What If Aaron Burr Had Missed?


Mr. Fleming is the author of DUEL: ALEXANDER HAMILTON, AARON BURR, AND THE FUTURE OF AMERICA. The book has been praised as the definitive account of the famous duel. Mr. Fleming is a member of the corporate board of HNN.

Let's reel back 200 years to July 11, 1804. Colonel Aaron Burr, the vice president of the United States under the banner of what would soon be called the Democratic Party, is standing on a grassy ledge on the Palisades, opposite New York City, aiming a pistol at General Alexander Hamilton, leader of the Federalist Party, forerunner of today's Republicans. Hamilton has an identical pistol in his hand.

Burr killed Hamilton with his first shot. What if he had missed? What would have happened?

We know the immediate answer to that question. Hamilton planned to fire in the air, a maneuver in the duelist's code known as a delope. William Pitt, the prime minister of England, had used it in a recent duel on Hounslow Heath, outside London. Its purpose was to humiliate an opponent -- to imply he was not worth shooting.

What would have happened thereafter? This much is certain. If a successful Hamilton delope had been the outcome of the duel, the history of the United States -- and the world -- would have been very different.

A humiliated Aaron Burr would have become damaged goods in American politics. No one would have paid any serious attention to him. When he journeyed to Philadelphia to ask the British ambassador for his backing to detach the western states from the Union and raise an army to conquer Texas and Mexico (which he did within weeks of the duel) Mr. Burr would have been blandly dismissed -- instead of secretly encouraged.

With Burr sidelined and Hamilton very much alive, the General (the title he preferred -- he even listed himself as"General Hamilton" in the New York directory for 1804) would have been Thomas Jefferson's chief adversary when the president, carried away by his sweeping reelection victory in the fall of 1804, attempted a preemptive strike on the conservative Supreme Court.

Jefferson's followers in Congress impeached Associate Justice Samuel Chase for making political remarks on the bench and made it clear that they intended to do likewise to every other justice on the court except one, who belonged to their political party. Hamilton would have been Chase's leading defender in the ensuing impeachment trial. He was considered the best lawyer in the nation, as well as a superb orator.

Even without Hamilton, the Senate failed to convict Chase (thanks in part to rulings by Vice President Burr). Too many senators recoiled from Jefferson's grab for total power. They rejected his claim that the will of the people as embodied in the legislature and the presidency should have the final say about who sat on the Supreme Court.

The defeat put a large dent in Jefferson's popularity. Justice Chase remarked that if he had been a younger man, he probably could have run for president in 1808 and won. Hamilton would have been in a far better position to make such a run and might well have defeated Jefferson's handpicked successor, the colorless James Madison.

Historians have been reluctant to admit the full dimensions of Jefferson's disastrous second term. He tried to solve the problem of French and British attacks on American merchant ships by placing an embargo on all the nation's seaborne commerce. Thousands of sailors were thrown out of work and businesses collapsed. The New York Evening-Post, the newspaper Hamilton had founded, said the embargo was like" cutting a man's throat to cure a nosebleed." It is not hard to imagine what Hamilton would have called this presidential blunder. He would have used it to rally support in New England and the Middle States to win the presidency.

President Hamilton would have immediately cancelled the embargo and restored America's merchant fleet to the oceans. He would also have begun rebuilding the U.S. Navy, which Jefferson had virtually beached. Stern warnings to British men of war to keep hands off American merchant ships would have been ignored by arrogant Albion. Hamilton would have retaliated, with the same enthusiastic congressional support President Madison received in 1812, by invading Canada.

The operation would not have been the feckless calamity perpetrated by Madison, in which hordes of untrained American militia were routed by a relative handful of British professionals. President Hamilton would have put himself at the head of a well- trained federal army -- and easily defeated the small British force, making Canada part of the United States. The British, still in their death grapple with Napoleon, would have regarded a well-armed America as a formidable opponent and made peace. President Hamilton would have won their good will with diplomatic concessions such as a most favored nation clause, giving them a significant reduction in tariffs on their exports to America -- the keystone of the British economy.

