During the first decade the United States lived under the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton (on the left) was a political force. In fact, one could go so far as to say he was the second-most powerful man in the country, a rung or two below President Washington. A good number of men loved and respected him (including the first President), and a good number loathed and reviled him (including the second, third, fourth, and fifth Presidents) . But no one could argue with the presence and influence the country’s first Treasury Secretary enjoyed. If you’ve spent any time on the pages of Today’s History Lesson, you know that to be true. His legacy, now nearly two-and-a-half centuries in length, still lives with us.
During the second decade, Hamilton’s power began to dwindle. Some of that was his own fault, some not. Clearly, the Federalist party (to which Hamilton belonged) was falling out of favor, wilting under the pressure of an Anti-Federalist party led by Jefferson and Madison. Federalists were under constant attack and in those days, before the “gentleman’s press” had come into being, those attacks were vicious and in numerous cases, untrue.
But Hamilton’s own indiscretions hadn’t helped his situation. His affair with Maria Reynolds had been made public in the late 1790s, causing him to offer up a well-intentioned, but ill-advised public apology. Then there was the even more ill-advised attack on President Adams (a fellow Federalist), published in the newspapers shortly before the 1800 election. At this point, he was still hated by Anti-Federalists, but a good number of Federalists were keeping their distance as well.
By 1804, Hamilton was doing very well in his law practice, but struggling mightily for political significance. The upcoming governor’s race in New York provided Hamilton with chance to gain some ground. Aaron Burr (on the right above), the current Vice President, had decided to run for the position. Of course, the feud between Hamilton and Burr needs no introduction around here. Hamilton was incredibly worried that Burr would win, so he drafted a letter to his close friend Rufus King, currently the ambassador to England, asking him to run. Hamilton knew that King might not be able to win the election outright against the firmly entrenched Clinton machine, but maybe he would siphon off enough “Burr” votes to prevent his arch-enemy’s victory.
On the day he wrote the letter, February 23, 1804, Hamilton became the center of attention again, and again, for all the wrong reasons. The “Clinton machine”, led my New York governor George Clinton (another bitter rival of Hamilton’s), began circulating the report that, way back in 1787 (during the time of the Constitutional Convention), Hamilton and John Adams (then the ambassador to England) had negotiated with King George III to create an American monarchy with one of George’s sons as king. In return, England would give up Canada, Nova Scotia, and other land holdings.
The story was utterly false. Yes, both Hamilton and Adams had made statements in the past that, taken on their own, could be seen to favor a monarchical government. But each man’s overall body of work clearly showed that neither, under any circumstance, wanted to return to that form of rule. And having England in control of America in any way, shape, or form, was anathema to both men. But the timing of the story was perfect, as Hamilton was beginning to gain a bit of political traction via his law practice.
Without letting go of his current work, Hamilton began tracing threads to determine the story’s originator. He was a man that, above all else, treasured his own honor. People began to detect the smell of gunpowder in the air and pistols at ten paces.
Hamilton was in the thick of it again. Dates are a bit fuzzy, but I’m going to try put together a proper conclusion to this story on the proper day.
Recommended Reading: Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America – A good composite read on the feud between these two powerful men. It starts a bit slowly for my tastes, but finishes with a flourish.