The second President of the U.
S., John Adams, had appointed James McHenry as his Secretary of War. McHenry routinely (and secretly) asked Hamilton for advice. One of the things that McHenry became most famous for was recommending a special mission to France to calm the new leaders, who had become increasingly hostile since the announcement of the Jay Treaty. Adams agreed to the necessity of a mission and sent three men to meet with the French leaders. (They were John Marshall, Elbridge Gerry, and Charles Pinckney.
) When the Americans arrived, they were told to deal with special agents who identified themselves only as Agents X, Y, and Z. These alphabetical agents asked for large bribes in exchange for doing business, and the Americans left in anger. This episode has been called The XYZ Affair and served to anger the American people against France.The political party war was continuing, of course. One of the main issues by this time was the passage of two sets of highly controversial laws, the Alien Acts and the Sedition Acts.
The Alien Acts called for “alien enemies” of America to be sent home. The Sedition Acts made it a crime to write or print words that defamed the government. Since much of what the political-party newspapers said to be interpreted as defamatory, the Sedition Acts were a particularly weapon against those not in power. The Democratic-Republicans did not have the presidency, of course, because President John Adams was a Federalist. Even though they were both technically members of the same political party, Hamilton and Adams were often at odds. In fact, Hamilton didn’t want Adams to be president at all.
He had campaigned for Charles Pinckney in the election of 1796, which Adams won, narrowly, over Jefferson. Still, Adams recognized Hamilton’s usefulness and appointed him inspector general, a post that the New Yorker held for the better part of Adams’s presidency. Hamilton deeply disliked Jefferson and actively worked to keep him from the presidency. But he disliked Adams almost as much.
In fact, Hamilton disliked most of the candidates in the Election of 1800. One man he particularly hated was Aaron Burr. Burr was a New Yorker, just like Hamilton; but there, the similarities ended. Burr was a Democratic-Republican, just like Jefferson. Burr had worked to gain a Democratic-Republican majority in New York, which angered Hamilton to no end. Burr wanted to President in a bad way and conducted his own campaign. The heads of state in the Democratic-Republican Party expected that Jefferson was their presidential candidate and that Burr would make a good vice-president, but they didn’t exactly convince Burr of that.
Burr’s ambition was rewarded when the Electoral College vote came out with exactly 73 votes each for Jefferson and Burr. This brought up a shortcoming of the Electoral College, as described in the Constitution: The votes for President and Vice-president were not separated. With the first three elections, it was clear who was the President: the one who got the most votes. But what to do if two candidates were tied? This is what happened in the Election of 1800. Adams, the incumbent President, had run for re-election on the Federalist ticket.
But he was already out of the picture, running a distant third. It was up to Jefferson and Burr to decide who was President. Both wanted it. The Constitution did have a provision for deciding such a scenario: The vote went into the House of Representatives, with each state having one vote. And here it was that Alexander Hamilton gained one of his last bits of fame. Yes, he detested Jefferson; but he detested Burr more. It was a choice of two evils; and Hamilton, to his mind, chose the lesser evil. A distraught Hamilton retired from public life for a time, absorbed in his losses.
He eventually was persuaded to return to practicing law and was before long very busy again.President Jefferson, who stood up and shouted so loudly against the Sedition Act when he was not President, made good use of it when he was in the White House, moving to prosecute publishers of Federalist newspapers that he thought crossed the line of decency and integrity. One of these publishers was Harry Croswell, who owned and ran the New York Wasp. The charge against Croswell was a serious one: libel. The Wasp had run a story alleging that Jefferson had paid another newspaper publisher, James Callender, to run stories that put then-President George Washington in a bad light.
Jefferson was furious and wanted Callender arrested and thrown in jail. Croswell, following the precedent set down by the not-guilty verdict delivered for John Peter Zenger back in 1733, moved to claim that the story was true and that he couldn’t be prosecuted under libel laws because of it. The New York Court of General Sessions disagreed and found Croswell guilty. Croswell appealed his case to the New York Supreme Court, which accepted the case. Croswell’s attorney at trial in this next level of the case was Alexander Hamilton, whose brother Andrew had won the Zenger verdict 70 years before.