Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Governor Clinton, Livingstons, Schuylers, James Duane, Rufus King and the Hamilton-Burr Feud

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 4th, 2012

Politics 101

Alexander Hamilton was an Illegitimate Child whose Father abandoned his Family

America is the land of opportunity.  Where anyone can achieve great success.  In America you can be self-made.  You don’t need a good last name to get you places.  We have no nobility here.  No aristocracy.  Here, everyone has an equal chance.  If you have drive and ambition and talent and patience the sky is the limit.  You can go from rags to riches if you have the desire and refuse to give up.  You may fail.  And a lot of people do.  But you get to try.  Something you just can’t do in many other parts of the world.

That said it often helped to have a good last name in America.  Back in the 18th century people still married to improve their social standing, political power and wealth.  That’s why powerful families often held most of the power in cities and states.  Especially around the Founding.  And if you crossed some of these families there was going to be some payback.  So people were careful to cultivate good relationships with people that ‘mattered’.  Especially in the military.  Where the gentlemen of the finest families filled the officer corps.  Including a young Alexander Hamilton.

Hamilton’s father, James, had a good last name but he long destroyed it before Alexander could profit from it.  Worse, Alexander Hamilton was an illegitimate child.  A child of adultery.  Fathered by James.  Then James lost the family money.  And abandoned his family.  Forcing eleven year old Alexander to get a job as a clerk at Cruger and Beckman, a New York trading house on the Caribbean island of St. Croix.  Where he advanced to bookkeeper.  Then to manager.  Helping him to master the skills of business and finance.  As he grew into a young man he was smart, dashing, talented and ambitious.  He had everything to succeed in the finest social circles.  Except a good last name.

Everything Hamilton was Denied by his Birth Burr was Given

That changed in the United States.  During the American Revolution.  After leaving St. Croix he arrived in New York.  And fell into the good graces of the Livingston family of New York.  A very good last name.  One of the best in the state.  Having been accepted in this circle of aristocracy made Hamilton a true gentleman.  Which qualified him for the most esteemed duty in the Revolutionary War.  Aide-de-camp to General George Washington.  Confidant and advisor to the Commander in Chief.  A very restricted inner circle.  Restricted to only the best of the best of last names.

Included in that inner circle was another ambitious young officer.  Aaron Burr.  Who was very similar to Hamilton in many ways.  But very different in one way.  Burr had a very good last name.  Everything Hamilton was denied by his birth Burr was given.  And there was one more difference.  Though both were ambitious Hamilton was driven by principle while Burr was driven by pride.  For Burr everything was about what was best for Burr.  While Hamilton put the country first.  Even though he was just as ambitious as Burr.

Burr would leave his post as aide-de-camp following a clandestine love affair.  It was the kind of thing General Washington would frown upon.  But there was another reason for leaving than avoiding a potential falling out with the general.  Burr just didn’t like Washington.  Who was very dignified, proper and reserved.  Which Burr found boring.  He was a dashing figure.  He was an officer who sought glory.  And the ladies.  Something he took great pride in.  His reputation as a lover.

When General Schuyler came up for Reelection the Livingstons wanted their Revenge and backed Burr

Fast forward to the Washington administration.  And the Hamilton and Jefferson feud.  The war between the Federalists and the Republicans.  Hamilton and his Federalists were losing their hold of power to Jefferson’s Republicans.  Jefferson had done a good job in his attacks against Hamilton and caused some defections in the Federalist Party.  The farmers in the South and out west did not like Hamilton’s designs for the country.  Based more on commerce and manufacturing.  And less on farming.  Worse, it was commerce and manufacturing supported by banking.  Even Federalist support was waning in his own state.  New York.  Which Hamilton needed to keep control of the Congress.  He had to have Federalist win the upcoming elections in New York so they would select Federalist Senators to the U.S. Senate.  There was only one problem.  Governor Clinton.

Clinton fought against the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.  But he lost.  And his power was on the wane.  He had the support of the farmers.  But not the Livingstons or the Schuylers.  The two most powerful families in the New York aristocracy.  Who were aligned against him.  And they were Federalists.  While he was a Republican.  Hamilton gave the Federalists their campaign slogan for the upcoming election.  Unanimity and Exertion.  To emphasize the importance of being unified.  So the Livingstons and the Schuylers unified.  And it worked.  The Federalists won both the state assembly and the state senate.  Which meant the Federalists would be choosing the state’s senators to Congress (prior to the 17th Amendment a state’s legislature chose their senators).  And the Livingstons and the Schuylers having done their part they were ready to have one of their own fill those two seats.  The Livingstons wanted James Duane.  The Schuylers wanted General Schuyler.  There was only one problem.  Hamilton.  Who wanted Rufus King to be one of those senators.

Hamilton had connections to both families.  The Livingstons helped him start his career.  And General Schuyler was his father-in-law.  Yet King was a loyal Hamiltonian.  And that’s who Hamilton wanted.  He even got his father-in-law to support Rufus King over James Duane.  Which did not go over well with the Livingstons.  So much for unity.  The Livingstons not only broke with the Schuylers.  They joined forces with Governor Clinton.  Greatly bolstering his power.  It was a whole new game in New York.  Tilting the power from the Federalist to the Republican.  Then another player entered the picture.  Aaron Burr.  Who was a lawyer like Hamilton.  Even got along well with him.  Until the ratification of the Constitution.  And Burr took an interest in politics.  Becoming a Federalist.  Along with Hamilton.  But always subordinate to Hamilton within the party.  Something his ego just couldn’t have.  So he switched parties.  And accepted a Clinton appointment as attorney general.  Hamilton tried to win him back to the Federalists by appealing to his principles.  But Burr had no principles.  He was strictly out for himself.  So he stuck by Clinton for the time being.  Because he had more to offer at the time.  Like a U.S. Senate seat.

When General Schuyler came up for reelection the Livingstons wanted their revenge.  So they joined with the Clintonians and backed Burr for Schuler’s seat.  Burr won.  A humiliating defeat for Hamilton and the Schuylers.  Trying not to burn his bridges back to the Federalist Party Burr said he would challenge Clinton one day for the governorship.  If they’d support him.  Which he thought they would.  For they wanted to throw Clinton out of office.  But Hamilton was a man of principle.  Burr was not.  Hamilton would provide no Federalist support for Burr.  So Burr gave up on that idea.  And set his sights on the vice presidency of the United States.  As unprincipled as Burr was Hamilton could not let that happen.  And actively opposed Burr.  Thus beginning the great feud that would end on the heights of Weehawken in New Jersey.  The favorite dueling ground for New Yorkers.

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