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Posts Tagged ‘Aaron Burr’

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.

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Fridays around our office tend to be relaxed affairs.  We wear jeans and tennis shoes and white socks.  Well, those of us that don’t take the day off, which is sometimes about 50% of staff.  We take it easy…maybe a slightly longer lunch period, an extra 15 minutes of Angry Birds, some extra snacks, that second soda we normally deny ourselves.  Believe me, we still work, but it’s definitely a wee bit lighter duty than the other four days of the week.

For the delegates at the Constitutional Convention, the final Friday of their gathering was anything but relaxed.  Of course, I’m referring to September 14, 1787, which was a Friday.  The Committee of Style and Arrangement, tasked with taking the various agreed-upon articles and molding them into a cohesive document, had taken the better part of five days to do its work.  But they got through it and presented their final draft of the Constitution to the delegate body…that was the 12th, a Wednesday.

And then the debate over language and syntax began.  There was word-smithing and a general tightening up of the Constitution’s language.  But there were also some bigger ideas that received some “last-minute” consideration.  This Friday saw some of those.

Benjamin Franklin offered up that Congress should be given the power to build canals.  It seems a bit strange to us that Franklin would ask for something so specific to be added, but if we think ahead to all of the canals that were created in the 1800s, we realize that the old doctor had a bit of foresight.  But concerns over monopolies and a fear that some states would use the canal system as an excuse to establish a bank – and we know that Aaron Burr used a similar tactic to do just that a few years later – killed the idea pretty quickly.

There was a debate over Section 8 of Article 1, which dealt with piracy, but that, too, remained unchanged.

And Section 9, Article 1 also got floor time.  This piece of the Constitution addressed the regularity with which Congress should publish a record of its public expenditures.  As written, it was to be done annually.  But some wondered if that a little too specific.  Maybe more than one report a year would be necessary, while in other years, none would be required.  As we know, in today’s world of trillion-dollar debts and exorbitant waste, once a year isn’t nearly enough.  At end of the discussion, the delegates settled on the phrase, “shall be published from time to time.”

And that was that.  As we know, Saturday would also be a day of work, as the final changes and discussions were ironed out and the Convention came to an end.  Monday, September 17th, would see the Constitution ratified.

Recommended Reading: Miracle at Philadelphia

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Back in February, we looked at Aaron Burr’s collaboration with Alexander Hamilton to form the Manhattan Company.  This privately held entity would take on the task of bringing fresh water to the residents of New York City.  It was believed that fouled water was to blame for the devastating outbreaks of yellow fever, which was partially true, especially if you factored in the myriads of mosquitoes that lived there and actually spread the disease.  If you want, you can go back and read it for some background.

The need was great, the solution seemed reasonable, and Hamilton (a man often at odds with the ambitious Burr) had given a splendid presentation.  Milton Lomask, in the first book of his two-volume biography of Aaron Burr, went so far as to say that “…no member of the committee of six worked harder to make possible Aaron Burr’s upcoming triumph in the New York legislature.”

But Aaron Burr was lying to everyone about the Manhattan Company.  Burr cared nothing about water, nor about piping it to residents of New York City (or any other city for the matter), nor about combating yellow fever.

Aaron Burr wanted a bank.

As the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton had pushed for the first National Bank way back in 1790.  It was a very controversial move with no shortage of detractors.  But the bank had been approved in early 1791 with a 20-year charter.  If you recall, over-speculation in the bank’s stock had led to the first “stock market crash” late that summer.

But that was 1791, and time had passed.  President John Adams was now struggling through his first term, and Hamilton had long since stepped down as Treasury Secretary.

The banks, however, were still around, and as they were products of Hamiltonian thinking, they were predominantly controlled by Federalists.  Both the Bank of New York and the local branch of the Bank of the United States (the lone banks in New York City) were greatly disliked by Republican businessmen, who believed they were discriminated against when it came to lending.  And while there seems to be precious little evidence that such exclusions persisted, the perception was clearly there.

