Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)


Alexander Hamilton experienced conflicting moods in his final, bittersweet years. At moments, he seemed engrossed by his political future. At other times, he was so dismayed by Jefferson’s triumph that he seemed ready to make good on his recurrent pledge to retire to the country and forget all about politics. No longer regarded as the Federalist leader, he had acquired the uncomfortable status of a glorified has-been. He still had a law office in lower Manhattan—in 1803, he moved it from 69 Stone Street to 12 Garden Street—and maintained a pied-à-terre at 58 Partition Street (now Fulton Street), but he spent as much time as possible drinking in the tranquillity of the Grange. In November 1803, Rufus King recorded this impression of Hamilton’s new rustic life and state of mind:

Hamilton is at the head of his profession and in the annual rec[eip]t of a handsome income. He lives wholly at his house nine miles from town, so that on an average he must spend three hours a day on the road going and returning between his house and town, which he performs four or five days each week. I don’t perceive that he meddles or feels much concerning politics. He has formed very decided opinions of our system as well as of our administration and, as the one and the other has the voice of the country, he has nothing to do but to prophesy!1

Hamilton concentrated on law and political theory rather than everyday politics. He initially balked at a project to publish The Federalist Papers in book form, telling the publisher that he was sure he could outdo it. “Heretofore I have given the people milk; hereafter I will give them meat.2 In the end, Hamilton cooperated with the project, proofreading and agreeing to the corrections in the new bound edition that appeared in 1802. He showed little interest in identifying the authors of the various essays, even though he had composed the bulk of them. When Judge Egbert Benson asked him to do so, Hamilton responded in a curiously indirect fashion, as if discomfited by the request. Stopping at Benson’s office one morning, he inserted without comment the desired list in a sheaf of legal papers. Madison left his own, sometimes contradictory, list, spawning a future cottage industry of scholars.

Hamilton’s intellectual ambitions were still far from sated. Chancellor James Kent recalled the grave thoughts that preoccupied his host during a visit to the Grange in the spring of 1804. Hamilton’s house stood on high ground and was struck by a storm so furious that it “rocked like a cradle,” Kent said.3 Perhaps stirred by this tempestuous setting, Hamilton embarked upon “a more serious train of reflections on his part than I had ever before known him to indulge…. [He] viewed the temper, disposition, and passions of the times as portentous of evil and favorable to the sway of artful and ambitious demagogues.”4 Hamilton disclosed to Kent his plans for a magnum opus on the science of government that would surpass even The Federalist. He wished to survey all of history and trace the effects of governmental institutions on everything from morals to freedom to jurisprudence. As with The Federalist, Hamilton planned to function as general editor and assign separate volumes to six or eight authors, including John Jay, Gouverneur Morris, and Rufus King. The Reverend John M. Mason might write one on ecclesiastical history and Kent another on law. Then Hamilton would compose a grand synthesis of the preceding books in a prodigious, climactic volume. “The conclusions to be drawn from these historical reviews,” Kent said, “he intended to reserve for his own task and this is the imperfect scheme which then occupied his thoughts.”5

On this visit, Kent was struck by a new mildness in Hamilton. He noted the affectionate father, the tenderly solicitous host: “He never appeared before so friendly and amiable. I was alone and he treated me with a minute attention that I did not suppose he knew how to bestow.”6 It was probably on this visit that Hamilton performed a small courtesy that Kent never forgot. Feeling poorly, Kent retired early to bed. Anxious about his guest, Hamilton tiptoed into his room with an extra blanket and draped it over him delicately. “Sleep warm, little judge, and get well,” Hamilton told him. “What should we do if anything should happen to you?”7

Hamilton was increasingly plagued by ailments, especially stomach and bowel problems, and his mind could not escape thoughts of mortality. For years, he had experienced all the self-imposed pressures of the prodigy, the autodidact, the self-made man. At moments, his life had seemed one fantastic act of overcompensation for his deprived upbringing. No longer was he the cocky wunderkind from the Caribbean, and he sounded older and more subdued. Alexander and Eliza had already suffered terrible tribulations: the death of Philip, the attendant madness of Angelica, and the death of Eliza’s younger sister, Peggy. Much more suffering lay ahead. On March 7, 1803, Eliza’s mother, Catherine Van Rensselaer Schuyler, died of a sudden stroke and was buried at the family grave in Albany. Philip Schuyler, a dashing major general when Hamilton first met him, had turned into a sad, hypochondriacal man, pestered by gout. Eliza stayed in Albany to comfort her father while Hamilton took care of the children at the Grange. “Now [that] you are all gone and I have no effort to make to keep up your spirits, my distress on his account and for the loss we have all sustained is very poignant,” Hamilton wrote to her.8 A few days later, he added stoically, “Arm yourself with resignation. We live in a world full of evil. In the later period of life, misfortunes seem to thicken round us and our duty and our peace both require that we should accustom ourselves to meet disasters with Christian fortitude.”9

