History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson/First/II:8

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Chapter 8: Conspiracy[edit]

AS the year 1804 began, with Louisiana annexed, the Electoral Amendment secured, and the impeachments in prospect, the Federalists in Congress wrought themselves into a dangerous state of excitement. All agreed that the crisis was at hand; democracy had nearly reached its limit; and, as Justice Chase said from the bench, peace and order, freedom and property, would soon be destroyed. They discussed in private what should be done; and among the New Englanders almost all the men of weight were found to favor the policy of at least saving New England. Of the six Federalist senators from the Eastern States,—Plumer and Olcott of New Hampshire, Pickering and Adams of Massachusetts, Tracy and Hillhouse of Connecticut,—all but Olcott and Adams thought a dissolution of the Union inevitable.[1] Among the Federalist members of the House, Roger Griswold of Connecticut was the most active; he too was convinced that New England must protect herself. Samuel Hunt of New Hampshire, and Calvin Goddard of Connecticut held the same opinion. Indeed, Pickering declared that he did not know "one reflecting Nov-Anglian" who held any other.

In the month of January, 1804, despair turned into conspiracy. Pickering, Tracy, Griswold, Plumer, and perhaps others of the New England delegation, agreed to organize a movement in their States for a dissolution of the Union. They wrote to their most influential constituents, and sketched a plan of action. In a letter to George Cabot, Pickering recounted the impending dangers[2]:—

"By the Philadelphia papers I see that the Supreme Court judges of Pennsylvania are to be hurled from their seats, on the pretence that in punishing one Thomas Passmore for a contempt they acted illegally and tyrannically. I presume that Shippen, Yates, and Smith are to be removed by the Governor, on the representation of the Legislature. And when such grounds are taken in the National and State legislatures to destroy the rights of the judges, whose rights can be safe? Why destroy them, unless as the prelude to the destruction of every influential Federalist and of every man of considerable property who is not of the reigning sect? New judges, of characters and tempers suited to the object, will be the selected ministers of vengeance."

A separation, Pickering inferred, had become necessary; but when and how was it to be effected?

"If Federalism is crumbling away in New England, there is no time to be lost, lest it should be overwhelmed and become unable to attempt its own relief; its last refuge is New England, and immediate exertion perhaps its only hope. It must begin in Massachusetts. The proposition would be welcomed in Connecticut; and could we doubt of New Hampshire? But New York must be associated; and how is her concurrence to be obtained? She must be made the centre of the confederacy. Vermont and New Jersey would follow of course, and Rhode Island of necessity. Who can be consulted, and who will take the lead? The legislatures of Massachusetts and Connecticut meet in May, and of New Hampshire in the same month, or June. The subject has engaged the contemplation of many. The Connecticut gentlemen have seriously meditated upon it. . . . Tracy has written to several of his most distinguished friends in Connecticut, and may soon receive their answers. R. Griswold, examining the finances, has found that the States above mentioned, to be embraced by the Northern confederacy, now pay as much or more of the public revenues as would discharge their share of the public debts due those States and abroad, leaving out the millions given for Louisiana."

Roger Griswold wrote a few weeks afterward to Oliver Wolcott in similar terms:[3]

"The project which we had formed was to induce, if possible, the legislatures of the three New England States who remain Federal to commence measures which should call for a reunion of the Northern States. The extent of those measures, and the rapidity with which they shall be followed up, must be governed by circumstances. The magnitude and jealousy of Massachusetts would render it necessary that the operation should be commenced there. If any hope can be created that New York will ultimately support the plan, it may perhaps be supported."

The first action, said he, must come from the Legislature of Massachusetts, which was not yet elected, but would meet early in June. Connecticut and New Hampshire were to follow; and to Pickering's sanguine mind the Northern Confederacy seemed already established. "The people of the East," he said, "cannot reconcile their habits, views, and interests with those of the South and West. The latter are beginning to rule with a rod of iron."

Pickering knew that the Federalist majority in Massachusetts was none too great. The election in May, four months later, showed a Federalist vote of 30,000 against a Republican minority of 24,000, while in the Legislature Harrison Gray Otis was chosen Speaker by 129 votes to 103. Pickering knew also that his colleague, Senator Adams, was watching his movements with increasing ill-will, which Pickering lost no chance to exasperate. Nothing could be more certain than that at the first suggestion of disunion Senator Adams and the moderate Federalists would attack the Essex Junto with the bitterness of long-suppressed hatred; and if they could not command fourteen votes in the Legislature and three thousand in the State, a great change must have occurred since the year before, when they elected Adams to the Senate for the long term over Pickering's head. Pickering concealed his doings from his colleague; but Tracy was not so cautious. Adams learned the secret from Tracy; and the two senators from Massachusetts drew farther and farther apart, in spite of the impeachments, which tended to force them together.