Alexander Hamilton opposed the idea of state banks, but not simply because they weren’t a Federalist idea.  With his keen financial sense, he realized that local banks would become competitive for clients and, in their zeal for the most business, would dilute credit and resort to suspect lending practices to gain more accounts.  This could ultimately lead to a melt-down of the financial system…doesn’t this sound vaguely familiar 210 years later?

Anyways, when the New York legislators saw the final bill, they failed to notice that Burr had removed all language dealing with reparing streets damaged by laying pipes and providing water for fire protection.

The Manhattan Company had become a front company.  In place of the removed text, Burr added the proviso “that it shall and may be lawful for the said company to employ all such surplus capital as may belong or accrue to the said company in the purchase of public or other stock or in any other monied transactions of operations.”

Ron Chernow (who’s probably going to demand royalties for as many times as I’ve quoted him, but his biography of Hamilton is that good) writes, “The ‘surplus capital’ loophole would allow Burr to use the Manhattan Company as a bank or any other kind of financial institution.”

And on April 2, 1799, New York Governor John Jay unwittingly signed into law the creation of a bank able to compete with the Bank of the United States.

Aaron Burr had pulled off “the perfect crime”, and had done so in brilliant fashion.  He manipulated his brother-in-law’s idea about bad water, used Alexander Hamilton as his mouthpiece, and duped New York’s legislature and governor.

Hamilton, of course, was furious.  Calling Burr on his hypocrisy, he said, “I have been present when he has contended against banking systems with earnestness and with the same arguments that Jefferson would use…Yet he has lately by a trick established a bank, a perfect monster in its principles, but a very convenient instrument of profit and influence.”

But anger wasn’t limited to the Federalists alone.  The general public was aghast at Burr’s lies and, as he was up for re-election in the Assembly, they shunned him at the ballot box.  Even some Republicans, who may have admired his cheek and cunning, disapproved of the subterfuge and deception he perpetrated on them as fellow legislators.  And what of Dr. Joseph Browne, Burr’s brother-in-law?…the doctor who desperately wanted to help fight yellow fever?  He wrote to Burr, “I expect and hope that enough will be done to satisfy the public and particularly the legislature that the institution is not a speculating job.”  He would hope in vain as, by the time the company went public, all pretense to a water company had been dropped completely.

The summer of 1799 would see yellow fever rage through New York, and impure water being given to sick residents.

It’s little wonder that, less than two years later, when Jefferson and Burr were deadlocked in the Presidential election, Hamilton unabashedly wrote, “As to Burr, there is nothing in his favour…He is bankrupt beyond redemption, except by the plunder of his country.”

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton

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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.

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America’s first two elections were basically uncontested.  Everyone knew George Washington would be elected to the top post, and his 100% tally in both Electoral College votes bore that out.  The election of 1796, won by John Adams, was the first election that showed just how divided a country, recently united by Revolution and victory, could become.  It also gave us some insight into the power of a muck-raking press not conditioned to the niceties of 21st-century subtlety.

Which brings us to the election of 1800, which may have been the most dramatic in the country’s history.  There was little doubt who wasn’t going to win.  President John Adams had been demonized by the Anti-Federalist Party and marginalized by his own Federalist Party.  The threat of open war with France had split the powers in government into two camps.  The Anti-Federalists, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, wanted peace with France…the Federalists, war.

President Adams’ envoys to France brokered peace, but the “slow boat to America” brought news of the treaty too late to act as the catalyst that almost surely would have garnered Adams another term.  So it came down to Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr.  Everyone knew the election would end in an Electoral College tie, and that was verified when the ballots were opened on February 11th, 1801.  The vote would go to the House of Representatives, a chamber dominated by Federalists, which spelled doom for Jefferson.

But not so fast.

Aaron Burr was a pretty unpopular fellow amongst those in power.  And one of his biggest rivals was Alexander Hamilton.  The two had engaged in an on-again-off-again cycle of trust, distrust, collaboration, and outright hatred that boggles the senses.  Hamilton saw Burr as a two-faced hypocrite, who swapped allegiances and ideologies to suit whatever constituency gave him the most power.  He (correctly) saw Burr as a man of exceeding ambition who, if he couldn’t gain power by rightful election, was capable of using any means necessary.

