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Hamilton Supports Anyone but Jefferson to Replace Washington as President
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Currently offered only as part of the Alexander Hamilton Collection: The Story of the Revolution & Founding.

“it is far less important, who of many men that may be named shall be the person, than that it shall not be Jefferson.”

ALEXANDER HAMILTON. Draft Autograph Letter, on George Washington’s declining a third term, and the importance of Jefferson not being president, c. November 8, 1796. Heavily marked and edited draft. Possibly to Jeremiah Wadsworth. 2 pp., 8 x 13 in.

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Complete Transcript

My Dear Sir,

Our excellent President as you have seen has declined a reelection. Tis all important to our Country that his successor shall be a safe man. But tis far less important, who of many men that may be named shall be the person, than that it shall not be Jefferson. We have every thing to fear if this man comes in; and from what I believe to be an accurate view of our political map I conclude that he has too good a chance of success, and that good calculation prudence and exertion were never more necessary to the foederal cause than at this very critical juncture. All personal and partial considerations must be discarded, and every thing must give way to the great object of excluding Jefferson.

It appears to be a common opinion (& I think it a judicious one), that Mr Adams & Mr Pinckney (late Minister in England) are to be supported on our side for President and Vice President. New York will be unanimous for both. I hope New England will be so too. Yet I have some apprehensions on this point, lest the fear that he may outrun Mr Adams should withhold votes from him.

Should this happen, it will be in my opinion, a most unfortunate policy. It will be to take one only instead of two chances against Mr Jefferson & well weighed, there can be no doubt that the exclusion of Mr Jefferson is far more important than any difference between Mr Adams & Mr Pinckney.<2>

[seven lines of text are struck, likely by Hamilton, but possibly by his son and biographer. The next two paragraphs, offering a glowing endorsement of Thomas Pinckney, were suppressed in John C. Hamilton’s edition of his father’s papers; the deleted passage may be a a severe attack on Adams]

But on the other hand Mr Pinckney is a tried Patriot, a man of irreproachable private character—a man of real good sense, not deficient in information, of consummate discretion, of conciliatory manners & temper, less en[?] but than any other man that can be brought forward to the violence of party passions—a firm friend to the Government, correct to our foreign relations, and of distinguished firmness of character.

However we may wish for Mr. Adam’s success, can we extremely regret if the choice should happen to fall on Mr. Pinckney? Can it be a doubt than even at this risk it will be wise to take a double chance against Jefferson?

At foot is my calculation of chances as between Mr Adams & Mr Jefferson. Tis too precarious. Pinckney has the chance of some votes Southward & Westward which Mr Adams has not. This will render our prospect in the main point, the exclusion of Jefferson, far better.

Relying on the strength of your mind I have not scrupled to let you see the state of mine. I never was more firm in an opinion than in the one I now express, yet in acting upon it there must be much caution & reserve.

Historical Background

When Washington declined to serve a third term, the stage was set for the first contested presidential election in American history. Federalists like Hamilton opposed the election of Jefferson more than they supported the election of any of their number to succeed Washington. They chose a ticket of John Adams of Massachusetts for president and the recently returned minister to Great Britain Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina for vice president. Democratic-Republicans chose Thomas Jefferson of Virginia as their candidate for president and Aaron Burr of New York as vice president.

Because presidential electors cast undifferentiated votes, the candidate with the most votes became president, while the runner-up became vice president. Hamilton saw in this flawed system an opportunity to deny the presidency not only to his long-time enemy Thomas Jefferson, but also to John Adams, an acrimonious rival within the Federalist party. Hamilton urged southern electors to vote for Pinckney and cast their second vote, not for Adams, but for another Federalist like Oliver Ellsworth, John Jay, Samuel Johnston, or James Iredell. When Hamilton’s plan was exposed, New England electors retaliated by not voting for Pinckney. Thirteen men received electoral college votes: Adams won with 71. Democratic-Republican Jefferson came in second, and became Vice President, with 68. Pinckney received 59, and Burr was a distant fourth with 30.

Unfortunately for Hamilton, his “double chance” strategy miscarried and made Jefferson vice president. On November 8, 1796, Hamilton wrote to Jeremiah Wadsworth, “A few days since I wrote you my opinion concerning the good policy of supporting faithfully Pinckney as well as Adams.”[1] The present draft was likely for a letter sent to Wadsworth, a Hartford, Connecticut, merchant and politician who served in the Continental Congress and then the U.S. House of Representatives.

Four years later, Hamilton was even more frustrated with the choices. No supporter of incumbent President John Adams, Hamilton found more to fear from Burr than from Jefferson: “In a choice of Evils let them take the least – Jefferson is in every view less dangerous than Burr….  Mr. Jefferson, though too revolutionary in his notions, is yet a lover of liberty and will be desirous of something like orderly Government. Mr. Burr loves nothing but himself, thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement, and will be content with nothing short of permanent power in his own hands.”[2]

Full text of final draft:

[1] Harold C. Syrett, ed., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 20, January 1796–March 1797 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), 377-78.

[2] Alexander Hamilton to Harrison Gray Otis, December 23, 1800, Gilder-Lehrman Collection.

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