The Immigration-Obsessed, Polarized, Garbage-Fire Election of 1800

A madman versus a crook? Unexpected twists? Fake news? Welcome to the election of 1800.

A. Roger Ekirch | American Sanctuary: Mutiny, Martyrdom, and National Identity in the Age of Revolution | Pantheon | February 2017 | 33 minutes (8,149 words) 

Below is an excerpt from American Sanctuary, by A. Roger Ekirch.

For background, it is important to know that a seaman named Jonathan Robbins participated in a mutiny on the HMS Hermione in 1797, the bloodiest mutiny in British naval history. Afterward, he joined the American navy, but he was eventually recognized and jailed. To justify his actions, Robbins claimed he was an American citizen who had been impressed—that is, captured and forced into servitude—by the British navy. However, his American citizenship was disputed. The British sought his extradition, which the president, the Federalist John Adams, granted—an action which had disastrous political consequences for his party. Robbins was found guilty by a British naval court and hanged from the yardarm of the HMS Acasta in 1799.

This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

Receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.

By the late eighteenth century, America had long afforded a refuge for Europeans in flight. Religious dissenters, land-hungry families, men on the make all flocked to the New World in search of freedom and economic opportunity. As early as 1584, the English clergyman Richard Hakluyt promoted the North American wilderness as a humane remedy for overpopulation and mounting poverty. Petty thieves and vagrants might one day “be raised againe.” Although a dumping ground, in time, for British convicts, the American colonies, for burgeoning numbers of Europeans, embodied a land alive with possibilities, where neither church nor state ruled with a whip hand. A massive influx of immigrants from continental Europe, Ireland, and Scotland in the 1700s, some persecuted for their faiths, attested to the colonies’ far-flung reputation as the “best poor man’s country” in the world.

Not until the War of Independence, however, did multitudes at home and abroad increasingly view America as an asylum for liberty, besieged by the same sinister, tyrannical forces that had oppressed free peoples throughout history. To an unprecedented degree, America’s exceptionalism acquired profound political significance. “For while the greatest part of the nations of the earth are held together under the yoke of universal slavery,” exclaimed Reverend Samuel Williams of Massachusetts, “the North-American provinces yet remain the country of free men.” That the American wilderness stood as a beacon of liberty testified to its physical isolation—uncontaminated, as yet, by “the fatal arts of luxury and corruption.” More, this uncharted, primitive land with its vast forests bred a spirit of simplicity, self-reliance, and individual initiative—all prerequisites of a liberty-loving people—while affording newcomers the means to achieve propertied independence. It was this uplifting vision of America’s unique role in a world of larger, more dangerous nations that defined the broader purpose of its struggle for self-determination. At stake for future generations, as for the revolutionaries themselves, was the very survival of freedom. “In our destruction,” declared a Philadelphia patriot, “liberty itself expires, and human nature will despair of evermore regaining its first and original dignity.” With liberty’s preservation, America would offer sanctuary to the oppressed in foreign tyrannies. In Thomas Paine’s climactic words, “Freedom hath been hunted around the globe. . . . Receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”

Implicit in America’s mission was the revolutionary conviction that victims of oppression would flock to its shores, forsaking Old World allegiances to become naturalized citizens, removed from the venality of Europe. America, an essayist affirmed in 1786, “invited the persecuted of the earth to her open bosom, there to be safe from the despot’s rod of wrath.” In the view of the Founders, citizenship was volitional, not the indelible consequence of birth (“perpetual allegiance,” as the British insisted). Equally axiomatic in the afterglow of independence was the belief that émigrés would embrace the ideals of republicanism. According to Tench Coxe of Pennsylvania, they would assist in forging not only a new nation but also “a political fellowship” of and by the people dedicated to advancing civil and religious liberty. In the public mind, Americans already stood united, not by ancestry or tradition but by the “choice of freedom over tyranny.”

In the early Republic, with a white population of just over three million in 1790, immigration assumed heightened importance, as much for its impact on the nation’s principles as for its contribution to an expanding country. Nearly one hundred thousand Europeans landed in the United States during the 1790s. Few issues were thought as vital to shaping the nation’s destiny, or to the preservation of liberty. One of the charges laid at the feet of George III in the Declaration of Independence had been that he obstructed “the laws for the naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others, to encourage their migration hither.” During the first year of George Washington’s presidency, Congress gave broad support to a comprehensive naturalization law, among the most important of its legislative accomplishments. In keeping with the spirit of revolutionary idealism, ports stayed open to “free white persons” of all nationalities and creeds, as did citizenship. After just two years, naturalized aliens stood to receive the full rights and privileges of native-born Americans, aside from being eligible to seek the presidency. Tragically, nonwhites, as might be expected, were excluded due to deep-seated racism; but for Europeans, the law welcomed victims of government oppression. Even so, there were opponents of any probationary restrictions. “We shall be inconsistent with ourselves,” complained Congressman John Page of Virginia during a debate on the House floor, “if, after boasting of having opened an asylum for the oppressed of all nations . . . we make the terms of admission to the full enjoyment of that asylum so hard as now proposed.”

