By Cassandra Good, Associate Editor, Papers of James Monroe
While Alexander Hamilton’s fatal duel with Aaron Burr in 1804 is well-known, Hamilton also came close to dueling with James Monroe several years earlier. The correspondence relating to this incident, part of a larger controversy historians call the Reynolds Affair, is published in volumes 3 & 4 of the Papers of James Monroe.
In 1792, while serving as senator from Virginia, Monroe was on a committee with Frederick Muhlenberg, speaker of the House of Representatives, and Abraham Venable, a Virginia congressmen, to investigate charges of financial malfeasance against Alexander Hamilton. The committee met with the accusers, Muhlenberg’s clerk Jacob Clingman and a New York speculator named James Reynolds, to get their testimonies. When the committee met with Hamilton, he revealed that he was innocent of these charges and that his financial involvement with Reynolds was in fact to cover up an affair with Reynolds’ wife, Maria. In a subsquent interview, Clingman claimed that Hamilton had commissioned James Reynolds to create fake letters indicating an affair between Maria and Hamilton. The committee kept careful notes of the proceedings but agreed to keep the story secret.
In 1797, Philadelphia journalist James Callendar published the committee’s notes and the accusations against Hamilton. While it is most likely that it was the committee’s clerk, John Beckley, who shared copies of the documents with Callendar, Hamilton blamed the committee and demanded an apology. Monroe stated that he had nothing to do with the publication, but he refused to fully disavow the claims of Jacob Clingman that Hamilton had inappropriately used government funds. Hamilton and Monroe had a heated meeting and exchanged letters in the summer of 1797, coming close to a duel, but ultimately none other than Aaron Burr defused the tension.
In August 1797, Hamilton published a lengthy pamphlet defending himself and detailing his affair with Maria Reynolds—as well as his dispute with Monroe. Angered, Monroe asked his friends John Dawson and Aaron Burr to reopen the issue with Hamilton. While Hamilton wrote a letter offering to set a time and place for a duel, probably in January 1798, he never sent it and the men never corresponded again.
Here we share several key documents in the dispute between Monroe and Hamilton.
Frederick Muhlenberg, Abraham Venable and James Monroe
Interview with Alexander Hamilton
16th [December 1792]
Last night we waited on Colo H. when he informed us of a particular connection with Mrs R.; the period of its commencement & circumstances attending it. His visiting her at Inskeeps. The frequent supplies of money to her & her husband on that acct. His duress by them from the fear of a disclosure & his anxiety to be relieved from it and them. To support this he shewed a great number of letters from Reynolds & herself commencing early in 1791. He acknowledged all the letters in a disguised hand, in our possession, to be his. We left him under an impression our suspicions were removed. We acknowledged our conduct toward him had been fair & liberal. He could not complain of it. We brot back all the papers even his own notes, nor did he ask their destruction.
He said the dismission of the prosecution agnst the parties Reynolds & Mr Clingman had been in consideration of the surrender of a list of pay improperly obtaind from his office, and by means of a person who had it not in his power now to injure the department. Intimating he meant Mr Duer. That he obtained this information from Reynolds.
Owned that he had recd a note from Reynolds in the night at the time stated in Mr Clingman paper, & that he had likewise seen him in the morning following.
Sd he never had seen Reynolds before he came to this place—& that the statement in Mr Clingman’s papers in that respect was correct.
David Gelston: Account of an Interview between Alexander Hamilton and James Monroe
Tuesday Morning July 11th 1797
Minutes of an Interview between Colo Monroe and Colo Hamilton at Colo Ms lodgings in the presence of Mr Church & myself—Colo Hamilton came about 10 oClk in the morning introduced Mr Church as his brother in law. Colo H. appeared very much agitated upon his entrance into the room, and observed the cause or motives of this meeting being he presumed pretty well understood, he went into a detail of circumstances at considerable length upon a former meeting at Philada between Mr Muhlenberg Mr Venable and Colo M. after considerable time being spent in the detail Colo M. asked what all that meant & said if you wish me to tell you any thing relating to the business all this history is unnecessary. Colo H. said he should come to the point directly—some warmth appeared in both Gentn & some explanation took place Colo M then began with declaring it was merely accidental his knowing any thing about the business at first he had been informed that one Reynolds from Virginia was in Gaol, he called merely to aid a man that might be in distress, but found it was a Reynolds from N York and observed that after the meeting alluded to at Philada he sealed up his copy of the papers mentioned and sent or delivered them to his Friend in Virginia—he had no intention of publishing them & declared upon his honor that he knew nothing of their publication until he arrived in Philada from Europe and was sorry to find they were published. Colo H. observed that as he had written to Colo M. Mr Muhlenburgh & Mr Venable he expected an immediate answer to so important a subject in which his character the peace & reputation of his Family were so deeply interested.3 Colo M replied that if he Colo H would be temperate or quiet for a moment or some such word he would answer him candidly—that he recd his Colo Hs letter at 10 oClock at Night, that he had determined to leave Philada next Morng & actually did leave it for N York, that immediately at a late hour that night after receiving the letter he went to Mr Venables quarters that it was impossible to meet Mr Muhlenberg & Mr V. & that as at the meeting before alluded to they were all present (upon which Mr C. took out of his pocket two pamphlets in which was a statement signed by Mr Muhlenburgh Mr Venable & Colo Monroe) and all had signed it that he thought it most proper for them all to meet & return a joint answer to Colo Hs letter which he meant to do on his return to Philada—Colo M then observed if he Colo H. wished him to give a relation of the facts & circumstances individually as they appeared to him, he would do it then.
