Alexander Hamilton versus Aaron Burr

As duels were a manifestation of TPS, an obvious choice for further scrutiny is America’s most famous duel: Hamilton versus Burr. Before their duel came rivalry, a frequent TPS precursor that has persisted long since duels disappeared. As is often the case, all were enshrouded in the biggest cutter of all: politics.

Alexander Hamilton was born to a mother out of wedlock on the Leeward Islands around 1755. When his mother died, a prosperous merchant took in the orphaned boy. In 1772 the man sent him to New York to further his education. His time in college was interrupted by the Revolutionary War, in which he served four years as Washington’s chief staff aide. Hamilton sought a command and obtained it for the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. He resigned after Yorktown and that fall was appointed to the Congress of the Confederation. When he left that post, he studied law on his own, passed the bar, and set up practice in Albany in 1782. He founded the Bank of New York in 1784, and it still exists.

Adding to his achievements, in 1787 he served as an assemblyman to New York County in the New York State legislature and became a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. He wrote some of the Federalist Papers, a series of published essays defending the proposed Constitution. In 1789 President George Washington appointed him as the first Secretary of the Treasury.

A two-party system, Federalist versus Democratic-Republican, was developing at this time. Hamilton led the charge of the Federalists, wanting a centralized government with expansive financial programs. Meanwhile, his mortal political rival, Thomas Jefferson, led the opposing party alongside James Madison in favor of less government and few cities and banks—an agrarian economy based on Jefferson’s idealized individual, the farmer.

Hamilton soon discovered another rival. His indignation bloomed in 1791 when Aaron Burr beat General Philip Schuyler, Hamilton’s father-in-law, for a seat in the US Senate. This marked the start of an ongoing rivalry between Hamilton and Burr (also between the Schuyler family and Burr). Born in 1756, Aaron Burr was orphaned at the age of two and raised by extended family members. A stint in the Continental Army interrupted his law education. After a heat stroke in 1778, he returned to his studies, although he remained active in the war.

Burr’s career progressed much like Hamilton’s. He was admitted to the New York bar in 1782, served in the state assembly from 1784 to 1785, became the state attorney general in 1789, and served as a US senator from 1791 to 1797. Then Schuyler reclaimed his Senate seat. Burr believed Hamilton had maligned him and swayed voters away from him in that election. Their rivalry turned to bitterness. Burr also lost the Democratic-Republican presidential nomination to Thomas Jefferson in the 1796 and 1800 elections.

In September 1799, Hamilton’s brother-in-law, John Barker Church, accused Burr of taking a bribe for a political favor. By this time, Burr’s enemies and potential cutters included Hamilton, Schuyler, and Church. Burr challenged Church to a duel, but both of their shots missed. Church later apologized for his accusation.

That same year, Burr feigned an attempt to establish a water company in order to form a bank. The Federalists had a monopoly on banking interests in New York because of Hamilton’s Bank of New York and the federal government’s Bank of the United States. At the last minute, Burr secretly changed the charter of the water company to the Bank of the Manhattan Company. Unlike the other banks, his would support the Democratic-Republicans.

In 1800 Burr and Jefferson ran in the presidential election against Federalist incumbents John Adams and Charles Pinckney, whom Hamilton hoped to make president through political maneuvering. To Hamilton’s vexation, Burr used his connection with the Tammany Hall political machine (see chapter 8) and his political clout to help deliver New York City and then the state’s electoral votes to Jefferson-Burr.

But Burr and Jefferson each had the same number of electoral votes, which meant a vote in the US House of Representatives would choose the president. Some felt that Burr used undue influence attempting to defeat Jefferson at that point. Even so, Jefferson was elected president and Burr vice president.

During their term, Burr was a principled president of the Senate, but Jefferson no longer trusted him and excluded him from party matters—a deserving case of TPS. When it was evident Burr would be dropped from the ticket in 1804, he decided to run for governor of New York.

He lost the election spectacularly—the largest margin of loss in New York’s history at that time. The Albany Register published a letter between Dr. Charles D. Cooper and Philip Schuyler quoting Hamilton that Burr was “a dangerous man.” Burr sought affirmation or denial, but Hamilton was reeling from the first political sex scandal, an adulterous affair, and went mute.

When Burr challenged him to a duel, Hamilton accepted. Because New York had outlawed dueling, it was held in New Jersey. On July 11, 1804, in Weehawken, they faced off near the same spot Hamilton’s oldest son had died in a duel in 1801.

According to some, Hamilton purposely missed with his shot. Burr did not, and Hamilton was fatally wounded. New York and New Jersey charged Burr with crimes, so he fled south. He returned to finish his term as vice president in 1805 but avoided New York and New Jersey. The charges were eventually dropped.

Following his political career, Burr wove a web of deception in the Louisiana Territory, positioning himself to an advantage if Spain overthrew US rule there. Jefferson issued a warrant for his arrest, declaring him a traitor. Despite the Jefferson government’s pressure, Burr was acquitted and fled to Europe, in exile from 1808 to 1812. He had personal and financial setbacks on returning to the US but, for all his travails, lived an uneventful life after that.

Hamilton was the victim of TPS after he and Burr developed a rivalry, with Burr finally killing him in the duel. Burr’s victory was short-lived. He had lost Jefferson’s trust and outraged the public with Hamilton’s death. More egregious activities followed, including charges of conspiracy and high misdemeanors. Burr’s political career was ruined, cut down by the public.

Excerpt from The Tall Poppy Syndrome by Douglas Garland, M.D.