And yet, once the initial euphoria of the Revolution faded, attitudes toward European immigration grew perceptibly ambivalent. Even before passage of the Naturalization Act of 1790, Thomas Jefferson, for one, had feared the inundation of uprooted aliens untutored in republican values. Later, in 1795, pangs of uncertainty led to a new law extending the residential requirement for citizenship to five years, a compromise in lieu of a more stringent proposal favoring ten. The act insisted on proof of the applicant’s “good moral character” and fidelity to the principles of the Constitution. It also required newly minted citizens to renounce all prior allegiances and, at the insistence of the fledgling Republican Party, all titles of nobility. Without comment, President Washington approved the bill, notwithstanding his professed hope at the beginning of the year “to render this country more and more a safe and propitious asylum for the unfortunate of other countries.”

Not, however, until the full-scale emergence of political parties coupled with spreading concern over both the French Revolution and unrest in Ireland did nativist sentiment intensify. And more and more, the most strident voices belonged to members of the Federalist camp, aghast by the prospect of a sudden influx of French Jacobins. Every bit as licentious, in Federalist eyes, were newly arrived emigrants from Ireland. With thousands disembarking each year, they, even more than French radicals, progressively fueled nativist fears. Notwithstanding widespread prejudice toward Catholics, it mattered not that most newcomers were Presbyterians from Ulster. Having embraced England as a bastion of civil order during France’s Reign of Terror, Federalists, whose strength lay centered in New England, identified the Irish with poverty, drink, and crime. They became reviled all the more for their growing insurgence, with French aid, against British occupation. In the meantime, the “wild Irish,” settled in western Pennsylvania, were thought to have played a major role in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 before its collapse in the face of an army led by Alexander Hamilton and Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee. By contrast, Jefferson, despite his earlier qualms, increasingly championed the plight of Irish immigrants, whom he and other pro-French Republicans considered victims of British oppression in need of America’s shelter. If Republicans’ motives were principled, their support for Irish Americans was no less shrewd, since Irish votes gave the party new grounds for hope in seeking to expand its predominantly southern base.

Fresh from winning the presidency in 1796 and control of both houses, Federalists grew more xenophobic. It did not help that party stalwarts blamed Irish American voters for John Adams’s narrow margin of victory. Thus commenced a concerted effort in Congress to impose additional impediments to naturalization, designed not only to deter citizenship but to discourage immigration altogether. The imposition of a $20 federal fee on naturalization certificates in 1797 barely failed after a robust debate in the House of Representatives. The Federalist representative from Massachusetts, Harrison Gray Otis, railed that he did “not wish to invite hoards of wild Irishmen, nor the turbulent and disorderly of all parts of the world, to come here with a view to disturb our tranquility, and who after unfurling the standard of rebellion in their own countries, may come hither to revolutionize ours.” Nephew of the Revolutionary hero James Otis, he favored a new naturalization act lengthening, yet again, the residence requirement for citizenship. “There was a moment of enthusiasm in this country,” Robert Goodloe Harper of South Carolina remarked, “when we were not satisfied with giving to immigrants every blessing which we had earned with our blood and treasure, but admitted them instantly to the rights of citizenship.” Proposing instead the abolition of any path to citizenship apart from birth, Harper flatly declared, “We were wrong.”

* * *

All that other states throw away, we are to take, and say thank you. Their offal is to be our aliment.

Even for a midsummer morning, July 4, 1800, dawned unusually warm in the western Connecticut town of Danbury. Reverend Thomas Robbins was a recent graduate of Yale College. A schoolteacher as well as a minister at just twenty-three, he looked forward to a full day of celebration, highlighted by an afternoon parade honoring the anniversary of America’s independence. Daylight, however, brought a shocking, if unfounded, report. “We had news of the death of Mr. Jefferson,” Reverend Robbins scribbled in his diary. “It is to be hoped that it is true.”

Thomas Jefferson, the architect of the Declaration of Independence, had by then assumed, in Federalist minds, the persona of a radical atheist, a leveling democrat sworn to overthrowing—by Jacobin violence if necessary—all order, both divine and human. Nearly as sinister was the Republican image of John Adams, cast as a haughty monarchist whose despotic presidency, bound by the tentacles of British influence, had betrayed the cause of American liberty. Both men no doubt believed themselves victims, in Adams’s description, of “the most envious malignity, the most base, vulgar, sordid, fish-woman scurrility, and the most palpable lies.” Less than a decade after the inauguration of George Washington, these two friends from the Revolution had become standard bearers of opposing political camps, bitterly at odds over the scope and size of the federal government at home and, increasingly, the preservation of American honor abroad. Except for the Civil War, the years immediately preceding the tumultuous election of 1800—the “Revolution of 1800,” as Jefferson would call it—were the most rancorous and divisive in the history of American politics. “Neither reason nor justice can be expected from either side,” observed La Rochefoucauld, “and very seldom strict morality with respect to the means employed to serve the favourite cause; one cause alone appears good; every thing besides is deemed bad, nay criminal.” From his vantage in Philadelphia, British Minister Robert Liston wrote toward the tag end of 1799, “The Country offers the spectacle of a perpetual struggle between two parties.”