The Essex Junto, which sent Pickering to Washington, and to which he appealed for support, read his letter with evident astonishment. George Cabot, Chief-Justice Parsons, Fisher Ames, and Stephen Higginson, who were the leaders consulted,[4] agreed that the scheme was impracticable; and Cabot, as gently as possible, put their common decision into words.

"All the evils you describe," he said,[5] "and many more, are to be apprehended; but I greatly fear that a separation would be no remedy, because the source of them is in the political theories of our country and in ourselves. A separation at some period not very remote may probably take place,—the first impression of it is even now favorably received by many; but I cannot flatter myself with the expectation of essential good to proceed from it while we retain maxims and principles which all experience, and I may add reason too, pronounce to be impracticable and absurd. Even in New England, where there is among the body of the people more wisdom and virtue than in any other part of the United States, we are full of errors which no reasoning could eradicate if there were a Lycurgus in every village. We are democratic altogether; and I hold democracy in its natural operation to be the government of the worst.
"There is no energy in the Federal party, and there could be none manifested without great hazard of losing the State government. Some of our best men in high stations are kept in office because they forbear to exert any influence, and not because they possess right principles. They are permitted to have power if they will not use it. . . . I incline to the opinion that the essential alterations which may in future be made to amend our form of government will be the consequences only of great suffering or the immediate effects of violence. If we should be made to feel a very great calamity from the abuse of power by the National Administration, we might do almost anything; but it would be idle to talk to the deaf, to warn the people of distant evils. By this time you will suppose I am willing to do nothing but submit to fate. I would not be so understood. I am convinced we cannot do what is wished; but we can do much, if we work with Nature (or the course of things), and not against her. A separation is now impracticable, because we do not feel the necessity or utility of it. The same separation then will be unavoidable when our loyalty to the Union is generally perceived to be the instrument of debasement and impoverishment. If it is prematurely attempted, those few only will promote it who discern what is hidden from the multitude."

Cabot's letter, more clearly than any writing of Alexander Hamilton himself, expressed the philosophy and marked the tactics of their school. Neither Cabot nor Hamilton was a lively writer, and the dust which has gathered deep on their doctrines dulls whatever brilliancy they once possessed; but this letter showed why Cabot was considered the wisest head in his party, to whose rebuke even Hamilton was forced to bow. For patient and willing students who have groped in search of the idea which, used by Hamilton and Jefferson, caused bitterer feeling and roused deeper terrors than civil war itself, Cabot's long and perhaps pedantic letter on the policy of disunion was full of meaning. "We shall go the way of all governments wholly popular,—from bad to worse,—until the evils, no longer tolerable, shall generate their own remedies." Democracy must end in a crisis, experience and reason pronounced it impracticable and absurd, Nature would in due time vindicate her own laws; and when the inevitable chaos should come, then conservative statesmanship could set society on a sound footing by limiting the suffrage to those citizens who might hold in their own right two thousand dollars value in land. Meanwhile disunion would be useless, and the attempt to bring it about would break up the Federalist party. "A war with Great Britain manifestly provoked by our rulers" was the only chance which Cabot foresaw of bringing the people of New England to a dissolution of the Union.

Pickering was not so intelligent as Cabot, Parsons, and Ames; his temper was harsher than theirs; he was impatient of control, and never forgot or wholly forgave those who forced him to follow another course than the one he chose. Cabot's letter showed a sense of these traits; for though it was in the nature of a command or entreaty to cease discussing disunion, if the Federalist party in Massachusetts were to be saved, it was couched in gentle language, and without affecting a tone of advice suggest ideas which ought to guide Federalists in Congress. Pickering was to wait for the crisis. Inaction was easy; and even though the crisis should be delayed five or ten years,—a case hardly to be supposed,—no step could be taken without a blunder before the public should be ready for it. With this simple and sound principle to guide them, conservatives could not go wrong. Cabot there left the matter.

Such gentleness toward a man of Pickering's temper was a mistake, which helped to cost the life of one whom conservatives regarded as their future leader in the crisis. Pickering was restive under the sense that his friends preferred other counsellors; whereas his experience and high offices, to say nothing of his ability, entitled him, as he thought, to greater weight in the party than Hamilton, Cabot, or Rufus King. Backed by Tracy, Griswold, and other men of standing, Pickering felt able to cope with opposition. His rough sense and democratic instincts warned him that the fine-drawn political theories of George Cabot and Theophilus Parsons might end in impotence. He could see no reason why Massachusetts, once corrupted, might not wallow in democratic iniquities with as much pleasure as New York or Pennsylvania; and all that was worth saving might be lost before her democracy would consent to eat the husks of repentance and ask forgiveness from the wise and good. Cabot wanted to wait a few months or years until democracy should work out its own fate; and whenever the public should yearn for repose, America would find her Pitt and Bonaparte combined in the political grasp and military genius of Alexander Hamilton. Pickering, as a practical politician, felt that if democracy were suffered to pull down the hierarchy of New England, neither disunion nor foreign war, nor "a very great calamity" of any kind, could with certainty restore what had once been destroyed.