However inconsistent his judgment and somber his mood in later years, Hamilton’s mental faculties remained razor sharp. Robert Troup, now a district-court judge, had watched his friend since King’s College days and marveled to another friend that Hamilton “seems to be progressing to greater and greater maturity. Such is the common opinion of our bar and I may say with truth that his powers are now enormous!”10 He was besieged by clients and preferred cases that enabled him to harry President Jefferson. The two men now clashed in an unexpected arena: freedom of the press. Jefferson had long flaunted his respect for newspapers. As president, he had pardoned Republican editors jailed under the Sedition Act and stressed his tolerance for the ferocious barbs flung at him by Federalist editors. When a Prussian minister discovered a hostile Federalist newspaper in the president’s anteroom, Jefferson told him, “Put that paper in your pocket, Baron, and should you ever hear the reality of our liberty, our freedom of the press questioned, show them this paper and tell them where you found it.”11 Jefferson was not quite the saintly purist that he pretended. He wrote to Pennsylvania’s governor that he favored “a few prosecutions” that “would have a wholesome effect in restoring the integrity of the presses,” and by the end of his presidency he was squawking about the newspapers’ “abandoned prostitution to falsehood.”12

Jefferson conducted two high-profile prosecutions of Federalist editors. One was Harry Croswell of Hudson, New York, whose defense Hamilton undertook. Croswell edited a Federalist newspaper called The Wasp that had a crusading motto emblazoned across its masthead: “To lash the rascals naked through the world.”13 Writing under the pseudonym “Robert Rusticoat,” Croswell had snickered at Jefferson’s claim that he had assisted James T. Callender’s The Prospect Before Us solely out of “charitable” motives. In the summer of 1802, Croswell said of Callender: “He is precisely qualified to become a tool, to spit the venom and scatter the malicious poisonous slanders of his employer. He, in short, is the very man that a dissembling patriot, pretended ‘man of the people,’ would employ to plunge the dagger or administer the arsenic.”14 In another article, Croswell said, “Jefferson paid Callender for calling Washington a traitor, a robber, and a perjurer; for calling Adams a hoary-headed incendiary; and for most grossly slandering the private characters of men whom he well knew were virtuous.”15 These comments tested Jefferson’s reverence for press freedom. The concerns he had expressed about libel prosecutions brought by the federal government against Republican editors under the Sedition Act seemed to vanish when state governors so prosecuted Federalist editors.

In January 1803, a grand jury in Columbia County, New York, indicted Harry Croswell for seditious libel against President Jefferson. The case generated intense political heat, as Federalists flocked to Croswell’s banner. Ambrose Spencer, New York attorney general and a recent convert to the Jeffersonian persuasion, personally handled the prosecution. Although Croswell wanted Hamilton as his lawyer, the latter was committed to other cases and could not participate in the early stages of the defense. Philip Schuyler informed Eliza that a dozen Federalists had called upon him, hoping he would use his influence to enlist Hamilton’s services. Schuyler sympathized with them, telling Eliza that Jefferson “disgraces not only the place he fills, but produces immorality by his pernicious example.”16 By the time the circuit court convened in the small brick courthouse at Claverack, New York, in July, Hamilton had agreed to join the defense team. Because the case touched on two momentous constitutional issues, freedom of the press and trial by jury, he waived any fee.

The gist of Hamilton’s argument was that the truth of the claims made by an author should be admissible evidence for the defense in a libel case. The standard heretofore had been that plaintiffs in libel cases needed to prove only that statements made against them were defamatory, not that they were false. Both Hamilton and Croswell wanted to delay the trial until they could transport James T. Callender to the courtroom to testify about Jefferson’s patronage of his writing. Whether coincidentally or not, Callender met his watery death a few weeks before the trial began. Hamilton was tempted to subpoena Jefferson or at least extract a deposition from him. However, the presiding judge, Morgan Lewis, reverted to common-law doctrine and informed the jury that they “were judges of the fact and not of the truth or intent of the publication.”17 In other words, the jury’s job was simply to determine whether Harry Croswell had published the libelous lines about Jefferson, not whether they were true and sincerely meant. Bound by these instructions, the jurors had no choice but to find Croswell guilty.

