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To Alexander Hamilton from James Monroe, 2 December 1797

From James Monroe1

Albemarle [Virginia] decr. 2. 1797.


I requested Colo. Burr to inform you immediately after the recit of yours of augt. 9th that I was not satisfied with the explanation given by it of yr. preceding one of the 4th, since wh. my mind & time have been devoted to other objects claiming with me a priority of attention.2

It was not my intention to make the subject into the discussion whereof I was drawn by you upon my arrival, a personal affr., because in a case in which you complained of an injury, however unjustly, I of none, it would have been highly improper for me so to do; nor was there any thing in my letters which countenanc’d that idea. It was suggested by certain passages in yours having that tendency, to which I replied if you invited it, I shod. accept it. But by this I did not mean to become an aggressor nor was it justly inferable. It was however not my intention to decline that issue if sought by you in any mode whatever, either by challenge invitation or advance (for with me these terms are synonimous), in which light it seems to me as if yr. letter of the 4th. thus explained may be conceived. I have therefore requested Mr. Dawson to communicate with you further upon the subject of that letter and impowered him in case you meant it as such to give you my answer to it and otherwise arrange the affr. for the interview thus invited on yr. part.

I am Sir Yr. Obt. servt

Jas. Monroe

ALS, Lloyd W. Smith Collection, Morristown National Historical Park, Morristown, New Jersey.

1For background to this letter, see the introductory note to Oliver Wolcott, Jr., to H, July 3, 1797; the “Reynolds Pamphlet,” August 25, 1797.

In August, 1797, the threatened duel between H and Monroe was averted (see Monroe to H, July 10, 16, 17, 18, 21, 25, 31, August 6, 1797; H to Monroe, July 10, 17, 18, 20, 22, 28, August 4, 9, 1797; William Jackson to H, July 24, 25, 31, August 5, 7 [two letters], 11, 1797; James McHenry to H, August 7, 1797; “David Gelston’s Account of an Interview between Alexander Hamilton and James Monroe,” July 11, 1797; “Certificate by James Monroe,” August 16, 1797). On October 19, 1797, however, James Madison wrote to Monroe: “I have recd yours of the 15th. and according to its request enclose back the pamphlet to Mr. Jefferson. I have looked over attentively the part of it which regard you. It does not seem to me to present any ground on which you could resumed the controversy with Col. H. with an appearance either of obligation or propriety. All the points deserving attention which grew out of the course of the correspondence, as well as incident to the original state of the case between you seem to have been brought to a final close …” (ALS, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress).

On December 2, Monroe wrote to Thomas Jefferson enclosing a letter to Aaron Burr, dated December 1, and a letter to John Dawson, dated November 27, 1797 (ALS, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress). Monroe’s letter to Burr, to whom during the previous August he had entrusted the negotiations for the abortive duel (see William Jackson to H, August 5, 1797, note 5), reads: “Now that I have in some measure adjusted an affr to wh. that of Mr. H. formed an unreasonable intrusion, I am able to pay some attention to that of Mr. H.

“When I recd. Mr. H’s. last letter I was not satisfied with it & desired you to tell him so, giving you a full power over the case in my behalf. To this letter I have no answer from you, which I impute either to an opinion on your part, that I ought to leave the affair where it is, or that it was then proper that I shod. not be interrupted by it, nor till I had finished the other which was a more important one. Permit me however to call your attention to it again.

“My opinion was and is that this gentn. ought to have been satisfied with the explanations I gave him, or to have called me to the field. Such wod. have been my conduct in his case. The contrary however was his.

“Whether I shod. have taken other notice of the stile of his letters at another time & under other circumstances I will not pretend to say. I shall only observe that as the publication of the papers to wh. he referred, did not injure me, and might him (especially if inocent), altho’ I was much provoked when I received those letters, yet I did not then find in them a sufficient cause why I shod. take other ground than the defensive, wh. was strictly the proper ground for me in such a controversy.

“Tis possible however the letter in question as expld. may be considered as a species of invitation, & if so intended it becomes me to accept it. To ascertain this I have written him the enclosed letter, & have to request if you approve my acting further in it & the manner, that you will perform the office designated in it for you to perform.

