By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College
Alexander Hamilton would have preferred the devil to Thomas Jefferson as president, and he didn’t hesitate to lay out suggestive snares in Aaron Burr’s path, that Federalists in the House might be willing to unload their votes on him. He didn’t openly campaign against Jefferson, but he allowed his allies to seduce Republican congressmen to vote for Burr.
The Struggle Between Burr and Jefferson for Presidency
Jefferson easily outscored John Adams in the Electoral College, 73 to 65. But Burr, running on Jefferson’s coattails, had also tallied 73 electoral votes, and this meant that, by the terms of Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution, the House of Representatives would have to sort out “by Ballot one of them for President”, based on a majority of states voting as entire delegations.
Jefferson wrote uneasily to Burr on December 15, 1800, to suggest that this was simply an oversight. “Decency required that I should be so entirely passive during the late contest that I never once asked whether arrangements had been made to prevent” a tie vote by Republican electors.
That turned out to be an oversight of near-fatal proportions. When the House of Representatives convened on February 11, 1801, 19 successive ballots were cast without a clear majority before an exhausting house finally recessed after midnight.
Three more ballots followed over the next two days. After seven days of haggling, with Burr’s “agents here at work with great activity, there at work”, and a total of 36 ballots being cast, finally, James Bayard, a Federalist and the lone representative of Delaware, withheld his vote from the tally, and the election was finally over. Jefferson was president.
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When Burr’s Career Ended as a Public Man
But Burr said Bayard “had completely forfeited the confidence and friendship of his party”. He enraged them still further by obstructing Jefferson’s replacement Judiciary Act in 1802, and in return, Burr’s allies were coldly denied offices in the new administration. By the time Jefferson was ready for his second presidential campaign, he was anxious to be rid of Burr, and in January 1804, called him to the Executive Mansion to tell him as much.
“There never had been any intimacy between us, but little association,” Jefferson wrote afterward. And the congressional Republican caucus, which met on February 25 to re-nominate Jefferson, did not give a single vote in favor of Burr continuing as vice-president. This ended Aaron Burr’s career as a public man, but not his ambitions or his thirst for revenge, which now came together to form the raciest chapter in his history.
Learn more about Aaron Burr’s treason.
Duel Between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton
Burr struck first at his New York nemesis, Alexander Hamilton. Denied the vice-presidency by Jefferson, he took part in a competition for the governorship of New York in the spring of 1804. He lost, and he blamed Hamilton for it. Sending Hamilton a letter which claimed that Hamilton had defamed him during the campaign, Burr demanded “a prompt and unqualified acknowledgment or denial of the use of any” defamatory “expressions”.
Hamilton refused to reply, and on the grounds that “political opposition can never absolve gentlemen from the necessity of a rigid adherence to the laws of honor”, Burr formally challenged him to a duel. Hamilton seems scarcely to have been able to credit Burr’s insolence, especially since Hamilton’s own son, Philip, had been killed in a duel only three years earlier.
They met on July 11, 1804, on the bluffs overlooking the Hudson River at Weehawken. Hamilton, as he had announced in advance, fired his pistol into the air; Burr, however, took deliberate aim and hit Hamilton in the right hip, penetrating the liver and striking the spine. Alexander Hamilton died at 2 o’clock the next afternoon.
Learn more about Alexander Hamilton’s views about the American Republic.
What Happened After Hamilton’s Assassination
Burr was denounced as an “assassin”, and he complained that “all our intemperate and unprincipled Jacobins who have been for Years reviling” Hamilton “as a disgrace to the Country and a pest to Society” are now “the most Vehement in his praise”. Even John Adams, who had no reason to love Hamilton, grunted that “no one wished to get rid of Hamilton in that way”.
Burr was indicted for murder in August but he prudently slipped out of New York before he could be arrested, heading for parts southward. The duel had taken place on the New Jersey side of the Hudson, but the New Jersey authorities were unwilling to press charges over what they considered a New York affair.
And with astonishing brass even for Burr, this lame-duck vice president showed up for the lame-duck session of the Eighth Congress in Washington and presided over the impeachment trial of Samuel Chase as though nothing remarkable had happened.
He dared to give a farewell speech in the Senate on March 2, 1805, and then, in April, Burr set off overland to Pittsburgh, down Ohio and the Mississippi, to arrive 67 days later on the levee in New Orleans.
Common Questions about Aaron Burr’s Thirst for Revenge against Alexander Hamilton
Burr refused to run for vice president and instead ran for governor of New York in 1804. But he lost and blamed Alexander Hamilton for his loss. Burr then challenged Hamilton to a duel.
Alexander Hamilton met Aaron Burr on July 11, 1804, in the cliffs facing the Hudson River. Hamilton fired his pistol into the air, as previously announced. But Aaron Burr targeted Hamilton and shot him in the right hip. Hamilton died the day after the duel.
Aaron Burr was convicted of murder after the duel. Most people blamed him for Alexander Hamilton‘s murder. Burr was charged with murder in August but managed to leave New York and head south before being arrested.