By Gerald Therrien
‘Although the end of all our Revolutionary labors and expectations is disappointment, and our fond hopes of republican happiness are vanity, and the real patriots of ’76 are overwhelmed by the modern pretenders to that character, I will not yet despair: I will rather anticipate a new confederacy, exempt from the corrupt and corrupting influence and oppression of the aristocratic Democrats of the South. There will be – and our children at farthest will see it – a separation. The white and black population will mark the boundary. The British Provinces, even with the assent of Britain, will become members of the Northern confederacy …’
– Timothy Pickering’s letter to Richard Peters on December 24th 1803.
To find out where this treasonous plot to break up the American Union came from, one must look back in time, to the election year of 1800 – and to the election for president of the United States. In the previous election in 1796, John Adams had been elected president by a mere three votes over Thomas Jefferson, as the ‘federalist’ party had swept the New England states, Delaware, New Jersey and New York. Jefferson and his ‘republican’ party supporters set out to win the next presidential election – by winning over New York to their side.
This unholy alliance of Virginia and New York – of Thomas Jefferson and George Clinton – was consummated in 1791. In May and June of that year, Jefferson and James Madison took a trip to northern New York state – supposedly to study the local flora and fauna but, in reality, they went there to meet with Robert Livingston, George Clinton and Aaron Burr – to seek their support in opposing the policies of the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. Livingston and Clinton would join forces to defeat Philip Schuyler, Hamilton’s father-in-law, and to elect Burr as the next United States Senator from New York.
Also, while on their trip to New York, Madison and Jefferson met with Madison’s former college room-mate at Princeton, Philip Freneau, to convince him to come to Philadelphia and launch a newspaper (the National Gazette) that would express their mutual fear and detestation of Hamilton’s attempt to shape the federal government, by attacking Hamilton’s policies as ‘British’ and ‘monarchist’ – policies that Madison had earlier agreed on with Hamilton, during the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
It was also during that summer of 1791 (quite suspiciously) that Hamilton became seduced into having an affair with Maria Reynolds – James Reynolds had been renting his stylish wife to various gentlemen, and then blackmailing them. [Mrs. Reynolds would later file for divorce from her husband, hiring Burr as her lawyer!]
Later, in July 1797, James Callender would publish documents that implicated Hamilton in this affair, but he would charge that Hamilton, with James Reynolds’s help, was speculating on government securities for his own personal gain. Hamilton almost fought a duel with James Monroe over Hamilton’s suspicion that Monroe was implicated in the leaking of these documents to Callender. Hamilton wrote a pamphlet ‘to place before the public an exact detail of the affair in all its circumstances accompanied with the written documents which explain unequivocally its true nature’. While Hamilton was willing to sacrifice the reputation of his private life, he fought to preserve his public honor and the integrity of President Washington and his administration – identifying his true enemy as ‘the Jacobin Scandal Club’.
In regards to the presidential electors of 1800, the Constitution gave each state the right to choose its own method for selecting its presidential electors – Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina and Tennessee chose their electors by voters in each district; Rhode Island and Virginia chose their electors by voters statewide; all other states (including New York) had their state legislature appoint their electors.
On May 1st 1800, elections were held for the state legislature in New York. Hamilton organized the ‘federalist’ ticket, while Burr organized the ‘republican’ ticket, using an efficient political machinery to win – the Saint Tammany’s Society. Burr felt that if he could deliver New York into the republican camp, it would ruin Adams’s chance for re-election and throw the outcome to Jefferson – and he could parlay that feat into a claim for second spot on the ‘republican’ ballot under Jefferson. (Burr had been on the ballot in 1796, but was 1 of 3 ‘republican’ candidates, receiving only 30 votes.) After 3 days of balloting, the ‘republicans’ had swept the city of New York, and now controlled the state legislature, while the federalists still controlled the state senate. But the ‘republican’ gains were enough to give them a majority of the combined houses – by one vote – that would allow them to choose all 12 of the (‘republican’) presidential electors. Jefferson could now count on 12 electoral votes from New York, where he had received none in the 1796 election.
For the upcoming presidential election, the ‘federalist’ party had previously agreed that all of their Electors would vote for John Adams and for Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, except that one Elector in Rhode Island would vote for Adams and John Jay, and thus avoid a tie vote (between Adams and Pinckney). Jefferson had been assured that one Elector in South Carolina would cast a vote for George Clinton instead of Burr – ensuring that Jefferson would have one more vote than Burr. But somehow this did not happen, and while the ‘republicans’ defeated the ‘federalists’ in the presidential election, Jefferson and Burr were tied in the number of their electoral votes.
