Alexander Hamilton, the West Indian upstart central to America’s founding, found himself out of power with the election of John Adams in 1797 as the second U.S. President. The rivalry of the two men would lead to the self-destruction of the Federalists and a generation of Jeffersonian Republicans occupying the presidency. Adams resented Hamilton’s influence over the Federalists, and the perception of Hamilton’s interference in the policies of his administration. For his part, Adams created friction within the Federalists through his detached and arrogant manner. Ron Chernow describes Hamilton’s descent in detail.
real patriots and fake news
Chernow describes one of the most fascinating aspects of the political combat of the time: the widespread use of fake news, particularly to attack Hamilton as a corrupt aristocrat scheming to install a monarchy in the United States. Thomas Jefferson, even as Secretary of State under George Washington while Hamilton served as Secretary of Treasury, funded through government money a newspaper to disparage Hamilton with outlandish insults and conspiracies.
Not one to shy from challenge, Hamilton expended a significant amount of effort to dispel these assaults, writing extensively in the papers about his conduct and that of his opposition. He faced accusations about his birthplace, his behavior during the Revolutionary War (where he served as General Washington’s aide, essential to the organization and performance of the Continental Army), and the laying of the foundation of the American System as a means to enrich himself. How he managed this combined with his official duties is a wonder; Chernow notes Hamilton’s unparalleled industriousness throughout the book. Although Hamilton had his vices, pride being chief among them, he never wavered from his commitment to the country’s success. By the time he neared his untimely death, he had significant debt (though not bankrupt) and was generally cash poor. He relied on his income from his private practice as a lawyer.
While out of power, Hamilton continued to influence the direction of the Federalists, despite the intense and personal battle with Jefferson and James Madison. This brought him into direct conflict with Adams first, and finally Aaron Burr. The enmity between Adams and Hamilton resulted in the latter’s eventual political isolation, as he passionately waged war against Adams no matter the political cost. Whatever Hamilton’s faults, he always fought on principle.
The fate of the duel
Hamilton never trusted Burr, and opposed the latter’s attempt to run on the Federalist ticket for President. Hamilton preferred his long-time rival Jefferson than his own party’s Burr because of Burr’s reputation as a manipulative self-interested politician. Burr went so far as to undermine the Federalist’s power in New York to ingratiate himself with the Jeffersonians, resulting his election as Vice President under Jefferson himself.
By 1804, both men had recognized the end of their political careers approached. Hamilton had been alienated from the Federalists because of his rivalry with Adams, while Burr recognized that both Federalists and Jeffersonians had a strong distaste for him. Expecting to be dropped during the upcoming presidential election, Burr engineered a duel with Hamilton in the hopes of restoring his honor by claiming to be an aggrieved party by one of Hamilton’s alleged insults.
Hamilton entered into this fateful dance – with all the negotiations and pomp and circumstance of setting up the duel – with some malaise. He maintained his faith with the ritual despite the recent death of his oldest son to a recent duel. Chernow speculates that Hamilton intended to intentionally misfire to demonstrate his high character and turn Burr’s ploy against him.
Whatever the intentions, Burr’s shot mortally wounded Hamilton, who died the next day. Although essential to the Revolutionary War’s outcome and the design and implementation of the Constitution, Hamilton’s death left his legacy largely in the hands of his rivals, who expressed no sadness over the loss.
But in credit to his undertaken and his integrity, his wife Eliza advocated his cause for another 50 years, while the country he helped establish would become the world’s leader in democratic governance, wealth, technology, and education.