Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2012


It was always going to be a close election.
It's easier to kill your political enemies.
Presidential candidate Thomas Jefferson was so concerned by the outcome of the 1800 poll that he hired the organisational genius, Aaron Burr, as his running mate.
It was to lead to one of the dirtiest and most sensational campaigns in history.
Aaron Burr was a force to be reckoned with. He had already served as senator for New York and had also founded the Bank of the Manhattan Company (which became JP Morgan Chase).
More importantly, he had transformed the influential Tammany Hill social club into a slick political machine.
Aaron Burr, organisational genius
This was the machine that Jefferson hoped would elect him and Burr to the highest office.
Their challenger was the incumbent president, John Adams, who might have stood a better chance had it not been for a smear campaign organised by Alexander Hamilton, a member of his own party.
Hamilton was no longer Secretary of the Treasury but he remained a hugely influential figure. He detested John Adams and instead supported running-mate, Charles Pinckney. He did everything possible to wreck Adams’ chances and he also did his best to derail the Jefferson-Burr campaign.
Jefferson: Mr President?
Or Mr Vice President?
Thus began a presidential campaign that was marred by smears, lies and - eventually - murder.
Hamilton’s opening shot was to write a hostile pamphlet about Adams. The pamphlet fell into the hands of Jefferson and Burr who realised it was political dynamite. They immediately published it, with the result that Adams’ campaign was seriously derailed.
After many more political smears, it became clear that Jefferson was set to win the election. But no one had foreseen the voting complications that would follow.
In 1800, the constitutional rules determined that each presidential elector had two votes, to be cast for different men. The one who got the most became president; the one who came second became vice president.
Hamilton: master of dirty tricks
On this occasion, the system led to farce. When the Electoral College voted, Jefferson and his running mate Burr both received 73 votes. It was an unprecedented outcome and it required the House of Representatives to choose between the two men.
Alexander Hamilton once again played a decisive role. He had already dashed the hopes of one political rival. Now, he was determined to stop Aaron Burr, whom he also detested.
For the first 35 ballots, Jefferson and Burr remained tied with equal votes assigned to them. But in the 36th ballot, Hamilton managed to secure the votes of Maryland and Vermont for Jefferson.
After a tortuous and dirty campaign, Jefferson was sworn in as president, with Burr as vice president.
Winner takes all: electoral map, 1800.
But that was by no means the end of the story. When Vice President Burr also ran for the governorship of New York, Hamilton once again organised a smear campaign. He described Burr as ‘a dangerous man and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government.’
Burr was outraged and challenged Hamilton to personal combat: they would fight a duel with pistols.
Duelling was outlawed in New York and the punishment for conviction for staging a duel was death. The two rivals therefore men in New Jersey, where the punishment was less severe.
They met a dawn on 11 July, 1804, and Hamilton had the advantage of the sun rising behind his opponent, providing him with a clearly defined silhouette. The pistol he was using had been used in a previous duel that killed his 19-year-old son.
Bang, bang, you're dead. 
There was a tense moment as the two men walked to their respective positions in the woodland. Then, at the agreed moment, each man turned to face his opponent.
Hamilton fired a split second before Burr. His missed his target and the smoke was still drifting from his gun when Burr fired his shot.
The two pistols.
He scored a direct hit: the bullet pierced Hamilton’s abdomen just above his right hip and shattering his liver and spine. In agony, Hamilton was transported to a friend’s house in Manhattan where he died on the following day.
Vice President Burr was charged with murder in both New York and New Jersey, but escaped being brought to justice by fleeing to South Carolina. Within a very short time he dared to return to Washington in order to finish his term as Vice President. Amazingly, all charges against him were eventually dropped.
They haven't killed each other. Yet. 
His chequered career was not yet over. He would later be tried for treason and eventually fled to England where he attempted to rebuild his fortunes. He then changed his name to Edwards and returned to New York where he died in 1836.
The most enduring legacy of his colourful election to the Vice Presidency was the Twelfth Amendment to the US Constitution that ensured that the electoral shambles of 1800 could never be repeated.
His other legacy - not entirely his own doing - was the smears, lies and dirty tricks that continue to dominate US presidential elections. 

UK paperback
I am the author of seven works of narrative history including the best-selling Nathaniel's Nutmeg and, most recently, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War. If you'd like to buy my books, click here for UK readers and here for US readers. For more information about my books, visit


  1. Campaigns can seem very bitter today, but nineteenth century elections on both sides of the pond were, as you show here, even more vicious. Dicken's "Pickwick Papers" features a very rumbustuous English parliamentary election though at least, as far as I can recall, no one dies as a result.

    Incidentally, in the section about Burr running for the governorship of New York, you appear to have one too many Hamiltons: "...Hamilton once again organised a smear campaign. He described Hamilton as ‘a dangerous man...'". Presumably, that second Hamilton should be a Burr? (Desperately hoping I don't look like a smart alec!)

  2. David,
    Many thanks for this - and yes, English elections were riotous and often fuelled by gallons of gin.
    You're right about too many Hamiltons: I'll change it right away!
    Many thanks,