Tensions still simmered over the financial program of Alexander Hamilton and the government’s suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion; but for the remainder of the decade it was the relentless war between Britain and revolutionary France that profoundly shook the political landscape. News of the British Treaty, followed in the spring of 1795 by an angry ratification fight in the Senate, quickly spilled over into the streets. Up and down the Eastern Seaboard, from Savannah to Boston, riots erupted as copies of the treaty went up in smoke, to the glee of cheering throngs. Some in a crowd of hundreds reportedly pelted Hamilton with stones as he spoke in New York City, and there was even scattered talk of Washington’s impeachment. Jefferson, his former secretary of state, thought the treaty “infamous,” a devil’s bargain. Any number of provisions were galling to Republicans, among them restrictions on American trade goods sent to the British West Indies, despite the promise to permit British imports into the United States. Differences relating to prewar debts and territorial boundaries were deferred to joint arbitration commissions. Among the worst grievances was the failure of John Jay’s mission to secure Britain’s pledge to respect U.S. neutrality by ceasing to impress American seamen on the high seas while confiscating ships and their cargoes. That France, too, was guilty of seizing vessels scarcely lessened the enormity of British transgressions, particularly at a time when American ships, as neutral carriers, stood to reap the rewards of filling wartime demands for provisions in Europe and the Caribbean. Given the intensity of partisan passions, Washington vainly condemned political parties in his Farewell Address, published on September 19, 1796, as instruments of “cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men” designed “to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.” In the presidential contest that year, John Adams, representing Washington’s Federalists, narrowly defeated the Republican Jefferson, who was forced to settle for the vice presidency. These infant parties, despite their burgeoning power, bore a pale resemblance to modern political organizations. Highly elitist, they functioned in the absence of conventions, formal platforms, and staffs. The vast apparatus characteristic of political parties today, connecting the nation’s capital to states and local communities, did not exist in the late eighteenth century. Then, also, individual personalities, together with their friendships and feuds, still played a large role in political life irrespective of party allegiances. Personal relationships, governed by a code of honor among gentlemen, still mattered, much as they had before the Revolution.

For a brief period, no better example of their influence existed than the friendship that resumed between President Adams and Jefferson. For more than twenty years, these two “founding brothers” of the Revolution had married their prodigious talents, first in the cause of national independence during the Second Continental Congress, followed a decade later as commercial envoys in Paris for the infant republic. Adams and Jefferson, as diplomats in London and Paris respectively, kept in contact, as did their families. And as secretary of state, Jefferson joined Vice President Adams in George Washington’s first administration. Both were powerful intellects: Jefferson the philosopher, scientist, and Virginia planter, every bit as visionary as he was, at times, inscrutable; Adams the “Atlas” of independence in 1776, with a well-earned reputation for vanity, integrity, and a deep hunger for adulation. “He is vain, irritable, and a bad calculator of the motives which govern men,” Jefferson noted in 1783, but “this is all the ills which can possibly be said of him.”

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The Devil and Alcohol help Jefferson pull down the stability of the federal government.

As president, Adams early on spoke forcefully against “that fiend, the Spirit of Party.” He also, in response to a warm letter from Jefferson, replied in kind. “Mr. Adams,” Jefferson assured James Madison, “speaks of me with great friendship and with satisfaction in the prospect of administering the government in concurrence with me.” And yet, however sincere Adams’s sentiments, they were overtaken in March 1798 by news of the insulting treatment accorded American diplomats in the XYZ Affair. As relations with the French Republic rapidly deteriorated, Congress that summer passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which only deepened party divisions. While the Sedition Act threatened critics of the government with fines and imprisonment, the lapping tide of Federalist xenophobia crested in the Alien Acts. With the failure of the Bill of Rights to explicitly address the prerogatives of foreign nationals, the Alien Acts granted the president the unprecedented power to deport émigrés without due process of law. Before being expunged, a provision threatened any who returned to the United States with hard labor for life, which Jefferson thought “worthy of the eighth or ninth century.” No less controversial was a draconian naturalization act extending the minimum period of residence for citizenship to fourteen years. It passed the House by a single vote. Whereas deportation, insisted Federalist lawmakers, was designed not to muzzle alien critics but to expel foreign subversives, there was no mistaking the aim of the naturalization law. Ever more threatening to domestic peace than French Jacobins, in Federalist eyes, were thousands of newly arrived Irish immigrants, whose numbers swelled after the abortive Rebellion of 1798 against British rule, in which forty thousand people may have died. The new law promised not only to dramatically delay the naturalization of Irish Americans but, as a consequence, to discourage future émigrés. A supporter of both measures caustically observed, “The Irish patriots, after having set their own country on fire, are running away by the light of it as wharf rats.” Dead, in the view of Federalists, were visions of America’s special role in the world as a beacon of liberty. “All that other states throw away, we are to take, and say thank you. Their offal is to be our aliment.”

All the while, barely beneath the surface of party conflict, smoldered the persistent problem of impressment, which for Americans violated the personal liberty of seamen and the nation’s sovereignty. During the period since Robert Liston’s appointment as minister to America, these affronts had grown more vexing, with the Caribbean, as in past years, the chief trouble spot. In September 1798, a Kingston magistrate who represented U.S. interests in Jamaica estimated that some 250 Americans currently served on board ships under Vice Admiral Parker’s command. The Admiralty refused to recognize the right of British subjects—in a number of instances reputed deserters—to become American citizens; and naval officers, ever in need of mariners, commonly disregarded notarized protections certifying their bearers’ nativity. Protections could be acquired from magistrates in U.S. ports by virtue of false affidavits and bribes, the British were quick to claim.

