The History of New York State
Book XII, Chapter 4, Part 3

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

Soon some of Burr's friends came to his rescue. One in particular wielded a much more caustic pen than Cheetham. It was of finer point, so that the acid penetrated deeper. Some of Cheetham's literary efforts were puerile, by comparisons with those of William P. Van Ness, whose authorship of the letters of Aristides was not discovered for many years. Just as Jefferson spoke through the Clintons and Cheethams, so did the grandson of Jonathan Edwards speak through Aristides. The reply of Van Ness to Cheetham's broadsides did as much harm to the great Republicans as Hamilton's attack upon Adams had done to Federalism. Through its eighty pages ran the exposed secrets of republicanism. Everything that in any way might bring discredit or ridicule upon major or minor Democratic leaders found its way into the eighty pages of torture. The Star chamber of Van Ness was as merciless as that of Old England; no man, however worthy, who had been so unfortunate as to be numbered among the supporters of Clinton, was beyond the excoriating weapon of Aristides. All men who were not lampooned by him enjoyed his literary abandon. According to Aristides, Governor Clinton had "dwindled into the mere instrument of an ambitious relative"; Richard Riker was "an imbecile and obsequious pettifogger, a vain and contemptible little pest who abandoned the Federal stand on the third day of the election in April, 1800"; John McKisson was "an execrable compound of every species of vice," a man whom Clinton exulted in knowing to be "a great scoundrel." Ambrose Spencer was "a man as notoriously infamous as the legitimate offspring of treachery and fraud can possibly be"; Samuel Osgood was "a born hypocrite," who "propagated falsehood for the purpose of slander and imposition"; Chancellor Livingston was a capricious, visionary theorist, "lamentably deficient in the practical knowledge of a politician, and heedless of important and laborious pursuits, at which his frivolous mind revolted."

DeWitt Clinton, however, was evidently the big moose that Aristides was stalking. He was "formed for mischief,' "inflated with vanity," "cruel by nature," an object of derision and disgust," "a dissolute and desperate intriguer," " an adept in moral turpitude; skilled in all the combination of treachery and fraud, with a mind matured by the practice of iniquity, and unalloyed by any virtuous principle." There was no limit to Aristides' investigations, no closet which might contain a family skeleton that he failed to search, no brain whose innermost thoughts he could not read. All that he found, or imagined, found its way unabridged into his letters. "was it not disgraceful to political controversy," he continued, as to DeWitt Clinton, "I would develop the dark and gloomy disorders of his malignant bosom, and trace each convulsive vibration of his wicked heart. He may yet be ranked among those who, though destitute of sound understandings, are still rendered dangerous to society by the intrinsic baseness of character that engenders hatred to everything good an valuable in the world; who, with barbarous malignity, view the prevalence of moral principles, and the extension of benevolent designs; who, foes to virtue, seek the subversion of every valuable institution and mediate the introduction of wild and furious disorders among the supporters of public virtue. His intimacy with men who have long since disowned all regard to decency and have become the daring advocate of every specie of atrocity; his indissoluble connection with those who, by their lives, have become the finished examples of profligacy and corruption; who have sworn enmity, severe and eternal, to the altar of out religion and the prosperity of our government, must infallibly exclude him from the confidence of reputable men. What sentiments can be entertained of him but those of hatred and contempt, when he is seen the constant associate of a man whose name has become synonymous with vice, a dissolute and fearless assassin of private character, of domestic comfort, and of social happiness; when he is known to be the bosom friend and supporter of the profligate and abandoned libertine, who, from the vulgar debauches of night, hastens again to the invasion of private property, who, through the robbery of the public revenue, and the violation of private seals, hurries down the precipice of deep and desperate villainy."

Van Ness thus links Cheetham and DeWitt Clinton, pointing to the latter as the inspiring genius behind the Cheetham pamphlets. If Cheetham's facts failed to convince because of the vindictiveness of their presentation, Aristides, in "developing the dark and gloomy disorders" of malignant" bosoms, failed to convince his interested readers of his reliability as an analyst. Nevertheless, gentleness cannot come out of violence; something is bound to tear loose when the storm is long continued. Penned charge brought countercharge, and as neither brought decisive effect, another and more emphatic method was adopted.

