Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

What If Aaron Burr Had Missed?

Expand Messages
  • greg
    7-05-04: Historians/History http://hnn.us/articles/5944.html What If Aaron Burr Had Missed? By Thomas Fleming Mr. Fleming is the author of DUEL: ALEXANDER
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 4, 2004
      7-05-04: Historians/History
      What If Aaron Burr Had Missed?
      By Thomas Fleming
      Mr. Fleming is the author of DUEL: ALEXANDER HAMILTON, AARON BURR, AND
      THE FUTURE OF AMERICA. The book has been praised as the definitive
      account of the famous duel. Mr. Fleming is a member of the corporate
      board of HNN.

      Let's reel back 200 years to July 11, 1804. Colonel Aaron Burr, the
      vice president of the United States under the banner of what would
      soon be called the Democratic Party, is standing on a grassy ledge on
      the Palisades, opposite New York City, aiming a pistol at General
      Alexander Hamilton, leader of the Federalist Party, forerunner of
      today's Republicans. Hamilton has an identical pistol in his hand.

      Burr killed Hamilton with his first shot. What if he had missed? What
      would have happened?

      We know the immediate answer to that question. Hamilton planned to
      fire in the air, a maneuver in the duelist's code known as a delope.
      William Pitt, the prime minister of England, had used it in a recent
      duel on Hounslow Heath, outside London. Its purpose was to humiliate
      an opponent -- to imply he was not worth shooting.

      What would have happened thereafter? This much is certain. If a
      successful Hamilton delope had been the outcome of the duel, the
      history of the United States -- and the world -- would have been very

      A humiliated Aaron Burr would have become damaged goods in American
      politics. No one would have paid any serious attention to him. When he
      journeyed to Philadelphia to ask the British ambassador for his
      backing to detach the western states from the Union and raise an army
      to conquer Texas and Mexico (which he did within weeks of the duel)
      Mr. Burr would have been blandly dismissed -- instead of secretly

      With Burr sidelined and Hamilton very much alive, the General (the
      title he preferred -- he even listed himself as "General Hamilton" in
      the New York directory for 1804) would have been Thomas Jefferson's
      chief adversary when the president, carried away by his sweeping
      reelection victory in the fall of 1804, attempted a preemptive strike
      on the conservative Supreme Court.

      Jefferson's followers in Congress impeached Associate Justice Samuel
      Chase for making political remarks on the bench and made it clear that
      they intended to do likewise to every other justice on the court
      except one, who belonged to their political party. Hamilton would have
      been Chase's leading defender in the ensuing impeachment trial. He was
      considered the best lawyer in the nation, as well as a superb orator.

      Even without Hamilton, the Senate failed to convict Chase (thanks in
      part to rulings by Vice President Burr). Too many senators recoiled
      from Jefferson's grab for total power. They rejected his claim that
      the will of the people as embodied in the legislature and the
      presidency should have the final say about who sat on the Supreme Court.

      The defeat put a large dent in Jefferson's popularity. Justice Chase
      remarked that if he had been a younger man, he probably could have run
      for president in 1808 and won. Hamilton would have been in a far
      better position to make such a run and might well have defeated
      Jefferson's handpicked successor, the colorless James Madison.

      Historians have been reluctant to admit the full dimensions of
      Jefferson's disastrous second term. He tried to solve the problem of
      French and British attacks on American merchant ships by placing an
      embargo on all the nation's seaborne commerce. Thousands of sailors
      were thrown out of work and businesses collapsed. The New York
      Evening-Post, the newspaper Hamilton had founded, said the embargo was
      like "cutting a man's throat to cure a nosebleed." It is not hard to
      imagine what Hamilton would have called this presidential blunder. He
      would have used it to rally support in New England and the Middle
      States to win the presidency.

      President Hamilton would have immediately cancelled the embargo and
      restored America's merchant fleet to the oceans. He would also have
      begun rebuilding the U.S. Navy, which Jefferson had virtually beached.
      Stern warnings to British men of war to keep hands off American
      merchant ships would have been ignored by arrogant Albion. Hamilton
      would have retaliated, with the same enthusiastic congressional
      support President Madison received in 1812, by invading Canada.

      The operation would not have been the feckless calamity perpetrated by
      Madison, in which hordes of untrained American militia were routed by
      a relative handful of British professionals. President Hamilton would
      have put himself at the head of a well- trained federal army -- and
      easily defeated the small British force, making Canada part of the
      United States. The British, still in their death grapple with
      Napoleon, would have regarded a well-armed America as a formidable
      opponent and made peace. President Hamilton would have won their good
      will with diplomatic concessions such as a most favored nation clause,
      giving them a significant reduction in tariffs on their exports to
      America -- the keystone of the British economy.

      With Britain humbled and Canada acquired, Hamilton would have been
      reelected in a landslide in 1812. He would have paraded through
      Washington D.C. at the head of his magnificent army -- and begun
      making profound changes in the nation. One of his first moves would
      have been a constitutional amendment to break up large states into
      smaller ones, who would be more manageable by the federal government.
      He had discussed this idea with several people before the duel. Its
      goal was the reduction of the power of Virginia, the nation's largest

      If the Virginians resisted, Hamilton would have marched into the state
      and flattened them. In 1794, when restless farmers in western
      Pennsylvania revolted against the federal tax on whiskey, Hamilton had
      persuaded President Washington to do exactly that with an army which
      swiftly reduced them to obedience. In 1799, when he was commanding the
      federal army raised to guard against an invasion during the undeclared
      war with France, he had remarked that his troops might be put to good
      use to "subdue a large and fractious state."