Secretary of State Pickering continued to deem impressment the principal danger to both public acceptance of the British Treaty and, more generally, peaceful relations with Great Britain. Notwithstanding his diplomatic efforts, Republicans blamed not only the British but also the Adams administration for its seeming indifference. In fact, Pickering may have hoped that Jonathan Robbins’s extradition, as an expression of goodwill, would be reciprocated by British steps to curb the seizure of seamen from American ships. With dispatches flying back and forth over the fate of Robbins, Pickering on May 7, 1799, sent Liston a strongly worded appeal. In American opinion, he wrote, British naval officers were thought “more intent on gain than glory.” Later, “in a private letter” to Liston, which the minister quoted at length to Grenville, Pickering complained of “horrible abuses in the impress of American seamen, by the ships under Sir Hyde Parker’s command.” In June, with a son of his own in the American navy, Pickering even proposed reciprocating in kind to Rufus King in London. “There is no principle by which they can justify taking by force, even from an American merchant vessel, even a deserter from their navy or army, much less private seamen. If they have the right, we have the same. I know not whether the exercise of it would not be useful to us.” Citing the large number of British merchant ships vulnerable to boarding, Pickering lamented that President Adams considered “the measure as destitute of principle.”

* * *

Perhaps this ill humor may evaporate before the election comes on—but at present it wears a very serious aspect.

The monumental presidential contest of 1800 was, until the election of Abraham Lincoln, unrivaled for its historic importance and heart-stopping drama. Not for another sixty years would electoral politics exhibit such urgency or the stakes of a presidential campaign bulk so large. At issue in the minds of Americans in this bitterly polarized contest was nothing less than the survival of their infant republic. Absent was the comfort of George Washington’s commanding presence. Unheeded were his pleas for national unity. Americans clashed over the scope and administration of government, the roles of leaders and followers—indeed, over the very words and meaning of the Constitution. The race became a battle for the country’s soul, whether the people would continue to accept the guidance of a paternalistic ruling class determined to establish the supremacy of the federal government or place their trust instead in representatives striving to protect and advance liberties won in the Revolution—“friends of the people” rather than “fathers of the people.”

No shortage of partisans on either side feared that the election could erupt in civil war. In the dire event of a Federalist triumph, Republicans stood ready to defend the doctrine of states’ rights championed in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. Following their passage, Alexander Hamilton had written of moving the army toward Virginia “to act upon the laws and put Virginia to the test of resistance.” Should Republicans lose the election, a state resident forecast that “chains, dungeons, portation [to Australia], and perhaps the gibbet” would follow. Just as apocalyptic, in the eyes of Federalists mindful of the French Revolution, would be a Republican victory, dooming the country to unbridled anarchy. “The air will be rent with the cries of distress, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes,” predicted a Connecticut Federalist.

Of the two camps, Federalists enjoyed marked advantages. The party controlled the Senate and the House of Representatives as well as the presidency; and in the summer of 1799 seats it had picked up in both houses of Congress included ten in southern states, a Republican stronghold whose political strength, it bears noting, was inflated by the three-fifths clause in the Constitution allowing a slave to be counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of apportioning presidential electors as well as congressmen in each state. Moreover, by 1800, the Adams administration, in the spirit of redeeming national honor, had conducted an undeclared war against France, supported by appropriations for a new navy and an expanded army commanded by Hamilton himself, and laws aimed at the suppression of domestic dissent and foreign subversion—all redounding to the government’s strength notwithstanding Republican protests. But Adams’s reelection was scarcely a foregone conclusion, not least due to fractures in Federalist ranks stemming from the president’s decision to dispatch to Paris envoys who helped to bring an end to the quasi-war with France. In October, Timothy Pickering had written bitterly of his “indignation, chagrin, and distress.” Of the “eastern people,” John Marshall observed to his brother-in-law, “perhaps this ill humor may evaporate before the election comes on—but at present it wears a very serious aspect.”

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A press gang, 1780. Via Wikimedia.

By the first months of 1800, it was widely assumed that Vice President Jefferson would again challenge Adams, his estranged friend and ally, for the presidency. As a Virginia Federalist later observed, Jefferson was “the ‘rallying point,’ the head quarters, the everything” of the Republican opposition. In contrast to his reluctant candidacy during the election of 1796, when supporters feared that he might not serve if elected, Jefferson’s mood had stiffened. As demonstrated by the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which he and Madison had authored, the Alien and Sedition Acts warranted particular condemnation. While Congress remained in session, Jefferson continued to cultivate an image of detachment, appearing above the fray of electoral politics. Not only did he rarely engage in public discourse about the election, but he also desisted from mailing confidential letters for fear that Federalist postmasters might intercept and publicize the contents. All the same, he increasingly played an active role behind the scenes, deftly plotting strategy and conferring with a handful of trusted intimates, notably Madison, before leaving Philadelphia in May for his cherished mountaintop estate.

Few in either party were as well informed as Jefferson about the political landscape, including the importance of a handful of swing states whose Electoral College ballots would spell victory or defeat come December 3, when state electors convened to vote. On March 8, Jefferson reported in a letter to Madison that “the Feds begin to be seriously alarmed about their election next fall.” He estimated that the nation’s electoral votes would likely be “equally divided,” except for New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. Detailing different scenarios for each of the three states—Pennsylvania alone presented myriad possibilities—Jefferson concluded that New York’s votes, due to be cast by a majority of the state legislature up for election in late April, would be decisive. More than that, he concluded, “All depends upon the success of the city election,” which would send thirteen members to the legislature. “The election of New York, being in April,” Jefferson wrote, “it becomes an early and interesting object.”

* * *

One of the most detestable of mankind.