Cabot's argument shook none of Pickering's convictions; but the practical difficulty on which the home Junto relied was fatal unless some way of removing it could be invented. During the month of February, 1804, when the impeachment panic was at its height in Congress, Pickering, Tracy, and Plumer received letter after letter from New England, all telling the same story. The eminent Judge Tapping Reeve, of Connecticut, wrote to Tracy:[6] "I have seen many of our friends; and all that I have seen and most that I have heard from believe that we must separate, and that this is the most favorable moment." He had heard only one objection,—that the country was not prepared; but this objection, which meant that the disunionists were a minority, was echoed from all New England. The conspirators dared not openly discuss the project. "There are few among my acquaintance," wrote Pickering's nephew, Theodore Lyman,[7] "with whom I could on that subject freely converse; there may be more ready than I am aware of." Plumer found a great majority of the New Hampshire Federalists decidedly opposed. Roger Griswold, toward the end of the session, summed up the result in his letter to Oliver Wolcott:—

"We have endeavored during this session to rouse our friends in New England to make some bold exertions in that quarter. They generally tell us that they are sensible of the danger, that the Northern States must unite; but they think the time has not yet arrived. Prudence is undoubtedly necessary; but when it degenerates into procrastination it becomes fatal. Whilst we are waiting for the time to arrive in New England, it is certain the democracy is making daily inroads upon us, and our means of resistance are lessening every day. Yet it appears impossible to induce our friends to make any decisive exertions. Under these circumstances I have been induced to look to New York."

The representatives of the wise and good looked at politics with eyes which saw no farther than those of the most profligate democrat into the morality of the game. Pickering enjoyed hearing himself called "honest Tim Pickering," as though he were willing to imply a tinge of dishonesty in others, even in the Puritan society of Wenham and Salem. Griswold was to the end of his life a highly respected citizen of Connecticut, and died while governor of the State. That both these worthy men should conspire to break up the Union implied to their minds no dishonesty, because they both held that the Republican majority had by its illegal measures already destroyed the Constitution which they had sworn to support; but although such casuistry might excuse in their own consciences the act of conspiracy, neither this reasoning nor any other consistent with self-respect warranted their next step. Griswold's remark that the procrastination of New England had led him to look to New York was not quite candid; his plan had from the first depended on New York. Pickering had written to Cabot at the outset, "She must be made the centre of the confederacy." New York seemed, more than New England, unfit to be made the centre of a Northern confederacy, because there the Federalist party was a relatively small minority. If Massachusetts and Connecticut showed fatal apathy, in New York actual repulsion existed; the extreme Federalists had no following. To bring New York to the Federalism of Pickering and Griswold, the Federalist party needed to recover power under a leader willing to do its work. The idea implied a bargain and intrigue on terms such as in the Middle Ages the Devil was believed to impose upon the ambitious and reckless. Pickering and Griswold could win their game only by bartering their souls; they must invoke the Mephistopheles of politics, Aaron Burr.

To this they had made up their minds from the beginning. Burr's four years of office were drawing to a close. The Virginians had paid him the price he asked for replacing them in power; and had it been Shylock's pound of flesh, they could not have looked with greater care to see that Burr should get neither more nor less, even in the estimation of a hair, than the exact price they had covenanted to pay. In another year the debt would be discharged, and the Virginians would be free. Burr had not a chance of regaining a commanding place among Republicans, for he was bankrupt in private and public character. In New York the Clintons never ceased their attacks, with the evident wish to drive him from the party. Cheetham, after publishing in 1802 two heavy pamphlets, a "Narrative" and a "View," attempted in 1803 to crush him under the weight of a still heavier volume, containing "Nine Letters on the Subject of Aaron Burr's Political Defection." Nov. 16, 1803, the "Albany Register" at length followed Cheetham's lead; and nearly all the other democratic newspapers followed the "Register," abandoning Burr as a man who no longer deserved confidence.