When Duelling was Supreme--It may be imagined that at no time did much love or fellow-feeling exist between DeWitt Clinton and Marshal John Swartout, the only Burr official. And at this time when venomous-shafted epithets were so recklessly thrown, one with an unusually sharp point might penetrate the thickest of hides and touch a tender spot. Sheriff Swartout inferred that DeWitt Clinton was jealous of the Vice-president, that his opposition to Burr "was based upon unworthy and selfish motives." Undoubtedly they were, though Clinton, then thirty-two years old, can hardly have had his eyes on the Presidency; his esteemed uncle was the rightful Clinton for that dignity, even though in more mature years DeWitt might hope to follow. At all events he called Swartout 'a liar, a scoundrel and a villain." Neither would retract, so Marshal Swartout sent a challenge which, in those days, even the most unscrupulous and dishonest could not ignore. Only the craven would shirk a duel. So, on the next morning, DeWitt Clinton, with his second--Richard Riker, the district-attorney--honored the challenge. They fought at Weehawken, both showing courage under fire. Three shots were exchanged without effect. With his fourth shot, Clinton wounded Swartout below the knee. While the surgeon probed for the bullet, Swartout reiterated his demand for an apology. Clinton would not give it, but offered to shake hands, and forget the incident. Swartout spurned such a termination of their differences, and stood steadily at his post, awaiting a renewal of the firing. Again, Clinton sent a shot into Swartout's left leg, this time near the ankle. Although the sheriff was not satisfied, Clinton declined to shoot again. He left the field sorry for Swartout, for in reality his grievance was against Burr. It is said that Clinton remarked to Riker, after the duel: "I wish I had the principal here." There was no doubt that he referred to Burr, to whose house the wounded sheriff was taken. Burr is said to have been present on the field, and one report has it that Clinton actually challenged him then; but this does not seem to be corroborated. Still, there was good opportunity then of removing on of his rivals. Henry Adams writes: "No one ever explained why Burr did not drag DeWitt Clinton from his ambush and shoot him, as two years later he shot Alexander Hamilton with less provocation." Clinton, in describing the duel to Henry Post, said: "It was a silly affair." He regretted that he had not declined to fight "the bully." Swartout, and have challenged Burr, "the principal."

Out of this duel another developed. The principals were District-Attorney Riker, who had been Clintons' second, and Robert Swartout, brother of the wounded sheriff. Riker was severely wounded.

The infection spread; dueling could not be kept a monopoly of Republican factions. Editor Coleman, of Hamilton's Federalist newspaper, the "Evening Post," had not been able to hold to his original intention, of keeping his newspaper free from "personal virulence, low sarcasm and verbal contentions with printers and editors." Instead of "inculcating just principles in religion and politics, as well as in morals," which he had at first thought to be the true mission of the "Post," William Coleman had being gradually drawn into the maelstrom of partisan politics. Words were thrown around recklessly until in one number of the "Post," Duane and Cheetham were accused of lying for pay. Cheetham challenged Coleman, and the encounter seemed imminent; but Justice Brockholst Livingston arrested both principles and bound them over to keep the peace. How this unusual development could prompt Harbor-Master Thompson to believe that Coleman lacked personal courage" is hard to understand; but he made public declaration of such a belief. Coleman at once send his second to Thompson. In due course, Thompson and Coleman met on Potter's Field, at what is now the foot of West Twenty-sixth Street. Captain Thompson was mortally wounded. Cheetham, his second, hurried the dying man to this sister's house, rang the doorbell, and then disappeared. Thompson refused to tell his sister the name of this antagonist. All he would say was that the had come by his wounds honorably, and that n attempt should be made "to seek out or molest his adversary." Duelling was unlawful except by the gentlemen's code, which was respected until with the death of Hamilton in the next year it began to dawn upon the consciousness of gentlemen that a better means of composing personal difference should be found. The nation could ill afford to lose such men as Hamilton.

Hamilton has, of course, dropped out of the story for some pages, just as he had dropped out of conspiracies political place when the Federalists passed out of power in 1801. He had resumed the practice of law in New York, and although he frequently came into contact with Burr, the antipathy between them had not reached the active vehemence of the current struggle for supremacy between DeWitt Clinton and the Vice-president. Hamilton, of course, was still one of the National leaders of the Federalist party, but that party had been so reduced that it did not represent as potential a factor for some years as some of the schisms in the ranks of the democracy.

DeWitt Clinton and Ambrose Spencer had relinquished patronage control in January, 1802, the legislature then naming another Council of Appointment. The new council was wholly Republican, but had nothing to do. All Federalist but one had been ousted from office by the old council, and that one, Josiah Ogden Hoffman, was quite ready to step down from the Attorney-Generalship, so that Spencer might step up. This happened; and another important change, seemingly pre-arranged, occurred in February, 1802, United States Senator John Armstrong giving way to DeWitt Clinton. The latter, by the way, was probably the youngest Senator, for he was not yet thirty-two years old; but he was one of the most aggressive. He went to the National Senate with even greater determination top pursue Burr than he had shown in New York. He was joined in the next month by Gouverneur Morris, Federalist.

