What Was Alexander Hamilton’s Role in Aaron Burr’s Presidential Defeat?
As the presidential election of 1800 approached, the Americans were more divided than ever. Outgoing President John Adams confronted Vice President Thomas Jefferson, the former Secretary of State and author of the Declaration of Independence.
For Jefferson and his supporters of the rise of the Democratic-Republican (or Republican) opposition, the construction of the national government strongly favored by the Federalist Party of Adams meant trampling on the rights of states and individuals, and destroying freedom revolutionary on which the nation was founded.
At the time, there was no popular vote and no separate ballot for the presidential and vice-presidential candidates. The voters of each of the 16 States of the Union each voted twice; the candidate with the most votes became president, while the second vice-president became vice-president. This undeniably flawed system had led Jefferson to become Adams’ vice president in 1796, after losing the country’s first disputed presidential race by just three votes.
In the 1800 elections – a long battle between two radically different visions of the United States’ future – this would cause an outright constitutional crisis.
A historic link between Jefferson and Burr
The vote in 1800 took place over a period of several months, and the campaign, which was widely waged in the partisan press in the country, became truly unpleasant. The editor of the Republican newspaper James Callender notoriously accused Adams of having a “hideous hermaphrodite character”, while a federalist writer named “Burleigh” claimed that if Jefferson won, “murder, theft, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced. “
By mid-December 1800, it was clear that Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, had defeated the federalist note from Adams and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. But there was a problem: at least one Republican voter had to suspend his vote at Burr to allow Jefferson to take the lead. None of them did, and each man received exactly 73 electoral votes.
Federalist plot to thwart Jefferson
The tie sent the election to the House of Representatives for the lame duck, where the federalists dominated. Although public opinion favored Jefferson, many federalists decided to support Burr, hoping to keep Jefferson from the country’s highest office. Burr refused to confirm that he would refuse the chair if the House voted in favor of it, leading some to conclude that he was secretly looking for the job.
Alexander Hamilton was one of them. Although he disagreed with Jefferson on almost all political issues, he believed that Burr had few principles beyond his own ambition. In a fierce letter writing campaign that continued from mid-December to late January 1801, Hamilton tried to convince his federalist colleagues of this fact.
“There is no doubt, but that, on every virtuous and careful calculation, Jefferson must be preferred,” he wrote to Oliver Wolcott Jr. on December 16. “He is by far a not so dangerous man and he has claims of character.”
But Hamilton had lost much of his influence among his federalist colleagues due to his vicious attacks on Adams (as well as the scandal in his personal life). By the time the House began voting on February 11, 1801, Hamilton’s concerns about Burr had failed to influence many of his party members.
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The decisive vote
The Constitution required that each state’s delegation to the House vote as a block to decide on elections. That put a lot of power in the hands of one man: Delaware federalist James A. Bayard, who was the only representative of his state in 1800. If Bayard changed his vote, his state changed his vote.
In the first ballot – and of the 34 that followed over the next five days – Bayard voted for the Delaware Burr, giving him six states versus eight for Jefferson. The Vermont and Maryland delegations were equally divided, so they did not vote.
With no clear emerging winner, the nation has hovered on the brink of chaos. Republican newspapers stirred the flames by suggesting a possible military intervention, and groups of republican and unofficial federalist militias began to prepare for a possible civil war.
Meanwhile, Bayard (possibly due to the influence of Hamilton, who wrote to him on January 16 arguing that Burr was a “man of extreme & irregular ambition ”) was reconsidering its position. According to historian Ron Chernow, Bayard suggested in a caucus that he could vote for Jefferson to avoid a constitutional crisis. After other federalists shouted at him with cries of “deserter!”
Bayard met two of Jefferson’s friends, John Nicholas of Virginia and Samuel Smith of Maryland. He sought to confirm that as president, Jefferson would leave certain federalist policies, including the Hamilton financial system, and office holders in place.
After obtaining tacit assurance that Jefferson agreed to these conditions, Bayard submitted a blank ballot during the 36th ballot, February 17, 1801. The federalists also withdrew from Vermont and Maryland, allowing it was up to these state delegations to vote for Jefferson and seal his victory, just two weeks before the day of the inauguration.
Lasting impact of the 1800 election
Jefferson later wrote that his victory in 1800 was “a revolution as real in the principles of our government as that of 76 in its form.” Federalists would never win another presidential race, and by 1815 they had ceased to exist as a party. While the Republicans firmly controlled the government, the 12th amendment was passed at the end of Jefferson’s first term, changing the electoral process and separating the election of the president and the vice president.
The election of 1,800 personalities in the hit musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda Hamilton, serving as a catalyst for the fatal shock between Hamilton and Burr in 1804. In real life, the sequence of events was more complicated, but the fallout from 1800 certainly played an important role in the lives of the two men.
Hamilton’s stature in his party declined further after the election of Jefferson, even as federalism itself lost its influence. Meanwhile, after Jefferson refused to give his new vice-president any influence in his administration, and removed him from the ticket in the next election, Burr ran unsuccessfully for governor of New York. .
When rumors reached Burr that Hamilton had spoken out against him during this campaign, long-term tensions between them intensified, culminating in the duel that killed Hamilton in July 1804.