Burr on James Monroe

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.


Monroe image.jpgI 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.


  1. Larry Cebula on June 18, 2010 at 7:46 am

    This is my favorite all time quote of one founder trash talking another–and God knows there are plenty. Founding Brothers my ass! Where did you get the quote–I want to cite it.

  2. David O. Stewart on June 18, 2010 at 11:52 am

    It’s in the Memoirs of Aaron Burr, Volume 2, pp. 433-34, from a letter by Burr to this son-in-law, Joseph Alston, in 1815.
    Glad you liked it!

  3. lynsy on June 12, 2018 at 2:14 pm

    I had to laugh at your description of that book – it’s so atrocious! I mean, he leads off saying (essentially) that there were no “real” presidents until Monroe took office. Which is hilarious, because as far as I can tell based on several biogrAphies of Founding Fathers plus books about the first congress, etc all I see James Monroe doing is 1)allowing Patrick Henry to convince him to run for election thus possibly thwarting Madison’s ambitions, 2)sucking up to Jefferson 3)Messing up a diplomatic assignment then pouting about the fact that Madison didn’t approve 4) Trying to play big boy soldier man when the British came to burn Washington – but not being too effective… 5)somewhere in between being a weasel regarding the Hamilton adultery thing. — and pouting about it and trying to act indignant when Hamilton calls him on it. As far as I can tell, Burr was right….. would love to find a biography that has some basis in fact rather than fantasy

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