It is somewhat doubtful whether DeWitt Clinton improved his standing with President Jefferson by going to Washington; there is reason believe that there was, indeed, little between the president and the Clintons at any time. The combativeness of the younger Clinton pleased Jefferson, when directed against Burr, but there was always the possibility that it might be turned against himself, who stood between the elder Clinton and the Presidency. At all events, DeWitt Clinton resigned the Senatorship in 1803, to become Mayor of New York City, succeeding Edward Livingston. Bailey resigned soon afterwards, to become post-master. Both seemed to prefer being in State than in National politics.

The Louisiana Purchase--Indeed, State politics was then developing more interestingly than national politics. The latter, as the Presidential year came round, could not generate any excitement. The Jefferson administration had been so fortunate--thanks mainly to the Jay treaty and to the protective measures initiated by the Adams administration--that the re-election of Jefferson was so probably as to be almost beyond conjecture. The grave change that had occurred in the political relations of the Untied States in 1800, when Spain ceded Louisiana to France, had been nullified in 1803, by the purchase of Louisiana from France. While France held Louisiana the Untied States would continue to be menaced, thought Jefferson. "There is on the globe," he wrote, "one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans, through which the produce of three-fourths of our territory must pass to market." Apprehension grew, when it was realized that if Napoleon decided to establish a new empire in Louisiana, it must inevitably weaken the United States, for in all probability some of the Mississippi Valley settlements would willingly adhere to the empire, or could be easily coerced into it. Again, if England should conquer France at sea, there would be always the possibility that she might seize this valuable outlying possession of her enemy. In that case, the predicament of the United States would be worse, for the British would have access to the whole of the important waters of the American interior--an almost continuous course from Canada to the sea at New Orleans. The crisis was, as Jefferson saw it, "the most important that the United States have ever met since their independence, and which is to decide their future character and career." #26 Monroe and Livingston were sent to France to purchase enough land at the mouth of the river to place its navigation definitely in the control of the United States. #27 Napoleon, influenced by the possibility that the United States would become as ally of her only unconquerable foe, Britain, if he should attempt to colonize Louisiana, offered to sell the whole of the American tract to the United States, for $15,000,000. The ownership changed hands at this figure, the great Napoleon finding consolation in the fact that the had, by the sale, added to England's enemies. "The sale," he said, " assures forever the power of the United States, and I have given England a rival who sooner or later will humble her pride."

The United States minister to France found even greater satisfaction in the purchase. "Today," he wrote, "the United States take their place among the powers of the first rank."

This great achievement by the Jefferson administration assured the Republicans a return to power in the 1804 elections. Burr for this outstanding service to the United States, it is just possible that voters would have seen that some of the ever-increasing prosperity of the nation was arising from the wise measure of the earlier Federalist administrations and statesmen. Jay's treaty with Britain was enhancing the maritime prosperity of the Nation by leaps and bounds; Hamilton's genius had given the nation a financial system which had so stabilized currency that the Untied States could enter the first rank of Nations as wearing a coat that, at least, was not out at elbows. The world was taking notice of a Nation not yet a generation old.

Nevertheless, the future was not altogether bright for the United States as then constituted. Indeed, the annexation of Louisiana found the New England Federalists cooler toward the Confederacy than ever. It confirmed the thought that political influence has shifted from the East to the West and South, and that henceforth Northern States of the Confederacy might expect to be treated with increasing indifference by national administrations. With democracy paramount, important interests would be sacrificed to the clamor of the mob, thought the cultured New Englanders. "We have a country governed by blockheads and dunces," said the brother of the president of Yale College to the students. The remedy, it seemed, lay in secession. "The principles of our Revolution," wrote Pickering to Cabot in 1804, "point to a remedy--a separation. . . .The people of the East cannot reconcile their habits, views, and interests with those of the South and West . . . I do not believe in the practicability of a long-continued Union. The Northern Confederacy would unite congenial characters, and present a fairer prospect of public happiness, while the Southern States, having a similarity of habits might be left to manage their affairs in their own way." New Englanders were discussing the question quite calmly. Principles of patriotism were not vitally involved. Indeed, many hardly looked upon the Untied States as yet a Nation. At most it was, as it were, a league of nations; therefore, promptings of patriotism would not be toward this league but toward the individual State. Many were beginning to believe that the future pointed to the functioning of three central governments in United States territory--the Northern Confederacy, the Southern States, and the Western Settlements. Federalists leaders in New England were beginning to see that their patriotic duty lay in recommending secession; and they made their plant without for a moment thinking that their actions would or could be traitorous. As John Quincy Adams said, years later, in referring to the plan, the annexation of Louisiana "was oppressive to the interests and destructive to the influence of the northern section of the Confederacy, whose right and duty it was, therefore, to secede from the new body politic and to constitute one of their own." Strange that they should think so, and that their sons and grandsons, in 1860, should look upon Southerners as traitors for harboring like thoughts. Still, such was the political situation among Federalists in the North in 1804. The plan of secession might have come more actively to the front had not Hamilton frowned upon the movement in that year. however, he could not stifle it altogether.

