During the Revolutionary War, Alexander Hamilton served as an artillery captain and later a colonel and trusted aid to General George Washington. Colonel Aaron Burr also served in the Colonial Army and accompanied Benedict Arnold on his march through the Maine wilderness and his failed attempt to capture Quebec. Burr had been with General Richard Montgomery when Montgomery was shot and killed in Quebec. Later in the war, Burr was placed in charge of a regiment and his troops were stationed in Westchester County, New York.
At the same time, Major Gen. Philip J. Schuyler served as commander of the Northern Department and was a close friend and supporter of George Washington. In 1779, Schuyler was elected to the Continental Congress. After his election, Schuyler and his wife, Catherine, traveled to Philadelphia where Schuyler served in Congress until 1781.
Philip Schuyler and his wife had eleven children. Daughter Elizabeth, on her way to Philadelphia to join her parents, stopped to visit her aunt at Morristown, New Jersey, where Gen. Washington was encamped and where she visited a young army officer, Alexander Hamilton.
On December 14, 1780, Elizabeth married Hamilton at the Schuyler Mansion in Albany where Aaron Burr was one of the invited guests. Another Schuyler daughter, Margarita, married Albany’s patroon, Stephen Van Rensselaer and a third daughter, Angelica Schuyler, married John Barker Church, a wealthy Englishman and Member of Parliament who spent considerable time in New York.
In 1782, Aaron Burr, hoping to become an attorney, presented a letter of introduction to General Schuyler from General Alexander McDougal of Valley Forge. Burr was taken in as a temporary resident at Schuyler’s Albany home where he used Schuyler’s library to read and study law.
Both Hamilton and Burr studied law and were admitted to the bar by 1783. They both opened law offices in New York City but since New York’s Capitol and highest court, the Supreme Court of Judicature (later the Court of Appeals) and the state legislature were both in Albany, they were frequently in Albany. Burr kept an office at 24 South Pearl Street in Albany and Hamilton was frequently in Albany staying with his in-laws the Schuylers.
In 1788, the negotiations leading to the drafting of the United States Constitution were held in Philadelphia. Each state was requested to send representatives. New York decided that Gov. Clinton would appoint one representative, the State Senate would appoint one representative, and the State Assembly would appoint one representative.
Gov. Clinton and the State Assembly appointed Albany judges John Lansing and Robert Yates. The State Senate, where State Senator Philip Schuyler was a very influential member, nominated Schuyler’s son-in-law Alexander Hamilton.
Hamilton, Schuyler and Van Rensselaer were Federalists and strong supporters of the creation of the new United States and the adoption of the Constitution. Hamilton was the primary author of the Federalist Papers analyzing the drafted Constitution and arguing for its adoption. John Jay and James Madison also drafted papers.
New York Governor George Clinton and his supporters were in political control in New York and had opposed the Constitution which they felt challenged their authority. As a result, New York was one of the last states to adopt the Constitution.
When Schuyler’s term expired in 1791 and he was up for reelection, the Anti-Federalists including Gov. George Clinton, some of the Livingston clan, and Clinton’s attorney general, Aaron Burr, lobbied to replace him.
Schuyler was defeated by Aaron Burr in his reelection attempt. This action was taken as a personal attack by Hamilton and the friction between the Federalists and George Clinton and Aaron Burr dramatically increased.
In 1797, the Federalists came back into power, electing John Jay as governor and took control of the state legislature which returned Schuyler to the U.S. Senate to replace Burr. However, declining health forced Schuyler to resign his Senate seat and return to Albany.
After he returned to Albany, Schuyler took up the cause of promoting the construction of a canal system linking the Hudson to the Mohawk River to the Great Lakes. He became, along with the Van Rensselaers, one of the principal stockholders in the privately held Western Inland Lock Navigation Company where he also served as president.
In 1799, a group of foreign land speculators known as the Holland Land Company approached Alexander Hamilton to help them purchase land in upstate New York. New York had a law banning ownership of land by foreign corporations. Hamilton agreed to help them become re-established as a New York corporation. The Holland Land Co. also apparently agreed to loan $250,000 to the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company.
The Holland Land Company also talked to Burr, now a New York Assemblyman, requesting the same assistance. Burr agreed to help them in return for a personal loan of $5,500, which Burr never repaid, and the opportunity for Burr to buy 100,000 acres of land with them. Burr distributed $5,000 of the loan to key members of the New York State Legislature and obtained a waiver from the New York Domestic Corporation Law for the Holland Company.
When Burr heard that John Barker Church, Angelica Schuyler’s husband, was telling friends about Burr’s deal and that Burr had kept the money, Burr challenged Church to a duel. They met across New York Harbor in New Jersey and exchanged a round fired by each. Church’s bullet passed through Burr’s coat. As they prepared for a second round it was reported that Church apologized, admitting he had no proof of the assertion.