In mid-February 1804, Hamilton journeyed to Albany and pleaded for a new trial before the state supreme court. On the bench, Hamilton had a friend and Federalist ally in James Kent but otherwise faced three Republican judges. Hamilton’s speech was so eagerly awaited that the Senate and Assembly chambers emptied out when he spoke. The lawmakers were drawn to the courtroom by more than curiosity: they had under consideration a bill that would allow truth as a defense in libel trials. Hamilton did not disappoint his expectant spectators in his six-hour speech. In arguing for a new trial, Hamilton highlighted the principle at stake, the protection of a free press: “The liberty of the press consists, in my idea, in publishing the truth from good motives and for justifiable ends, [even] though it reflect on the government, on magistrates, or individuals.”18 As a victim of repeated press abuse, Hamilton did not endorse a completely unfettered press: “I consider this spirit of abuse and calumny as the pest of society. I know the best of men are not exempt from attacks of slander…. Drops of water in long and continued succession will wear out adamant.”19 Hence the importance of truth, fairness, and absence of malice in reportage.

Only a free press could check abuses of executive power, Hamilton asserted. He never mentioned Jefferson directly, but the president’s shadow flickered intermittently over his speech. In describing the need for unvarnished press coverage of elected officials, Hamilton reminded the judges “how often the hypocrite goes from stage to stage of public fame, under false array, and how often when men attained the last objects of their wishes, they change from that which they seemed to be.” In case any auditors missed the allusion, Hamilton added that “men the most zealous reverers of the people’s rights have, when placed on the highest seat of power, become their most deadly oppressors. It becomes therefore necessary to observe the actual conduct of those who are thus raised up.”20

By spotlighting the issue of intent, Hamilton identified the criteria for libel that still hold sway in America today: that the writing in question must be false, defamatory, and malicious. If a published piece of writing “have a good intent, it ought not to be a libel for it then is an innocent transaction.”21 Hamilton showed how truth and intent were inextricably linked: “Its being a truth is a reason to infer that there was no design to injure another.”22 He conceded, however, that truth alone was not a defense and that libelers could use “the weapon of truth wantonly.”23 And he did not argue that the truth should be conclusive, only that it should be admissible; if a journalist slandered his target accurately but maliciously, then he was still guilty of libel. He noted that the Sedition Act, “branded indeed with epithets the most odious,” contained one redeeming feature: it allowed the alleged libeler to plead both truth and intent before a jury.24 In deciding intent in libel cases, Hamilton also stressed the need for an independent jury instead of a judge appointed by the executive branch, lest the American judiciary revert to the tyranny of the Star Chamber.

In a ringing summation, Hamilton sounded again like the young firebrand from King’s College days and spoke freely from the heart: “I never did think the truth was a crime. I am glad the day is come in which it is to be decided, for my soul has ever abhorred the thought that a free man dared not speak the truth.”25 The issue of press freedom was all the more important because the spirit of faction, “that mortal poison to our land,” had spread through America. He worried that a certain unnamed party might impose despotism: “To watch the progress of such endeavours is the office of a free press. To give us early alarm and put us on our guard against the encroachments of power. This then is a right of the utmost importance, one for which, instead of yielding it up, we ought rather to spill our blood.”26

People who heard Hamilton’s speech that day, which distilled so many themes of his varied career, never forgot his spellbinding message or the mood he cast over the hushed courtroom. James Kent slid a hastily scribbled note to a friend: “I never heard him so great.27 New York merchant John Johnston wrote afterward, “It was indeed a most extraordinary effort of human genius…. [T]here was not, I do believe, a dry eye in court.” Another observer, Thomas P. Grosvenor, confirmed that Hamilton’s speech “drew tears from his eyes and…from every eye of the numerous audience.”28 Chancellor Kent, always an insightful observer of Hamilton’s courtroom prowess, singled out the Croswell speech for his highest encomium.