Till near the close of 1803 the Vice-President held his peace. The first sign that he meant energetic retaliation was given by an anonymous pamphlet,[8] which won the rare double triumph of political and literary success, in which ability and ill temper seemed to have equal shares. The unexpected appearance of "Aristides" startled New York. This attack recalled the scandal which Alexander Hamilton had created four years before by his pamphlet against his own President. "Aristides" wrote with even more bitterness than Hamilton, and the ferocity of his assault on the personal and political characters of the Republican leaders made the invectives of Hamilton and Cheetham somewhat tame; but the scandal in each case was due not so much to personalities of abuse as to breaches of confidence. "Aristides" furnished to the enemies of the Clintons and Livingstons an arsenal of poisoned weapons; but what was more to the purpose, his defence of Burr was strong. That it came directly from the Vice-President was clear; but the pamplet showed more literary ability than Burr claimed, and the world was at a loss to discover who could be held responsible for its severities. Cheetham tried in vain to pierce the incognito. Not till long afterward was "Aristides" acknowledged by Burr's most intimate friend, William Peter Van Ness.

An attempt to separate what was just from what was undeserved in Van Ness's reproaches of the Clintons and Livingstons would be useless. The Clintons and Livingstons, however unprincipled they might be, could say that they were more respectable than Burr; but though this were true so far as social standing was concerned, they could not easily show that as a politician the Vice-President was worse than his neighbors. The New England Federalists knew well that Burr was not to be trusted, but they did not think much worse of him than they thought of De Witt Clinton, or John Armstrong, or Edward Livingston, at this moment removed from office by Jefferson for failing to account for thirty thousand dollars due to the United States Treasury. As a politician Burr had played fast and loose with all parties; but so had most of his enemies. Seeing that he was about to try another cast of the dice, all the political gamblers gathered round to help or hurt his further fortunes; and Van Ness might fairly have said that in the matter of principle or political morality, none of them could show clean hands.

Although Vice-President until March, 1805, Burr announced that he meant to offer himself as a candidate for the post of governor of New York in April, 1804. At the same time Governor Clinton privately gave warning of his own retirement. De Witt Clinton was annoyed at his uncle's conduct, and tried to prevent the withdrawal by again calling Jefferson to his aid and alarming him with fear of Burr.

"A certain gentleman was to leave this place yesterday morning," wrote De Witt to the President.[9] "He has been very active in procuring information as to his probable success for governor at the next election. This, I believe, is his intention at present, although it is certain that if the present Governor will consent to be a candidate, he will prevail by an immense majority. . . . Perhaps a letter from you may be of singular service."

Jefferson declined to interfere, putting his refusal on the ground of Burr's candidacy.

"I should think it indeed a serious misfortune," was his reply,[10] "should a change in the administration of your government be hazarded before its present principles be well established through all its parts; yet on reflection you will be sensible that the delicacy of my situation, considering who may be competitors, forbids my intermeddling even so far as to write the letter you suggest. I can therefore only brood in silence over my secret wishes."

No real confidence ever existed between Jefferson and the Clintons. A few days after these letters were written, "Aristides" betrayed the secret that Governor Clinton, in the spring of 1800, declared Jefferson to be "an accommodating trimmer, who would change with times and bend to circumstances for the purposes of personal promotion." This revelation by "Aristides," supported by the names of persons who heard the remark, forced Governor Clinton into an awkward denial of the charge, and led to an exchange of letters[11] and to professions of confidence between him and Jefferson; but time showed that neither the Governor nor his nephew loved the Virginians more than they were loved by Burr.

The threads of intrigue drew together, as they were apt to do before a general election. The last week in January came. Three days before Senator Pickering wrote his conspiracy letter to George Cabot, a letter which implied co-operation with Burr in making him governor of New York, Burr asked for a private interview with Jefferson, and formally offered him the choice betwen friendship or enmity. The President thought the conversation so curious that he made a note of it.

"He began," said Jefferson,[12] "by recapitulating summarily that he had come to New York a stranger, some years ago; that he found the country in possession of two rich families,—the Livingstons and Clintons; . . . that since, those great families had become hostile to him and had excited the calumnies which I had seen published; that in this Hamilton had joined, and had even written some of the pieces against him. . . . He observed, he believed it would be for the interest of the Republican cause for him to retire,—that a disadvantageous schism would otherwise take place; but that were he to retire, it would be said he shrank from the public sentence, which he would never do; that his enemies were using my name to destroy him, and something was necessary from me to prevent and deprive them of that weapon,—some mark of favor from me which would declare to the world that he retired with my confidence."

Jefferson, with many words but with his usual courtesy, intimated that he could not appoint the Vice-President to an Executive office; and Burr then united his intrigues with those of Pickering and Griswold. Thenceforth his chance of retaining power depended on the New York election; and his success in this election depended on the Federalists. Before George Cabot had yet written his answer to Pickering's questions, Pickering could no longer resist the temptation to act.

