The History of New York State
Book XII, Chapter 3, Part 5

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

The great debate as to the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions brought into the political arena in New York this new figure. Erastus root, a young man of athletic build but scholarly attainments, took up the cudgels to fight alongside Burr. Fortunately, he was not linked with burr for long, but for forty years from 1798 Erastus root continued to be a political factor of importance in New York. By temperament self-reliant, Root was inclined to independence. Yet, he showed an aptitude of "shrewdly holding close relations with those whose careful management and adroit manipulation of the spoils kept men in line whatever the policy it seemed expedient to adopt." #23 At the moment of his entry into Assembly in 1798, he admired Burr and was bitter against Hamilton. Therefore he naturally aligned himself with Republicanism. His abhorrence of the Alien and Sedition laws so stirred him that he quickly leaped into the first line of the opposition; indeed, his brilliancy in debate brought him, at a bound, into the leadership. The irresponsibility of youth--he was only twenty-six years old--led him into oratorical flights which older politicians would not attempt to reach, but which was decidedly refreshing to a jaded House. Although not always logical, the young orator impressed many by his originality of reasoning. He won the fight against Massachusetts amendments, but could not quite bring the House to follow Jefferson in the nullification resolution of Kentucky. Indeed, it was not quite clear that Root himself went all the way with Jefferson; certainly, when nullification raised its head, thirty-four years later under the leadership of Calhoun, the New York Congressman, Erastus Root, "struck at it as he would at the head of a viper, becoming the fearless expounder of principle which Civil War permanently established."

The Senate, in 1799, also brought to the forefront another of the younger generation of New York publicists. Ambrose Spencer had already "won his spurs." Although only seven years older than Root, Ambrose Spencer had already reached a high rung of the political ladder. He had been ranked among the leaders of the Federalist party, one of the most promising of its younger group of leaders. Spencer had enjoyed the confidence of Jay and the stimulating friendship of Hamilton. But now, alas! upon these most vital legislative matters, Spencer was to be called an apostate. To explain his defection many reason were suggested by his former colleagues. Almost all reason were selfish or mercenary. It was suggested that Spencer had hoped for the Comptrollership, to which Samuel Jones had been preferred; that he would have like some foreign mission, which Hamilton might have used his influence to obtain for him. It occurred to one to hint that the bitter quarrel between Adams and Hamilton had brought the office-seeking Spencer to realize that a sinking ship was no place for man who would live. Spencer indignantly protested, treating all accusations as calumnies. He insisted that his change of principles had occurred in the spring of 1798, while the Federalist ship was with a leak, and the weather was fair. His explanations and denials were futile. Federalists did not cease "to assail him as a turncoat for the flesh-pots." When one reads the whole of the political life of Ambrose Spencer, the conviction grows that Federalists were not far from the truth in so reading his character in 1799. #24 It seems quite possible, of course, that the ambitious Senator was influenced to Republicanism by Chancellor Livingston, his relative; and it is also quite feasible to suppose that Spencer's change of principles had not take definite form until personal resentment against the Alien and Sedition acts had settled his course. While honest indignation stirred within him, the apostate may not have cast behind him the mercenary thought that these odious measures would mark the overthrow of Federalism, and so close that route to public office. Public office was Spencer's goal, and it must be admitted that he was consistently successful in the pursuit.

Federalism Overthrown--Spencer id his utmost in the new York Senate to send the stumbling giant Federalism, headlong to a fall; but if one might judge by Senate action in New York as to the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions, Federalism--in New York at least--was still quite a long way from downfall. Despite Senator's Spencer's vehement ability, and a debate marked by intensity of feeling against alleged usurpation of the rights of the citizen and of the sovereign States, the courts of the Federal government were upheld, and the Madison and Jefferson resolutions condemned. The Senate was overwhelmingly Federalist, only seven negative votes being cast. The resolutions passed declared that the New York Legislature could not see that the Alien and Sedition acts violated the sovereign rights of the separate States; neither could it agree that unconstitutional powers had been assumed by the national government. The Legislature expressed "anxiety and regret" that the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions should voice "sentiments and doctrines no less repugnant to the Constitution of the United States and the principles of their Union than destructive to the Federal government and unjust to those whom the people have elected to administer it." the Senate further declared its incompetence to super vice the acts of the Federal government. Like resolutions were adopted in the Assembly, but by only a bare majority.