I have always considered General Hamilton’s argument in that cause as the greatest forensic effort that he ever made. There was an unusual solemnity and earnestness on the part of General Hamilton in this discussion. He was at times highly impassioned and pathetic. His whole soul was enlisted in the cause and in contending for the rights of the jury and a free press, he considered that he was establishing the surest refuge against oppression.29

Even Hamilton’s adversary, Attorney General Spencer, lavished praise on Hamilton’s legal powers, calling him “the greatest man this country has produced…. In creative power, Hamilton was infinitely [Senator Daniel] Webster’s superior.”30

Hamilton, ironically, lost the case. Because the four judges were evenly split, with Chief Justice Morgan Lewis opposing him, Croswell could not win a retrial, but neither was he sentenced. As a reward for shielding President Jefferson, Lewis was lionized by Republicans and nominated as the party’s candidate for New York governor six days later. But Hamilton’s arguments in the case prevailed over the long term. In April 1805, the New York legislature passed a new libel law that incorporated the features he had wanted. With this new law in place, the state supreme court granted Harry Croswell a new trial that summer—a belated triumph that Hamilton did not live to see.

In April 1803, President Jefferson reached the zenith of his popularity with the Louisiana Purchase. For a mere pittance of fifteen million dollars, the United States acquired 828,000 square miles between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, doubling American territory. Hamilton was ruefully amused that Jefferson, the strict constructionist, committed a breathtaking act of executive power that far exceeded anything contemplated in the Constitution. The land purchase dwarfed Hamilton’s central bank and others measures once so hotly denounced by the man who was now president. After considering a constitutional amendment to sanctify the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson settled for congressional approval. “The less we say about the constitutional difficulties respecting Louisiana, the better,” he conceded to Madison. To justify his audacity, the president invoked the doctrine of implied powers first articulated and refined by Alexander Hamilton. As John Quincy Adams remarked, the Louisiana Purchase was “an assumption of implied power greater in itself, and more comprehensive in its consequences, than all the assumptions of implied powers in the years of the Washington and Adams administrations.”31 When it suited his convenience, Jefferson set aside his small-government credo with compunction.

At first, Hamilton had denied that Napoleon would ever sell the territory. “There is not the most remote probability that the ambitious and aggrandizing views of Bonaparte will commute [i.e., exchange] the territory for money,” he observed.32 Hamilton thought the United States should simply seize New Orleans and then negotiate a purchase of the territory with a France bankrupted by war. Perhaps Hamilton was slipping back into the old reveries of military glory that he had nursed under President Adams. Then, envious of Jefferson’s easy windfall, Hamilton belittled the significance of the Louisiana Purchase, contending that any settlement in this vast wilderness “appears too distant and remote to strike the mind of a sober politician with much force.”33

In the end, Hamilton was one of the few Federalists to support the action, which squared neatly with his nationalistic vision. Swapping roles with Republicans, however, many Federalists emerged as strict constructionists and denied that the Constitution permitted the purchase. Beyond legal reservations, they worried that this new American territory would weaken Federalist power, sealing their doom. The new western terrain would be preponderantly Republican and agricultural, and slavery might flourish there. In fact, every state that entered the Union between 1803 and 1845 as a result of the purchase turned out to be a slave state, further tipping the political balance toward the south. Fearful of being overshadowed by an expanding Republican slave empire in the west, some New England Federalists began to talk of secession from the union. Such plans formed part of the context for the Hamilton-Burr duel. If any such secessionist movement occurred, Hamilton, ever the passionate nation builder, wanted to retain the sterling reputation necessary to counter it with all his might.

Where Hamilton saw a threat to the Union in the incipient secession movement, Aaron Burr beheld a chance to rehabilitate his flagging political career. As the 1804 presidential election approached, Burr knew that Jefferson would drop him from the Republican ticket. This assumption was reinforced on January 20, 1804, when Governor George Clinton, citing age and ill health, informed Jefferson that he would not run again for New York governor. Jefferson began to muse upon Clinton’s strengths as a running mate—not least among them that he was too old to pose any competitive threat to himself and would leave the door open for James Madison to succeed him as the next president.