With Britain humbled and Canada acquired, Hamilton would have been reelected in a landslide in 1812. He would have paraded through Washington D.C. at the head of his magnificent army -- and begun making profound changes in the nation. One of his first moves would have been a constitutional amendment to break up large states into smaller ones, who would be more manageable by the federal government. He had discussed this idea with several people before the duel. Its goal was the reduction of the power of Virginia, the nation's largest state.

If the Virginians resisted, Hamilton would have marched into the state and flattened them. In 1794, when restless farmers in western Pennsylvania revolted against the federal tax on whiskey, Hamilton had persuaded President Washington to do exactly that with an army which swiftly reduced them to obedience. In 1799, when he was commanding the federal army raised to guard against an invasion during the undeclared war with France, he had remarked that his troops might be put to good use to"subdue a large and fractious state."

Next, Hamilton would have solved a problem that was infuriating western and southern Americans -- Spanish control of Florida. The Spaniards were arming and inciting Indians and fugitive slaves to attack isolated frontier settlements in Georgia and Tennessee. Hamilton would have used these provocations as an opportunity to inform the Spaniards that they had ten minutes to get out of Florida.

With foreign power cleared from the East Coast, President Hamilton would have turned his attention to the West. Like Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, who would have become his enthusiastic supporter, Hamilton thought in military terms. His next target would have been Texas, to guarantee America's control of New Orleans and the mouth of the Mississippi.

The conquest of Florida and Texas would have been hugely popular with the American people. Millions more acres of land were opened to cultivation. If the Spanish resisted, Hamilton might well have marched his army to Mexico City, calling himself the Mexicans' liberator -- and setting up a satellite government loyal to him. In the 1790s, when he had been George Washington's most influential cabinet member, Hamilton had told the secretary of war that Americans should"at least squint" at taking Mexico.

By now people were beginning to realize what Hamilton was becoming -- the Napoleon Bonaparte of America. He had long admired the French soldier. In 1798, Hamilton called him"that unequalled conqueror, in whom one would hope to find virtues equal to his shining talents."

Like Napoleon, President Hamilton now launched a program to prepare Americans to participate in the new industrial world that was unfolding in England. He set up technical schools in every state to train engineers. He persuaded Congress to pass bills providing money to build canals and encourage wide use of inventions such as the steamboat and the steam engine. He revived his plan to create a manufacturing city in Paterson, New Jersey, as a model for other states. Huge sums were expended on dams, highways and other federal projects, which gave Washington D.C. awesome leverage with local power brokers. Thomas Jefferson and other politicians who wanted an agrarian American deplored this rush into industrialization -- but they were blithely ignored by the majority who were profiting handsomely from the Hamiltonian transformation.

Finally, President Hamilton would have tackled the greatest problem America faced: slavery. Hamilton detested the so called"peculiar institution." Now, as president and military hero, Hamilton would have had the prestige -- and the power -- to push through a constitutional amendment, calling for the gradual freeing of Americans in bondage. Southerners would have been reassured by Hamilton's plan, which extended the emancipation process over twenty five years. This gave them time to adjust to a free economy. The ex-slaves would have been urged to migrate to land set aside for them in the Far West or in Texas. That policy would have reduced the South's fear of a race war.

There were some worrisome aspects to President Hamilton's reign, as Jefferson and other naysayers often pointed out to no avail. The last letter Hamilton wrote before the duel warned a fellow Federalist that democracy was a"disease" which America had to somehow cure. In Hamiltonian America, dissent was barely tolerated. The individual states were encouraged to enforce tough libel laws, making newspapers tame supporters of the regime. President Hamilton also insisted on maximum federal control of all aspects of American life. The settlement of the west, the curriculums of public schools and even colleges, the regulation of the legal and medical and scientific professions, all came under federal supervision. Special attention was given to the federal judiciary; all the judges were personally selected by President Hamilton and their powers were steadily expanded, reducing state courts to virtual nullities.

