Sparing the Nation an Unscrupulous Man Exploiting Public Passion to Appropriate Power: 1801 Feb. 17th Alexander Hamilton


The tie vote between Jefferson and Burr in the 1801 Electoral College pointed out glitches with the electoral system. The framers of the Constitution had not expect such a tie nor had they though of the chance of the election of a President or Vice President from opposing factions – which had been the case in the 1796 election.  Congress in 1801 was called upon to break the tie. The House of Representatives didn’t easily arrive at its decision, casting 35 ballots in a week before lastly voting to name Jefferson the victor and Burr the vice president on February 17, 1801.

Alexander Hamilton, the former Secretary of the Treasury, became involved in a crusade to persuade the Federalists to vote for Jefferson, his lesser of three evils, writing in a letter that “Mr. Burr loves nothing but himself — thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement.”

The danger to the new country, Hamilton argued, wasn’t ideological disputes, but the possibility that an unprincipled man would exploit public passions. He called Burr a latter-day Catiline, the ancient Roman senator who attempted a populist uprising against the Republic.

Hamilton was no apologist for Jefferson, whose politics were “tinctured with fanaticism,” and who was “a contemptible hypocrite.” But, Hamilton wrote to Federalist James Bayard of Delaware, Jefferson is not “zealot enough to do anything in pursuance of his principles which will contravene his popularity, or his interest. He is as likely as any man I know to temporize — to calculate what will be likely to promote his own reputation and advantage; and the probable result of such a temper is the preservation of systems, though originally opposed, which being once established, could not be overturned without danger to the person who did it. . . . Add to this that there is no fair reason to suppose him capable of being corrupted, which is a security that he will not go beyond certain limits.”

Some Federalists thought the non-ideological Burr would be more supple. But, Hamilton refuted, a man without theory cannot be “a systematic or able statesman.” Burr is “more cunning than wise . . . inferior in real ability to Jefferson,” Hamilton wrote. “Great Ambition unchecked by principle . . . is an unruly Tyrant.”

The former Treasury secretary cautioned that Burr’s trading in “the floating passions of the multitude” would lead him to “endeavour to disorganize both parties & to form out of them a third composed of men fitted by their characters to be conspirators.”

Hamilton reported that when Burr was told something wasn’t permissible under the American system, Burr replied “les grands ames se soucient peu des petits morceaux” — great souls care little about small things. This led Hamilton to conclude that “Burr would consider a scheme of usurpation as visionary.”

Hamilton issued like caveats in the winter of 1800-1801 to James Ross of Pennsylvania, John Rutledge Jr. of South Carolina, Oliver Wolcott Jr. of Connecticut and Gouverneur Morris of New York. To restrain Burr, Hamilton wrote Morris, would be “to bind a Giant by a cobweb.”

Certainly there was personal hostility between Hamilton and the bankrupt “voluptuary” he called Burr. But underlying Hamilton’s aggressive campaign for Jefferson was a fear that America’s democracy was too fragile to survive Burr’s ambition.

“He is of a temper to undertake the most hazardous enterprises because he is sanguine enough to think nothing impracticable, and of an ambition which will be content with nothing less than permanent power in his own hands,” he wrote Bayard. “The maintenance of the existing institutions will not suit him, because under them his power will be too narrow & too precarious; yet the innovations he may attempt will not offer the substitute of a system durable & safe, calculated to give lasting prosperity, & to unite liberty with strength. It will be the system of the day, sufficient to serve his own turn, & not looking beyond himself.”

“The truth,” Hamilton wrote, “is that under forms of Government like ours, too much is practicable to men who will without scruple avail themselves of the bad passions of human nature.”

Hamilton’s intervention gave the country the successful presidency of Jefferson, sparing the young nation an unscrupulous man exploiting public passion to appropriate power.

Will we be as lucky in 2020?

2 thoughts on “Sparing the Nation an Unscrupulous Man Exploiting Public Passion to Appropriate Power: 1801 Feb. 17th Alexander Hamilton

  1. 2020? Well that is a good question. As a Canadian in Florida for the winter it is a curious spectacle to see this election process, so lengthy and time consuming, playing out here. We have elections that allow a 6 week campaign and that is enough for me. Goog post. I had read Gove Vidal’s book on Burr many years ago but had not seen this side of him. Good post.


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