What If Aaron Burr Had Missed?
- 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.