Front Page Titles (by Subject) 1801 - to james ross 2 - The Works of Alexander Hamilton, (Federal Edition), vol. 10
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1801 - to james ross 2 - Alexander Hamilton, The Works of Alexander Hamilton, (Federal Edition), vol. 10 
The Works of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Henry Cabot Lodge (Federal Edition) (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904). In 12 vols. Vol. 10.
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to james ross 2
Letters which myself and others have received from Washington give me much alarm at the prospect that Mr. Burr may be supported by the Federalists in preference to Mr. Jefferson. Be assured, my dear sir, that this would be a fatal mistake. From a thorough knowledge of the characters, I can pronounce with confidence that Mr. Burr is the last man in the United States to be supported by the Federalists.
First. It is an opinion firmly entertained by his enemies and not disputed by his friends, that, as a man, he is deficient in honesty. Some very sad stories are related of him. That he is bankrupt for a large deficit, is certain. Second. As a politician, discerning men of both parties admit that he has but one principle—to get power by any means, and to keep it by all means. Third. Of an ambition too irregular and inordinate to be content with institutions that leave his power precarious, he is of too bold and sanguine a temper to think any thing too hazardous to be attempted, or too difficult to be accomplished. Fourth. As to talents, they are great for management and intrigue—but he is yet to give the first proofs that they are equal to the act of governing well. Fifth. As to his theory, no man can tell what it is. Institutions that would serve his own purposes (such as the government of France of the present day), not such as would promise lasting prosperity and glory to the country, would be his preference, because he cares only for himself, and nothing for his country or glory. Sixth. Certain that his irregular ambition cannot be supported by good men, he will court and employ the worst men of all parties as the most eligible instruments. Jacobinism in its most pernicious form will scourge the country. Seventh. As to foreign politics, war will be a necessary means of power and wealth. The animosity to the British will be the handle by which he will attempt to wield the nation to that point. Within a fortnight he has advocated positions, which, if acted upon, would in six months place us in a state of war with that power. From the elevation of such a man may heaven preserve the country. Should it be by the means of the Federalists, I should at once despair. I should see no longer any thing upon which to rest the hope of public or private prosperity.
No. Let the Federalists vote for Jefferson.
But, as they have much in their power, let them improve the situation to obtain assurances from him:
to gouverneur morris
Jan. 9, 1801.
I have lately, my dear sir, written you two letters. As they contained some delicate topics, I shall be glad to know that they got to hand.
It has occurred to me that perhaps the Federalists may be disposed to play the game of preventing an election, and leaving the executive power in the hands of a future President of the Senate. This, if it could succeed, would be, for obvious reasons, a most dangerous and unbecoming policy. But it is well it should be understood that it cannot succeed. The Anti-federalists, as a body, prefer Jefferson, but among them are many who will be better suited by the dashing, projecting spirit of Burr, and who, after doing what they will suppose to be saving appearances, they will go over to Mr. Burr. Edward Livingston has declared among his friends that his first ballot will be for Jefferson; his second for Burr.
The present is a crisis which demands the exertions of men who have an interest in public order.
to gouverneur morris
Jan. 10, 1801.
I thank you, my dear sir, for your letter of the 5th instant. The scruples you express about the ratification of the convention are very respectable. No well-informed man can doubt that it is an exceptionable instrument, but I continue of the opinion that it is best, upon the whole, to ratify it unconditionally.
It does not appear to me that, on fair construction, the existence of the old treaties is recognized, though a right of mutual indemnities as to the past is admitted. But inasmuch as it is declared that they shall hereafter have no effect until a future agreement, this appears to me to amount to the consent of France that they shall become inoperative and null, unless they shall be revived by the consent of the United States. So far I think that some thing is gained. For the right of one party to annul a treaty is a litigious right, never consummated till the other party waives its opposition. This is now in substance done by France. And, in my opinion, to have advanced so far is a matter of considerable importance.
The indemnification for spoliation is, I admit, virtually relinquished as the price of the waiver of the treaties; but considering our situation, and the immense and growing power of France, that price is not too great.
Further, there are such potent obstacles in the nature of things to the obtaining of effectual indemnification, that it is very well to leave it to the chapter of accidents.