In 1800, Burr marshaled the Democratic Republicans, a political merger of Thomas Jefferson’s party in Virginia and Gov. George Clinton’s party in New York, to victory in New York over Hamilton’s Federalists.
In what was probably the first aggressively managed campaign, Burr convinced many big name politicians and well-known generals to run on the Democratic Republican ticket opposing Hamilton’s less well-known Federalists. Although this was seen as a big triumph for Burr, it resulted in everlasting hostility from both Hamilton, who resented the loss, and the Clintons who resented Burr’s challenge to their control of the party in New York.
Later that same year, Burr ran for President of the United States on the Democratic-Republican ticket with Thomas Jefferson. Seventy-two Democratic-Republican electors were elected to sixty-five for the incumbent Federalist John Adams. Since the Presidential ballot did not designate votes for President from votes for Vice President, all of the Democratic-Republican electors voted for both Jefferson and Burr creating a tie, throwing the vote into the House of Representatives where vote would be by state.
In the House, the Democratic-Republicans controlled eight state delegations out of 16, one less than the majority needed, and all eight voted for Jefferson. The six Federalist-controlled states voted for Burr. Two states were deadlocked. For 35 ballots, the Federalists refused to give Jefferson a majority.
When it appeared that the Federalists might try to elect Burr, preferring anyone to Jefferson, Hamilton lobbied strongly against Burr. Hamilton wrote to Federalists and some Democratic-Republicans: “As to Burr there is nothing in his favor. His private character is not defended by his most partial friends. He is bankrupt beyond redemption except by the plunder of his country…”
Hamilton proposed instead that the Federalists meet with Jefferson and offer to support him if he agreed to meet four terms: (1) He would not meddle with the federal financial system created under Washington [Hamilton’s creation as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury]; (2) America’s foreign policy would remain neutral; (3) The Navy would be preserved and eventually increased; (4) there would be no wholesale removal of Federalists from public offices.
James Bayard, Delaware’s lone congressman, had the power to abstain from the vote, reducing the voting states to 15, and making eight states a majority assuring Jefferson’s election. Bayard met with two Democratic-Republican congressmen and made the proposal. Jefferson agreed to the offer and key Federalists electors swung to his support assuring him the election.
Through all of this Burr remained in Albany planning the wedding of his daughter Theodosia. Jefferson was thusly elected President by the opposing party strongly influenced by Alexander Hamilton.
Burr quietly accepted the outcome but his relationship with Jefferson was strained. Jefferson felt that Burr should have done more to withdraw from the election and accept the Vice Presidency.
However, for the next three years, Vice President Burr supported President Jefferson and, as the tie-breaking vote in the Senate, he decided several issues in the president’s favor. However at the same time, Jefferson was quietly working against Burr, whom he did not trust. With Burr absent in Washington, the Clintons were also secretly working against him in New York.
William P. Van Ness, a young lawyer, took up Burr’s cause and authored an attack pamphlet titled: An Examination of the Various Charges Exhibited Against Aaron Burr. The Examination became the hottest selling pamphlet in the U.S. since Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.
In it, Van Ness attacked any accusations that Burr had tried to manipulate the Presidential election. He said that it had been Jefferson who had negotiated with the Federalists and Jefferson who had promised specific jobs to congressmen in return for votes.
Van Ness said that DeWitt Clinton was “skilled in all combinations of treachery and fraud.” He said that DeWitt’s uncle, Gov. George Clinton, was a hypocrite who only pretended to support Jefferson. He said that New York’s party leader Albany’s Judge Ambrose Spencer (who was married to DeWitt Clinton’s sister) was “an inflexible professor of virtuous cowardice.”
On February 14th, 1804, most down-state Democratic Republican members of the New York legislature caucused and re-nominated George Clinton for governor. Clinton declined the nomination. He had spoken to President Jefferson weeks earlier and knew he would be nominated to run for Vice President replacing Burr. They met the next day and nominated Albany Judge John Lansing, New York’s Chancellor, as a replacement for Gov. George Clinton.
On February 18th, 1804, a splinter group of fifteen different Democratic Republicans met at Albany’s Tontine Coffee House and nominated Aaron Burr as their candidate. Most of the Burr representatives were from upstate while most of Clinton’s supporters were from New York City.
Between the 14th and the 18th however, “the old incumbent” George Clinton and his nephew, DeWitt, summoned Chancellor Lansing to a meeting and explained to him that they wanted him to issue a statement that he would follow all of Clinton’s policies during his term. Lansing interpreted this to mean he was to follow the directions of DeWitt Clinton.
