Monday, October 22, 2012

"Join or Die"

            In 1800, Americans confronted a unique dilemma.  The heated competition between Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists and Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans had reached a new height in the State of New York.  Under Aaron Burr’s cunning manipulations, the Republican Party in New York underwent extreme changes to the surprise of many Federalists.  Historian Susan Dunn notes that despite the fact that Burr was involved with the Republicans, he “left little evidence of his political convictions or principles.”[1]  Suffice it to say that by the time Burr had worked his “magic” in New York, the results were astounding:  Republicans were far ahead of their Federalist rivals. 
            Burr’s hard work paid off and he became Jefferson’s running mate in the election of 1800, but this did not stop his adversary Hamilton from working diligently to find a way to block Burr’s machinations.  In a letter written to John Jay, Hamilton urgently requested:
 I shall not be supposed to mean that anything ought to be done which integrity will forbid---but merely that the scruples of delicacy and propriety, as relative to a common course of things, ought to yield to the extraordinary nature of the crisis…The reasonable    part of the world will I believe approve it.  They will see it as a proceeding out of the common course but warranted by the particular nature of the Crisis and the great cause of social order.[2]        
Unfortunately, for the Federalists it was too late to change the outcome of the election.  The Republicans had a decided victory over the Federalists with Jefferson and Burr leading the way.  Jefferson took it upon himself to mark Burr as the Vice President by writing a congratulatory note to him in December of 1800.  In this letter, Jefferson promised Burr a position of authority upon his inauguration.[3]   Burr, at the time at least, seemed grateful and willing to oblige with Jefferson’s plans.  While the clash between the two parties was complete, anxieties over the Jefferson/Burr ticket were just becoming clear.  It was obvious that both men had won with equal electoral votes but only one could become the President.  More importantly, according to the Constitution, the House of Representatives would break the tie and select the next President of the United States.
            The Federalists, always afraid of Jefferson’s plans, frantically tried to garner support for Burr in an effort to offset his opponent’s possible win.  Hamilton abhorred the idea of any party supporting Burr and stated disgustedly, “that if the Party Shall by supporting Mr Burr as President adopt him for their official Chief---I shall be obliged to consider myself as an isolated man.”[4]  Hamilton argued that although he felt Jefferson was “crafty” and a shameless “hypocrite,” he was not “an enemy to the power of the Executive” or “capable of being corrupted.”[5]  Both Hamilton and Jefferson understood Burr’s personality very well.  Burr was notoriously selfish and only had his own best interests at heart.  Historian Gordon Wood notes that to both men Burr “violated everything they had thought the American Revolution had been about.”[6]
            By 1800-1801, Hamilton had suffered personal heartache to last a lifetime.  The death of his eldest and most beloved son, Philip Hamilton, in a duel had rendered him a broken man.  Furthermore, after the exposure of the “Reynolds Affair” in 1797, his political life had taken a battering and suffered gravely as well.  Yet, in a way only Hamilton could, he worked energetically to bring the Federalists together and stressed that, “If there be a man in the world I ought to hate it is Jefferson.  With Burr I have always been personally well.  But the public good must be paramount to every private consideration.”[7] 
            On February 17, 1801, Thomas Jefferson became the third President of the United States of America.  On March 4, 1801, in one of the most riveting speeches in our nation’s history, Jefferson declared:
But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.  If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.[8]
Clearly, by combining their efforts and joining hands with each other, Jefferson and Hamilton, indeed the Federalists and the Republicans, unified the nation and uplifted the objective of the American Revolution in one clean sweep. 
            As we head to the poll booth this election year, it would do us all good to remember the sentiments behind the American Revolution.  Today, as it was in the election of 1800, the mayhem of party politics remains present.  The question we must ask ourselves then is not which Party to vote for, but which candidate best preserves the true meaning behind the beliefs of “We the People.”  As with Hamilton and Jefferson, perhaps it is time that we “join or die” for those principles which celebrate our fundamental beliefs, for in the end we are all Republicans, we are all Democrats, we are all Tea Partiers, we are all Libertarians, and indeed we are all Americans.              

[1] Susan Dunn, Jefferson’s Second Revolution:  The Election Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism (Boston:  New York, 2004), 179.

[2] Alexander Hamilton, “An Electoral Stratagem,” in Hamilton Writings, ed. Joanne B. Freeman (New York:  Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2001), 923-924.

[3] Thomas Jefferson, “The Anas. 1791-1806 Selections,“ in Jefferson:  Autobiography, Notes on the State of Virginia, Public and Private Papers, Addresses, Letters, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York:  Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1984), 692.

[4] Alexander Hamilton, “Burr Has ‘No Fixed Theory’ To James A. Bayard,” Hamilton Writings, 977.

[5] Ibid., 978.

[6] Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty:  A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2009), 284.

[7] Alexander Hamilton, “Jefferson Over Burr to Gouverneur Morris,” Hamilton Writings, 972.

[8] The Avalon Project, “Thomas Jefferson First Inaugural Address,”, last modified 2008,

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