Again, if the annual elections of 1799 could point the way of the future, the looked-for Federalist downfall was still beyond the horizon. The Federalists of New York made important gains in the Assembly, particularly in New York City, which two years earlier--because of Aaron Burr--had become solidly Republican in representation. It was now solidly Federalist. Again Burr was the reason. The factor of prime importance to New York voters was the New York Water Bill, not the Federal Alien and Sedition acts. Aaron Burr, had, with his unapproachable cunning, maneuvered the Water bill through the legislature by misrepresentation; and the incensed voters did not feel that Burr and his friends should be permitted to financially profit by the measure, without protest. So they brought about "that trickster's crushing defeat at the polls."

Republicans therefore could not find much encouragement in the New York political happenings of 1799. The great issues which they had hoped would unhorse Federalism had hardly caused it to rise in the saddle. The legislative course had been easy, and during the elections the voters were looking the other way--at Republican, not Federalist abominations. Soon, however, the Federalist horseman was to ride roughshod over the country, blind to all sense of decency and restraint, getting the like in return, of course. Violence stirs up violence.

Although President Adams, to the last moment of his life, contended that the infamous alien and Sedition acts were "constitutional and salutary, if not necessary" measures, he wisely refrained from the use of the great power which these laws had lavished upon him. But in all cases he could not check the indiscretions of excitable officials. One such case occurred in New York. It appears that General John Armstrong, a former Federalist, drafted a vitriolic petition for the repeal of the Sedition Act. This petition was circulated by Jedediah peck, of Cooperstown, probably circulated by many others in other parts of New York State. Is contents aroused one stern official, with the result that the comparatively insignificant and inoffensive Jedediah Peck, a county judge, was arrested and taken to New York City for trial. As the newspapers reported the happening, Judge Peck was "taken from his bed at midnight, manacled, and dragged from his home," because he dared ask his neighbors to petition Congress to repeal an offensive law. Cooperstown is 200 miles from New York City, and the means of transportation then available were somewhat crude, especially when the deep snows of late winter still clogged the roads or left them quagmires. It took the marshal five days to escort his prisoner to New York City. The newspapers made the most of the indignity. "the rule of George Third," declared the press, "was gracious and loving compared to such tyranny." Excitement like that of Stamp-Act days stirred the populace. "A hundred missionaries in the cause of democracy, stationed between New York and Cooperstown," says Hammond, "could not have done so much for the Republican cause as this journey of Jedediah peck from Otsego to the capital of the State. It was nothing less than a public exhibition of a suffering martyr for the freedom of speech and the press, and for the right of petition." #25

Nothing could have suited Aaron burr and the Democratic-Republicans in New York so well. Judge Cooper, in issuing the warrant for the arrest of his bench colleague, Jedediah Peck, had laid Federalism in its coffin; and the marshal had drawn the Federalist hearse for five days. The exhibition was timely, for then, just before the spring elections in New York, Burr was planning to gain twelve electoral (presidential) votes for the republicans, by carrying the Legislature of New York. Evidently the indiscretions of Federalists in other States had been quite as helpful to Republicans elsewhere are the peck incident was hoped to prove in New York, for Jefferson and the National Democratic leaders were figuring on sixty-one Anti-Federalist presidential electors outside of New York. Seventy votes could elect a President, therefore the capture of new York State would give the Republicans a safe majority.

With consummate skill Burr pursued his destructive policy. Keeping his own name in the background, he drew to his ticket leaders who might in normal years carry the party to victory, or rather, carry him where he could not take himself. The Water bill might still be a hindrance to Burr, though he rather surmised that the Peck case would make voters see blood, which is thicker than water. He was not mistaken. These two great men encountered each other often during that campaign, which was unique in local history, in that "local managers prepared lists of voters, canvassed wards by streets, held meetings throughout the city, and introduced other methods of organization common enough nowadays, but decided novel then. #26 The system of intensive canvass seems to have originated in the fertile brain of Lawyer Burr, but the Federalists were not slow in adopting the plan. Hamilton dashed into the fray in full realization of its significance to his party and to the Nation, at least to the political faction which, he sincerely believed, was the only one to which the interest of the United States could safely be entrusted. No Statesman regretted more than Hamilton the abuses that came in with the Alien and Sedition acts; he was fully aware that "hasty United States attorneys and indiscreet local politicians" had undermined the Federalist structure. He knew that it was then so precariously pinned, indeed that the breaking of New York support might bring the whole edifice down. Hamilton's interest in this campaign, therefore, was not merely that of a loyal New Yorker in the local affairs of his own State; he was fighting for the Nation.