Burr Thwarted in All Directions--Maybe, this coolness of Northern States toward the central government had some influence over great New Yorkers of the Republican persuasion also. Perhaps it explains why DeWitt Clinton wished to get into the thick of State politics again, and why Burr had no desire to be Vice-president for another term. Burr would prefer to be Governor of New York. He may have thought of the potentialities of the secession movement long before its significance dawned upon others; he may have seen a tottering United States and an invincible Northern Confederacy, and have seen the latter naturally pivoting on New York. Therefore, pangs of jealousy would not come to him at the thought that George Clinton might step into his National shoes. The New Yorker product which Clinton would discard had sounder soles, and would fit Burr better. He may have thought that exchange, under such circumstances, was robbery, but the thought was not strong enough to deter him. So, as Governor Clinton's term neared its end, Burr began to think of ways and means, straight or devious, of making the exchange.

It seemed to him and his colleagues that the prospect was bright. Governor Clinton wanted the Vice-Presidency, and would not be deterred, even though his aggressive nephew was annoyed, and tried to get Jefferson to persuade him to continue as Governor. Jefferson was told of the National danger that might develop from the election of Aaron Burr to the Governorship, but he evidently did not fear this. Maybe, he thought that DeWitt Clinton had greater reason for fear--fear of an upheaval in New York that would not al all affect the national situation. Burr, as Governor, might rob young Clinton of some of the political power he held; but this would not necessarily undermine Jefferson. At all events, Jefferson would not interfere.

The gubernatorial contest in New York was in reality between two factions of the Republican party. The Federalists in the State were too weak, or too much disorganized, to put up a candidate. The fight was, therefore, between John Lansing, Jr., and Aaron Burr. Lansing, who had succeeded Livingston as Chancellor in 1802 was a strong candidate, somewhat independent, but nevertheless, aligned with Clinton Republicans. For some time he could not be persuaded to relinquish the Chancellorship--the highest judicial office of the State, a dignity which he might expect to enjoy for another ten years, when he would reach the constitutional age-limit-- to take up political responsibility which could only be assured him for three years. finally the persuasion of party ;leaders had effect. It was urged upon him that the alone could hold all factions of the Republicans together.

Within a day or two of the meeting of the legislative caucus at which Lansing was nominated, another caucus of members of the Legislature met in Albany, and nominated Aaron Burr. On the Lansing ticket was John Broome, part-owner of millions of acres of western New York. Among Burr's supporters were William P. Van Ness, the Yateses, Erastus Root, Jonathan Fisk, George Gardiner, Peter Townsend, James Burt, Marinus Willett, David M. Westcott, and Peter Buell Porter.

Burr apparently was not counting the odds. He seemed to be gambling with well-nigh empty pockets. Either, he had been so long in Washington that the real strength of the Clinton-Livingston-Spencer political machine had become only a hazy recollection, or he expected to get the disgruntled Democrats, as well as the dispossessed Federalists, on his side. The Clinton machine was still as strong as ever. "Its managers were skilled masters of the political art, confident of success, fearless of criticism, unscrupulous in methods, and indefatigable in attention to details. They controlled the Council of Appointments, its appointees controlled the Assembly, and the Assembly elected the council--an endless chain of links, equally strong and equally selfish. To make opposition the more fruitless, the distrust of Burr, hammered into the masses by Cheetham's pen, practically amounted to a forfeiture of party confidence. . . . . . .Rarely, has a candidate for governor encountered greater odds." #28

The odds mattered little to Burr, in that stage of his affairs. Most gamblers reach the stage where figures have no significance, where they would prefer to risk all on a lucky turn of the wheel than to follow a cautious plan that promised safety but only a slight advantage. Burr gambled for Federalist support, and almost won it. While it would not be sufficient in itself, the Federalist vote coupled with that of his faction of the Republicans might have seriously jolted the much vaunted Clinton machine. But it was not to be. The personal equation arose to nullify all political arguments in favor of Burr.