Burr, for his part, was initially gracious about the tie, stating that “It is highly improbable that I shall have an equal number of votes with Mr. Jefferson, but if such should be the result, every man who knows me ought to know that I should utterly disclaim all competition.”  Some Federalists were inclined to favor the ever-ambitious Burr over Jefferson.

Alexander Hamilton was horrified. He and Thomas Jefferson had also been bitter rivals for years, but in this case, Burr was the bigger evil, as we’ll begin to unravel in a few days.  As always, he let his pen do the talking, writing to Congressional Federalists that “As to Burr, there is nothing in his favour…He is bankrupt beyond redemption, except by the plunder of his country.  His pubilc principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandizement…If he can, he will certainly disturb our institutions to secure to himself permanent power…”

The irony here is startling…Hamilton defending Jefferson by saying of Burr the same things Jefferson said of Hamilton…read that carefully.  President John Adams, relegated to spectator status in this and a recipient of Hamilton’s ire just prior to the election, laughed at the situation.  “The very man – the very two men – of all the world that he was most jealous of are now placed above him.”

Thirty-five ballots were cast in the House over a week’s time.  And thirty-five times the deadlock remained.  The politiking in the House grew as electors looked for any leeway that could break the deadlock.  That leeway came to Delaware’s James Bayard.  Possibly influenced by Hamilton’s constant letters to Congress, this anti-Jefferson Federalist met with Jefferson supporters and set forth a few requirements which, if promised by Jefferson, could likely win Bayard’s vote.

What Bayard heard in response must have been enough, because the thirty-sixth vote, taken on February 17, 1801, saw Bayard cast a blank ballot, removing Delaware from Burr’s column.  Thomas Jefferson had a new title…President of the United States.

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton

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Two ambitious men.  Two loaded pistols.  Two witnesses.  If you would have been on the west bank of the Hudson River near Weehawken, New Jersey on the afternoon of July 11, 1804, that’s what you would have seen.

Holding one pistol was Aaron Burr, the Vice President of the United States, serving with President Thomas Jefferson.  Standing opposite Burr was Alexander Hamilton, the former first Treasury Secretary of the United States and master of political intrigue.  There is little doubt that these two men hated each other.  In the culture of the times, it was probably couched in more refined terms, but the hatred was still there.

For Burr, his dislike of Hamilton had mostly to do with Hamilton’s political machinations.  The face of the 10-dollar bill used his pull to try and get John Adams defeated in the 1796 Presidential election.  It failed, to the loss of Aaron Burr, who had been chosen by Thomas Jefferson (Adams’ opponent) as a Vice Presidential candidate.  Adams became the President, Jefferson the Vice President and Burr, the…nothing.

Then in 1800, Hamilton again exerted his powerful influence, this time successfully, to get Adams defeated, but the result left Jefferson and Burr tied in votes.  In the 37th House vote, Hamilton sided with Jefferson, and again Burr, hungry for power, was foiled.

Fast forward to 1804, and Jefferson was again nominated as a Presidential candidate, but decided that Aaron Burr would not be his running mate.  So Burr chose to run for the governorship of New York, but lost that election as well, due in large part, once again, to Alexander Hamilton.  Small wonder that Burr felt the way he did.

Hamilton’s dislike of Burr was likely rooted in his own indiscretion.  Hamilton was found out in a torrid affair with a married woman, and rumors of it were circulated, most likely by Burr and James Monroe.  Hamilton was forced to confess the affair publicly and to resign his position as Treasury Secretary, which badly tarnished his reputation.

No doubt, as these men faced off, all these things were running through their minds.  And while the animosity gave each man the desire as much as the pistols provided the method, Hamilton had already made the decision not to shoot at Aaron…Burr had not.  So when the guns discharged, Hamilton’s shot went high.  Burr’s shot went true, piercing his foe’s abdomen and lodging in his spine.

Alexander Hamilton, on the same field where his son had died in a duel 3 years before, fell mortally wounded, and succumbed to his injuries the next day.  Though dueling was illegal in New Jersey, Burr was never tried and, in fact, completed his term as Vice President.

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton – An outstanding book!!

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