During the four days of polling--April 29 to May 2, 1800--Hamilton never rested. He visited every voting precinct. Burr also was quite indefatigable. Sometimes they would meet. In such meetings "courtesy characterized the conduct of each toward the other, one champion waiting until the other took his turn." "Rarely if ever in the history of the country," writes Alexander, " have two men of such ability and astuteness participated in a local canvass." #27 Seldom has such marked difference been at once noticeable in contemporary publicists. Between them, it was "a rivalry of styles as well as of capacities." Respect was paid to both. The citizens recognized both as extraordinary personalities. Every one was eager to hear burr, and few turned away disappointed, for he was a good speaker. Burr's approach and power to attract were, however, directly opposite to those of his great rival. Burr was methodical, concise; his charging hand was daintily gloved, his acrid words were deliciously sugar-coated, his insinuations--seemingly drawn with painful reluctance from an aching heart--conveyed ill-omen all the more surely because of the impenetrable veil of mystery which no other man could throw so skillfully over exposure. Burr seemed to reach men's understanding by the left ear. His meaning was never apparent full-face. On the other hand, Hamilton always faced the subject. An acknowledged orator, confident that this tongue could keep pace with his thoughts and that the latter need not fear the light of day, Hamilton allowed his words to go unrestricted wherever his mind roamed. Love found translation in words which were positive; not ambiguous; in declamations that were frank, not veiled; in arguments that appealed with equal force, concurrently, to both intellect and sentiment. Hamilton's poetical soul and buoyant spirit sought classical expression, and found it, in musical setting. His rhythmic sentences would begin to ripple at the source of fact, would gather force and contrast, harmony and discord, according to the bed of argument as it sped along, the stream sometimes swinging on in even ecstasy, at other times tearing tumultuously through, but ever increasing in volume and sweeping onward until the banks of resistance could no longer hold back the mighty verbal torrent. In the flood of irresistible eloquence, Hamilton would carry his hearers with him, whether they wished to go or not. Burr drew out the meaner qualities in men; he attracted by innuendo and insinuation. Hamilton loved to draw out the ideal; he fascinated by his own enthusiasm. Both, whoever, were great men. Thirty years later, Erastus Root who had had good opportunity of observing most of the great national leaders of those decades, came to the conclusion that Hamilton and Burr "were much the greatest men in the State, and perhaps the greatest men in the United States."

Even Hamilton's magnetism could not hold men to Federalism in the New York elections of 1800. The inoffensive "martyred" judge, Peck, drew men the other way. When the polls closed, New York Legislature, for the first time since Clinton's exit as Governor, became Republican. At least, the Twenty-fourth Session, when it should convene for the normal winter of legislation, would show a Democratic-Republican majority of twenty-two, on joint ballot--more than enough to give the anti-federalists the longed-for twelve presidential electors.