Fate, in the form of his old rival Alexander Hamilton, came like a shadow over Burr's campaign sheet when the sun seemed to be shining on it at its brightest. The Federalists were inclining toward Burr, the independent candidate, at the time General Hamilton came to Albany, in February, 1804, to argue for a new trial of the action against Harry Croswell, editor of a Federalist newspaper, who had been convicted of libelling President Jefferson. Hamilton always had a host of admirers, perhaps more who admired him for his brilliancy as a lawyer than as a statesman. Certainly, his professional following had been stronger during the past few years, for he had applied himself more to legal practice than to political effort. Some, no doubt, looked upon Hamilton as the leading lawyer of the land. Daniel Webster had not yet begun to practice, and another decade was to pass before he reached prominence at the bar, but Justice Ambrose Spencer, before whom both practiced, was of the opinion that: "In creative power Hamilton was infinitely Webster's superior." #29 However, in this case, in 1804, at Albany, Hamilton surpassed himself. Chancellor James Kent thought that his argument in this Croswell case was "the greatest forensic effort he ever made." "He never before in my hearing made any effort in which he commanded higher reverence for his principles, nor equal admiration of the power and pathos of his eloquence." #30

Hamilton was greater than ever to those Federalists who were in Albany at that time. His opinion, political, professional or personal, carried more weight with them than it had ever done. They gathered round him at Lewis's Tavern, after the court hearing, eager to know what he thought of the veering of Federalists to Burr for the Governorship.

Of course, Hamilton had many personal reasons. His instinctive aversion to the grandson of Jonathan Edwards was quite sufficient to keep him from following the drift. This was a personal aversion; his intuitive dislike of the man would not hold other Federalists back now.

He must state political reasons. Hamilton had expressed himself quite strongly in 1801, when in justifying his preference of Jefferson to Burr, he had declared that Burr "has no principles, public or private; could be bound by no argument; will listen to no monitor but his ambition; and for this purpose will use the worst portion of the community as a ladder to climb to permanent power, and an instrument to crush the better part. He is sanguine enough to hope everything, daring enough to attempt everything; wicked enough to scruple nothing." #31 But now, after three more years of scheming by such a character, Hamilton had much more to say, in substantiation. He let some of the admiring friends who gathered around him at Lewis's Tavern know a little more of the inner secrets of the secessionist movement, and of Burr's implication therein. For months a Federalist faction in New England had, "in a stifled mysterious manner," been spreading the thought that a dissolution of the Union was necessary "to save Federalism." United States Senator Pickering and Congressman Griswold had been the most active propagandists. Pickering, in a letter to George Cabot, had declared that separation "must begin in Massachusetts, but New York must be the center of the Confederacy." This Confederacy, he had informed Rufus King, should unite the five New England States with New York and New Jersey. They were eager to bring about the election of Aaron Burr, as Governor of New York, after Hamilton had been approached as to secession and had positively disapproved of the project. Oliver Wolcott ere long told Hamilton of the bargain Griswold had made with Burr. As Henry Adams describes it: "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. #32 Only a bold leader could lead New England Federalism to secession; and they recognized that Burr's peculiar situation fitted him for the venture. Burr's political career was either at an end, or was only just beginning--half-measures would only carry him to oblivion.

At the Lewis's Tavern conference, Hamilton admitted that Burr, aided by Federalists and a "great body" of Democrats, might destroy Republicanism as held by Jefferson, and place himself at the head of a northern party favoring disunion, thus bringing civil war or National disintegration. "If he be truly, as the Federalist have believed, a man of irregular and insatiable ambition," continued Hamilton, " he will endeavor to rise to power on the ladder of Jacobin principles, not leaning on a fallen party, unfavorable to usurpation and the ascendancy of a despotic chief, but rather on popular prejudices and vices, ever ready to desert a government by the people at a moment when he ought, more than ever, to adhere to it." Hamilton thought Lansing was preferable. At least his personal character "affords some security against pernicious extremes"; moreover, his independence would undoubtedly lead him to clash with DeWitt Clinton and the Republican machine." Hamilton thought it wiser "to foster schisms among Democrats than to give them a chief, better able than any they have yet had to unite and direct them," to the detriment of Federalists.

Unfortunately for Federalists, Chancellor Lansing clashed with the Clintons too early. Within a week of the Lewis's Tavern conference, the republicans had to look for another candidate. Lansing had withdrawn. He had refused to permit the Clintons to dictate his appointments, and, therefore, was not wanted. Morgan Lewis stepped into the breach, after DeWitt Clinton had been rejected because of his youth, and Ambrose Spencer because of his Federalist antecedent.

 

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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