The Christian Constitutional Society was another Hamiltonian idea that troubled some people. He had proposed it in 1801, after the Federalists lost the White House to Jefferson. Its purpose was the inculcation of Christian values and the denunciation of those who espoused other values or attacked the Constitution. It was organized into local clubs, state councils and a national council, consisting of a president and twelve members. An enthusiastic Hamilton addressed a national convention each year when they met in Washington D.C. Critics muttered that Alexander the Great was not satisfied with being president. He was also running for pope.

President Hamilton refused to retire after two terms, like George Washington. As he made clear in a speech at the Constitutional Conventionn in 1787, Hamilton believed a president should stay in office for life -- unless he was defeated at the polls. The result was a steady accumulation of personal and family power. Little was said publicly about the enormous fortunes Hamilton's sons acquired thanks to their federal connections. When they and their children and their friends began winning seats in the Senate and in Congress, a semblance of an American royal family began to loom on the horizon.

Hamilton remained in office for twenty two years, dying in the White House in 1830. He issued a statement on his deathbed, urging his successors to return to George Washington's example, claiming only the"necessities" of the nation's situation persuaded him to remain in office so long. Some critics whispered that"Alexander the Great" never said this -- it was cooked up as a cover for the growing dissatisfaction with the"family circle" government that was running America. The Hamiltons were astute enough to find willing acolytes who ran for president in succeeding years; behind the scenes they remained firmly in control.

Thanks to the Hamiltonian revolution, there was no Civil War. There were no 600,000 dead Americans in a conflict that left the South an economic desert for a half century. America would have become one of the great industrial powers of the world by 1860, challenging England's hegemony and reducing her imperial arrogance. The British surrendered South America as a U.S. sphere of influence, while Washington gave London a free hand in Asia.

In neither country was anything like a labor movement tolerated much less encouraged. Americans were repeatedly told there was no such thing as class struggle. Again and again, the White House assured the voters that no people ever enjoyed as much material happiness -- which was true enough. Only a minority noticed that beneath the surface of American life, as the rich got richer and the middle class more prosperous, rumbled a potentially ominous discontent. A handful of historians, ignoring frowns from Washington and hints of reduced government grants, began debating whether it was a good thing that Aaron Burr had missed on July 11, 1804.

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Melissa M - 3/26/2011

"The individual states were encouraged to enforce tough libel laws, making newspapers tame supporters of the regime."

Ummm...didn't Hamilton defend a Harry Croswell against libel?

This is why you tick me off sometimes, Mr. Fleming.

Richard Henry Morgan - 7/6/2004


I think Hamilton was largely seen as overly ambitious and trying to punch above his weight. His insistence on the title 'General' kinda says it all. I suspect most people thought he was promoting war as much or more out of his own ambition, than for the public good. And what was he general of? An army that existed largely on paper. A classic case of short-man's and born-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-blanket's disease.

Richard Henry Morgan - 7/6/2004

Well, Hamilton was certainly instrumental (along with Madison) in getting the convention into existence -- he even went so far as to fudge the Annapolis Report. And as Jon says, he was certainly a foil -- he made Madison's ideas look better by comparison. He had a role, even a key role in bringing the convention about, but I'd say it ain't exactly clear that one can count him among the constitution's authors. Just what the concept of an FF is, and what constitutes narrowing of the concept, are related matters and open to debate. I think perhaps we can at least agree that he wouldn't have been elected. BTW, I liked Ben's send-up a lot.

Derek Charles Catsam - 7/6/2004

The concept on "Founding Fathers" may be somewhat slippery. But it would be inane to assert or imply that Hamilton does not fit no matter how one narrows the definition. Being voted down at a convention that was about creating a democratic republic does not mean one was not there and cricial to that founding.

Ben H. Severance - 7/6/2004

Had Burr missed, then Hamilton, enraged that his miscreant opponent had violated the code of honor, would have brandished his Hessian bayonet (a souvenir from the battle of Trenton), rushed his foe, and buried the weapon into Burr's sternum. As poor Aaron's life faded, Hamilton would have gloated, "the Revolution is not for opportunistic scoundrels like you, but for ideological patriots like me. Die you damnable American Alcibiades, die!"

