Editor’s Note: Thomas Fleming is a prize-winning historian and bestselling author and expert on the American Revolution.
Few people understand that Alexander Hamilton, betting that Aaron Burr’s first shot would miss, planned to fire in the air. Called a “delope,” it was a duelist’s way of humiliating an opponent by suggesting he wasn’t worth shooting. Hamilton had messed up his attempt to dump sitting president John Adams. He needed a great leap forward to regain his status as the leader of the Federalists, forerunners of today’s Republicans.
Meanwhile, President Thomas Jefferson was ham-handling his second term in spectacular fashion. When British and French navies began seizing American merchant ships, Jefferson banned all his nation’s vessels from the high seas. Soon 40,000 sailors rioted in our ports. Businesses collapsed and New England talked treason. A newspaper described it as “cutting a man’s throat to cure a nosebleed.”
“What if” – or counterfactual history – offers a unique way to explore the motives and potential actions of a major historical figure such as Alexander Hamilton. What if he hadn’t died after that duel in 1804? We can’t know for sure, obviously.
But here are some ideas:
The Hamilton who survived the duel would have run for president against Jefferson’s handpicked successor, brilliant but colorless James Madison – and won going away. He would have taken the country in a new direction, creating a trained army to win the War of 1812, absorbing Canada and changing the nation’s name to The United States of North America.
President Hamilton would then have turned his attention to large states such as Virginia, which was controlled by a critical Jefferson and his friends. Hamilton would have persuaded Congress to pass a constitutional amendment, empowering him to break them into several smaller states, more amenable to federal control. He had discussed this idea with several people before the duel. If the Virginians resisted, President Hamilton would have ordered his army to flatten them. This victory would have made it easy to abolish slavery.
Next, President Hamilton would have used his army to force the Spanish out of Florida and Texas. If they refused to yield Texas, which menaced federal control of the key city of New Orleans, Hamilton would have smashed his way to Mexico City and set up a puppet government. He had often said we should at least “squint” toward Mexico as an easy extension of American power.
Our dynamic president now would have turned to founding engineering schools and industries to make America a commercial giant, more than equal to Great Britain. Then would have come another task that he considered himself destined to master. The last letter Hamilton wrote before the duel called democracy a “disease” that endangered the republic.
President Hamilton would have solved this problem by all but eliminating dissent. Tough libel laws would have tamed newspapers and the curriculum of all the schools would have emphasized strict adherence to federal leadership. President Hamilton would have underscored this by personally selecting all the nation’s federal judges.
Now would have come an opportunity for Hamilton to introduce one of his favorite ideas: the Christian Constitutional Society. He had proposed it when Jefferson won the presidency in 1800. It was designed to make Christianity a political force in the nation. Each year President Hamilton would have given a fervent speech at a national convention in Washington virtually guaranteeing sainthood to those who backed him.
At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Hamilton had given a three-hour speech recommending a president should serve for life. A Christian nation would have made it easier for President Hamilton to announce he was going to seek a third and perhaps a fourth term. People would be inclined to see this as a blessing.
Unfortunately, in the “what if” world of the Hamiltonian presidency, this lengthy tenure enabled his sons and their friends to acquire immense wealth. When they began winning Senate and House seats, people began talking about the dangers of an American royal family.
President Hamilton would have died in office in 1830, after ruling for 22 years. On his deathbed he would have been rumored to have urged successors to imitate President Washington, who retired after two terms. But it was much too late to reverse the engines of federal power and change the family circle government that was running America.
When other nations acquired labor movements, an idea that was scorned in Hamiltonian Washington, a handful of historians would begin debating an even more taboo topic. Astounding as President Hamilton’s achievements had been, they would begin asking each other whether it was a good thing that Aaron Burr had missed on July 11, 1804.