Aaron Burr virtually never spoke ill of others. That trait may partly explain the deep anger that drove him to challenge Alexander Hamilton to their famous duel in 1804 after Hamilton had slandered him for more than a decade.
Nevertheless, there was one notable exception to Burr’s practice: his explosive denunciation (in private correspondence with his son-in-law) of James Monroe, upon Monroe’s nomination as the Republican candidate for president in late 1815:
The man himself is one of the most improper and incompetent that could have been selected — naturally dull and stupid — extremely illiterate — indecisive to a degree that would be incredible to one who did not know him — pusillanimous and of course hypocritical — has no opinion on any subject and will be always under the government of the worst men — pretends, as I am told, to some knowledge of military matters, but never commanded a platoon nor was ever fit to command one — “He served in the revolutionary War” — that is, he acted a short time as aide de camp to Lord Stirling who was regularly drunk from morning to morning — Monroe’s whole duty was to fill his lordship’s tankard and hear with indications of admiration his lordship’s long stories about himself — Such is Monroe’s military experience . . . As a lawyer, Monroe was far below mediocrity — He never rose to the honor of trying a cause of the value of an hundred pounds.
The lesson here is that it was best not to get Aaron Burr riled up. (I love the “of course hypocritical”). Of course!
Burr certainly knew Monroe, having served as his second in the foreplay to a duel that never happened between Monroe and Hamilton in 1797. Hamilton accused Monroe of having leaked to the press information about Hamilton’s extramarital affair with Maria Reynolds. (You’re not the first, Tiger.) Indeed, Burr is often credited with helping resolve that dispute short of bloodshed.
I recalled this passage when I recently caught a Book TV program featuring the author of a new biography of Monroe. The author carried on for some time about how Monroe had won the Revolution, bought Louisiana, saved the Republic repeatedly, invented both chocolate and sex, and named the planets. Perhaps a dissenting view will provide some balance.
Monroe doesn’t look all that smart in the portrait.