“I give you full power over this affr. either by proceeding or otherwise as you deem it most honorable for me to do. I wish you to take precisely that course you would take in a like case of yr.self. You will decide in the first instance how far an explan., in the sentimt. proposed, alters the case as it now stands, so as to make it a suitable thing to desire such an expln.

“If you present the letter and he gives a satisfactory answer I want no publication of letters. Perhaps it may be proper to insert a pargh. in the gazette to the effect stated below. But if he does not make a suitable expln. you will of course close the affr. & arrange the time & place of meeting, & the sooner the better, & I care little where. If he gives no expln. but leaves it to me to expln., then you will consider his letter as an advance &c. and close it as above.” (ALS, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; ADf, Lloyd W. Smith Collection, Morristown National Historical Park, Morristown, New Jersey.)

The “paragraph … stated below” reads: “We have the pleasure to inform the publick that the affr. between Messrs. H. & M. so far as of a personal nature has been adjusted without the necessity of a personal interview. Mr. H. having upon the application of Mr. M. thro Mr. B. declared that he did not mean by his letter of augt. the 4th. to make any advance or give any invitation on his part to a personal interview, but only to meet and accept an advance which he supposed was made on the part of Mr. M.” (D, in Monroe’s handwriting, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia).

The letter which Monroe enclosed for Burr to deliver to H is dated November 27, 1797, and reads: “I requested Colo. Burr to inform you immediately after the receit of yours of Augt. the 9th. that I was not satisfied with the explanation given by it of yr. preceding one of the 4th; since which my mind and time have been devoted to other objects claiming with me a priority of attention.

“In my judgment you ought either to have been satisfied with the explanations I gave you, or to have invited me to the field. There seemed to be no intermediate ground for a man of honor to take; yet you found one.

“The explanations I gave you upon the subject to wh. those letters referred were liberal. They withdrew my own opinion from the scale against you, upon the possibility you might be inocent, leaving you to combat the testimony alone. To ask more if a proof of any thing was a proof of guilt.

“Still however it was not my intention to invite or even provoke a personal interview in that discussion, because I have many reasons of great weight to avoid it at the time & none to make it at any time. The idea was suggested by certain passages in yours having that tendency, to wh. I replied if you invited I shoud. accept it. But by this I did not mean to become an aggressor nor was it justly inferable. It was however not my intention to decline that issue if sought by you in any mode whatever, either by challenge invitation or advance, (for with me these terms are synonimous) in which light it seems to me as if that letter thus explained might be conceived. I have therefore requested Colo. Burr to communicate with you further upon the subject of that letter & impowered him.” (ADf [incomplete], James Monroe Law Office Museum, Fredericksburg, Virginia.)

In the letter which Monroe wrote to Dawson on November 27, 1797, he enclosed the letter to H of December 2 printed above. On December 10 Monroe wrote again to Dawson: “I am much surprised I have heard nothing from you since yr. arrival in Phila. I committed to a late private conveyance a letter for you which will arive before this, on a subject of some delicacy & importance to me, the content of wh. subject I submitted to yours & his judgement. But if taken up, tis possible the mode suggested was not with sufficient dignity & tone. I therefore send another letter—wh. in that case will be examined, & the most suitable one preferred. I am sure you will weigh this subject with due attention, & take that step it becomes me to take. I think Mr Livingston ought to be consulted as a man of judgment and candour & very friendly to me. Consult however whom you please. You will fill up the blank with yours or Burrs name in case it be and as likewise the date …” (ALS, Lloyd W. Smith Collection, Morristown National Historical Park, Morristown, New Jersey). The letter to H which contains the “blank with yours or Burrs name … and as likewise the date” is similar, with minor variations in wording, to the letter Monroe wrote to H and sent to Burr on December 1, 1797.

In compliance with Monroe’s request, Dawson conferred with Edward Livingston, Congressman from New York, Aaron Burr, and others. On December 24, 1797, Dawson wrote Monroe the following “candid history of what has passed”: “I have been favourd with your letters … with the several enclosures—and I have delayd an answer in order to weigh well a matter of delicacy & importance, & to give you one which might point out a course satisfactory & honourable to you.

“On the day after the receipt of your letters by a private conveyance, and after reading them with attention & reflecting on what passed last summer, I called on that character & had a consultation with him—the result of which was that we united in opinion, that it wd. be unwise, impolitic & unnecessary for you to take any farther step in the business.