      Next, Hamilton would have solved a problem that was infuriating
      western and southern Americans -- Spanish control of Florida. The
      Spaniards were arming and inciting Indians and fugitive slaves to
      attack isolated frontier settlements in Georgia and Tennessee.
      Hamilton would have used these provocations as an opportunity to
      inform the Spaniards that they had ten minutes to get out of Florida.

      With foreign power cleared from the East Coast, President Hamilton
      would have turned his attention to the West. Like Andrew Jackson of
      Tennessee, who would have become his enthusiastic supporter, Hamilton
      thought in military terms. His next target would have been Texas, to
      guarantee America's control of New Orleans and the mouth of the

      The conquest of Florida and Texas would have been hugely popular with
      the American people. Millions more acres of land were opened to
      cultivation. If the Spanish resisted, Hamilton might well have marched
      his army to Mexico City, calling himself the Mexicans' liberator --
      and setting up a satellite government loyal to him. In the 1790s, when
      he had been George Washington's most influential cabinet member,
      Hamilton had told the secretary of war that Americans should "at least
      squint" at taking Mexico.

      By now people were beginning to realize what Hamilton was becoming --
      the Napoleon Bonaparte of America. He had long admired the French
      soldier. In 1798, Hamilton called him "that unequalled conqueror, in
      whom one would hope to find virtues equal to his shining talents."

      Like Napoleon, President Hamilton now launched a program to prepare
      Americans to participate in the new industrial world that was
      unfolding in England. He set up technical schools in every state to
      train engineers. He persuaded Congress to pass bills providing money
      to build canals and encourage wide use of inventions such as the
      steamboat and the steam engine. He revived his plan to create a
      manufacturing city in Paterson, New Jersey, as a model for other
      states. Huge sums were expended on dams, highways and other federal
      projects, which gave Washington D.C. awesome leverage with local power
      brokers. Thomas Jefferson and other politicians who wanted an agrarian
      American deplored this rush into industrialization -- but they were
      blithely ignored by the majority who were profiting handsomely from
      the Hamiltonian transformation.

      Finally, President Hamilton would have tackled the greatest problem
      America faced: slavery. Hamilton detested the so called "peculiar
      institution." Now, as president and military hero, Hamilton would have
      had the prestige -- and the power -- to push through a constitutional
      amendment, calling for the gradual freeing of Americans in bondage.
      Southerners would have been reassured by Hamilton's plan, which
      extended the emancipation process over twenty five years. This gave
      them time to adjust to a free economy. The ex-slaves would have been
      urged to migrate to land set aside for them in the Far West or in
      Texas. That policy would have reduced the South's fear of a race war.

      There were some worrisome aspects to President Hamilton's reign, as
      Jefferson and other naysayers often pointed out to no avail. The last
      letter Hamilton wrote before the duel warned a fellow Federalist that
      democracy was a "disease" which America had to somehow cure. In
      Hamiltonian America, dissent was barely tolerated. The individual
      states were encouraged to enforce tough libel laws, making newspapers
      tame supporters of the regime. President Hamilton also insisted on
      maximum federal control of all aspects of American life. The
      settlement of the west, the curriculums of public schools and even
      colleges, the regulation of the legal and medical and scientific
      professions, all came under federal supervision. Special attention was
      given to the federal judiciary; all the judges were personally
      selected by President Hamilton and their powers were steadily
      expanded, reducing state courts to virtual nullities.

      The Christian Constitutional Society was another Hamiltonian idea that
      troubled some people. He had proposed it in 1801, after the
      Federalists lost the White House to Jefferson. Its purpose was the
      inculcation of Christian values and the denunciation of those who
      espoused other values or attacked the Constitution. It was organized
      into local clubs, state councils and a national council, consisting of
      a president and twelve members. An enthusiastic Hamilton addressed a
      national convention each year when they met in Washington D.C. Critics
      muttered that Alexander the Great was not satisfied with being
      president. He was also running for pope.

      President Hamilton refused to retire after two terms, like George
      Washington. As he made clear in a speech at the Constitutional
      Conventionn in 1787, Hamilton believed a president should stay in
      office for life -- unless he was defeated at the polls. The result was
      a steady accumulation of personal and family power. Little was said
      publicly about the enormous fortunes Hamilton's sons acquired thanks
      to their federal connections. When they and their children and their
      friends began winning seats in the Senate and in Congress, a semblance
      of an American royal family began to loom on the horizon.

      Hamilton remained in office for twenty two years, dying in the White
      House in 1830. He issued a statement on his deathbed, urging his
      successors to return to George Washington's example, claiming only the
      "necessities" of the nation's situation persuaded him to remain in
      office so long. Some critics whispered that "Alexander the Great"
      never said this -- it was cooked up as a cover for the growing
      dissatisfaction with the "family circle" government that was running
      America. The Hamiltons were astute enough to find willing acolytes who
      ran for president in succeeding years; behind the scenes they remained
      firmly in control.

      Thanks to the Hamiltonian revolution, there was no Civil War. There
      were no 600,000 dead Americans in a conflict that left the South an
      economic desert for a half century. America would have become one of
      the great industrial powers of the world by 1860, challenging
      England's hegemony and reducing her imperial arrogance. The British
      surrendered South America as a U.S. sphere of influence, while
      Washington gave London a free hand in Asia.

      In neither country was anything like a labor movement tolerated much
      less encouraged. Americans were repeatedly told there was no such
      thing as class struggle. Again and again, the White House assured the
      voters that no people ever enjoyed as much material happiness -- which
      was true enough. Only a minority noticed that beneath the surface of
      American life, as the rich got richer and the middle class more
      prosperous, rumbled a potentially ominous discontent. A handful of
      historians, ignoring frowns from Washington and hints of reduced
      government grants, began debating whether it was a good thing that
      Aaron Burr had missed on July 11, 1804.
    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.