The restoration of ships-of-war is an unpleasant, and, I do not deny, rather a humiliating thing.
But as it is in form reciprocal, it does not seem to me that unequivocal species of dishonor which ought to induce us to run great risks. Our conduct heretofore has gone on the ground that, though we ought not to submit to unequivocal disgrace, yet we ought not to be too susceptible or overcurious and nice. In this spirit we have borne a great deal, sometimes too much, from all the belligerents. Circumstances do not now invite to a different course. Our rapid progress to strength will, erelong, encourage to and warrant higher pretensions.
You seem to have gotten over the difficulty of the supposed collision between the convention and our treaty with Britain. You already know that this accords with my opinion. Yet it seems to me the most thorny point, as it draws into question our faith towards a third power.
This gotten over, there is not, in my apprehension, any remaining obstacle to a full ratification which may not be overcome.
The limitation of the treaty as to time is doubtless desirable, but we may be sure it will not be eternal in fact. Perpetual peace will not exist. A war cuts the knot, and leaves us free to renew or not, to renew absolutely, or with qualifications.
With this view of the subject, I do not consider the objections to a simple ratification to be strong enough to countervail the dangers of a qualified one, which certainly will leave it in the option of the other party to recede.
It is possible that, in the pride of success, our backwardness to ratify may be the pretext of a rupture to punish the presumption. Under existing circumstances, such an event would be disastrous, if not for the evils which the arms of France might inflict, yet for the hazard of internal schisms and discord. The mania for France has in a great degree revived in our country, and the party which should invite a rupture would be likely to be ruined.
Perhaps, with the administration we are going to have, there may be less danger of rupture than with one of a different cast; yet not much reliance can be placed on this circumstance, and there is another side to the question which deserves attention.
If the present convention be ratified, our relations to France will have received a precise shape. To take up the subject anew and mould it into a shape better according with Jacobin projects will not be as easy as finding the whole business open to give it that shape. I think it politic, therefore, to close as far as we can.
Again, it will be of consequence to the federal cause in future to be able to say the federal administration steered the vessel through all the storms raised by the contentions of Europe into a peaceful and safe port. This cannot be said if the contest with France continues open.
Inclosed you have some recent intelligence which seems to strengthen the argument for a simple ratification. Great Britain stands on a precipice. The misfortune for her is that there are manifest symptoms of a depreciated and depreciating paper currency. This may cut deep.
The result is that good understanding with the United States is more than ever necessary to Great Britain. She will not lightly take umbrage while France is in a position to ride a high horse. These facts cannot prudently be excluded from the calculation.
So our eastern friends want to join the armed neutrality and make war upon Britain. I infer this from their mad propensity to make Burr President. If Jefferson has prejudices leading to that result, he has defects of character to keep him back. Burr, with the same propensities, will find the thing necessary to his projects, and will dare to hazard all consequences. They may as well think to bind a giant by a cobweb as his ambition by promises.
to james a. bayard
Jan. 16, 1801.
I was glad to find, my dear sir, by your letter that you had not yet determined to go with the current of the federal party in the support of Mr. Burr, and that you were resolved to hold yourself disengaged till the moment of final decision. Your resolution to separate yourself in this instance from the federal party, if your conviction shall be strong of the unfitness of Mr. Burr, is certainly laudable. So much does it coincide with my ideas, that if the party shall, by supporting Mr. Burr as President, adopt him for their official chief, I shall be obliged to consider myself as an isolated man. It will be impossible for me to reconcile with my notions of honor or policy the continuing to be of a party which, according to my apprehension, will have degraded itself and the country.
I am sure, nevertheless, that the motives of many will be good, and I shall never cease to esteem the individuals, though I shall deplore a step which, I fear, experience will show to be a very fatal one. Among the letters which I receive assigning the reasons pro and con for preferring Burr to J., I observe no small exaggeration to the prejudice of the latter, and some things taken for granted as to the former, which are at least questionable. Perhaps myself the first, at some expense of popularity, to unfold the true character of Jefferson, it is too late for me to become his apologist; nor can I have any disposition to do it.