“I will here observe that I had had conversation with several gentlemen previous to the receipt of any letter from you, & the foregoing was the opinion of all, except Mr. Livingston, who declared explicitly, that you ought to have challengd him for the terms ‘malignant & dishonourable’—this I communicated in this consultation, & it produced no change in either of us, except that Mr. L—— ought not to be advisd with, as the gentlemen from that state might have an improper bias on their minds. About this time Colo: Burr came to Phia—this I communicated to the gentleman who brought your letters of the 27th Ulo. (& whom I will hereafter call Mr. A—) & we agreed, that it would be proper to speak to him in general terms, without saying any thing particular—accordingly I went into his room & after some loose conversation, I observed that I had seen you when in Virginia, & had since recievd letters from you, & that you were astonishd at geting none from him in answer to yours of last summer, as it was on a subject interesting to you. He declared that the reason was that he did not know what to write—for had the whole business been left to him he shoud have brought you & Mr. H—— together immediately, not liking that childish mode of writing—observing that he was convinced H—— woud not fight, as he had insinuated to you. I expressed some astonishment at this conversation, & told him that he certainly had an entire controul over the business committed by you; and urgd him to write to you, which he said he woud do immediately, & I presume did, as I went out, & in a short time communicated to Mr. A—— what had passed. He made the same observation that he had respecting Mr. L—— and as we agreed that there might be the same bias, it was deemed unwise to say any thing to him.

“After that I had several conversations with gentlemen, and they all agreed that you ought not to move in this affair any farther. On the reciept of yours of the 10 Int I communicated it to Mr A—— whose opinion remains unchanged—on yesterday I dined … with Mr. Livingston & five or six others, mostly foriegners—the dispute between you & Mr. H—— became the subject of conversation, & Mr. L—— expressed the same opinion he had to me before; I a different one, as I saw no just cause on your part—the book, which was upstairs was sent for, from which I endeavour to prove my position—& his, declaring that it was the general sentiment where he had been, altho he himself was convincd that the truth was different from the impression which the correspondence made, that is, that you were willing to fight, & Colo H—— not. I then declard that if you ought to have gone farther than you did the fault was with Colo [James] Innes & myself by whom you had been prevented—that even now coud I be persuaded that you ought to challenge Colo: H—— I was authorisd to do it—but this I did not think you ought to do.

“Thus have I given you a candid history of what has passd, with my real opinion—and altho it differs from that of some gentlemen’s whom I respect, it is not changd—with you it rests to determine, as I shall not take any step before I hear from you—shoud your opinion differ from mine on a review of all circumstances, I will repeat here an observation which I made before ‘that the correspondence has been already too long’ & that the object of H—has been to attract the public mind to it, & thereby to withdraw it from his guilt in another business, which has sunk him as low as possible—and farther to suggest to you, in that case, the propriety of coming on, if convenient—think not that this arises from a unwillingness to do any & every thing in my power, & according to the best of my judgement—I assure you the contrary, & that it proceeds from an opinion that the business might be better conducted, & even that step make some impression on the public mind, & on the nerves of Mr. H.

“I must again repeat that my opinion is that you have nothing farther to do.…” (ALS, Lloyd W. Smith Collection, Morristown National Historical Park, Morristown, New Jersey.)

On December 27, 1797, Jefferson wrote to Monroe: “I communicated to Mr M. the evening I was with him the papers you sent by me for Mr. D. he was clearly of opinion nothing farther ought to be done. D. was decisively of the same opinion. this being the case then there was no ground for consulting L. or B. and accordingly nothing has been said to them” (ALS, letterpress copy, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress).

No evidence has been found that Burr or Dawson ever sent a letter to H from Monroe. Although Monroe wrote to H on January 1, 1798, that letter has not been found.

2Monroe had been engaged in the preparation of a pamphlet to explain his conduct as United States Minister Plenipotentiary to France from 1794 to 1796. Monroe’s pamphlet, which was published in Philadelphia on December 21, 1797, is entitled: A View of the Conduct of the Executive, in the Foreign Affairs of the United States, Connected with the Mission to the French Republic, During the Years 1794, 5, & 6. See the [Philadelphia] Aurora. General Advertiser, December 29, 1797.

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