The effect of what passed at Washington was instantly felt at Albany. Toward the middle of February, about three weeks after Jefferson had civilly rejected the Vice-President's advances, Burr's friends in the New York legislature announced that they should hold a caucus February 18, and nominate him as candidate for governor. The Federalists at once called a preliminary caucus to decide whether they should support Burr. Alexander Hamilton, who happened to be engaged in law business at Albany, Feb. 16, 1804, attended the Federal caucus, and used his influence in favor of the regular Clinton candidate against Burr's pretensions. The drift of his argument was given in an abstract of reasons which he drew up for the occasion.[13] Unfortunately the strongest of these reasons was evidently personal; the leadership of Hamilton would not tolerate rivalry from Burr. Hamilton pointed out that Burr's elevation by the Federalists of New York would present him as their leader to the Federalists of New England, and would assist him to disorganize New England if so disposed; that there "the ill-opinion of Jefferson, and jealousy of the ambition of Virginia, is no inconsiderable prop of good opinions; but these causes are leading to an opinion that a dismemberment of the Union is expedient. It would probably suit Mr. Burr's views to promote this result,—to be the chief of the Northern portion; and placed at the head of the State of New York, no man would be likely to succeed."

If the Union was to be severed, Hamilton was the intended chief of the Northern portion; but he wanted no severance that should leave the germs of the democratic disease. His philosophy was that of George Cabot, William Pitt, and Talleyrand; he waited for the whole country to come to its senses and restore sound principles, that democracy might everywhere die out or be stifled. Burr's methods were democratic, and would perpetuate in a Northern confederacy the vices of the Union; they would break up the conservative strength without weakening democracy. Within a few days the danger which Hamilton foresaw came to pass. Burr's little band of friends in the Legislature, Feb. 18, 1804, set him in nomination; and a large majority of Federalists in defiance of Hamilton's entreaties, meant to vote for him.

As the situation became clearer, Hamilton's personal feeling became public. While at Albany, February 16, he dined with John Tayler, and at table talked of the political prospect. One of the company, Dr. Charles D. Cooper, an active partisan, wrote an account of the conversation to a certain Mr. Brown near Albany: "General Hamilton and Judge Kent have declared, in substance, that they looked upon Mr. Burr as a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government." The letter was printed, and went the rounds of the press. As it roused some question and dispute, Cooper wrote again: "I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr." This letter also was printed; the "Albany Register" of April 24 contained the correspondence.

The news of Burr's nomination reached Washington at the moment when Pickering and Tracy received answers to their disunion scheme; and it served keep them steady to their plan. The Federalists, who professed to consider Hamilton their leader, seldom followed his advice; but on this occasion they set him somewhat unkindly aside. Too much in awe of Hamilton to say directly to his face that he must be content with the place of Burr's lieutenant, they wrote letters to that effect which were intended for his eye.

Of all Federalist leaders, moderate and extreme, Rufus King, who had recently returned from London, stood highest in the confidence of his party. He was to be the Federalist candidate for Vice-President; he had mixed in none of the feuds which made Hamilton obnoxious to many of his former friends; and while King's manners were more conciliatory, his opinions were more moderate, than those of other party leaders. To him Pickering wrote, March 4, 1804, in a tone of entreaty:—

"I am disgusted with the men who now rule, and with their measures. At some manifestations of their malignancy I am shocked. The cowardly wretch at their head, while like a Parisian revolutionary monster prating about humanity, would feel an infernal pleasure in the utter destruction of his opponents."

After avowing his hopes of disunion, Pickering next touched the New York election:[14]

"The Federalists here in general anxiously desire the election of Mr. Burr to the chair of New York, for they despair of a present ascendancy of the Federalist party. Mr. Burr alone, we think, can break your democratic phalanx, and we anticipate much good from his success. Were New York detached, as under his administration it would be, from the Virginia influence, the whole Union would be benefited. Jefferson would then be forced to observe some caution and forbearance in his measures. And if a seperation should be deemed proper, the five New England States, New York, and New Jersey would naturally be united."

Rufus King was as cautious as Pickering was indiscreet. He acknowledged this letter in vague terms of compliment,[15] saying that Pickering's views "ought to fix the attention of the real friends of liberty in this quarter of the Union, and the more so as things seem to be fast advancing to a crisis." Even King's cool head was possessed with the thought which tormented Hamilton, Cabot, Ames, Pickering, Griswold, and Tracy,—the crisis which was always coming, and which, in the midst of peace, plenty, and contentment such as a tortured world had seldom known, overhung these wise and virtuous men like the gloom of death.

A week later Roger Griswold followed Pickering's example by writing to another of Hamilton's friends, Oliver Wolcott, who apparently sent the letter to Hamilton.[16] A Congressional caucus, February 25, nominated George Clinton as the Republican candidate for Vice-President by sixty-five votes against forty-one,—Burr's friends absenting themselves. This nomination showed some division between the Northern and Southern democrats; but Griswold rightly argued that nothing could be done in Congress,—the formation of a Northern interest must begin at home, and must find its centre of union in Burr. The arguments for this course were set forth with entire candor.

