Like all men, even the greatest among them, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and Aaron Burr were not without their human foibles.
Hamilton was gratingly arrogant, thin-skinned, emotionally volatile, and quick to go on the defensive. He was a statesman, not a diplomatic, and while he was brilliant and extremely persuasive in his arguments, he allowed himself to be governed too often by his passions—often to his own detriment.
Jefferson, in contrast, was the model of diplomacy. Mild-mannered and plain-spoken, he won popularity with his masterful manipulation of words and ideas. Beneath that genteel exterior, however, beat the heart of a ruthless passive-aggressive who plotted against his enemies behind their backs.
And then there is Burr, an unprincipled, self-serving, and power-hungry sensualist by all accounts who thumbed his nose at social and religious mores.
When the presidential election of 1800 resulted in a deadlock between Jefferson and Burr, Hamilton, after considerable soul-searching, conducted a furious letter-writing campaign to urge fellow Federalists to vote for Jefferson, even though their visions for America were opposed. His reasons? While Jefferson’s principles were misguided, at least he had some. “In a choice of Evils let them take the least,” he wrote to a fellow Federalist at the time. “Jefferson is in every view less dangerous than Burr.”
Yes, these great men had their flaws—negative traits that earned all three numerous enemies, including each other. Their intense dislike for one another eventually led to tragedy for all but Jefferson, whose cunning and well-planned attacks destroyed the reputations and political careers of the other two.
While Hamilton and Burr enjoyed center stage, Jefferson preferred to watch from behind the scenery. He had a brilliant and calculating mind and he thrived on intrigues. He understood that his opponent’s secrets and faults were valuable political capital he could use to his advantage--and he took great care to collect and record what he heard in the diary he called Anas.
“Gossip was everywhere,” wrote Joanne B. Freeman in “Slander, Poison, Whispers, and Fame: Jefferson’s Anas and Political Gossip,” which appeared in the Journal of the Early Republic in 1995. “Jefferson fumed against Hamilton’s slanders, and Hamilton raged against Jefferson’s whispers.”
Jefferson would have heard or observed that Hamilton was a determined flirt with a weakness for women (especially pretty, vampy ones like Maria Reynolds). Whether true or not, rumors of the treasury secretary’s extramarital affairs abounded. Jefferson also knew his sworn enemy would defend his honor to the death, despite his claims of religious and moral opposition to the practice of dueling. Hamilton had made his views on the subject clear when he nearly challenged Jefferson’s pal James Monroe to a duel in 1797 over the leak of the Reynolds Affair.
As for Burr, Jefferson knew very well what sort of man he was long before he became his vice president. Burr, being devoid of morals or principles, would do anything for money and/or increased political clout.
Did Jefferson exploit this intelligence to eliminate his political enemies? If he did, it was a plan of such evil genius, no one suspects Jefferson’s involvement, despite the political stronghold he gained in the aftermath.
Yes, the possibility that Jefferson bargained with Burr to assassinate Hamilton tampers with national myths passionately held, but sometimes our idols must be smashed in the quest for truth.
“Most Americans as well as a majority of historians regard Jefferson as something of a saint, Hamilton as a martyr, and Burr as an outright villain,” wrote Arnold A. Rogow in Fatal Friendship: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (Hill & Wang, 1998). “If, however, the tampering which follows has any credence, all three characterizations are somewhat exaggerated. This is not to deny that Jefferson, in writing most of the Declaration of Independence and insisting upon the addition of a Bill of Rights to the Constitution, achievements of much greater importance for the American political tradition than any accomplishment of his presidency, insured that he would be remembered forever by those who cherish freedom. Nor can it be doubted that Hamilton, intellectually brilliant, perhaps a genius, contributed more than any other American of his era to the economic stability of the new Republic by restoring confidence at home and abroad in the nation’s credit, and by founding the banking system.”
Burr, on the other hand, “achieved little and contributed nothing of lasting value to his country,” in Rogow’s estimation. Some historians in recent years have attempted to defend Burr’s honor, pointing to the enlightened way in which he raised and educated his daughter, Theodosia. He was a man ahead of his time, they insist, a pioneering feminist in an age of misogyny.
Still others (most notably Gore Vidal) have insinuated that Burr’s relationship with his daughter was more incestuous than progressive. If that is true, it would not have been the first time in history a widower expected his eldest daughter to assume her mother’s duties, not excluding those of a conjugal nature.
Nevertheless, it seems far more likely the outlets for Burr’s pedophilic tendencies (if indeed he had any) were the many orphans and young refugees he took under his wing. That, at least, was the rumor of the day—and quite possibly the “despicable” thing Hamilton said that led to his death.
Whatever Burr’s crimes or contributions might or might not have been, gossip, rumors, and accusations followed him throughout his life. He was said to consort openly with prostitutes, seduce genteel virgins, have affairs with women of high and low birth, and exploit public office for private gain. Burr also fathered two illegitimate children by his East Indian servant Mary Emmons (a.k.a. Eugénie Bearhani) and did many favors for Maria Reynolds, including handling her divorce and finding her employment after she split from her second husband. Did they have an affair? Knowing both their reputations for licentiousness, it seems likely.
Hamilton frequently described Burr as “profligate” and “a voluptuary in the extreme,” suggesting it might have been more than Burr’s frequent affairs to which he objected. Doing so, after all, would have made him a hypocrite, given his own established and rumored transgressions. These included his sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler Church, who also maintained a bosom friendship with Jefferson, and Eliza Bowen Jumel, who later married and divorced Burr after he murdered Hamilton.