Afterwards, Hamilton, whose vision of an industrialized America is proof of his ability to predict the future, would have then persuaded Congress to pass a law forbidding the replacement of his later image on the ten-dollar bill with that of Ronald Reagan.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/6/2004

I wish I had your confidence that Fleming was "tongue-in-cheek" with this piece. He has written similarly aggressive counterfactual pieces before for HNN (his WWI piece was very similar to this one in the scope of his storytelling) and seems quite committed to this.

Gaddis' approach is very similar to mine. I tell my students that every argument about historical causality has an element of counterfactuality in it: you can't say "this happened because of that" without arguing, implicitly, that "without that, this would not have happened" though events can be the result of such a confluence of predecessors and processes as to preclude such simple arguments: WWI being a fine example.

Richard Henry Morgan - 7/6/2004

You'd be surprised just how little the Federalist Papers were published in the South, and so how little impact they had on ratification there. Obviously, I meant he didn't qualify as an FF based on his convention role and contributions. The FF concept being so fuzzy, I'm not sure where people draw the line outside that, nor on what basis. And the tide of history I was talking about was the Democratic preeminence that buried the Federalists deep enough that Hamilton, even without his flaws, couldn't have resurrected their former position.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/6/2004

Hamilton's influence and his active role in Revolutionary and Constitutional politics, if only as a vocal foil for Founders whose ideas became the mainstream, certainly qualifies him as a member of the Founder class.

Ben H. Severance - 7/6/2004

I agree that counter-factual analysis can be instructive, and I like Gaddis's characterization of it as a lab experiment. But Fleming has gone overboard. The value of this method is that one must be very knowledgeable of the period, but also realize that the Counter-factual breaks down exponentially the further you move beyond the altered event.

A popular Civil War "what if" involves Stonewall Jackson. If he hadn't been shot at Chancellorsville, then the South would have won the war. This counter-factual conclusion is bad history. If Jackson had not been shot, then he may have launched his contemplated and ill-advised night attack, one that could well have wrecked his corps and tipped the battle over to the Army of the Potomac, which then might have counter-attacked and destroyed the rest of Lee's army. Thus, Lee wins at Chancellorsville because Jackson gets shot! Or suppose Jackson is at Gettysburg (an extension of the Jackson "what if" that states the Confederates would have won that battle and then the war). Jackson would likely have seized Culp's and Cemetary Hill, but then what? As Bruce Catton speculated years ago, if the Rebels had taken the high ground on July 1, then Meade would have likely withdrawn and continued maneuvering. Gettysburg with Jackson becomes a medium-sized victory that decides nothing (unless, of course, it is followed up by a great victory elsewhere, but even counter-factualist can't fathom when, where, or how that would have happened).

Counter-factual is useful and fun, but taken to the extremes of Fleming's piece, it can become an obstacle to sound history. But then, I'm sure Fleming was doing it all tongue-in-cheek.

Grant W Jones - 7/6/2004

How can the man who wrote the majority of the _Federalist Papers_ (fifty-one, to be exact) not be consider a Founding Father? If the work of Hamilton, Madison and Jay did not "change the tide of history" it sure raised the surf.

Richard Henry Morgan - 7/6/2004

Hamilton was born in 1757, so he makes the 35 year-old mark. He came to the States in early 1773, so he makes the 14 year resident mark. H was a citizen of the US, so he makes that mark. He was qualified.

Fleming is right on at least one point -- Hamilton was widely regarded as the best lawyer in the US. His own notes he made in preparation for the bar exam became the standard education tool for lawyers for years. His defense in the Croswell appelate case is still considered the finest example of lawyering in US history, and a foundation for first amendment law.

Interestingly, Hamilton is often listed among the Founding Fathers, in the sense of being an author of the Constitution. But many of his proposals were voted down, and when the other two members of the New York delegation (antifederalists both) left the convention early, the New York delegation lost it's vote, and Hamilton had no say in the final product from that point on (and his signature on the document, which he insisted on placing, bore no legal weight).