"I have wished to ascertain," wrote Griswold, "the views of Colonel Burr in relation to the general government; but having had no intimacy with him myself, and finding no one on the spot calculated, or indeed authorized, to require an explanation, I have obtained but little information. He speaks in the most bitter terms of the Virginia faction, and of the necessity of a union at the northward to resist it; but what the ultimate objects are which he would propose, I do not know. It is apparent that his election is supported in New York on the principle of resisting Virginia and uniting the North; and it may be presumed that the support given to him by Federal men would tend to reconcile the feelings of those democrats who are becoming dissatisfied with their Southern masters. But it is worthy of great consideration whether the advantage gained in this manner will not be more than counterbalanced by fixing on the Northern States a man in whom the most eminent of our friends will not repose confidence. If Colonel Burr is elevated in New York to the office of governor by the votes of Federalism, will he not be considered, and must he not in fact become, the head of the Northern interest? His ambition will not suffer him to be second, and his office will give him a claim to the first rank."

Having proposed this question, Griswold argued it as one in which the interests of New York must yield to the larger interests behind, and decided that "unpleasant as the thing may be," Burr's election and consequent leadership of the Federalist party was "the only hope which at this time presents itself of rallying in defence of the Northern States. . . . What else can we do? If we remain inactive, our ruin is certain. Our friends will make no attempts alone. By supporting Mr. Burr we gain some support, although it is of a doubtful nature, and of which, God knows, we have cause enough to be jealous. In short, I see nothing else left for us."

Had this been all, though it was a rude blow to Hamilton, it might have passed as a difference of opinion on a point of party policy; but Griswold's object in writing these excuses was to explain that he had already done more, and had even entered into personal relations with Colonel Burr in view of a bargain. What this bargain was to be, Griswold explained:—

"I have engaged to call on the Vice-President as I pass through New York. The manner in which he gave me the invitation appeared to indicate a wish to enter upon some explanation. He said he wished very much to see me, and to converse, but his situation in this place did not admit of it, and he begged me to call on him at New York. This took place yesterday in the library. Indeed, I do not see how he can avoid a full explanation with Federal men. His prospects must depend on the union of the Federalists with his friends, and it is certain that his views must extend much beyond the office of governor of New York. He has the spirit of ambition and revenge to gratify, and can do but little with his 'little band' alone."

Even George Cabot deserted Hamilton, and wrote from Boston to Rufus King a long letter, in the tone of indolent speculation which irritated restless fighters like Pickering and Griswold:[17]

"An experiment has been suggested by some of our freinds, to which I object that it is impracticable, and if practicable would be ineffectual. The thing proposed is obvious and natural; but it would now be thought too bold, and would be fatal to its advocates as public men; yet the time may soon come when it will be demanded by the people of the North and East, and then it will unavoidably take place."

He explained his favorite thesis,—the last resource of failing protestants,—that things must be worse before they were better; but closed by wishing success to Burr. "I should rejoice to see Burr win the race in your State, but I cannot approve of aid being given him by any of the leading Federalists."

Ten days later, March 27, Congress adjourned; and thenceforward the intrigue centred about Burr and Hamilton in New York. No sooner did Griswold reach that city, on his way from Washington to Connecticut, than he kept his engagement with Burr, and in a conversation, April 4, Burr cautiously said[18] that in his present canvass "he must go on democratically to obtain the government; that if he succeeded, he should administer it in a manner that would be satisfactory to the Federalists. In respect to the affairs of the nation, Burr said that the Northern States must be governed by Virginia, or govern Virginia, and that there was no middle course; that the democratic members of Congress from the East were in this sentiment,—some of those from New York, some of the leaders in Jersey, and likewise in Pennsylvania." Further than this he would not go; and Griswold contented himself with such vague allurements.

On the other hand, Rufus King's library was the scene of grave dissensions. There Pickering went, April 8, to urge his scheme of disunion, and retired on the appearance of his colleague, Senator Adams, who for the first and last time in his life found himself fighting the battle of Alexander Hamilton, whom he disliked as decidedly as Pickering professed to love him. As the older senator left the house at his colleague's entrance, King said to Adams:[19] "Colonel Pickering has been talking to me about a project they have for a separation of the States and a Northern Confederacy; and he has also been this day talking of it with General Hamilton. Have you heard anything of it at Washington?" Adams replied that he had heard much, but not from Colonel Pickering. "I disapprove entirely of the project," said King; "and so, I am happy to tell you, does General Hamilton."