Facing the calamitous possibility of the Presidential authority being confided to a Democrat, Hamilton devised a most unworthy scheme. The interest of his party--and bound in it, as he was the situation, were the vital interest of the nation--must be protected, even though he sacrifice his own honor. He put his suggestion to a friend--fortunately to the one who would be least likely to permit partisanship to blur his sense of right and wrong. To governor Jay the Federalist leader suggest that the election figures would have no significance, if he would only call the existing Legislature into special session. The Twenty-third Legislature had adjourned, without day, on April 8, but the Twenty-fourth Legislature could not properly take up the legislative reins until the following winter. In the meantime much might be done to help Federalism by a special spring or early summer session of the old Assembly and Senate, where in the Federalist majorities were safe. Particularly, the special session might, pointed out Hamilton, take up the question of amending the electoral law, so as to transfer the election of presidential electors from the Legislature to districts which could be created for that purpose. It will be remembered that Burr and the minority Republicans had twice tried to pass similar legislation through the New York houses, so as to break the solid Federalist hold on electors. Then, the Republicans would have been content with even a few, but now that they had the whole of the twelve presidential electors, they saw not the least need for a change in the manner of election. Hamilton suggested that by such an amendment, the Federalists would almost surely retain six of the twelve electors--more than sufficient to curb the presidential aspirations of Jefferson and Burr. National safety was the supreme justification for the doubtful course. As Hamilton stated in his letter to Governor Jay; "The anti-Federalist party is a composition indeed of very incongruous materials but all tending to mischief." He saw grave revolutionary tendencies in the democracy--a sinister craving for destructiveness like that which had marred the revolution in France. He saw them, indeed, in liaison, to the detriment of the Untied States. "The government must not be confided to its enemies," declared Hamilton. He admitted that his proposal was "open to objection," but--"a popular government cannot sand if one party calls to its aid all the resources which vice can give, and together, however pressing the emergency, feels itself obliged to confine itself within ordinary form of delicacy and decorum." #28

Few will disagree with Hamilton that the proposal was doubtful. It was an indefensible violation of moral ethics, even though no law would be violated. The scheme might have emanated more naturally from the brain of burr than that of Hamilton. Still, the evil suggestion came from Hamilton, and his former estimable character cannot excuse this suggested breach of honor. However, most men who have even an elementary knowledge of political ways will recognize that the political maneuver suggested to Jay was no more dishonorable than that to which unscrupulous leaders have resorted to gain their ends. Politics seems to have tabulated a code of morals quite as original as it is elastic. Hamilton's scheme, if carried through, would have been no more flagrant a denial of the expressed wish of the people than many other cases to be found in New York political history--or for that matter, in the history of most other sovereignties. Nevertheless, honor and dishonor cannot mate; at the best, Hamilton's tactics were discreditable. Jay saw it to be flatly dishonest--came to that conclusion much to his regret, no doubt, inasmuch as institutions he held dear were at stake. There is every reason to believe that Jay viewed the possibility of Jefferson's election to the presidency with as much alarm as Hamilton; he was perhaps even more convinced that the propertyless, e. g., the Democrats, broadly thinking should have no part in government. Jay had always been more of an aristocrat then Hamilton, and from the beginning had been just as staunch a Federalist; yet, he now clearly saw that to concur with Hamilton, in this infamous scheme, would cheat the people of their right, would by dishonest means defeat their expressed will. It would have been as dishonorable a way as that by which he himself had been cheated out of the governorship in 1792. Probably, this final test, in 1800, was the most severe to which John jay was put during his political career. Needless to say, he emerged without moral stain. As of yore, his attitude was admirable. Just as he had acted in 1792, taking his defeat with calm dignity and deeming it of more importance that he should be able to govern himself than be Governor of New York, so now, in 1800, he kept in subjection all personal antipathies and political excitement, lest he see not the right.

Of course, critics are not wanting who hasten to hint that at this time Jay was man of no political future. This is true. The governor had already formally announced in the Legislature that "on account of his advanced age and infirmities," he would at the end of his term as Governor, retire from public life altogether. That he was sincere in this announcement was proved before the end of 1800, for although an opposition journal had a news-comment which read: "John Jay, after having thru' decay of age became incompetent to discharge the duties of governor has been appointed to the sinecure of Chief Justice of the United States," there was opportunity a week or two later fro another news-item on the same topic, Governor Jay having declined the judicial appointment offered by President Adams. Politics expediency never controlled the conscious of John Jay, although national danger once or twice did. It can hardly be doubted that Jay's answer to Hamilton would have been the same had he still cherished any thought of continuing in political office. His nonpartisanship was that of a judge, weighing right and wrong. He held the scales of justice and could only announce what the scales registered. So, with judicial impartiality, Governor Jay wrote across the letter from the Great Federalist: "This is a measure for party purposes which I think it would not become me to adopt."

In this dignified way, the Governor dismissed the subject of a special session to tamper with the law as to presidential electors. He soon dismissed himself, passing out of the history with a public records as spotless as that of any American statesman of any time.