I admit that his politics are tinctured with fanaticism; that he is too much in earnest in his democracy; that he has been a mischievous enemy to the principal measures of our past administration; that he is crafty and persevering in his objects; that he is not scrupulous about the means of success, nor very mindful of truth, and that he is a contemptible hypocrite. But it is not true, as is alleged, that he is an enemy to the power of the Executive, or that he is for confounding all the powers in the House of Representatives. It is a fact which I have frequently mentioned, that, while we were in the administration together, he was generally for a large construction of the Executive authority and not backward to act upon it in cases which coincided with his views. Let it be added that in his theoretic ideas he has considered as improper the participations of the Senate in the Executive authority. I have more than once made the reflection that, viewing himself as the reversioner, he was solicitous to come into the possession of a good estate. Nor is it true that Jefferson is zealot enough to do any thing in pursuance of his principles which will contravene his popularity or his interest. He is as likely as any man I know to temporize—to calculate what will be likely to promote his own reputation and advantage; and the probable result of such a temper is the preservation of systems, though originally opposed, which, being once established, could not be overturned without danger to the person who did it. To my mind a true estimate of Mr. Jefferson’s character warrants the expectation of a temporizing rather than a violent system. That Jefferson has manifested a culpable predilection for France is certainly true; but I think it a question whether it did not proceed quite as much from her popularity among us as from sentiment, and, in proportion as that popularity is diminished, his zeal will cool. Add to this that there is no fair reason to suppose him capable of being corrupted, which is a security that he will not go beyond certain limits. It is not at all improbable that under the change of circumstances Jefferson’s Gallicism has considerably abated.
As to Burr these things are admitted, and indeed cannot be denied, that he is a man of extreme and irregular ambition; that he is selfish to a degree which excludes all social affections, and that he is decidedly profligate. But it is said (1) that he is artful and dexterous to accomplish his ends; (2) that he holds no pernicious theories, but is a mere matter-of-fact man; (3) that his very selfishness1 is a guard against mischievous foreign predilections; (4) that his local situation has enabled him to appreciate the utility of our commercial and fiscal systems, and the same quality of selfishness will lead him to support and invigorate them; (5) that he is now disliked by the Jacobins; that his elevation will be a mortal stab to them, breed an invincible hatred to him, and compel him to lead on the Federalists; (6) that Burr’s ambition will be checked by his good sense, by the manifest impossibility of succeeding in any scheme of usurpation, and that, if attempted, there is nothing to fear from the attempt. These topics are, in my judgment, more plausible than solid. As to the first point, the fact must be admitted, but those qualities are objections rather than recommendations, when they are under the direction of bad principles. As to the second point, too much is taken for granted. If Burr’s conversation is to be credited, he is not very far from being a visionary. He has quoted to me Connecticut as an example of the success of the democratic theory, and as authority, I have serious doubts whether it was not a good one. It is ascertained in some instances that he has talked perfect Godwinism. I have myself heard him speak with applause of the French system, as unshackling the mind and leaving it to its natural energies, and I have been present when he has contended against banking systems2 with earnestness and with the same arguments that Jefferson would use.
The truth is, that Burr is a man of a very subtle imagination, and a mind of this make is rarely free from ingenious whimsies. Yet I admit that he has no fixed theory, and that his peculiar notions will easily give way to his interest. But is it a recommendation to have no theory? Can that man be a systematic or able statesman who has none? I believe not. No general principles will hardly work much better than erroneous ones.
As to the third point, it is certain that Burr, generally speaking, has been as warm a partisan of France as Jefferson; that he has, in some instances, shown himself to be so with passion. But if it was from calculation, who will say that his calculations will not continue him so? His selfishness,1 so far from being an obstacle, may be a prompter. If corrupt as well as selfish, he may be a partisan for gain. If ambitious as well as selfish, he may be a partisan for the sake of aid to his views. No man has trafficked more than he in the floating passions of the multitude. Hatred to Great Britain and attachment to France, in the public mind, will naturally lead a man of his selfishness, attached to place and power, to favor France and oppose Great Britain. The Gallicism of many of our patriots is to be thus resolved, and, in my opinion, it is morally certain that Burr will continue to be influenced by this calculation.