Lansing had been the Chief Judge of the State of New York and was too independent to take orders from Clinton’s young nephew. The meeting did not go well and Lansing refused. In retaliation, the Clintons sponsored a story in the Albany Register saying that a long list of more deserving Democratic Republicans had been considered for the nomination but all had declined. They said that Lansing was a last resort. Infuriated, Lansing declined the nomination in writing on the 18th.
New York’s Democratic Republican Party chairman and attorney general, Ambrose Spencer tried to negotiate the melee. Spencer offered to issue a letter from “A Gentleman at Albany” saying that DeWitt Clinton was an assuming young man and had taken advantage of his uncle, the governor, in making the proposal to Lansing.
However Lansing would not be mollified and bowed out with a statement that he had discovered too late that the political principles in which he believed would not be followed. Abraham Lansing, Chancellor John Lansing’s brother, began to support Aaron Burr. The Clintons switched their nomination to Chief Justice Morgan Lewis.
Meanwhile Hamilton was in Albany defending Harry Croswell. Harry Croswell, editor of The Wasp, a small newspaper in Hudson, NY, said in an article that Thomas Jefferson had paid newspaper publisher James Callender to run articles hostile to George Washington’s administration. Jefferson was furious. Jefferson contacted Gov. George Clinton and urged him to “restore the integrity of the press” by prosecuting publishers who were printing articles critical of the Jefferson administration.
Clinton turned the matter over to Attorney General Ambrose Spencer, who had Croswell indicted. Croswell was found guilty of violating the Sedition Act which prohibited criticism of government officials. The judge in the case was Chief Judge Morgan Lewis, Clinton’s nomination for governor.
Croswell appealed and hired Alexander Hamilton to represent him before the appellate panel of the New York Supreme Court of Judicature in Albany. Hamilton argued that the Sedition Act could not be enforced if the comments were true, which the evidence supported and Croswell assured him they were.
The four-judge appellate panel included Chief Judge Morgan Lewis (whose mind was already made up), Smith Thompson and Brockholst Livingston (both Clinton appointees but Livingston had also been an aide to General Philip Schuyler during the Revolutionary War), and James Kent (a friend of Hamilton and Schuyler).
In a split decision, and voting along party lines, the court upheld the conviction of Croswell, ruling that criticism of the President was a violation of the Sedition Act even if the criticism was true. Croswell was sentenced to pay a fine and do jail time for printing what were apparently true criticisms of President Jefferson.
The trial over, Hamilton turned his attention to the New York governor’s race. Hamilton met with ambassador to England, Rufus King, and urged him to carry the Federalist banner in the upcoming gubernatorial election but King declined.
While Hamilton was still in Albany, he was invited to dinner at the home of Judge John Tayler at 50 State Street. Hamilton‘s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler, Judge James Kent, Nathaniel Pendleton and Tayler’s son-in-law, Dr. Charles D. Cooper, also attended.
Judge Tayler was a long-time Albany resident and had served on Albany’s Committee of Safety during the Revolutionary War. Judge Tayler had also served in the New York Legislature as both an assemblyman and state senator. He was a Democratic Republican and had been pushed to run for governor but he had deferred to John Lansing. His son-in-law, Dr. Cooper was also a Democratic Republican and a strong supporter of Gov. Clinton.
When the conversation turned to the upcoming election for governor, Hamilton used the opportunity to strongly oppose Burr. Hamilton said that Burr was “a dangerous man … who ought not to be trusted.” Dr. Cooper listened attentively to Hamilton and decided to use Hamilton’s opinions to oppose Burr.
Back in Washington, the Democratic Republicans were busy nominating their Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates for the next election. Jefferson was nominated for President. For Vice President, George Clinton received 67 votes, John Breckenridge of Kentucky received 21 and incumbent Vice President Aaron Burr received none. This forced Burr to focus on running for the New York governorship Clinton was vacating. He would need to campaign against Clinton’s hand-picked candidate, Judge Morgan Lewis.
As his own party, the Democratic Republicans opposed him more and more, some Federalists were deciding to support Burr. Stephen Van Rensselaer, Hamilton’s brother-in-law, had come out favoring Burr and had sent a letter to all of his tenants (from whom he almost never collected any rent) supporting Burr. Hamilton’s own newspaper, the New York Evening Post was leaning toward Burr.
The Federalists were anti-Clinton and Burr was their only available alternative. The campaign became one of the dirtiest ever with the Clinton supporters accusing Burr of frequenting prostitutes, being an agent of England, having innocent soldiers flogged and just about anything else they could think of. The Clinton’s own candidate, Judge Morgan Lewis, said that he was appalled at the depths to which DeWitt Clinton had sunk to stop Burr.