According to the original Constitution (before the twelfth amendment), the Electors of each state were to meet and cast two votes for two persons – not having to show which vote was for president and which vote was for vice-president. When the Senate met to tally these votes, the person having the greatest number of votes would be the president, and the person with the next greatest number of votes would be the vice-president – the framers of the constitution had not foreseen the rise of parties or factions in the presidential elections. And also, according to the Constitution, in case of a tie vote, the election would be decided by the House of Representatives – as each state would cast one vote, and a majority of states (at least 9 votes) would be needed to elect a president.
But this election would be decided by the outgoing House of Representatives (where the ‘federalists’ had a majority) and not by the incoming House of Representatives (where the ‘republicans’ had a majority). On the first ballot taken, the votes of 8 states were given for Jefferson, the votes of 6 states for Burr, and the votes of 2 states were equally divided – as ‘disgruntled federalists’, in their disgust at the thought of Jefferson becoming president, preferred an alliance with Burr. Hamilton wrote letters to his ‘federalist’ friends urging them that although he disagreed with Jefferson’s economic and foreign policies, he was infinitely preferable to Burr. Finally, on the 36th ballot, the ‘federalist’ members in the states of Delaware and South Carolina abstained, taking their votes away from Burr, and the ‘federalist’ members in the (tied) states of Vermont and Maryland abstained, giving their votes to Jefferson. Hamilton’s work in stopping Burr had finally succeeded, and Jefferson became President!
Note: Hamilton’s distrust of Burr originated in Hamilton’s life-long admiration and dedicated defence of General Washington.
When General Washington court-martialled General Lee in 1778, Burr wrote a letter to the court-martial defending Lee, and he became associated with a minority of the officers who disliked and disparaged General Washington’s ability and leadership. In November 1783, after the British had finally evacuated New York, General Washington said farewell to his officers – but Burr was not invited to attend the event. In December 1783, when General Washington was elected President of the Society of the Cincinnati, some officers refused to join – including Burr.
In 1798, during the Quasi-war with France, Burr was nominated as brigadier-general, but was rejected by General Washington who considered him as too prone to intrigue. General Washington may also have heard the rumours of Burr’s private opinion of him as ‘a man of no talents’ who ‘could not spell a sentence of common English’.
But, because Burr did not withdraw from the contest and concede the election to Jefferson, he lost any confidence he might have had with Jefferson, and any influence he might wish to have within his administration – and also, he knew that he would not become a future ‘republican’ candidate for vice-president (or for president). In June 1802, the Clinton faction of the ‘republican’ party in New York published a pamphlet ‘A View of the Political Conduct of Aaron Burr’, accusing Burr of having secretly schemed to steal the presidential election away from Jefferson in 1800, and of plotting to gain ‘federalist’ support to run against Jefferson in 1804. This was done to ostracize him from the party and also, to secure the ‘republican’ vice-presidential nomination for Clinton.
The ‘federalist’ party had continuously opposed the policies of President Jefferson, but especially opposed the purchase of Louisiana in 1803 – fearing that this acquisition would shift the balance of power away from the northern ‘federalist’ states. A number of New England ‘federalists’ in Congress, called the ‘Essex Junto’, disillusioned from their defeat over ratification of the Louisiana treaty, and with no hope of the ‘federalists’ regaining the presidency, began discussing the idea of the northern states seceding from the Union. But, for their plan to work they needed the support from New York and so, they sought out the participation of Burr as part of their treasonous plan. With ‘federalist’ support, Burr would run for governor of New York, against the ‘republican’ candidate, and with his victory, Burr could then throw New York behind New England’s secession plot.
Proof of the participation of Burr in the plot is seen in an excerpt from the journal of Senator William Plumer (New Hampshire) – in the winter of 1803-04, Pickering, Hillhouse and Plumer dined with Burr, and Hillhouse ‘unequivocally declared that it was his opinion that the United States would soon form two distinct governments’; and ‘Burr conversed very freely on the subject … and the impression made on his mind was, that Burr not only thought a separation would not only take place but that it was necessary’.