Colo H. said he should like to hear it, Colo M then proceeded upon a history of the business printed in the pamphlets and said that the packet of papers before alluded to he yet believed remained sealed with his friend in Virginia and after getting through Colo H. said this as your representation is totally false (as nearly as I recollect the expression) upon which the Gentlemen both instantly rose Colo M. rising first and saying do you say I represented falsely, you are a Scoundrel—Colo H. said I will meet you like a Gentleman Colo M Said I am ready get your pistols, both said we shall not or it will not be settled any other way—Mr C & myself rising at the same moment put ourselves between them Mr C. repeating Gentlemen Gentlemen be moderate or some such word to appease them, we all sat down & the two Gentn, Colo M. & Colo H. soon got moderate, I observed however very clearly to my mind that Colo H. appeared extremely agitated & Colo M. appeared soon to get quite cool and repeated his intire ignorance of the publication & his surprize to find it published, observing to Colo H. if he would not be so warm & intemperate he would explain everything he Knew of the business & how it appeared to him.—I then addressed myself to Colo H. and said if he pleased I would make a proposition he said by all means I then observed as Colo M. had satisfied him as to that part of the business which related to the publication of the pamphlets, and as the other part was a transaction of the three Gentlemen before alluded to whether it would not be much the best way to let the whole affair rest until Colo M returned to Philada and a meeting could be had with Mr V & Mr Muhlenburgh & a joint letter or answer given as Colo M. had proposed. Colo H. made some answer in a word or two which I understood as not disapproving the mode I proposed, but what I cannot recollect with precision I observed a silence & addressed myself to Mr C. with observing perhaps my proposition ought to have been made or would have been made with more propriety to him than to Colo H & repeated the same thing over again to Mr C. who after asking Colo M when he should return to Philada he Colo M. answerd on friday at farthest Mr C. then replied that as they Mr C. & Colo H. would go on saturday and as the business could be finished on Sunday—he thought it would be much the best way4—The Gentlemen all rose Mr C observing that as there would be an explanation by all three Gentlemen (vizt) Mr V. Mr M. & Colo M that any warmth or unguarded expressions that had happened during the interview should be buried and considered as tho’ it never had happened. Colo M. said in that respect I shall be governed by Colo Hs conduct. Colo H said he thought that any intemperate expressions should be forgotten to which Colo M. agreed.
The Interview continued about an hour or a little over myself being present through the whole.
James Monroe to Alexander Hamilton
Phila July 25. 1797.
I received your Letter of the 22d instant by Major Jackson and have paid it the attention it merits.
Always anxious to do justice to every one it would afford me pleasure could I answer it in a manner satisfactory to your feelings: but while the respect which I owe to myself forbids my replying in that harsh stile which you have adopted, that same respect with an attention to truth, according to the impressions existing in my mind, will compel me upon all occasions to place this affr on its true ground.
Why you have adopted this stile I know not. If your object is to render this affair a personal one between us you might have been more explicit, since you well know if that is yr disposition what my determination is, and to which I shall firmly adhere. But if it is to illustrate truth and place the question on its true merits, as I have always been disposed to do, it appears illy calculated to promote that end.
I have constantly said and I repeat again that in making an entry which appears after our interview with you, and which ought to have been signed by the other gentln as well as myself, I never intended to convey an opinion upon it, nor does it convey any opinion of my own, but merely notes what Clingman stated, leaving it upon his own credit only. But you wish me to state that this communication made no impression on my mind, and this I shall not state because in so doing I shod be incorrect. On the other hand I do not wish to be understood as intimating that this communication had absolutely changed my opinion, for in that event I shod have acted on it, whereas the contrary was the case as you well know.