In the final days of the campaign, April 25th, 1804, a fateful letter was published in the Albany Evening Register. The letter, from Dr. Charles D. Cooper of the City of Albany to Andrew Brown, Esq. of the City of Bern [Town of Berne?], Albany County, said: “Genl. Hamilton, the Patroon’s brother-in-law, it is said, has come out decidedly against Burr, indeed when he was here he spoke of him as a dangerous man and ought not to be trusted. Judge Kent also expressed the same sentiment – the Patroon was quite indifferent about it when he went to New York – it is thought that when he sees Genl. Hamilton and his [other] brother-in-law Mr. Church (who Burr some time ago fought a duel with, and who, of course, must bear Burr much hatred) – I say many feel persuaded that Mr. Rensselaer will be decidedly opposed to Burr.” Dr. Cooper had placed the letter in the newspaper to try to dissuade Federalists from supporting Burr by stating that their leader, Alexander Hamilton, opposed Burr.
The same letter was reprinted in the New York Evening Post (Hamilton’s newspaper). However, Post Editor Coleman added that Hamilton had repeatedly declared that he would not oppose Burr against any candidate nominated by the tyrannical faction (the Clintons) after they drove the Honorable Chancellor Lansing to decline.
Coleman added that Dr. Cooper had been told this by Gen. Philip Schuyler and Cooper also knew that both Judge Kent and Patroon Van Rensselaer had decided to support Burr.
Attacking Cooper further, Coleman printed that: “The falsehood and malice of the above letter will be seen by all who shall read the following.” “The following” was a letter from Gen. Philip Schuyler, father-in-law to Hamilton, Van Rensselaer and Church, saying that Hamilton had favored Lansing but after Lansing had declined, Hamilton had said he would not interfere in the election.
Schuyler said that Van Rensselaer and Judge Kent had told him personally that they would support Burr. In 1801, Van Rensselaer’s wife Margarita Schuyler had died. Seventeen months later, Van Rensselaer married Cornelia Paterson, daughter of United States Supreme Court Justice William Paterson, a signer of the U.S. Constitution and past governor of New Jersey, a tutor and close friend of Aaron Burr, which may have influenced Van Rensselaer’s vote.
Now it was Dr. Cooper’s turn to be outraged at the attacks on his credibility. In an April 23rd letter to Schuyler, which was published in the Albany Register, Cooper protested the malignant attack on his character. Cooper said that his letter was never intended to be made public and it not only was a true account of the dinner party but he actually had eliminated Hamilton’s more despicable opinions of Burr.
By May 1 most of the ballots had been counted and although Burr had carried both Albany and New York City by small amounts, he lost in the Hudson Valley and Long Island and Morgan Lewis was elected governor.
Six weeks after the election was lost, near the end of June, a sick and despondent Aaron Burr was visited by a supporter who brought with him the Albany Register of April 24th with the letter signed by Dr. Charles D. Cooper.
Burr summoned a supporter, William P. Van Ness to his home and had Van Ness hand-deliver a note to Hamilton demanding that Hamilton promptly acknowledge or deny Dr. Cooper’s recollection of Hamilton’s derogatory statements about Burr. Hamilton dismissed Burr’s accusations as vague and unanswerable. He said that interpretation depended on the reader. He said he hoped Burr agreed with him and if not I “must abide by the consequences.” Hamilton was not backing away from the possibility of a duel but he also said that he had never seen Dr. Cooper’s letter.
After an exchange of letters, on June 27th Hamilton received Burr’s challenge to a duel. On July 11, Hamilton and Burr met on the dueling ground at Weehawken, New Jersey, where Burr shot Hamilton in the chest.
After a dying Alexander Hamilton was brought back to New York City, his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton and their seven children visited him as he lay dying. After they left the room, Hamilton was visited by Bishop Benjamin Moore of the Episcopal Diocese and attended to by sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler Church, another Schuyler daughter (and possibly Hamilton’s secret lover).
Judge (later governor) John Tayler, Dr. Charles D. Cooper, Gen. Philip J. Schuyler, Patroon Stephen Van Rensselaer, Attorney General Ambrose Spencer, N.Y. Chancellor Robert Yates, Abraham Lansing, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Paterson and many of their family members including two sisters of Gov. DeWitt Clinton are buried in Albany Rural Cemetery.
Generations of Van Rensselaers and Schuylers going back to the 1600s have been removed from family burial grounds and re-interred at Albany Rural.
Chancellor John Lansing’s family is also buried at Albany Rural and Chancellor Lansing would have been buried at Albany Rural except he left the City Hotel in New York City one rainy night to send a letter to Albany and was never seen again.
Illustrations, from above: “Duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, after the painting by J. Mund” (illustrator unknown); Philip Schuyler, Aaron Burr, and Alexander Hamilton.