As to the fourth point, the instance I have cited with respect to banks, proves that the argument is not to be relied on. If there was much in it, why does Chancellor Livingston maintain that we ought not to cultivate navigation, but ought to let foreigners be our carriers? France is of the opinion too, and Burr, for some reason or other, will be very apt to be of the opinion of France.
As to the fifth point, nothing can be more fallacious. It is demonstrated by recent facts2 that Burr is solicitous to keep upon anti-federal ground, to avoid compromitting himself by any engagements,3 with the Federalists. With or without such engagements, he will easily persuade his former friends that he does stand on that ground, and after their first resentment they will be glad to rally under him. In the meantime he will take care not to disoblige them, and he will always court those among them who are best fitted for tools. He will never choose to lean on good men, because he knows that they will never support his bad projects; but instead of this he will endeavor to disorganize both parties, and to form out of them a third, composed of men fitted by their characters to be conspirators and instruments of such projects.
That this will be his future conduct may be inferred from his past plan, and from the admitted quality of irregular ambition. Let it be remembered that Mr. Burr has never appeared solicitous for fame, and that great ambition, unchecked by principle or the love of glory, is an unruly tyrant, which never can keep long in a course which good men will approve. As to the last point, the proposition is against the experience of all times. Ambition without principle never was long under the guidance of good sense. Besides that, really, the force of Mr. Burr’s understanding is much overrated. He is far more cunning than wise, far more dextrous than able.
(Very, very confidential.—In my opinion he is inferior in real ability to Jefferson. There are also facts against the supposition. It is past all doubt that he has blamed me for not having improved the situation I once was in to change the government. That when answered that this could not have been done without guilt, he replied, “Les grandes âmes se soucient peu des petits moraux”; that when told the thing was never practicable from the genius and situation of the country, he answered, “That depends on the estimate we form of the human passions, and of the means of influencing them.” Does this prove that Mr. Burr would consider a scheme of usurpation as visionary?)
The truth is, with great apparent coldness he is the most sanguine man in the world. He thinks every thing possible to adventure and perseverance, and, though I believe he will fail, I think it almost certain he will attempt usurpation, and the attempt will involve great mischief. But there is one point of view which seems to me decisive. If the Anti-federalists who prevailed in the election are left to take their own man, they remain responsible, and the Federalists remain free, united, and without stain, in a situation to resist, with effect, pernicious measures. If the Federalists substitute Burr, they adopt him and become answerable for him. Whatever may be the theory of the case abroad and at home (for so from the beginning will be taught), Mr. Burr will become in fact the man of our party; and if he acts ill, we must share in the blame and disgrace. By adopting him we do all we can to reconcile the minds of the Federalists to him, and we prepare them for the effectual operation of his arts. He will doubtless gain many of them, and the Federalists will become a disorganized and contemptible party. Can there be any serious question between the policy of leaving the Anti-federalists to be answerable for the elevation of an exceptionable man, and that of adopting ourselves and becoming answerable for a man who, on all hands, is acknowledged to be a complete Catiline? ’T is enough to state the question to indicate the answer, if reason, not passion, presides in the decision.
You may communicate this, and my former letter, to discreet and confidential friends.
to gouverneur morris
I hasten to give you some information which may be useful. I know as a fact that overtures have been made by leading individuals of the federal party to Mr. Burr, who declines to give any assurances respecting his future intentions and conduct, saying that to do it might injure him with his friends, and prevent their co-operation; that all ought to be inferred from the necessity of his future situation, as it regarded the disappointment and animosity of the Anti-federalists; that the Federalists, relying upon this, might proceed in the certainty that, upon a second ballot, New York and Tennessee would join him. It is likewise ascertained that he perfectly understands himself with Edward Livingston, who will be his agent at the seat of government.
Thus you see that Mr. Burr is resolved to preserve himself in a situation to adhere to his former friends, engagements, and projects, and to use the Federalists as tools of his aggrandizement.
The hope that by his election he will be separated from the Anti-federalists, is a perfect farce.
He will satisfy them that he has kept himself free to continue his relations with them, and as many of them are secretly attached to him, they will all be speedily induced to rally under his standard, to which he will add the unprincipled of our party, and he will laugh at the rest.
It is a fact that Mr. Burr is now in frequent and close conference with a Frenchman, who is suspected of being an agent of the French Government, and it is not to be doubted that he will be the firm ally of Buonaparte.