And with respect to the propriety of noting down that communication I have no doubt on that point, since I shod have noted any other that might have been made on the same topic by that or any other party. Indeed if it was proper to note the communications first recd, it was equally so to note this, and that you did not disapprove. Had we proceeded in it you may be well assured we shod have apprized of it, as in the other cases as well from motives of candor towards you, as propriety on our own parts.
It is not my wish to discuss the fact whether you admitted all or only part of Clingmans communication in our interview with you, because upon the principle in which I stand engaged in this affr, not as yr accuser but called on to explain, it is one of no importance to me. Such was the impression upon my mind; if however the contrary were the case, & you shewed to be so, I shod be equally contented as if it were otherwise, since it is my wish that truth appear in her genuine character, upon the present, as upon all other occasions. I am Sir with due respect yr obt servant
James Monroe to Aaron Burr
Phila Augt 6. 1797.
I enclose you a copy of my correspondence with Colo Hamilton since my return to this city which I hope you will immediately peruse. I send likewise a letter to him in reply to his last which after reading & sealing I wish you to present him. I have written this last letter as you will perceive to demd whether he meant his as a direct challenge on his part or as the acceptance of one on mine (the latter being the idea of Major Jackson) or of an invitation on my part. If the former be the case, then you will accept it of course. If the latter then the expln which I give ends the affr, as I never meant to give him a challenge, on acct of what has passed between us, seeing no cause so to do; having conceded nothing which as a man of honor and truth I ought not: and in the stile followed his example, especially when our interview at New York is also notic’d: an example however which ought not to have been given.
If the affr takes the first course, then time must be given me on acct of my publication, the adjustment of my family affrs &c &c having been long absent and they requiring much attention, especially when it is considered that in case of accident I shod leave Mrs M. almost friendless in Virga, she being of New York.
For the whole of this abt three months wod be necessary—two wod be for the publication only. The place I shod wish to be abt or near the Susquehannah; but on this head I shod not be vigorous. As you have a child & a family I wod not trouble you unless in yr neighborhood, but shall calculate on the aid of Mr Dawson. However tis probable I shod be forced to ask yr aid, <illegible> much confidence in you.
You will explain to him, if he asks expln, why I referr’d him to you and did not adjust it with Major Jackson, that I supposed it wod be more agreeable to him to have you authorized to represent me fully in the affr for the purpose of closing it at once with him on the spot: and that to me it was an object of importance, since being much occupied in other concerns and meaning soon to leave town I wished to have my time & mind free from interruption.
I hope you will settle this disagreeable affr finally so that we write no more either to the other on it. Nor need I observe that as I have entire confidence in your judgment, honor and friendship for me, so I equally confide that you will close it in such a manner, as duly observing that a certain result ought always to be avoided, whilst it can with propriety, especially by a person with a family, yet it is not to be avoided by any the slightest sacrifice or condescention.
If the affr takes an amicable issue, and he enters into conver sation on the publication &ca afterwards, then you may hint to him that if he chuses, you think all the letters between him & me had better be suppress’d or not published in his publication since they certainly weaken the ground of Muhlenburg’s & my letter to him, wh was written in a spirit of conciliation, as well as of truth. In that case too he may make his inferences from that as he pleases for we never mean to say a word on the subject, if he does not attack us. Indeed I was never averse to the simple question “did you mean to give any opinion of yr own as to the credibility due to the intry bearing your single signature?” to answer “that I did not but meant it to stand, on the credibility of the man.” This wod have been perhaps of some service to him, but he wod never asked it in that form, always endeavouring to get more from me than in conscience I cod give. Nor shod I now hesitate (provided you approved it) after the affr is settled (if settled amicably) to give such an answer to such a question; observing that the affr be first setled, before any other <illegible>.
I am satisfied he is pushed on by his party friends here, who to get rid of me, wod be very willing to hasard him. Of this I have many reasons to be well assured of.
In truth I have no desire to persecute this man, tho’ he highly merits it, and except giving a certificate to what in truth I cod not, did not from the first moment of my arrival care, how favorable the affr appeared for him. I had no hand in the publication, was sorry for it and think he has acted, by drawing the publick attention to it, & making it an affr of more consequence than it was in itself, very indiscreetly. And in case he manages his defense so as to make Muhlenburg Venable & myself, become his accusers in our own defense he loses the benefit of our certificate &c. However this is between ourselves.
I wish to leave this abt friday next and will be happy to hear from you definitively on this subject before that period. Sincearly I am yr friend & servt
Alexander Hamilton to James Monroe
New York August 9. 1797
The intention of my letter of the 4th instant, as itself imports, was to meet and close with an advance towards a personal interview, which it appeared to me had been made by you.
From the tenor of your reply of the 6th, which disavows the inference I had drawn, any further step on my part, as being inconsistent with the ground I have heretofore taken, would be improper. I am Sir Your humble servt