New York was crucial. The first state to hold an election in a series of contests designed, directly or indirectly, to select members of the Electoral College between April and early December, the state of New York, with 12 electoral votes, was the largest jewel left in the crown. Virginia (21) and Massachusetts (16) controlled more votes, but each rallied around its native son. Meanwhile Pennsylvania’s 15 ballots were yet to be apportioned because of the failure of Governor McKean and the legislature to reach a compromise. Opposition from the Federalist-dominated state senate raised the possibility that Pennsylvania would abstain from voting—a calamity for Republicans who had received all but one of the state’s 15 votes in 1796. By contrast, not only was New York in play, but the outcome of the election promised the victor an important measure of momentum. Partisans on both sides shared Jefferson’s appraisal of the contest’s centrality, all the more since Adams’s victory in New York had sealed Jefferson’s narrow defeat four years earlier. Of Federalist prospects, Robert Troup, an intimate of Alexander Hamilton, in March wrote Rufus King in London, “We are full of anxiety here about the election of our members. . . . We must bring into action all our energies; if we do not . . . Jefferson will be in.” Soon afterward Charles Pinckney of South Carolina expressed Republican apprehension to Edward Livingston: “We look with great anxiety to you & your election.” Livingston had, in fact, just written Jefferson that “the prevalence if not the very existence of republicanism in the U States depends so much on the event of our ensuing Election.”

Scheduled over three days, from April 29 to May 1, the election would choose candidates from two competing slates, nominated by the parties, for the state legislature. As voters understood, the newly elected legislators—assemblymen and senators—would vote as a single body for presidential electors in December. Just a simple majority would be needed. As Jefferson had forecast, nowhere else were so many seats up for grabs as in the densely packed neighborhoods of Manhattan, which held the balance of power in the legislature. “It is universally acknowledged both by the federalists and jacobins, that the election of a President, on either side, depends upon the city of New York,” remarked a South Carolinian.

No longer the nation’s capital, or even the state’s, owing to its transfer to Albany in 1797, New York remained the second-largest city after Philadelphia, as well as the busiest port in the United States. By 1800, it contained a population of more than sixty thousand, an alphabet soup of English, Dutch, Germans, Irish, Sephardic Jews, French Huguenots, and African Americans, both slaves and free blacks. Stretching fifteen miles in length, Manhattan was bounded by the East River (not to be spanned until 1883 by the Brooklyn Bridge) and the majestic Hudson, a vital conduit of agricultural produce from northern New York and western New England. The island was three miles across at its widest. As trade flourished, so too had the city’s infrastructure, notwithstanding the irregular design of its grid. Many of its thoroughfares, to be sure, were narrow, dirty, and crooked, lined with wooden houses that a passing visitor termed “mean, small, and low.” Nor did this observer find shopkeepers as “civil and obliging” as in Philadelphia. But in opulent neighborhoods bordering the Hudson there were brick homes and wide streets, including Broadway, which no other “city in the world,” the visitor exclaimed, could equal for elegance.

The outcome of the election was anything but predictable. At first glance, fate appeared to favor the Republicans. National issues, among them furor over Robbins, had set Adams on his heels; and New York Republicans claimed a brilliant strategist in forty-four-year-old Aaron Burr, who in 1796 had like Jefferson run as a Republican for the presidency and now, four years later, hoped to boost his influence in the party, with an eye, possibly, to becoming vice president by finishing second in the electoral college. Only five feet six in height, Burr had a handsome face, natural charm, and intelligence that more than compensated for his slight stature. A native of Newark, New Jersey, he descended from a family of intellectual preeminence. His mother was the daughter of the famed New England evangelist Jonathan Edwards; whereas Aaron Burr the elder, a theologian in his own right, was the second president of the College of New Jersey, from which his son had graduated with distinction at age sixteen. In the Revolutionary War, the younger Burr served with conspicuous bravery before becoming a prominent lawyer in New York. He entered politics in 1784 as a state assemblyman and found himself at odds, professionally and ideologically, with another talented attorney, Alexander Hamilton. Their differences sharpened during Washington’s presidency when Burr, as a U.S. senator from New York, joined Jefferson in opposition to administration policies, especially the British Treaty. Still and all, Burr proved not a rigid ideologue, but a pragmatist for whom politics represented a contest for power, privilege, and personal profit. Defeated in his bid for reelection, he again turned his hand to furthering Republican prospects in New York City. A visiting Englishman labeled him “a genius of singular perspicacity.”

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Thomas Jefferson. Via Wikimedia.

By the eve of April’s election, Burr had constructed the foundations of America’s first political machine, complete with ward committees, rallies, and the use of his own spacious home as a campaign headquarters, well stocked with refreshments and mattresses for exhausted partisans. No less important, he had personally recruited a baker’s dozen of luminous candidates identified with different factions of the party, including Horatio Gates, the hero of the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, and George Clinton, who had served six terms as governor of the state. Never again in American history would such an impressive slate compete simultaneously for seats in a state legislature.

For all their troubles, Federalist leaders exuded confidence. Jefferson, in many minds, remained a radical democrat and a Francophile. Martha Washington, George’s widow, thought him “one of the most detestable of mankind.” While conceding the impact of Republican newspapers in spreading “atrocious lies and perverse misrepresentations,” Timothy Pickering predicted that the electors selected by the state legislature would “doubtless be to a man opposed to Jefferson.” Just one year earlier, the party had easily won a majority of seats in the assembly. The governor, John Jay, and most members of the senate were Federalists. Such political prowess had enabled them to block Republican efforts to hold popular elections for presidential electors, hoping instead to garner every electoral vote by keeping their legislative majorities rather than split the difference, district by district. All or nothing. Moreover, Hamilton, whose political instincts equaled Burr’s, stepped forward to assume command of the campaign—reputedly “sure of success.” That Hamilton despised President Adams is not to be doubted, but he yet hoped for a Federalist triumph in December. Victory in New York would boost his influence in the party, laying the groundwork perhaps for a new candidate with a strong Federalist pedigree in place of Adams.

