Alexander Hamilton: Portrait in Paradox

By John C. Miller | Go to book overview
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36.
The Duel with Burr

In 1798-99, the signal for which Hamilton had waited before turning the American army against Louisiana and the Floridas was the transfer of this region to France. He had supposed that Spain, weakened by defeat and internal dissension, could not long resist France's demands that Louisiana be retroceded--hence his conviction that war was not far away. But Hamilton underestimated the cunning and resourcefulness of Spanish diplomacy. As a result of the delaying tactics of Florida Blanca, the wily Spanish Minister, the surrender of Louisiana was postponed until after the Federalists had fallen from power.

In the meantime, the United States had made peace with France. After six months of fruitless negotiations, the American envoys discarded their instructions and made the best terms they could for ending the undeclared war. Napoleon drove a hard bargain. The United States was obliged to pay a higher price for peace than would have been necessary had negotiations been entered into in 1798-99. 1

When they read the terms of the Convention of 1800, a groan went up from the Federalist leaders: not since John Adams first broached the idea of a mission to France had they received a ruder jolt. Rather than accept the cup of humiliation from Napoleon, some advocated throwing it back in his face. "There is no condition of disgrace below it," exclaimed Fisher Ames; "without being vanquished we agree to pass under the yoke." The yoke of the First Consul promised to be no less galling than that of the Jacobins. 2

But again Hamilton stood out against the party leaders: disappointing as the terms of the Convention were, he advised ratification. It had been finally borne in upon him that the people were weary of this bootless war. He himself had long since renounced all hope of reparations from France--they were "rather to be wished for than expected," he remarked, "while France is laying the world under contribution." But it was chiefly in the interests of the unity and prestige of the Federalist party that he advised his friends to vote for ratification. If the Federalists bore the responsibility for the defeat of the treaty, he predicted that the party would

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