The struggle for control between Hamilton and the conspirators lasted to the eve of the election,—secret, stifled, mysterious; the intrigue of men afraid to avow their aims, and seeming rather driven by their own passions than guided by the lofty and unselfish motives which ought to inspire those whom George Cabot emphatically called the best! The result was a drawn battle. Hamilton prevented leading Federalists from open committal of the party, but he could not prevent the party itself from voting for Burr. The election took place April 25, 1804; and although Burr succeeded in carrying to the Federalists a few hundred voters in the city of New York, where his strength lay, giving him there a majority of about one hundred in a total vote of less than three thousand, he polled but about twenty-eight thousand votes in the State against thirty-five thousand for the Clinton candidate. The Federalists gained nothing by supporting him; but only a small portion of the party refused him their aid.

The obstinacy of Pickering and Griswold in pressing Burr on the party forced Hamilton to strain his strength in order to prevent what he considered his own humiliation. That all Hamilton's doings were known to Burr could hardly be doubted. When the election closed, a new era in Burr's life began. He was not a vindictive man, but this was the second time Hamilton had stood in his way and vilified his character. Burr could have no reason to suppose that Hamilton was deeply loved; for he knew that four fifths of the Federal party had adopted his own leadership when pitted against Hamilton's in the late election, and he knew too that Pickering, Griswold, and other leading Federalists had separated from Hamilton in the hope of making Burr himself the chief of a Northern confederacy. Burr never cared for the past,—the present and future were his only thought; but his future in politics depended on his breaking somewhere through the line of his personal enemies; and Hamilton stood first in his path, for Hamilton would certainly renew at every critical moment the tactics which had twice cost Burr his prize.

Pickering and Griswold saw their hopes shattered by the result of the New York election. They gained at the utmost only an agreement to hold a private meeting of leading Federalists at Boston in the following autumn;[20] and as Hamilton was to be present, he probably intended to take part only in order to stop once for all the intrigues of these two men. Such an assemblage, under the combined authority of Cabot, King, and Hamilton, could not have failed to restore discipline.

Nearly two months passed after the New York election, when, on the morning of June 18, William P. Van Ness, not yet known as "Aristides," appeared in Hamilton's office. He brought a note from Vice-President Burr, which enclosed newspaper-cuttings containing Dr. Cooper's report of Hamilton's "despicable" opinion of Burr's character. The paragraph, Burr said, had but very recently come to his knowledge. "You must perceive, sir, the necessity of a prompt and unqualified acknowledgement or denial of the use of any expression which would warrant the assertions of Dr. Cooper." General Hamilton took two days to consider the subject; and then replied in what Burr thought an evasive manner, but closed with two lines of defiance: "I trust on more reflection you will see the matter in the same light with me; if not, I can only regret the circumstance, and must abide the consequences."[21]

These concluding words were the usual form in which men expressed themselves when they intended to accept a challenge to a duel. At first sight, no sufficient reason for accepting a challenge was shown by Hamilton's letter, which disavowed Dr. Cooper's report so far as Burr was warranted in claiming disavowal. Hamilton might without impropriety have declined to give further satisfaction. In truth, not the personal but the political quarrel drew him into the field; he knew that Burr meant to challenge, not the man, but the future political chief, and that an enemy so bent on rule must be met in the same spirit. Hamilton fought to maintain his own right to leadership, so rudely disputed by Burr, Pickering, and Griswold. He devoted some of his moments before the duel to the task of explaining, in a formal document, that he fought only to save his political influence.[22] "The ability to be in future useful, whether in resisting mischief or effecting good, in those crises of our public affairs which seem likely to happen, would probably be inseparable from a conformity with public prejudice in this particular."

Always the crisis! Yet this crisis which brought Hamilton in July to the duelling-ground at Weehawken was not the same as that which Pickering and Griswold had so lately tried to create. Pickering's disunion scheme came to a natural end on Burr's defeat in April. The legislatures of the three Federalist States had met and done nothing; all chance of immediate action was lost, and all parties, including even Pickering and Griswold, had fallen back on their faith in the "crisis"; but the difference of opinion between Hamilton and the New Englanders was still well defined. Hamilton thought that disunion, from a conservative standpoint, was a mistake; nearly all the New Englanders, on the contrary, looked to ultimate disunion as a conservative necessity. The last letter which Hamilton wrote, a few hours before he left his house for the duelling-ground, was short and earnest warning against disunion, addressed to Theodore Sedgwick, one of the sternest Massachusetts Federalists of Pickering's class.[23]

"Dismemberment of our empire," said Hamilton, "will be a clear sacrifice of great positive advantages, wihtout any counterbalancing good; administering no relief to our real disease, which is democracy,—the poison of which, by a subdivision, will only be the more concentrated in each part, and consequently the more virulent."