On January 26, Burr hazarded one last meeting with Jefferson to determine whether he had any future in the national Republican party. Knowing it would be fruitless to ask Jefferson to keep him on as vice president, he abased himself to solicit “a mark of favor” from Jefferson that he could transmit to the world as evidence that he was leaving office with the president’s confidence.34 Mixing flattery with self-pity, Burr complained that the Livingstons and Clintons, abetted by Hamilton, had launched “calumnies” against him in New York and asked Jefferson to help defend his name.35 Jefferson held out no hope of political redemption. In his evasive style, he said that he never meddled with elections and had no plans to do so now. As for press attacks against Burr, Jefferson waved them away blithely, saying that he “had noticed it but as the passing wind.”36 Clearly, as far as Jefferson was concerned, Aaron Burr was persona non grata in the Republican party.

Burr concluded that his political salvation lay in New York. He would try to exchange places with George Clinton and run for New York governor, backed by a coalition of Federalists and disgruntled Republicans. Hamilton feared that Burr might try to unite New York with New England in a breakaway confederacy, courting Federalist votes in the process. With his talent for subtle suggestions, Burr had already dined with New England Federalist legislators, who had probed his views on the subject. Congressman Roger Griswold of Connecticut said that Burr spoke “in the most bitter terms of the Virginia faction and of the necessity of a union at the northward to resist it. But what the ultimate objects are which he would propose, I do not know.”37 Without committing himself, the inscrutable Burr kept alive hopes that, as New York governor, he might encourage state residents to forge a union with the New England states.

In essaying a New York comeback, Burr had to contend with two willful opponents: thirty-four-year-old De Witt Clinton, now New York’s handsome, overbearing mayor, and the damaged but still resourceful Hamilton. The resulting political battle was to be brutal even by the savage standards of the day. The American Citizen, Clinton’s mouthpiece, was to play an especially provocative role. To discredit Burr among Republicans, editor James Cheetham disinterred old charges that Burr had colluded with Federalists in the 1801 tie election. He took special pleasure in quoting Hamilton that Burr was a “Catiline” or traitor. This only aggravated tensions between Hamilton and Burr.

In hindsight, several Burr confidants blamed Cheetham for goading the two men into a duel. The editor “had done everything in his power to set Burr and Hamilton to fighting,” claimed Charles Biddle.38 Indeed, Cheetham exploited every opportunity to bait the two men. On January 6, 1804, he had jeered openly at Hamilton in print: “Yes, sir, I dare assert that you attributed to Aaron Burr one of the most atrocious and unprincipled of crimes. He has not called upon you…. Either he is guilty or he is the most mean and despicable bastard in the universe.”39 Cheetham also prodded Burr, asking him if he was “so degraded as to permit even General Hamilton to slander him with impunity?”40 Now an embattled, lonely figure, Burr was as hypersensitive to attacks on his character as Hamilton. If he could not redeem his personal reputation, then he could not salvage his career. So that February he filed a libel suit against Cheetham, one of thirty-eight that the sleazy editor faced in his brief career. Cheetham mischievously responded that he was merely reiterating allegations that Hamilton had made against Burr: “I repeat it. General Hamilton believes him guilty and has said so a thousand times—and will say so and prove him so whenever an opportunity offers.”41 By stoking this animosity, Cheetham was playing a lethal game.

The Federalists had been so debilitated in New York by the Jeffersonians that they could not even field a viable gubernatorial candidate. It therefore became a question of which Republican or independent candidate to support. Sensing the futility of any Federalist candidacy, Rufus King rebuffed Hamilton’s entreaty that he run. In February, Hamilton and other leading Federalists caucused at the City Tavern in Albany to decide on a Republican candidate to back. (Hamilton was in Albany to deliver his summary remarks in the Croswell case.) Disconcerted by what he saw as a diabolical plot to dismember the union, Hamilton combated Burr with special intensity. In notes prepared for his speech, Hamilton said that Burr was an “adroit, able, and daring” politician and skillful enough to combine unhappy Republicans and wavering Federalists. But Burr, he said, yearned to head a new northern confederacy, and “placed at the head of the state of New York no man would be more likely to succeed.”42

Aware of Hamilton’s strenuous efforts to stop him, Burr informed his daughter, Theodosia, that “Hamilton is intriguing for any candidate who can have a chance of success against A[aron] B[urr].”43 A few months later, Burr pretended that he had had no idea of the true opinion that Hamilton entertained of his private character and summoned Hamilton to a duel on that basis. Yet on March 1, 1804, the American Citizen reported that Hamilton had criticized Burr for both his public and his private character: “General Hamilton did not oppose Mr. Burr because he was a democrat…but because HE HAD NO PRINCIPLE, either in morals or in politics. The sum and substance of his language was that no party could trust him. He drew an odious, but yet I think a very just picture of the little Colonel.”44

