President Hamilton's America

Read Time:
2m 5sec

“What If Aaron Burr Had Missed?” by Thomas Fleming, History News Network (July 5, 2004),

Once confined mostly to cocktail conversation and late-night dormitory bull sessions, counterfactual history has become a burgeoning scholarly pursuit. Here’s how it works: Start with a famous historical incident, such as the 1804 duel between Vice President Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, then speculate about what might have happened had certain events been altered. What if Burr had missed?

Here’s Fleming’s fanciful spin: Following that near-miss at the dueling grounds in Weehawken, New Jersey—and given Presi­dent Thomas Jefferson’s declining popularity in the wake of such disasters as his unsuccessful, and blatantly partisan, effort to re­­move Supreme Court justice Samuel Chase—the charismatic Hamilton outstrips Jefferson’s favored successor, “the colorless James Madi­son,” in the race for the presidency in 1808. Once in office, Hamilton cements his power by creating a strong navy and army. The young United States annexes Canada in the War of 1812, then consumes Florida, Texas, and Mex­ico—and sets its sights on South America. In the midst of this expansionist maneuvering, Hamilton acts decisively to prevent a potential civil war by emancipating Amer­ica’s slaves. Abolition, in turn, decisively shifts the balance of the U.S. economy from agriculture to industry, priming America to challenge Britain for world economic supremacy.

As Fleming, a historian and the author of Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America, notes, this Hamiltonian order bears certain disturbing similarities to the reign of one of Hamilton’s contemporaries, Napol­eon. Hamilton’s military becomes a bludgeon for enforcing the authority of the federal government over the states. Meanwhile, Hamilton introduces the Christian Consti­tutional Society he had proposed in 1801, a national organization designed to promote Christian values and attack critics of the Con­sti­­tution. Hamilton sees no need to step down after two terms and remains president until his death in 1830. Yet he enjoys great popularity during his presidency, as huge fed­eral investments in roads, canals, and other projects breed national prosperity.

The “Hamiltonian revolution,” Fleming concludes, would have averted civil war and spared the South from decades of economic ruin. “America would have become one of the great industrial powers of the world by 1860.” Inevitably, however, industrialization would breed political turmoil and class conflict. Just as inevitably, a few historians, ignoring “hints of reduced government grants,” would begin debating “whether it was a good thing that Aaron Burr had missed.”

More From This Issue