By Dr. Michael Popejoy
Moving on Up!
Thomas Jefferson was a complex man. Maybe not so much different than so many men of history and contemporary times. What makes Jefferson different is that he rose to the highest levels of the colonies and later the new United States. And, he took those complexities with him.
I have written elsewhere (Alexander Hamilton: What if Aaron Burr Missed? (Public Voices) that it is very plausible that Jefferson had a larger role in the duel between Hamilton and Burr than has ever been ventured in the historical literature.
Back in the days, just like today, politicians wore their military roles with pride. The closer they came to combat and the medals conferred seem to attract a number of votes and more than a few pints at local pubs from a grateful nation.
Then, there are those that did not go to war preferring to stay behind and do other work; some important, maybe
some not so important. Jefferson did the former; but, he never was satisfied that he did not earn the honors that
were heaped on others such as Hamilton and Burr. He simply believed he was too important to be lost in a skirmish with the British; so, anytime they came calling, he was hitting the back road on the fastest stead his purse could afford. That did not mean he was a coward; he simply was saving himself for more important work.
He was certainly recognized for the more important work he would do; however, it was not nearly as satisfying as being a hero who never had to pay his bar bill at the local pubs and would be the darling dandy at the various cotillions attended by the babes of the times. Hamilton and Burr were young, intelligent, educated, and they were war heroes; and, Jefferson hated them.
I am certain in his mind, they did not deserve the accolades that he did for the intellectual achievements he demonstrated in his legal and political leadership and his writing of critical documents of the new nation—despite the fact that they got edited a great deal before going to print. Jefferson knew that Hamilton was not a competitor for the presidency since he was not born in America; but, he knew that Burr as vice president could advance to president in the next election.
Although Hamilton was not in line for the presidency, he was an annoying pain in the rear and Jefferson was sick of him. After he completed his tenure as Treasurer, Jefferson commissioned Albert Gallatin to thoroughly, using all available resources, investigate Hamilton’s work as Treasurer and report any corruption directly to Jefferson. The report, however,from Gallatin was that to do anything to change what Hamilton had established was to do untold damage to the nation’s economy. No corruption was noted.
Once Jefferson realized that he could not successfully discredit Hamilton or Burr on any tangible grounds, he found that the disagreements between them could lead to their undoing. In many books on Jefferson’s character and personality, this approach was not beneath him. Certainly, Hamilton and Burr were very high strung men and Hamilton was an expert at pushing Burr’s buttons.
The most egregious comment or accusation was that Burr was in an incestuous relationship with his beloved daughter. Once that started playing out in the papers (which happened because at a dinner party hosted by Hamilton, a reporter was at the table and nothing was off the record), then Burr was pissed and the duel was on.
It is an interesting aside that the duel was held across the Hudson River in New Jersey because dueling was illegal in New York. Even today, I think people go to New Jersey to avoid things that are illegal in New York. And to think that their governor may be our next president.
What was Jefferson’s plan?
I think it was simple. He knew that whichever one of the two great heroes died (and it did not matter which), the other would be discredited in the public view forever. That is exactly what happened. So, today in Washington, D.C. we have a Jefferson Memorial but no monuments to either Hamilton or Burr who were the hottest properties at the time. Hamilton was dead and Burr never again moved forward in the public sector. Although he was recently “rehabilitated” by historian Nancy Isenberg in her book: Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr.