restricted access "An Attack Well Directed": Aaron Burr Intrigues for the Presidency

This article challenges a reigning interpretation of the pivotal contested U. S. presidential election of 1800: the view that Aaron Burr did not try actively to wrest victory from his running-mate Thomas Jefferson. With variations, this case is advanced in Nancy Isenberg's Fallen Founder (2007), Edward J. Larson's A Magnificent Catastrophe (2007), Joanne B. Freeman's Affairs of Honor (2001), and most other modern accounts of this election. This article offers new evidence of behind-the-scenes scheming to sustain the case that Burr did indeed act to compass the presidency for himself. First and foremost is a newly-discovered incriminating letter from a political deputy detailing a plan to steal the election in the U. S. House of Representatives. Re-examination of the political and constitutional crisis surrounding the election also yields new information about how Alexander Hamilton sabotaged Burr's schemes; evidence to show why delays in communication probably lost the presidency for Burr; and insight into how Burr and his deputies conspired to cover up their machinations despite the best attempts of partisan antagonists to expose their treachery. In offering a revised interpretation of this consequential electoral crisis and its partisan dimensions, the article redirects our attention toward the importance of might be called the dark side of early republican politics, a shadowy and Machiavellian world where ambition, deal-making, deceit, and disinformation could—as they did on this occasion—lead the nation to the brink of civil conflict.