Commonplace Book #92

The personal dynamic between Burr and Hamilton has inspired virtually all of the accounts of the circumstances that ultimately led to their 1804 duel.  But Hamilton’s real reason for wanting to destroy Burr’s career, at least in the early 1790s, was political: Burr’s growing support in New York.  Hamilton’s lieutenants, such as Nathaniel Hazard and Robert Troup, had been watching Burr, and observing his increasing popularity.  Burr had acquired a political base.  He had been assembling a team of influential men, such as Melancton Smith, who could help him organize his own “popular party.”  And despite what Hamilton claimed, the men around Burr were attracted to his principles: his belief in promoting commercial opportunities for the middling sort, his advocacy for liberal legal reform, fair elections, and freedom of speech–the last evidenced by his moral stand to defend the silenced and censured printer Thomas Greenleaf.

In letter to close friends, Hamilton held nothing back in condemning Burr, but in correspondence with casual acquaintances he cleverly pretended that he had only heard rumors disparaging Burr’s behavior.  Less than three weeks after Hamilton had written in one letter that Burr was “unprincipled, both as a public and private man,” and in another letter that he was an “embryo Caesar,” he disingenuously wrote to Congressman John Steele, a  moderate Federalists, that his “opinion of Mr. Burr is yet to form…Imputations, not favorable to his integrity as a man, rest upon him, but I do not vouch for their authenticity.”  Here is clear evidence of Hamilton’s political gamesmanship.  He wanted to undermine Burr and to pretend that he had nothing to do with it.

–Nancy Isenberg, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, 119-120.