I don't think Hamilton could have been elected President in a million years -- it's hard enough for one man to change the tide of history, but Hamilton most decidedly was not that man.

Benjamin Scott Crawford - 7/6/2004

Jonathan makes some good points - especially that "counterfactual history like this is not an argument" - Fleming is just creating a story with no real evidence that events would have unfolded in the manner he states - it is all pure speculation that does not really better our understanding of the past.

As Jonathan points out, Fleming is taking too many "turning points" and making them straight lines.

John Lewis Gaddis does an excellent job examining the use of counterfactuals in history in his work THE LANDSCAPE OF HISTORY. Gaddis argues that counterfactuals do have a role in our understanding of history - "they're the historian's virtual equivalent of a laboratory experimentation." (page 100). Gaddis warns that the use of counterfactuals must be "highly disciplined" and that if used incorrectly or in a manner that takes too much for granted and combines numerous policies in order to put forth a story outlining their combined effects the result is a "historiographical witches' brew where anything goes and no particular outcome is any more probable than any other" (page 102) - Fleming has created just such a historiographical witches' brew.

Benjamin Scott Crawford - 7/6/2004

Interesting point - however the Constitution states:

"No Persons except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States" - Article II, section 1.

Since Hamilton had been in the U.S. for well over 14 years and had fought in the Revolution against the British, was a resident of New York, and had served the US in several capacities, would he not have been exempted from having to been born in the US to be president and have been considered "a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution"? He was, after all, even a member of the convention that created the Constitution.

I was just curious - does anyone know?

William Marina - 7/6/2004

Gee, and I thought one had to be born in the US to be President, let alone Emperor.
William Marina

Kevin M Gannon - 7/6/2004

While I think Fleming's exercise an interesting one, we ought to remember that in 1800, Hamilton's intemperate (to say the least) pamphlet attacking John Adams had become public, and had alarmed many of Federalists of the more moderate stripe as to what they saw as a blurring of Hamilton's private animosity and public agendas.

Basically, Hamilton was too controversial and way too polarizing a figure to ever be nominated president, I believe.

Most likely, the Federalists would have adopted the Whig strategy of later years (which was essentially the Jacksonian strategy in the 1820s)--nominate a war hero, take no public position ont he hard issues, present the candidate as the very embodiment of republican virtue, and cross the fingers. Henry Knox in 1804, anyone? Of course, this is sprinting off into the realm of fancy as I type.

Fleming's column is thought-provoking, but aside from the usual objections to a counter-historical approach (it didn't happen, so get over it), it seems-as Mr. Dresner has aptly described--to be a bit too linear and simplistic to hold water. Especially when one considers that, for many Federalists by 1803-04, Hamilton might have been as politically-dangerous a figure as Fleming purports Burr would have been later.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/6/2004

Counterfactual history, when conjoined with "Great Man" history, is heady stuff indeed, and Fleming is one of its boldest (read: most reckless) practitioners. Others more familiar with US history can comment on some of the specific twists and turnings of the story (counterfactual history like this is not an argument, really: past a certain point -- and this is well past that point -- it becomes an exercise in plausible fiction, without all that troublesome dialogue), but I want to point out one basic component to the argument which troubles me: linearity.

Fleming assumes that Hamilton's star will rise, and continue rising. He also assumes that Hamilton will consistently apply all the ideas (or at least all the ones Fleming thinks are good ones; though the Napoleon stuff is kind of weird) which he held in the past. Finally, he assumes that all of the initiatives and policies will succeed: most glaringly obvious as potential failures are the professionalization of the military prior to 1812 (without which most of the rest of the story falls flat), the early abolition of slavery and the education-industry revolution. In other words, he takes a turning point, and turns it into a straight line. But straight lines are rare things in history, as we well know. While entertaining, it isn't clear from this excerpt if there is a really meaningful argument to be made.

[Cross-posted, with some additions at http://hnn.us/blogs/entries/6031.html]