Looking Through Time

For two years, I worked at a small historical location called James Monroe Highland, where James Monroe’s former home stood. As visitor after visitor passed through, my passion for museum education grew. Getting to interact with guests and build excitement for the history before them was something I grew to love. 

After two years of reading books, giving tours and talking to my coworkers about James Monroe, I would say that my knowledge grew to be extensive. Through interacting with visitors, I also learned many people do not  know much about the 5th president, except for what they learned in high school history class about the Monroe Doctrine. 

But that is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the life of Jimmy M. Just a quick study of his accomplishments, and it is easy to see the insane resume this man had. He was a lawyer, minister to France (twice), governor of Virginia, president of the United States, best friends with Thomas Jefferson and hated rival of Alexander Hamilton. That last one is the story we will be diving into today. 

Most people know who Alexander Hamilton is, if for no other reason, from the famous Broadway musical. So, I take it for granted most of us know at least the basics about the man. He was a Federalist, and he was shot by Aaron Burr in a duel.

The odds were against Hamilton and Monroe ever being friends right off the bat. They belonged to opposing political parties in a time where bipartisan tension was so thick it could be cut with a knife.  Democratic  -Republicans and Federalists hated each other with a passion. Monroe was a part of the Democratic-Republicans and Hamilton a Federalist. 

When Hamilton messed up by engaging in sexual relations outside the bounds of his own marriage, the BFF gang of Jimmy Monroe and Tommy Jefferson took advantage of it, along with other Democratic-Republican cronies. 

The Reynolds Affair caused the downfall of Hamilton, and it also led to Monroe and Hamilton almost coming to blows through a duel. Monroe and his political allies, Frederick Muhlenberg and Abraham Venable, started an investigation in December of 1792 into Hamilton’s shady dealings. They were tipped on this suspicious activity by Jacob Clingman, former clerk of Muhlenberg and friend of a man named James Reynolds who had been caught for a criminal scheme involving government funds. Once Monroe and the others found out about this, they knew who to point their finger at: political opponent and Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton.

After interviewing Clingman, Reynolds and his wife Maria learned Hamilton had in fact been involved and soon jumped at the opportunity to destroy not only Hamilton’s chance of the presidency, but his career as well. They began drafting a letter to President-at-the-time George Washington, including records of the interviews but waited to meet with Hamilton first. 

When they met with Hamilton, they were shocked, not that he had an affair, but that he admitted to them the money was used for blackmail to cover up his love affair with James Reynold’s wife, Maria. Soon, the story was leaked to journalist James Thomson Callender. Hamilton and his wife Eliza believed Monroe was behind the leaking of this incriminating story as revenge for Hamilton’s persuasion of Washington to recall Monroe as Minister to France. 

Hamilton took his fury to the pen and wrote Monroe a letter demanding that he dispute these claims and including an invitation for an interview, referring to a duel, in which he would bring a friend (a clear indication of the ritual of dueling in which each opponent brings a second).

This is the exchange both men had when Hamilton unexpectedly confronted Monroe in person soon after he sent the letter. 

“Do you say I represented falsely, you are a scoundrel,” said Monroe. 

“I will meet you like a gentleman,” said Hamilton. 

“I am ready. Get your pistols,” said Monroe. 

Fortunately, the two men accompanying Monroe quickly put an end to the tense situation. But soon, the pair would come close to blows again and would send each other another string of angry letters, challenging each other to a duel. So as things heated up, Monroe called on a second to accompany him for the coming duel, Aaron Burr. 

Monroe’s choice in a second was certainly a factor in calming the fire between the two, but the great irony of this story is that it would be Burr who would later kill Hamilton in a duel, ending the saga between Monroe and Hamilton forever. 

(Reference “That Time When Alexander Hamilton Almost Dueled James Monroe” by Cassandra Goode; Smithsonian Magazine)

Pace is the assistant feature editor for the Liberty Champion

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