After a while, Hamilton came to his better self, although it must be confessed that for some time after being rebuffed by Jay he tarried in the shade. He did not come to his real self for nine or ten months, and during that eventful period the political reputations of the two inveterate inevitable unalterable rivals, Hamilton and Burr, suffered grievously. They clashed often, with burr seemingly the victor until denied the great prize when almost within his reach. Hamilton, though rebuffed by Jay, was not conscience-stricken; he still deemed it proper to use all political stratagems, however desperate, by which the Republicans might be prevented from electing the President. Hamilton did not despair, though he admitted that unless his party could "throw the election of President into the House of Representatives" the fight would be lost. "This is the only thing," he wrote, "that can possibly save us from the fangs of Jefferson."

It was perhaps unfortunate that, at this time of extreme danger for Federalism, Hamilton should make the situation worse by petulantly quarreling with its nominal head, President Adams. Hamilton had, in fact, been its actual head until the New York elections of April-May 1800; and for a decade earlier there had been no love lost between Adams and himself; but it would seem that at this moment these two leaders should have held their personal feelings well under cover. Undoubtedly, the President had resented Hamilton's former influence over his cabinet advisers. On the other hand, Hamilton had enjoyed leadership for so long that he could not gracefully take a less important place. After the Republican victory in New York, Adams had thought himself strong enough to reorganize his cabinet, so that it should be less under the control of Hamilton. The latter then entered into a conspiracy with some ultra-Federalists of New England to prevent the reelection of the President. Adams soon heard of the scheme, and openly denounced the plotters as a "British faction," headed by Hamilton. The latter then entered more deeply into the scheme to perpetrate the iniquity upon the people, who it seems wanted Adams to continue in the White House.

With the erratic impulse that is typical of such fiery temperaments, Hamilton was now willing to work for the election of Jefferson, or for almost any other man who could defeat Adams. "I will never be responsible for him by my direct vote," he wrote in May, 1800, "even though the consequence be the election of Jefferson." He wanted to so maneuver the electoral vote that Adams would be thrown behind Pinckney; and, in due course--when the time was ripe to being all Federal leaders to unite on the latter for President--Hamilton would let them all know the whole of his reasons for preferring Pinckney. In stating these reasons, he would have to disclose the whole of the long story of differences between Adams and himself. Hamilton put the story into writing, intending that the letter should have only private circulation among Federal leaders. Unfortunately, printer's ink is now a reliable guardian of secret memoirs. The letter had hardly been put into print by Hamilton before garbled extracts began to appear in the press. How a copy of this inner history of the Federalist party got into the hands of a public printer will probably remain a mystery forever, though one story had it that Burr, past master of sleuths, coaxed a printer's errand boy to give him a copy. The distorted extracts published from it soon forced Hamilton, in self defense, to publish the whole of it.

The time was most inopportune, and the disclosure most unfortunate. Hamilton suffered more than Adams by it. The review of the public life of Adams was so palpably one-sided, the thought so regrettably disloyal, the disclosure so obviously indiscreet, so painfully the product of personal antipathy at a time when the party needed the most unselfish loyalty, that the greatest sufferer by the publication of the letter was its author. Republicans wanted to kill many birds with one stone. They would not have been satisfied to let the opportunity slip by with only Hamilton discomfited. "All the quarrels, resentments, and antagonisms which had torn and rent the Federal party for four years, but which, thanks to Washington, had not become generally known, were now, in a moment, officially exposed to the whole country, to the great astonishment of great Federalists and tot he great delight of all Republicans." "If the single purpose has been to defeat the President," said John Adams, "no more propitious moment could have been chosen." In vain did Hamilton, and the New England faction which had connived with him, deplore the letter, or rather the publication of it; in vain did the great Federalist campaign throughout New England in behalf of Pinckney; the fact obvious in the letter--that Hamilton was a bad loser--defeated all their efforts, just as the letter discredited Federalism in general. Though the Federalist wall had not been quite broken down when the torrent of public denunciation of the Alien and Sedition acts had come upon it, there was certainly not much chance for it to remain standing now, when engulfed by waters which had rushed in at the weak spots pointed out by its own chief engineer. The result was the defeat of both Adams and Federalism. Jefferson and Burr were each given seventy-three electoral votes, Adams receiving sixty-five, Pinckney sixty-four and Jay one.

 

The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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