You are at liberty to show this letter to such friends as you think fit, especially Mr. Bayard, of Delaware, in whose principles and sound sense I have much confidence.
Depend upon it, men never played a more foolish game than will do the Federalists if they support Burr.
to theodore sedgwick
Jan. 21, 1801.
Being in a hurry to leave New York for this place, I compressed, in a letter to Bayard, some observations which, had I time, I should have put in a reply to your last. I requested him to communicate it to you, and I beg of you, as you love your country, your friends, and yourself, to reconsider dispassionately the opinion you have expressed in favor of Burr.
I never was so much mistaken as I shall be if our friends, in the event of their success, do not rue the preference they will give to that Catiline. Adieu.
to mrs. hamilton
The roads are too bad for you to venture in your carriage, if you can possibly avoid it. Don’t forget to visit the Grange. From what I saw there, it is very important the drains should be better regulated. Leave, in particular charge of Philip, what you cannot yourself accomplish.
to mrs. hamilton
February 19, 1801.
I arrived here, my beloved, about five this afternoon. I ought now to be much further advanced. But somehow “Riddle” sprained the ankle of one of his hind legs, which very much retarded my progress to-day. By care and indulgence, he is much better this evening. I have travelled comfortably, and my health is better. Wife, children, and hobby are the only things upon which I have permitted my thoughts to run. As often as I write, you may expect to hear some thing of the latter. Don’t lose any opportunity which may offer of ploughing up the new garden spot, and let the wagon make a tour of the ground lately purchased. When it is too cold to go on with grubbing, our men may be employed in cutting and clearing away the underbrush in the grove and the other woods; only let the centre of the principal wood in the line of the different rocks remain rough and wild.
(Again he writes): I am less and less pleased with the prospect of so long a separation from my beloved family, and you may depend shall shorten it as much as possible. “Dumphy” had planted the tulip trees in a row along the outer fence of the garden in the road, and was collecting some hemlock trees to plant between them. I desired him to place these in a row along the inner fence. But, having attended to them in my route, I shall be glad, if white pines are not conveniently to be had, that besides those along the inner fence, there may be one hemlock between every two of the tulip trees along the outer fence.
to mrs. hamilton
Feb. 20, 1801.
I am in much better health than spirits. The Swiss malady grows upon me very fast. In other words, I am more and more homesick. This, added to some other circumstances that do not give me pleasure at the present moment, makes me rather heavy-hearted. But we must make the best of those ills that cannot be avoided. The occupation I shall have at Albany will divert my mind from painful reflections; and a speedy return to my dear family will bring me a cure. Write me often, and receive every wish that is due to the best of women. Kiss my children for me. Adieu.1
Feb. 22, 1801.
After my ill success hitherto, I ought, perhaps, in prudence, to say nothing further on the subject. But, situated as things now are, I certainly have no advice to give. Yet I may, without impropriety, communicate a fact; it is this:
Colonel Burr is taking an active personal part in favor of Mr. Clinton against Mr. Rensselaer, as governor of this State. I have, upon my honor, direct and indubitable evidence, that between two and three weeks past, he wrote a very urgent letter to Oliver Phelps, of the western part of this State, to induce his exertions in favor of Clinton. Is not this an unequivocal confirmation of what I predicted that he will, in every event, continue to play the Jacobin game? Can any thing else explain his conduct at such a moment, and under such circumstances? I might add several other things to prove that he is resolved to adhere to and cultivate his old party, who lately, more than ever, have shown the cloven foot of rank Jacobinism.
James Ross, Senator from Pennsylvania, was one of the leaders of the Federalists and a lawyer of distinguished ability.
Reprinted from the History of the Republic, vii., 445.
It is always very dangerous to look at the vices of men for good.
Yet he has lately, by a trick, established a bank—a perfect monster in its principles, but a very convenient instrument of profit and influence.
Unprincipled selfishness is more apt to seek rapid gain in disorderly practices than slow advantages from orderly systems.
My letter to Mr. Morris states some of them.
He trusts to their prejudices and hopes for support.
These three letters to Mrs. Hamilton are reprinted from the History of the Republic, vii., 488 and ff.