In the end, Hamilton endorsed for governor one of his earliest political foes, John Lansing, Jr., whom he had first tangled with as a fellow New York delegate at the Constitutional Convention. Hamilton thought Lansing would be a weak governor who would erode Republican unity. After Lansing declined the nomination, Republicans rallied around Chief Justice Morgan Lewis, who had married into the Livingston clan. This was a terrible blow to Hamilton, who did not think Lewis could win and feared that Federalists would now defect to Burr. “Burr’s prospect has extremely brightened,” he lamented.45 Indeed, on February 18, a caucus of disaffected Republicans nominated Burr for governor. Just as Hamilton foresaw, prominent Federalists, from John Jay to his own brother-in-law Stephen Van Rensselaer, lined up behind Burr. In disgust, Hamilton told Philip Schuyler that he would not get involved in the election, but he was incapable of inaction. He ended up campaigning for Lewis to the point that one Burr lieutenant wrote, “General Hamilton…opposed the election of Colonel Burr with an ardor bordering on fanaticism. The press teemed with libels of the most atrocious character.”46

As groups statewide endorsed Burr—“Burr is the universal, I mean the general, cry,” exclaimed one exuberant observer—Hamilton fell into a despondent state.47 In this mood, he lashed out at any efforts to impugn his character. On February 25, one week after Burr was nominated, Hamilton went to the Albany home of Judge Ebenezer Purdy to confront him with reports that he had revived an old canard: that before the Constitutional Convention Hamilton had secretly plotted with Britain to install a son of George III as an American king in exchange for Canada and other territories. To emphasize the gravity of the visit, Hamilton took along another judge, Nathaniel Pendleton, a Virginia native and later his second in the duel with Burr. With Pendleton taking notes, Purdy refused to disclose the source for his story, admitting only that the man lived in Westchester and had seen the telltale British letter in Hamilton’s office. The source, in fact, was Pierre Van Cortlandt, Jr., who had clerked for Hamilton in the mid-1780s before becoming a Republican politician. More to the point, Van Cortlandt was now the son-in-law of George Clinton.

Hamilton told Purdy that he was determined to trace the slander. Purdy mentioned that Governor Clinton had a copy of the British letter, and Hamilton decided to contact his old bogeyman. That same day, Clinton was nominated by the Republicans as Jefferson’s running mate for vice president. Hamilton demanded of his longtime foe “a frank and candid explanation of so much of the matter as relates to yourself.”48 Clinton said that a General Macomb had shown him a copy of the letter around the time of the Constitutional Convention. Hamilton insisted that Clinton send him the letter, if he retained it in his files, so that he could hunt down its source. Clinton sent a blunt, unrepentant reply, saying that he could not find the letter but precisely recollected its contents: “It recommended a government for the United States similar to that of Great Britain…. The [American] House of Lords was to be composed partly of the British hereditary nobility and partly of such of our own citizens as should have most merit in bringing about the measure.”49 Clinton clearly gave credence to this nonsensical fairy tale, and he no longer felt any need to defer to Hamilton, who had lost his power and could now be bullied. In a guarded response, Hamilton expressed hope that if Clinton found the letter, he would hand it over to him. For fifteen years, Hamilton had tried to run down the sources of the lies told about him. The effort had left him weary and dispirited, but he still could not shed the fantasy that, if only he went after slander with sufficient persistence, he could vanquish his detractors once and for all.

To fathom the full bitterness of Aaron Burr in the spring of 1804, one must dip into the hateful campaign literature spewed forth by his opponents during the gubernatorial race. Few elections in American history have trafficked in such personal defamation. Undeterred by Burr’s libel suit, Cheetham’s American Citizen engaged in ever more reckless sallies against him. Cheetham advised readers that his staff had assembled a list of “upwards of twenty women of ill fame with whom [Burr] has been connected.” Another list in his possession, he said, cited married ladies who were divorced due to Burr’s seductions as well as “chaste and respectable ladies whom he has attemped to seduce.50 The most infamous Cheetham tale concerned a “nigger ball” that Burr allegedly threw at his Richmond Hill estate to woo free black voters.51 Supervised by his slave Alexis—described by an early Burr biographer as “the black factotum of the establishment”—this party was said to have featured Burr dancing with a voluptuous black woman, whom he then seduced.52 This election coverage set a new low for Cheetham, which is saying something.

