The Life and Legacy of Alexander Hamilton

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Part 7: Elections and Influence

The political party war was continuing, of course. One of the main issues by this time was the passage of two sets of highly controversial laws, the Alien Acts and the Sedition Acts. The Alien Acts called for "alien enemies" of America to be sent home. The Sedition Acts made it a crime to write or print words that defamed the government. Since much of what the political-party newspapers said to be interpreted as defamatory, the Sedition Acts were a particularly weapon against those not in power. The Democratic-Republicans did not have the presidency, of course, because President John Adams was a Federalist.

Even though they were both technically members of the same political party, Hamilton and Adams were often at odds. In fact, Hamilton didn't want Adams to be president at all. He had campaigned for Charles Pinckney in the election of 1796, which Adams won, narrowly, over Jefferson. Still, Adams recognized Hamilton's usefulness and appointed him inspector general, a post that the New Yorker held for the better part of Adams's presidency.

Hamilton deeply disliked Jefferson and actively worked to keep him from the presidency. But he disliked Adams almost as much. In fact, Hamilton disliked most of the candidates in the Election of 1800. One man he particularly hated was Aaron Burr.

Burr was a New Yorker, just like Hamilton; but there, the similarities ended. Burr was a Democratic-Republican, just like Jefferson. Burr had worked to gain a Democratic-Republican majority in New York, which angered Hamilton to no end. Burr wanted to President in a bad way and conducted his own campaign. The heads of state in the Democratic-Republican Party expected that Jefferson was their presidential candidate and that Burr would make a good vice-president, but they didn't exactly convince Burr of that. Burr's ambition was rewarded when the Electoral College vote came out with exactly 73 votes each for Jefferson and Burr. This brought up a shortcoming of the Electoral College, as described in the Constitution: The votes for President and Vice-president were not separated. With the first three elections, it was clear who was the President: the one who got the most votes. But what to do if two candidates were tied? This is what happened in the Election of 1800.

Adams, the incumbent President, had run for re-election on the Federalist ticket. But he was already out of the picture, running a distant third. It was up to Jefferson and Burr to decide who was President. Both wanted it. The Constitution did have a provision for deciding such a scenario: The vote went into the House of Representatives, with each state having one vote. And here it was that Alexander Hamilton gained one of his last bits of fame. Yes, he detested Jefferson; but he detested Burr more. It was a choice of two evils; and Hamilton, to his mind, chose the lesser evil.

Hamilton still had some influence, even though his best friend and benefactor, Washington, had died the previous year. He spent a great deal of time and energy trying to convince the members of the House to vote for Jefferson. The members of his own party could not bring themselves to vote for Jefferson, but some of them were eventually convinced to vote for no one, which meant that Jefferson won. Burr was furious and vowed revenge.

A foreshadowing of their final conflict took place in 1801, when Hamilton's oldest son, Philip, accepted a challenge to a public duel from George Eacker, a Democratic-Republican politician. Philip was mortally wounded in the duel and died in his father's arms. Hamilton blamed himself for his son's death. Not long after this, his oldest daughter, Angelica, went mad from grief at her brother's death. The cost of Hamilton's political enemy-making had grown considerably high indeed.

A distraught Hamilton retired from public life for a time, absorbed in his losses. He eventually was persuaded to return to practicing law and was before long very busy again.

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