Jefferson, too, had unsuitable liaisons—with Betsy Walker, the wife of a close friend, and his slave, Sally Hemings, who bore him several bastard children (DNA results confirm his fatherhood of all but one of her children). While serving as the U.S. Minister to France, he also forged intimate (and perhaps sexual) bonds with two other married women: Maria Cosway and Angelica Church, with whom he exchanged affectionate correspondence for many years thereafter.
Their cross-over relationships with Mrs. Reynolds and Madame Jumel suggest that Burr and Hamilton might have had similar taste in women—one of the few things these two political and professional rivals had in common apart from their brilliant minds, shrewd cunning, and persuasive verbal skills—traits Jefferson also possessed in abundance.
All three also shared a psychic wound inflicted early in life by the death or abandonment of their parents. The scar this left on their psyches manifested itself differently in each man, but can be seen in the actions and ambitions of them all.
In Jefferson, the wound showed itself as a need to be loved. That is the underlying reason he pursued public office and public approval throughout most of his life—and also why he resigned his posts whenever he felt unappreciated.
In Hamilton, his parental abandonment fueled an insatiable thirst for fame and glory—not because he
craved approval and popularity to fill the inner void the way Jefferson did, but as a means to overcome his humble and illegitimate beginnings. At that time in colonial America (and long after the revolution) all men were not perceived as equal. Because the British class system was still very much in force, the quickest way someone born out of wedlock in the Danish West Indies could rise above his station was by distinguishing himself in the service of his country, either as a soldier or statesman.
In the era of the American Revolution, “fame” had a special meaning having little to do with celebrity. For Hamilton and the other founders, fame was inextricably linked with honor and a special kind of achievement.
In the Essays of Sir Francis Bacon, which the young Hamilton studied assiduously (as did Jefferson, Burr, and many other learned men of the day), the English philosopher and organizer of knowledge dismissed the praise of the common people as irrelevant to seekers after true fame. Winning fame, Bacon maintained, meant winning the praise not of the masses, but from persons of judgment and quality.
In Bacon’s model, there are five rungs on the ladder of fame. On the lowest are Fathers of the Country, who “reign justly and make the times good wherein they live.” Next are Champions of Empire, leaders who enlarge their country through conquest or defend her against invaders. On the next rung up are Saviors of Empire, who deliver their country from the miseries of tyrants or the chaos of civil wars. Then come the Great Lawgivers, such as Solon, Lycurgus, and Justinian. Finally, at the summit, are Founders of Empires—men like Julius Caesar and Cyrus of Persia who were at once great generals and wise legislators.
This is the kind of “fame” to which Hamilton aspired—greatness rather than celebrity. And that was undoubtedly why he was so punctilious about keeping his honor and integrity squeaky clean. Yes, he had at least one affair, but attitudes about infidelity were different back then. Men, it was widely believed, required regular ejaculation to maintain good health and, if their wives were unable to accommodate their needs, they were obliged to seek another vessel for their release. Most men went to prostitutes to fill their unmet needs—unless, like Jefferson, they owned slaves who would do as well, without the risk of the pox.
And while we’re on the subject of Sally Hemings, forget Hollywood’s romanticized portrayals of the relationship between her and Jefferson. She probably meant no more to her master than the bucket of ice-water he soaked his feet in every night—also for the sake of his good health. Southern slave-owners back then impregnated their female slaves, often by force, both to purify the African race, which was considered inferior to whites, and to increase their slave holdings.
Despite his inspiring passages on liberty and equality in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was hardly enlightened on matters of race. In Notes on the State of Virginia, he admitted his repugnance to the color, hair, physiques, and smell of Africans. Accepting the “deep-rooted prejudices” of his day and age, Jefferson also believed blacks to be slow, lazy, oversexed, less capable than whites of reasoning, and on the whole an inferior race. [Source: Notes on the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson].
Jefferson, therefore, probably chose Sally as his “mistress” because she was a quadroon (three-fourths white) and, therefore, nearly Caucasian in appearance. Contemporary accounts describe her as having "dusky" skin and straight black hair. Her children by her master were seven-eighths white. Some even had their father’s signature red hair.
Hamilton, conversely, despised the institution of slavery, advocated for the recruitment of black soldiers in the Continental Army, and was a founding member of the New York Manumission Society, an organization devoted to the abolition of slavery. The Society, founded by John Jay in 1785, kept up a relentless pressure of economic intimidation, including hectoring newspaper editors against advertising slave sales, pressuring auction houses and ship-owners to abandon the import and sale of slaves, and providing legal aid to slaves suing their masters.
Though a slave-owner himself, Burr also promoted the abolition of slavery. Working closely with the Manumission Society, he introduced an amendment into the New York Assembly calling for the immediate emancipation of slaves in New York. The amendment failed, but eventually resulted in the passage of a bill sanctioning the gradual emancipation of slaves in New York.
The above is excerpted from my work-in-progress, All-Out Warfare: The Jeffersonian Conspiracy to Destroy Alexander Hamilton.
Hi, I'm Nina Mason, an author, investigative journalist, history buff, and self-professed Hamilton fan (not the musical, the historical figure). Herein, I will share interesting tidbits related to my investigation into my belief that the Reynolds Affair and duel with Aaron Burr were part of a larger conspiracy against Hamilton directed by Thomas Jefferson.