The other day, we looked at the close shave that was the 1800 Presidential election. Both Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr received an equal number of Electoral College votes. This cast the election into the House, where it took 36 ballots (and a week) to determine a winner.
In the midst of that, we saw some intense campaigning by Alexander Hamilton (shown on the left, a Federalist) against Aaron Burr (shown on the right, also a Federalist) and for Thomas Jefferson (an Anti-Federalist), one of his biggest rivals.
Over the years, much has been made of the animosity between Hamilton and Burr, a dislike that would eventually lead to gun-play and Hamilton’s untimely death. But they weren’t always sworn enemies. While their ideologies and passions were largely opposed to each other, they still found common ground on occasion.
As they did in 1799, when they worked on a project together.
The summer of 1798 had seen a terrible epidemic of yellow fever decimate New York. Mosquitoes, given a perfect breeding ground in the stagnant swamps and pools, spread the disease with a speed that killed upwards of 50 people a day. Burr’s brother-in-law, Dr. Joseph Browne, theorized that contaminated well water was causing the outbreaks.
Browne consulted with Burr, and came up with a plan to pull fresh water from the Bronx River. The plan, submitted to the Common Council for consideration, involved the creation of a private water corporation that would be responsible for piping the water that would not only alleviate the yellow fever, but also help fight fires and provide improved sanitation.
The Council liked the idea, but suggested that a public company be formed to run the business. So Burr went to work, building a bipartisan coalition of six supporters – three Republicans (as the Anti-Federalists were coming to be called) and three Federalists – to back the proposal of a private water company.
One of those Federalists was Alexander Hamilton. As a survivor of yellow fever, he had immediate sympathy for the idea. Furthermore, his wife’s sister (Angelica Church) had a husband (John Church) who had recently returned from England and needed something to do. He would do well as a director of the Manhattan Company (and the water project came to be known).
On February 22, 1799, Burr and Hamilton entered the office of Mayor Richard Varick and, together, pitched the Manhattan Company’s case to the mayor and the Council. The Council, persuaded by Hamilton’s impressive presentation, sent the proposal to the state legislature, where it would easily pass in March and be signed into law by Governor John Jay in early April.
At that point, the truth about the Manhattan Company would come to light, and what little relationship Hamilton had with Burr would be destroyed by the deception, subterfuge, and lies perpetrated by Burr. From this point on, ideological disagreement turned to outright hostility. Both men were now walking the road to Weehawken.
But what was so devious about something as beneficial as a water company? We’ll answer that question on April 2nd.