The illegitimate son of a bankrupt British trader and a French mother on the island of Nevis, Hamilton was orphaned in youth, only to come under the care of a Presbyterian minister who sent him to King’s College (now Columbia University) in New York. Every bit as heroic as Burr during the war, he ascended rapidly to become Washington’s senior aide-de-camp. If Hamilton’s checkered childhood explained his voracious ambition, then his nationalistic spirit, like John Marshall’s, was forged in the military. His subsequent success as a New York lawyer, coauthor of the Federalist Papers, secretary of the Treasury, and party leader insured that the contest for control of the legislature would be warmly fought, as did the opportunity to engage his longtime nemesis at close quarters. The legendary French foreign minister Talleyrand later ranked Hamilton above Napoleon and William Pitt as the era’s greatest political figure.

In an unusual step designed perhaps to draw working-class votes, Hamilton cobbled together a slate of candidates who were equally conspicuous for nothing, including a potter, two grocers, a baker, and a ship chandler. Hamilton matched Burr’s frenetic pace, which was no mean feat. Similar in height and stature, with light hair and piercing eyes, he, too, bore a reputation for perseverance and unbridled energy. In advance of the election, Federalist committees met regularly, and Hamilton, like Burr, personally took to the streets to preach the virtues of Federalism, occasionally on horseback. Scoffed a critic, “Every day he is seen in the street hurrying this way and darting that.” Come the election, “runners” for both campaigns stood ready to spread the gospel from one ward to the next, while party leaders stationed themselves at polling places.

* * *

It is hoped that the crew of the Ocean will not again be murdered.

It is tempting to attribute the election’s outcome to planning and logistics. And yet, for all the painstaking preparation, voters would cast ballots on the basis of their deepest convictions, hatreds, and fears. Without a clarion call capable of mobilizing grassroots support, politicking alone, however well orchestrated, would not succeed. Now more than ever, in the six weeks preceding the contest the city’s newspapers entered the fray, aggressively publishing columns alongside partisan articles masked as news. For ammunition, Republicans drew heavily from Adams’s presidency, though the British Treaty remained a grievance that explained any number of recent ills, notably the undeclared war with France, itself the wellspring of such iniquities as the Alien and Sedition Acts, heightened taxes, and a standing army. Still, the salience of some issues threatened to ebb, thereby dampening Republican ardor. As Robert Goodloe Harper asked, “What can they [Republicans] hope to do, which is not already to be done? Will they make peace with France? It is in a train of being made. Will they reduce the army? It is reduced [very shortly, in fact, disbanded by Adams and Congress]. Will they repeal the Alien and Sedition Laws? . . . They expire of themselves next session; and the occasion for them having ceased, no body thinks of renewing them. Will they discharge the public debt? Provisions are already made for its discharge.”

By contrast, Robbins, the martyred symbol of British impressment, continued to generate unending attacks. “To Timothy Pickering, Judge Bee, and his advisers and requestors, I wish the ghost of Robbins may be their diurnal and nocturnal visitant,” wrote Simon Slim in mid-April. Arguably, no grievance proved more powerful, as the New York election neared, than Adams’s surrender of an American who had valiantly struggled, as an impressed seaman, to resist enslavement by British oppressors. Again and again Republicans castigated the administration for its betrayal of “POOR ROBBINS.” Given America’s reputation as an asylum from tyranny, a broadside marveled that anyone claiming “to be a citizen could be delivered to a foreign tribunal and military execution.” In Newark’s Centinel of Freedom, just days before the contest, an “Essex Whig” lashed out, “He was loaded with irons, delivered over to the bloodhounds of Britain, tried by a court-martial, condemned, and hung in chains!!” It did not help that weekly news of freshly impressed sailors magnified the impact of polemical attacks. In March and April, newspapers reported that three hundred Americans served aboard British ships in Kingston harbor. Despite repeated complaints, Admiral Parker refused to grant an audience to an American agent. “You must not be surprised,” the diplomat reportedly remarked, “if you should hear that I was impressed!!!” “The English,” declared a New York paper in late April, “have never ceased their depredations, and have lately very greatly encreased them.”

us_navy_031029-n-6236g-001_a_painting_of_president_john_adams_1735-1826_2nd_president_of_the_united_states_by_asher_b-_durand_1767-1845-crop

John Adams. Via Wikimedia.

No less powerful was a long polemic, also printed in New York just before the election in both the American Citizen, the city’s leading Republican daily, and the semiweekly Republican Watch-Tower. Addressed by a “Republican Farmer” in the state to the citizens of New York and five other states who stood to choose “members to their state legislatures . . . in order to secure the election of Electors of a President,” the letter touched on a variety of grievances. None loomed as large, or was expressed as forcefully, however, as Robbins’s extradition. Urging voters to “attend to the late proceedings of the House of Representatives on the case of Jonathan Robbins,” the author declared, “The most remarkable thing in the business is that the president’s friends afterwards withdrew Mr. Bayard’s motion approving his (the president’s) conduct in the affair, and the plain fact is that although a majority cannot be brought to a censure, yet that a majority have not been brought to approve explicitly his advising and requesting a judge to act in the case of Robbins, whose life was at stake, and who has since been executed. . . . How can you again be ever decently called upon to support by your votes a man against whom there have been such charges—against whom indeed suspicion of improper conduct must rest, until it is removed by a clear unequivocal and explicit vote of approbation?”