While being battered by the press, Burr had to fend off a wave of anonymous broadsides in the streets, his well-known profligacy forming the theme of many of them. Cheetham wrote some of them, including one claiming that the father of a young woman deflowered by Burr had arrived in New York to seek revenge. One by “Sylphid” warned, “Let the disgraceful debauchee who permitted an infamous prostitute to insult and embitter the dying moments of his injured wife—let him look home.”53 Another handbill, signed “A Young German,” accused Burr of looting the estate of a Dutch baker to relieve his own indebtedness of six thousand dollars.54 “An Episcopalian” informed readers that Burr “meditates a violent attack upon the rights of property.55 Some broadsides even got around to dealing with politics. “The Liar, Caught in His Own Toils” reiterated the familiar refrain that Burr had tried to swipe the 1800 election from Jefferson and now planned to dismember the union.56

At his late January meeting with Jefferson, Burr had identified Hamilton as the author of unsigned broadsides against him, but no evidence of this exists. Even in private letters, Hamilton never referred to specific carnal acts committed by Burr; in that sense, he was quite discreet. Yet Burr may have thought that Hamilton secretly contributed to Federalist slander, even though most of the offensive handbills echoed articles in the American Citizen and probably originated with Republicans. From his campaign literature, it was clear that Burr, like Hamilton, felt persecuted by slander and powerless to stop it. One broadside said indignantly, “Col. Burr has been loaded with almost every epithet of abuse to be found in the English language. He has been represented as a man totally destitute of political principle or integrity.”57

Burr feigned indifference to the “new and amusing libels” published against him, as if nothing could shake his perfect aplomb.58 Unlike his opponents, he ran a clean, if aggressive, campaign from his John Street headquarters. He fought with his usual zest and charm, and his criticisms of Morgan Lewis fell within the bounds of propriety. Criticizing nepotism among the Livingstons and Clintons, he lent his campaign a populist tinge by styling himself “a plain and unostentatious citizen” who ran for office “unaided by the power of innumerable family connections.”59 To elevate Burr in Federalist eyes, his broadsides likened him to Hamilton. One sheet described him as a first-rate lawyer who stood on a par “with Hamilton in point of sound argument, polished shafts and manly nervous eloquence, impressive and convincing reasoning.”60

Despite the propaganda barrage directed against him, Burr thought the race was winnable, and his followers remained sanguine as the April vote approached. Oliver Wolcott, Jr., considered it “most probable that Colo. Burr will succeed. It is certain that he commands a numerous and intrepid party who are not to be intimidated or subdued.”61 Days before the election, Hamilton sounded mournful about the outcome. “I say nothing on politics,” he confided to his brother-in-law Philip Jeremiah Schuyler, “with the course of which I am too much disgusted to give myself any future concern about them.”62 As usual, Hamilton proved too pessimistic. When the votes were counted in late April, Burr had narrowly won New York City, but he was outvoted so heavily upstate that he lost the race by a one-sided margin of 30,829 to 22,139.

This stunning, unexpected defeat seemed to deal a mortal blow to Burr’s career. He had ten months left as vice president, but then what? Hounded from Washington and the Republican party, he had failed to recoup lost ground in New York. Was Hamilton responsible for his loss in the gubernatorial race? Hamilton’s friend Judge Kent dismissed this view, noting that most Federalists had voted for Burr, while the “cold reserve and indignant reproaches of Hamilton may have controlled a few.”63 It is highly unlikely that Hamilton’s waning influence could have made the difference in a landslide election. John Quincy Adams observed that New York Federalists were now “a minority, and of that minority, only a minority were admirers and partisans of Mr. Hamilton.”64 Far more decisive in the outcome was President Jefferson. After assuring Burr that he never intruded in elections, he intimated to two New York congressmen that Burr was officially excommunicated from the Republican party. This view, reported in the New York papers, stigmatized Burr among Republican loyalists.

