Sunday, January 1, 2017

Hamilton and the lesser evil

Time for a history lesson. In 1800 the top two electoral vote winners tied, forcing the House of Representatives to choose the new President. The candidates, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr were from the same party --the Democratic-Republican -- and it was intended that Jefferson would be president. In the original Constitution, electors voted for two people, and the winner of the most votes became the chief executive. In the actual voting, however, all Jefferson electors also voted for Burr.

As Dana Millbank tells the story today, one of Jefferson's key supporters was his fierce ideological opponent for many years, Alexander Hamilton. The two men had radically different views of how America should be governed and had expressed sharply disparaging views of each other.

Comparing the two candidates, Hamilton thought Jefferson would be more restrained, would end up preserving more of what the Federalists had created under Washington and Adams. He lobbied many members of Congress in support of his longtime adversary, arguing that he was the lesser evil than Burr.

Some Federalists thought the non-ideological Burr would be more malleable. But, Hamilton countered, a man without theory cannot be “a systematic or able statesman.” Burr is “more cunning than wise . . . inferior in real ability to Jefferson,” Hamilton wrote. “Great Ambition unchecked by principle . . . is an unruly Tyrant.”

The former Treasury secretary warned that Burr’s trafficking in “the floating passions of the multitude” would lead him to “endeavour to disorganize both parties & to form out of them a third composed of men fitted by their characters to be conspirators.”
Jefferson finally won on the 36th ballot.

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