What’s a person to do if they think the president is a disaster and his party is bent on amassing unprecedented power? They might take a page from the playbook of Aaron Burr. Yes, that Aaron Burr, the “damn fool” who shot Alexander Hamilton. Faced with just such a situation, Burr didn’t vent his spleen in angry speeches or pamphlets (the equivalent of ranting on social media today). Thinking nationally, he acted locally, focusing laser-like attention on the race for seats in the New York legislature. In so doing, he pioneered campaign techniques still used today, and helped topple a president.
The year was 1800. The president: brilliant, crotchety John Adams. His Federalist party brandished the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts to crush dissent. Congressmen and editors loyal to the Democrat-Republican party, commonly called Republicans, were locked up for criticizing the president and his policies. Burr and other Republicans feared that an Adams victory would lead to unbridled tyranny.
Unlike Alexander Hamilton, Burr’s first response in such times was not to write impassioned tracts. He once described himself to his wife as a “grave, silent sort of animal.” But his silence did not signal inaction. The Philadelphia Aurora wrote of Burr, “While other men are debating, he resolves; and while they resolve, he acts.”
In those days, presidential electors were chosen by state legislatures. With New England likely to support Adams, and the South backing Virginian Thomas Jefferson, Burr realized that New York’s 12 electoral votes could provide the margin of victory. The upstate districts were largely balanced between Federalists and Republicans, so it would all come down to the election for state representatives from the New York City area. Win those seats, and Republicans would control the legislature, chose the electors, and perhaps pick the president.
While Hamilton was a visionary statesman, Burr was a pioneer in the art of politics. Seizing the opportunity, he assembled a dream team of candidates that included former governor George Clinton and General Horatio Gates, who had won the Battle of Saratoga. It took all his charm and persuasiveness to convince these heavy hitters to run for the state legislature, but they gave his ticket a luster the Federalists could not match. He then unleashed a dazzling array of innovative practices to defeat the Federalists. He created a political organization that ran from a central committee down to the ward level. He virtually invented the idea of a “ground game,” dispatching volunteers (“Burrites”) door to door to determine who was on their side, and to get out the vote on election day. He threw open the doors of his house to campaign workers, offering them bed and board. He sent German speakers into German neighborhoods to canvass for votes. He even took to the streets himself to press the flesh. A Federalist newspaper, The Daily Advertiser, wondered how a “would‑be vice president could stoop so low as to visit every corner in search of voters.” These techniques are all commonplace today, but were virtually unheard of before Burr put them into practice.
The result was a Republican triumph. “We have beaten you with superior management!” Burr gloated to a Federalist friend. New York’s electoral vote was secure for Thomas Jefferson, and the victory garnered Burr the number two spot on the ticket.
The campaign that followed was one of the wildest in American history. Vicious attacks and dire predictions were the order of the day. The Connecticut Courant opined that if Jefferson was elected, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will all be openly taught and practiced.” But Aaron Burr had already pulled the rug out from under the Federalists. New York’s electoral votes turned out to be just enough to give the race to the Republicans. Due to a quirk in the Constitution, Jefferson and Burr tied in the Electoral College, and it took 33 ballots in the House of Representatives before Jefferson emerged the victor. But Adams and the Federalists were out, and Burr had made it happen. The party of Jefferson would hold the White House for a quarter century.
State legislatures no longer select members of the Electoral College. But they do make rules about voter eligibility and draw the boundaries of congressional districts—critical in determining the outcome of House and Senate elections. Anyone setting out to change the balance of power would do well to direct their energies here. It might not be as thrilling as planning mass protests or penning angry rants, but following Burr’s example could prove more effective in the long run. After all, he was not one to throw away his shot.
Rick Beyer is the author of the new book Rivals Unto Death about Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. He lives in Lexington, Massachusetts.