Nonetheless, Burr’s admirers were adamant that Alexander Hamilton had destroyed his career. “If General Hamilton had not opposed Colonel Burr, I have very little doubt but he would have been elected governor of New York,” wrote Burr’s friend Charles Biddle.65 This view was repeated by an early Burr biographer, who said that Burr had won “the confidence of the more moderate Federalists and nothing but Hamilton’s vehement opposition had prevented that party’s voting for him en masse.”66 This theory ignores the awkward fact that Burr had fared very well indeed among New York Federalists. Burr’s editor, Mary-Jo Kline, has written, “By the week before the election…there were signs that the Federalist organization had given A[aron] B[urr] full, if clandestine, support.”67 After the loss, Burr kept up his usual unflappable air. Once the election results were in, he sent a letter full of fake bravado to his daughter, Theodosia, in which he recounted his recent love life. He had been unable to visit a certain mistress named Celeste, he said, but had made time for his New York “inamorata,” identified as “La G.” He praised the latter for being “good-tempered and cheerful” but also faulted her for being “flat-chested.” Then, almost as an afterthought, he mentioned the governor’s race, saying that the “election is lost by a great majority: tant mieux [so much the better].”68 This glib insouciance reflected Burr’s lifelong self-protective pose of aristocratic disdain and indifference. Under this urbanity, however, grew a murderous rage against Hamilton. In his eyes, Hamilton had blocked his path to the presidency by supporting Jefferson in 1801. Now Hamilton had blocked his path to the New York governorship. Alexander Hamilton was a curse, a hypocrite, the author of all his misery. At least that’s how Aaron Burr saw things in the spring of 1804.

During the campaign, Hamilton had been troubled by new secession threats among Federalists. Nothing was more antithetical to his conception of Federalism. A friend, Adam Hoops, recalled running into Hamilton in Albany in early March and asking him about the secession rumors. “The idea of disunion he could not hear of without impatience,” recalled Hoops, “and expressed his reprobation of it using strong terms.”69 In a tremendous visionary leap, Hamilton foresaw a civil war between north and south, a war that the north would ultimately win but at a terrible cost: “The result must be destructive to the present Constitution and eventually the establishment of separate governments framed on principles in their nature hostile to civil liberty.”70 Hamilton was so appalled by this specter that he and Hoops talked of it for more than an hour: “The subject had taken such fast hold of him that he could not detach himself from it until a professional engagement called him into court.”71 Hamilton continued to worry about the “bloody anarchy” and the overthrow of the Constitution that might result from Jefferson’s policies.72

That spring, Timothy Pickering, the ex–secretary of state and now a senator from Massachusetts, made the rounds of Federalist leaders in New York, trying to drum up support for a runaway northern confederacy “exempt from the corrupt and corrupting influence and oppression of the aristocratic Democrats of the South.”73 Without support from the two large mid-Atlantic states, New York and New Jersey, such a federation would be stillborn. Pickering and the so-called Essex Junto hoped to recruit leading local Federalists. Though many New York Federalists feared the dominance of Virginia and the expansion of slavery after the Louisiana Purchase, both Hamilton and Rufus King solidly opposed any secessionist movement. Soon after Pickering’s visit, Major James Fairlie asked Hamilton if he had been approached about the northern confederacy. Fairlie recalled that Hamilton “said that he had been applied to in relation to that subject by some persons from the eastward.” Hamilton then added, “You know there cannot be any political confidence between Mr. Jefferson and his administration and myself. But I view the suggestion of such a project with horror.74

The secession campaign had matured to the point that its instigators planned a Boston meeting late that fall, after Jefferson’s presumed reelection. Hamilton agreed to attend, undoubtedly to dissuade participants from this self-destructive act. Some detractors tried to cast Hamilton as a confederate in the plot, when it flew in the face of his life’s overwhelming passion: the strength and stability of the union. Even Jefferson later referred to “the known principle of General Hamilton never, under any views, to break the Union.”75 Hamilton’s dismay about the secessionist threat preoccupied him during the weeks leading up to the duel. His son John Church Hamilton told of one dinner party at the Grange just a week before the fatal encounter. “After dinner, when they were alone, Hamilton turned to [John] Trumbull, and looking at him with deep meaning, said: ‘You are going to Boston. You will see the principal men there. Tell them from ME, at MY request, for God’s sake, to cease these conversations and threatenings about a separation of the Union. It must hang together as long as it can be made to.”76 Since 1787, Hamilton had never wavered in his belief that the Constitution must be preserved as long as possible, nor in his commitment to do everything in his power to make it work. He was not about to change that view now.