Alexander Hamilton’s (Almost) Duel With James Monroe
What a change of events that could have been
In 1797, future 5th president James Monroe had just been recalled from being an ambassador to France. Tensions were becoming high between France and the United States following John Jay’s treaty with the British. The new French Republic largely viewed the Jay Treaty as sympathetic to the British crown, a stance that certainly did not align with the anti-monarchical, radical French government. While James Monroe largely agreed with the French government, President Washington was not so eager to prolong approval, fearing war with Britain. This, combined with Monroe’s outward criticism of the administration, caused his dismissal.
So, where does Alexander Hamilton come into this picture? Well, Alexander Hamilton had recently written another letter to Monroe following the publishing of “private” details by a political gossiper, James Callender.
James Monroe had been instrumental in drafting pamphlets on the suspicion of Hamilton abusing his Treasury powers through payments to James Reynolds. Of course, we now know that these payments were made in order to pay for the silence of Hamilton’s affair with Reynolds’ wife. This investigation was dropped however when Hamilton provided documentation of his affair. The men involved agreed to keep the affair under wraps. Monroe had even insisted that he had sent all of his documents to a friend for safekeeping following the investigation.
However, a clerk during the probe into Hamilton’s dealings had made unknown copies of the pamphlets. These papers found themselves in the hands of James Callender, a known political instigator. Naturally, Callender published these documents which reopened the speculation of Hamilton’s financial wrongdoings and adultery. Hamilton, rightly so, was furious and blamed Monroe for the public embarrassment, suspecting that the freshly recalled diplomat tipped off Callender out of spite for being brought back to the US.
Coming to Blows
Hamilton tried to reach Monroe once word got out of Callender’s publication but to no avail. Hamilton decided to meet Monroe directly in New York City. Words were exchanged, and Hamilton wanted explanations. A week later, Monroe delivered. Hamilton was not satisfied with this, so more letters were exchanged, leading to increased frustration.
At the conclusion of this series of letters, the two were flirting with a duel. However, Monroe was not certain that Hamilton had officially challenged him, so he requested a second person intervene. This man was none other than Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s 1804 dueling partner. Burr was able to prevent a duel between the two, but not before there were many call-outs and stand-downs.
It is ironic that Aaron Burr was the man who soothed these tensions given his future dealings with Hamilton. Monroe and Hamilton’s back-and-forth was quite odd for a duel, and historians still are not positive of everything that was said. However, one thing is for sure. This duel would have changed history.
Grant Fuerstenau is a Medical Student at the University of Louisville School of Medicine and the editor of The Biographical Historian.