A Biography of Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804)

The last campaign (1804)

Hamilton began his anti-Burr activities anew in 1804 when Burr returned to New York to run in the gubernatorial elections. Again, the Federalists preferred Burr, who had fallen out of Jefferson's favor, and who had been unceremoniously dumped by the Republicans as a nominee for the next presidential election. Again, Hamilton supported his Republican rival, John Lansing (and later Morgan Lewis when Lansing bowed out), and because of his stance, was all but ostracized by his own party. Even his own newspaper, the New York Evening Post, criticized Hamilton's break from the party mainstream.

Especially disturbing to Hamilton was Burr's association with the Federalist secessionist movement, centered in New England, which bitterly opposed the Louisiana Purchase as a plot to spread slavery and broaden southern political influence. Hamilton was supportive of the Louisiana Purchase for reasons of his own expansionist philosophy, and because the acquisition would eliminate the possibility of costly border wars with the French. He also received no little satisfaction when Jefferson employed his implied powers doctrine to justify the purchase on constitutional grounds.

Northern secession was unthinkable to Hamilton, who had dedicated his political career to creating and strengthening the union. Should Burr ascend to the governer's seat in New York, Hamilton feared that he would use his popularity and the power of that position to lead the secession with a view to becoming the "chief of the Northern portion." Hamilton's last communications with party members were emotional pleas to stop the secessionist movement. Four days before the duel, Hamilton confronted John Trumbull, a New England Federalist with quite possibly his final appeal to the party he founded:

"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."

Hamilton and Burr: Infinite Shades of Ambition
The Hamilton/Burr rivalry is one of the most famous in American politics, and certainly their duel is the most notorious in history. But what set them on their ultimately fatal collision course? Despite the remarkable parallels in their careers which might normally have attracted them as friends, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr were at odds almost from the outset.

A year younger than Hamilton, Aaron Burr (1756-1836) was, unlike his rival, born of a respected family, and raised a natural aristocrat. His father was president of Princeton University, where Burr was educated, and his grandfather was the famous fire and brimstone minister Jonathan Edwards. Burr joined the revolutionary army and served as aide-de-camp to one of Washington's rival Generals, Israel Putnam. Resentful of the commander-in-chief for what he considered a belated increase in rank, Burr supported General Horatio Gates in his attempt to oust Washington as commander of the Continental army. There was already no love lost between Washington and Burr, as the latter had sent an openly contemptuous letter to the General regarding his rank in 1777. As Hamilton was Washington's closest aide at the time, it is likely that he was privy to the letter and clued in to Washington's dislike of the young Colonel from the northern army. Since Hamilton was staunchly loyal to chief, and deeply resented the members of the Gates faction, this was probably Hamilton's first black stroke against Colonel Aaron Burr.

Following the war, both Hamilton and Burr had thriving law practices in New York City, and both were rising stars at the bar. Both were attractive, dynamic individuals who had high-profile careers by day, and were drawing room fixtures by night. Their singularly magnetic personalities would garner each loyal friends and passionate enemies. The differences of the war years seemingly forgotten, Hamilton professed a high opinion of Burr in the mid-1780s, but his doubts would resurface during the fight for ratification of the constitution. Hamilton was later to say that Burr had been "equivocal" on the matter of the new constitution. At a time of passionate debate, when all political beings jumped into the ring to defend their positions, Burr did not commit himself to either side, at least openly. Burr was to remain ambivalent throughout his political career; and that aspect of his personality was puzzling to most, intriguing to some, but it was downright maddening to Hamilton.

Hamilton was one of the few politicians of his day who was an open book. He explained himself to Robert Troupe in 1795: "...it has been the rule of my life to do nothing for my own emolument under cover. ...I know it is pride. But this pride makes it part of my plan to appear truly what I am." Hamilton hid behind no mask. Burr, on the other hand, was Hamilton's photo negative in that regard. So circumspect was he about his political opinions that to this day one has difficulty pinning down his convictions from his writings or utterances. Burr's silence about his principles indicated to Hamilton that he had none. Hence Hamilton's support of Jefferson over the more Federalist-friendly and easily manipulated Burr: Hamilton at least knew where Jefferson stood. In Hamilton's view, no more dangerous a person could be found for the presidency than Aaron Burr.

Their political rivalry began in early 1791. Burr had ousted Philip Schuyler from his senate seat after agreeing to run as a candidate sponsored by the Schuyler's dynastic rivals, the anti-Federalist Clinton/Livingston faction. This was a blow to Hamilton--and not a little humiliating on the family front--who thought that his political influence would ensure his father-in-law's victory. It was a surprise as well because Burr was up until that time considered sympathetic to the Federalists, and was one of the many protean moves Burr would pull which would aggravate Hamilton's suspicions.

What was more, Hamilton received ominous warnings from Robert Troupe in New York that Burr was part of a conspiracy to topple the Secretary of the Treasury and the government. Immediately after the senate elections, Troupe wrote:

"Burr succeeded by a decided majority. ...We are going headlong into the bitterest opposition to the Genl Government. I pity you Most sincerely . . . Delenda est carthago is the maxim applied to your administration."

Five months later, Troupe repeated his warning:

"There was every appearance of a pas[s]ionate courtship between [Livingston], Burr, Jefferson & Madison when the two latter were in Town. Delenda est Carthago I suppose is the Maxim adopted with respect to you. They had better be quiet, for if they suc[c]eed they will tumble the fabric of the government in ruins to the ground."

Hamilton, who was at that time embattled over the bank controversy, was most likely deeply unsettled by Troupe's reports of a total war being planned against him. Burr was opposing Hamilton on two fronts: locally, as an agent of the Clinton/Livingston faction; and nationally as a cohort of the Virginia opposition. Thereafter, Hamilton likely considered Burr his most dangerous enemy.

Their antagonism intensified over the years: Burr regularly supported Clinton in the gubernatorial elections, and suspected that Hamilton blocked his bid to become minister to France in 1794. Hamilton bested Burr in 1797 by finally installing his father-in-law in Burr's senate seat, and, of course, thwarting his bid for the presidency in 1800, and his run for governor of New York in 1804. Burr supposedly had a hand in publicizing Hamilton's attack on Adams in 1800. Yet, as all of these events were happening on the political front, the two collaborated in business ventures, co-counseled legal cases, and maintained a cordial social relationship. The road to Weehawken was a twisted one indeed.

In the end, the Hamilton/Burr duel was more of a sad event than an explosive one. It was the denouement of two political careers already ruined by self-generated scandal. Burr, whose ambitions had been squelched more by his political vacillations than the brickbats of a Federalist has-been, found Hamilton as good a target for his repressed anger as anyone. Hamilton had been spiraling downward for some time, and was quite painfully aware of the fact. Hamilton met Burr's challenge with a puzzling resignation and the intention of holding his fire. Did Hamilton, as some have postulated, voluntarily sacrifice himself knowing that his death on the dueling ground would completely destroy Burr, and with him all of his schemes? Or was Hamilton simply taking advantage of an easy way out--the "blaze of glory" he had pined for so many years ago? Whatever his temporal goal, what we do know is that Hamilton went to his interview determined that if anyone fell at Weehawken, it was not going to be Aaron Burr.