Proof is also seen in the following letters from Senator Timothy Pickering:
(to George Cabot, January 29th 1804) – ‘But when and how is a separation to be effected? … (if) federalism is crumbling away in New England, there is no time to be lost, lest it should be overwhelmed, and become unable to attempt its own relief. Its last refuge is New England; and immediate exertion, perhaps, its only hope. It must begin in Massachusetts. The proposition would be welcomed in Connecticut; and could we doubt of New Hampshire? But New York must be associated; and how is her concurrence to be obtained? She must be made the centre of the confederacy. Vermont and New Jersey would follow of course, and Rhode Island of necessity … We suppose the British Provinces in Canada and Nova Scotia, at no remote period, perhaps without delay, and with the assent of Great Britain, may become members of the Northern League. Certainly, that government can feel only disgust at our present rulers. She will be pleased to see them crestfallen. She will not regret the proposed division of empire. If with her own consent she relinquishes her provinces, she will be rid of the charge of maintaining them; while she will derive from them, as she does from us, all the commercial returns which her merchants now receive. A liberal treaty of amity and commerce will form a bond of union between Great Britain and the Northern confederacy highly useful to both …’
(to Rufus King, March 4th 1804) – ‘The Federalists here in general anxiously desire the election of Mr. Burr to the chair of New York; for they despair of a present ascendancy of the Federal party. Mr. Burr alone, we think, can break your Democratic phalanx; and we anticipate much good from his success. Were New York detached (as under his administration it would be) from the Virginia influence, the whole Union would be benefited. Jefferson would then be forced to observe some caution and forbearance in his measures. And, if a separation should be deemed proper, the five New England States, New York, and New Jersey would naturally be united. Among those seven states, there is a sufficient congeniality of character to authorize the expectation of practicable harmony and a permanent union, New York the centre …’
It must also be seen that Pickering would not have openly asserted that Britain would assent to ceding her North American colonies to a northern confederacy, unless he had prior assurances that this would occur. It must be assumed that the meetings among the New England congressmen (beginning no later than December 1803) must have included Anthony Merry, the British minister to the United States.
However, Hamilton stood out from the majority of his own party when he supported the Louisiana purchase, although he attributed it to pure luck on the part of Jefferson – ‘Every man, however, possessed of the least candor and reflection will readily acknowledge that the acquisition has been solely owing to a fortuitous concurrence of unforeseen and unexpected circumstances, and not to any wise or vigorous measures on the part of the American Government.’ Although Hamilton had not received any direct letters concerning this plan, he obviously knew what was being discussed – and this became his reason for opposing any federalist support for Burr in New York. In the New York elections, Burr carried New York City, but he could not carry the northern counties, losing the election – with 28,000 votes to 35,000 votes for Morgan Lewis, the ‘republican’ candidate. Hamilton’s work had again stopped Burr from succeeding.
But then Burr became involved in a new treasonous plot with General James Wilkinson, who was on the payroll of the Spanish government as a spy, Charles Williamson, who was the former agent for the Pultney lands in northern New York and who recently became a paid agent of the British government, and Anthony Merry, who was the British minister to the United States – to invade and seize Texas from the Spanish, that was to be joined with the western states and Louisiana into a new Empire. Burr saw himself as the new Napoleon of the west, but one man (again) stood in his way – Hamilton. Burr demanded an answer from Hamilton for remarks that Hamilton had made about him during his recent contest for governor – a humiliating apology from Hamilton would destroy his remaining influence with the ‘federalists’ in New York, and thus his leadership would be removed.
When Hamilton refused to apologize, Burr challenged him to a duel – changing his plan from humiliation to murder – knowing that Hamilton was personally opposed to duelling and had recently lost his eldest son, who died in a duel. Before his duel with Burr, Hamilton wrote some remarks on his conduct that ‘… the ability to be in future useful, whether in resisting mischief or effecting good, in those crises of our public affairs, which seem likely to happen, would probably be inseparable from a conformity with public prejudice in this particular.’ Right up until his death, Hamilton was leading the battle to stop the secession of New England – to preserve the Union.
While Hamilton gave his life in defence of his country, Burr would give his life over to a path of treason. After he had murdered Hamilton, Burr made his way to Philadelphia to again meet with Williamson, who then met with Anthony Merry, the British ambassador.
Merry wrote to the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Harrowby, on August 6th, that ‘I have just received an offer from Mr. Burr, the actual vice president of the United States (which situation he is about to resign) to lend his assistance to His Majesty’s Government in any manner in which they may think fit to employ him, particularly in endeavouring to effect a separation of the western part of the United States from that which lies between the Atlantic and the mountains, in its whole extant. – His propositions on this and other subjects will be fully detailed to your Lordship by Col. Williamson who has been the bearer of them to me, and who will embark for England in a few days. – It is therefore only necessary for me to add that if, after what is generally known of the profligacy of Mr. Burr’s character, His Majesty’s Ministers should think proper to listen to his offer, his present situation in this country where he is now cast off as much by the democratic as by the federal party, and where he still preserves connections with some people of influence, added to his great ambition and spirit of revenge against the present administration, may possibly induce him to exert the talents and activity which he possesses with fidelity to his employers …’ !!!
But this secessionist plot would become the future plan of the British Empire for Canada – to use Canada as part of the plan to split the United States. The British Empire was in favour of a confederation of the northern states into Canada – but not the other way around – not of the annexation of Canada into the American Union.
Therefore, the British Empire could never allow any real republican movement to develop in Canada.
Gerald Therrien is a researcher and historian based in Toronto, Ontario. His writings have been published on the Canadian Patriot Review since 2015 and his most recent book Canadian History Unveiled vol 1 can be purchased here.