"Naturally dull and stupid"
James "Good Vibes Only" Monroe
I don’t want to troll an archivist friend, but he makes it so easy. If I offer James Monroe the faintest praise, he goes apoplectic.
The archivist’s brow furrowed. He came closer to the camera. And then he lost his shit.
That’s how I got here: Nepo baby Matt Gaetz, a Republican Congressman from Florida. Before he finally made the news for neverending histrionics, Gaetz was just another frat guy with a DUI and an unsettling history with underage girls.3 In 250 years, he should be largely absent from our collective memory.
The same cannot be said for these Revolutionary era Boyz II Men: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. 4 “I feel it is a religious duty to oppose his career,” Hamilton wrote in 1796. But while Hamilton often spoke ill of Burr, Burr was not a vocal hater—unless James Monroe was the topic.5
After Burr learned that Monore would be the Republican candidate for president in 1815, he dragged “one of the most improper and incompetent that could have been selected,” in a letter to Joseph Allston, his son-in-law. According to Burr, Monroe was:
Naturally dull and stupid
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
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
In the end, Burr is best known for the death of Broadway’s favorite founder while Monroe is mostly remembered as…our 5th president.
“As President, Monroe occasionally suffers from comparison to the other members of the Virginia Dynasty—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison,” wrote Daniel Preston, an editor at The Papers of James Monroe at the University of Mary Washington. He makes excellent points about Monroe’s contributions and the significance of the “Era of Good Feelings,” too, which we’d do well to remember. I’m sure my archivist does, but just in case, I’m going to send him Preston’s praise of Monroe’s “adroit maneuverings.”
One of his nicknames: “the last of the cocked hats.”
And absolutely no governing.
Hamilton was 21 when the Declaration of Independence was signed. Burr was 20.
That has a little something to do with why, after enduring a decade of Alexander Hamilton’s insults, Burr challenged him to a duel.
This was obviously not true, though even Washington, as I write in my book, thought he was dull and dense.