For Federalists, the timing could not have been worse for news of fresh British malfeasance to appear in the American Citizen. A “stranger” had delivered the “communication” from Jamaica to the American Mercury in Hartford, Connecticut. Although the editors could “not vouch for its authenticity,” they published the missive on April 17, as did three papers in New York City besides the American Citizen over the next nine days. A forty-four-gun British frigate, the Acasta, was said to have seized the American brig Sally of New London off the coast of Jamaica “without the slightest pretext for condemnation.” According to the captain, James Stewart, who reached New London on April 4, the entire crew except for himself and the cabin boy, all of whom were Connecticut natives, was carried to Kingston and impressed “without discrimination.” The British captain also confiscated $4,250 from Stewart’s sea chest. Treated with “personal incivilities and contempt,” Captain Stewart returned with the Sally, joined by the masters of other American vessels whose crews had been pressed “with their protections in their hands.”

Although the report bore the ring of truth, election-eve shenanigans cannot be discounted. For inspiration New York Republicans had only to recall the damaging impact, one year earlier, of allegations of French violence on the eve of elections for the state legislature. Beginning in April 1799, scores of Federalist newspapers—“from one end of the continent to the other”—including those in New York, reported the slaughter of the American captain and crew of the ship Ocean by French privateers north of Cuba. Only months afterward, upon news of the vessel’s safe arrival, with a full company, was the “fabricated massacre”—as the Aurora put it—uncovered. One month before the vote in 1800, a New York acquaintance wrote Albert Gallatin, “It is hoped that the crew of the Ocean will not again be murdered.”

Then also, the fate of the Sally’s crew was oddly reminiscent of Robbins’s narrative, to say nothing of being ill timed. It was a yardarm of the Acasta, after all, from which Robbins, a reputed Connecticut seaman like the crew members of the Sally, had been hanged in August. A farrago of ill fortune or a Republican ruse designed to wreak maximum damage? By the end of April, the Mercantile Advertiser, which inclined Federalist, alleged that the brig was actually a Swedish ship named the Mary that had been captured by a French privateer before being retaken by the British. Further, no Americans had belonged to the Mary’s crew, all of which Republicans adamantly denied. Unfortunately, neither of the Acasta’s logs help to resolve the mystery, apart from placing the frigate in the vicinity of Jamaica after leaving the northern port of Montego Bay on January 30. And while the Acasta in late winter and early spring intercepted several American vessels, four in March alone, their names were not recorded. Nor are there references in the logs to either a Swedish ship or a French privateer.

But this inflammatory news, whether true or false, was not the worst of it. The presidential election of 1800, as Joanne Freeman has written, was one in which contingent and unexpected events played a powerful role—arguably none more so than the sudden arrival of HMS Cleopatra. In the midst of the uproar over the Sally and her Connecticut crew, on April 28, the day before the polls were due to open, another British frigate, in the oddest twist of all, appeared in New York City’s upper bay, just off Governors Island, a half mile south of Manhattan. The captain of the thirty-two-gun ship was Israel Pellew, the younger brother of Edward, Britain’s greatest living frigate commander, whose daring feats during the French Wars made him as popular as Nelson with the British public. More than once, however, Edward, the future Viscount Exmouth, had been forced to salvage the career of his star-crossed brother, at best a mediocre commander who suffered from a lethal blend of ineptitude and arrogance. Due in part to Israel’s negligence in 1796, his frigate the Amphion exploded off the coast of Plymouth, resulting in three hundred fatalities. The following year, not only did his next crew mutiny at Spithead, but they also insisted that Pellew be put ashore along with other “tyrannical” officers. Owing to Edward’s aid, however, this humiliation did not keep Israel from receiving a third frigate, the Cleopatra.

Assigned to the North American station at Halifax, Nova Scotia, the Cleopatra, like other British ships operating off New England, became notorious for confiscating American merchant vessels with contraband. But in April, she drew a different mission. Pellew was to retrieve £60,000 placed in New York City for safekeeping to finance fortifications at the Halifax garrison. It was bad enough that shortly past dawn on the twenty-third amid rain and high winds, the captain ordered the seizure of a pair of American vessels en route to Amsterdam, the Charlotte and the Warren, one of which was owned by a New York merchant. Having first stayed its course, the Charlotte hove to after the Cleopatra fired six guns, the final shot striking “just astern of her.” On being boarded, the two prizes, each commandeered by a dozen or so British sailors, were sent to Halifax and their crews taken aboard the Cleopatra, all of which a mate of the Charlotte subsequently detailed in a sworn affidavit. What enraged residents of New York all the more was that Pellew, in the wake of seizing the vessels, was “insolent enough,” five days later, “to anchor near the city” in order to collect the garrison’s funds as well as take on fresh water and provisions, all the while rejecting the owners’ pleas to return their ships. It did not help that the Cleopatra announced her arrival by saluting the fortress on Governors Island (Fort Jay, named after the prominent Federalist governor and former Supreme Court chief justice) with seven guns. “Thus, my friends,” proclaimed a freshly printed handbill, “are you robbed, almost at your own doors, of above TWO HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS in property, and your Fellow-Citizens detained perhaps in chains in sight of their wives and families.”

