer in 1794.) Besides his amorous intrigues, Burr was busy with parochial New York politics and preparing for the wedding of his only child, his beloved daughter, Theodosia. Nonetheless, Burr’s behavior was not as passive as it seemed, for his silence and inaction stated eloquently that he was willing to defy the intentions of Republican electors and accept the presidency. Joanne Freeman has written that Burr made “one fundamental mistake: he did nothing to hide his interest in the office.”30 Hamilton had little doubt that Burr was maneuvering for the presidency. “Hamilton has often said he could prove it to the satisfaction of any court and jury,” Robert Troup told Rufus King.31

The situation was tailor-made for Jefferson, who specialized in subtle, roundabout action. He denied stoutly that he had compromised to break the deadlock and told James Monroe, “I have declared to [the Federalists] unequivocally that I would not receive the government on capitulation, that I would not go into it with my hands tied.”32 That Jefferson believed his own version is certain. He did not lie to others so much as to himself. John Quincy Adams later observed of Jefferson that he had “a memory so pandering to the will that in deceiving others he seems to have begun by deceiving himself.”33 He now stuck by the serviceable fiction that he had refused to negotiate with the Federalists.

The man who helped to rescue the representatives from their misery was James A. Bayard, a Delaware Federalist. A thickset lawyer known for sartorial elegance, Bayard was under heavy Federalist pressure to vote for Burr and did so for thirty-five ballots. As the lone representative of a tiny state, he was in a unique position. If he changed his vote, Delaware changed its vote. For two months, Hamilton bombarded him with letters, spelling out Burr’s flaws and heretical positions. “I have heard him speak with applause of the French system as unshackling the mind and leaving it to its natural energies and I have been present when he has contended against banking systems with earnestness.” Burr lacked any fixed principles, Hamilton argued, and played instead on “the floating passions of the multitude.”34

Though Bayard did not like the deadlocked vote, it was hard to resist the tide of Federalist support for Burr. When he suggested at one party caucus that he might vote for Jefferson to save the Constitution, he was hooted down with jeers of “Deserter!”35 But after the caucus, Bayard huddled with two friends of Jefferson: John Nicholas of Virginia and Samuel Smith of Maryland. Quite possibly influenced by Hamilton’s barrage of letters, Bayard set forth some Federalist prerequisites for supporting Jefferson: he would have to preserve Hamilton’s financial system, maintain the navy, and retain Federalist bureaucrats below cabinet level. After talking to Jefferson, Smith relayed to Bayard the candidate’s opinion that the Federalists need not worry about the points mentioned. This smelled like a deal, and Bayard interpreted it as such, but Jefferson, ever the consummate politician, blandly called his chat with Smith a private tête-à-tête of no political consequence. Everybody involved kept up an air of perfect innocence. Timothy Pickering alleged that certain congressmen had “sold their votes to Mr. Jefferson and received their pay in appointment to public offices. Had Burr been at the seat of government and made similar promises of appointments to offices,” he would have been president instead of Jefferson.36

Perhaps softened up by Hamilton’s diatribes, Bayard later claimed he had doubted Burr’s Federalist credentials all along. On the thirty-sixth round of voting in the House, he submitted a blank ballot and withdrew Delaware’s vote from the Burr column. Simultaneously, Federalist abstentions in Vermont and Maryland gave Jefferson ten votes and a clear-cut victory. Burr, cut loose by both parties, was left in a political limbo for the rest of his life. While his second-place finish earned him the vice presidency, it simultaneously earned him the enmity of President-elect Jefferson. Jefferson probably owed his victory to Hamilton as much as to any other politician. Hamilton’s pamphlet had first dealt a blow to Adams, though not a mortal one, and he had then intervened to squelch Burr’s chances for the presidency, paving the way for a Federalist deal with Jefferson.

As the first incumbent president in American history defeated for reelection, John Adams had a chance to set a precedent and end his tenure with dignity. But during his final days in office, he brooded alone and grieved over the recent death of his alcoholic son, Charles, whom he had refused to see again. On March 4, 1801, the day of Jefferson’s inauguration, Adams—now a balding, toothless, cantankerous old man—climbed into a stagecoach at four o’clock in the morning and left for Massachusetts eight hours before Thomas Jefferson was sworn into office. He thus became the first of only three presidents in American history who chose to boycott their successors’ inaugurations. “The golden age is past,” mourned Abigail Adams. “God grant that it may not be succeeded by an age of terror.”37

At ten o’clock that morning, Aaron Burr was sworn in as vice president in the Senate chamber and then retreated to the seat from which he would oversee the Senate for the next four years. Jefferson showed up around noon, accompanied by Adams’s cabinet. To radiate republican simplicity, the new president wore plain clothes and marched behind a modest militia detachment. Secure in his victory, Jefferson believed that he embodied the will of the American people and could afford to be magnanimous in his inaugural address. He struck a conciliatory note when he remarked in a soft, almost inaudible voice, “We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”38 As Joseph Ellis has noted, in his handwritten draft of the speech, Jefferson did not capitalize Republicans and Federalists, making the famous statement a little less generous than it seemed. Jefferson sounded quite a different note when he said in a private letter that he would “sink federalism into an abyss from which there shall be no resurrection.”39

In New York, Hamilton monitored the inaugural speech for compliance with the tacit deal that Jefferson had made with the Federalists. He was pleased to see that Jefferson promised to honor the funding system, the national debt, and the Jay Treaty. Hamilton wrote, “We view it as virtually a candid retraction of past misapprehensions and a pledge to the community that the new President will not lend himself to dangerous innovations, but in essential points will tread in the steps of his predecessors.”40 This grandly bipartisan tone wouldn’t last for long.

Hamilton had intuited rightly that Jefferson, once in office, would be reluctant to reject executive powers he had deplored in opposition. Madison was appointed secretary of state and Albert Gallatin secretary of the treasury. Gallatin had been a persistent critic of Hamilton, publishing a pamphlet during the campaign claiming that Hamilton had enlarged the public debt instead of shrinking it. But as treasury secretary, he discovered merits in Hamilton’s national bank, which he had lambasted as a congressman. Hamilton, meanwhile, began his long retreat to the status of a prophet without honor.