The New Englanders thought this argument unsound, as it certainly was; for a dissolution of the American Union would have struck a blow more nearly fatal to democracy throughout the world than any other "crisis" that man could have compassed. Yet the argument showed that had Hamilton survived, he would probably have separated from his New England allies, and at last, like his friends Rufus King and Oliver Wolcott, would have accepted the American world as it was.

The tragedy that actually happened was a fitter ending to this dark chapter than any tamer close could have been. Early on the morning of July 11, in the brilliant sunlight of a hot summer, the two men were rowed to the duelling-grounds accross the river, under the rocky heights of Weehawken, and were placed by their seconds face to face. Had Hamilton acted with the energy of conviction, he would have met Burr in his own spirit; but throughout this affair Hamilton showed want of will. He allowed himself to be drawn into a duel, but instead of killing Burr he invited Burr to kill him. In the paper Hamilton left for his justification, he declared the intention to throw away his first fire. He did so. Burr's bullet passed through Hamilton's body. The next day he was dead.

As the news spread, it carried a wave of emotion over New England, and roused everywhere sensations strangely mixed. In New York the Clinton interest, guided by Cheetham, seized the moment to destroy Burr's influence forever. Cheetham affected to think the duel a murder, procured Burr's indictment, and drove him from the State. Charges were invented to support this theory, and were even accepted as history. In the South and West, on the other hand, the duel was considered as a simple "affair of honor," in which Burr appeared to better advantage than his opponent. In New England a wail of despair arose. Even the clergy, though shocked that Hamilton should have offered the evil example of duelling, felt that they had lost their champion and sword of defence. "In those crises of our public affairs which seemed likely to happen," Hamilton's genius in council and in the field had been their main reliance; he was to bo their Washington, with more than Washington's genius,—their Bonaparte, with Washington's virtues. The whole body of Federalists, who had paid little regard to Hamilton's wishes in life, went into mourning for his death, and held funeral services such as had been granted to no man of New England birth. Orators, ministers, and newspapers exhausted themselves in execration of Burr. During the whole summer and autumn, undisturbed by a breath of discord or danger, except such as their own fears created, they bewailed their loss as the most fatal blow yet given to the hopes of society.

The death of Hamilton cleared for a time the murky atmosphere of New York and New England politics. Pickering and Griswold, Tracy and Plumer, and their associates retired into the background. Burr disappeared from New York, and left a field for De Witt Clinton to sacrifice in his turn the public good to private ambition. The bloody feuds of Burr's time never again recurred. The death of Hamilton and the Vice-President's flight, with their accessories of summer-morning sunlight on rocky and wooded heights, tranquil river, and distant city, and behind all, their dark background of moral gloom, double treason, and political despair, still stand as the most dramatic moment in the early politics of the Union.

  1. New England Federalism, pp. 106, 146, 342, 352; Plumer's Life of Plumer, pp. 284-311.
  2. Pickering to George Cabot, Jan. 29, 1804; Lodge's Cabot, p. 337.
  3. Roger Griswold to Oliver Wolcott, March 11, 1804; Hamilton's History of the Republic, vii. 781; New England Federalism, p. 354
  4. Cabot to Pickering, March 7, 1804; New England Federalism, p. 353.
  5. Cabot to Pickering, Feb. 14, 1804; Lodge's Cabot, p. 341.
  6. Tapping Reeve to Uriah Tracy, Feb. 7, 1804; Lodge's Cabot, p. 442.
  7. Theodore Lyman to Pickering, Feb. 29, 1804; Lodge's Cabot, p. 446.
  8. An Examination of the various Charges against Aaron Burr, by Aristides. December, 1803.
  9. De Witt Clinton to Jefferson, Nov. 26, 1803; Jefferson MSS.
  10. Jefferson's Writings (Ford), viii. 282.
  11. Jefferson to Governor Clinton, Dec. 31, 1803; Works, iv. 520.
  12. The Anas, Jan. 26, 1804; Works, ix. 204.
  13. Hamilton's Works, vii. 851.
  14. Pickering to Rufus King, March 4, 1804; Lodge's Cabot, p. 447.
  15. Rufus King to Pickering, March 9, 1804; Lodge's Cabot, p. 450.
  16. Roger Griswold to Oliver Wolcott, March 11, 1804; Hamilton's History, vii. 781; New England Federalism, p. 354.
  17. George Cabot to Rufus King, March 17, 1804; Lodge's Cabot, p. 345.
  18. Hamilton's History, vii. 787; King's Life of Rufus King, iv. 356.
  19. New England Federalism, p. 148.
  20. Life of Plumer, p. 299.
  21. Hamilton's History, vii. 806.
  22. Hamilton's History, vii. pp. 816-819.
  23. Hamilton to Sedgwick, July 10, 1804; Works, vi. 567.