* * *

Shall we continue to cherish this viper in our bosoms?

Tuesday the twenty-ninth dawned fair and bright for the opening of the polls. Not for another day would the two American crews be permitted ashore, by which time confusion and fear had started to sweep the island. The American Citizen exhorted, “Is this not alarming in the greatest degree! The vessels in our port, nay even our market boats, are unsafe. . . . Shall we continue to cherish this viper in our bosoms? Can it be possible that the Federal party in this country are so blinded by prejudice, and actuated by party spirit, that they cannot see the danger?” “Let us go forward to the polls,” urged the paper, and “give our suffrages to the men who have once released us from the tyrannical yoke of Britain, and who now come forward once more to secure you that liberty they have so hardily earned!” On Thursday, a contributor styled “Shade of Seventy-six” echoed, “Heavens, are you men, and will you suffer this? Will you this day, by giving your votes for Englishmen, Tories and Aristocrats, encourage new depredations?” Caught badly off guard, Hamilton hastily denied the Cleopatra’s seizure of American ships, accusing Republicans of an “electioneering trick” in attempting to rally party activists.

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The Burr-Hamilton duel.

By then, Burr, never one to miss the main chance, had swiftly sprung into action. Republicans plastered handbills and placards across the city, tapping into a deep reservoir of anti-British resentment. According to a letter in the Philadelphia Gazette from a distraught Federalist in Manhattan, men dressed as sailors paraded “through every street & alley, proclaiming, as they passed, that they had recently escaped from British press-gangs, and from on board the British frigate then at the watering place.” Whether they were actually crew members of the Charlotte and Warren, freshly freed from the Cleopatra, mattered little. More alarming still, the “sailors” announced that all American seamen would henceforth be subject to impressment by the Royal Navy. Although the newspaper correspondent estimated New Yorkers to be three-fourths “decided Federalists,” he despaired that “these and a thousand other lies gained belief among the too credulous citizens, and effectually turned the election.” Among other rumors, one in all likelihood stemmed from Britain’s desire to send agents ashore from ships docked in American ports, ostensibly to seize naval “deserters” with the cooperation of local officials. However circumscribed the navy’s intentions, prospects for abuse could only have heightened fears over the appearance of press-gangs in city streets. Of the Cleopatra’s arrival, a Massachusetts Federalist moaned, “The people of New York are highly exasperated at this conduct.”

The polls closed on a rainy Thursday evening. “Republicanism Triumphant,” reported a party lieutenant in a midnight letter to Gallatin in Philadelphia. By any reckoning, the results were catastrophic for Adams and the Federalists. Along with three senate seats, Republicans swept all thirteen of the city’s assembly seats by a combined margin of 440 ballots, representing some 8 percent of those cast, a striking turnaround from the previous year. Prima facie evidence hints at the dramatic impact of the Cleopatra’s ill-timed arrival. In the city, roughly two-thirds of adult white males possessed the right to vote, which required either ownership of a freehold worth £20 or tenancy in a domicile valued at £40. Republican candidates drew especially large numbers of votes from the city’s two poorest wards in northern Manhattan, the sixth and the seventh. With turnout extremely high, each of these wards recorded more than twice the number of votes cast in affluent wards at the southern end of the island. Overflowing with working-class families, the sixth and seventh wards contained not only seamen fearful of incurring the fate of Jonathan Robbins but also mechanics and laborers alarmed at the possibility, however far-fetched, of British press-gangs in Manhattan. Memories yet lingered of attempts before the Revolution to conscript New Yorkers. In August 1760, armed resistance by American seamen ended in the death of five British sailors, whereas in 1764 Manhattan rioters burned a longboat, successfully stranding a press-gang and its five captives on shore, as the commanding officer fled for his life.

The balloting virtually guaranteed the party of Jefferson all of the state’s twelve electoral votes. From Philadelphia, a dejected Robert Liston conveyed the disturbing news to Lord Grenville. Following Pellew’s arrival, he recounted, handbills were “instantly distributed, containing the most infamous misrepresentations of the conduct of Captain Pellew, and of his intention in coming to New York.” With no time for “immediate counteraction” from administration supporters, the “effect,” Liston bluntly reported, “was decisive,” with the likelihood, as a consequence, “that Mr. Adams will at all events lose his election to the Presidency.”

The outcome in New York did not guarantee a Republican victory come December, but at a minimum it staved off a crippling defeat, to say nothing of the boost that it gave to party morale and the distress inflicted on Federalist spirits. On receiving the news, the U.S. Senate adjourned for the day in Philadelphia. “The New York election,” wrote Gallatin, “has engrossed the whole attention of us.” “Exultation on our side is high; the other party are in low spirits.” So upset was Hamilton that he recklessly implored Governor Jay, with the aid of a lame-duck legislature, to counter the results by selecting electors in order to prevent “an Atheist in Religion and a Fanatic in politics from getting possession of the helm of the State.” Notwithstanding his own disappointment, Jay had the good sense to ignore such a drastic appeal. Meanwhile, an exhilarated Edward Livingston wrote Jefferson, “We have completely and triumphantly succeeded.”

*

jefferson-satirized

From the book:
AMERICAN SANCTUARY by A. Roger Ekirch
Copyright © 2017 by A. Roger Ekirch
Published by arrangement with Pantheon Books, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC