James Monroe

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James Monroe
James monroe.jpg
5th President of the United States
From: March 4, 1817 – March 4, 1825[1]
Vice President Daniel D. Tompkins
Predecessor James Madison
Successor John Quincy Adams
8th United States Secretary of War
From: September 27, 1814 – March 2, 1815
President James Madison
Predecessor John Armstrong
Successor William Crawford
7th United States Secretary of State
From: April 2, 1811 – March 4, 1817
President James Madison
Predecessor Robert Smith
Successor John Quincy Adams
16th Governor of Virginia
From: January 16, 1811 – April 2, 1811
Predecessor George William Smith
Successor George William Smith
Former United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom
From: April 18, 1803 – February 26, 1808
President Thomas Jefferson
Predecessor Rufus King
Successor William Pinkney
12th Governor of Virginia
From: December 28, 1799 – December 1, 1802
Predecessor James Wood
Successor John Page
Former United States Ambassador to France
From: May 28, 1794 – September 9, 1796
President George Washington
Predecessor Gouverneur Morris
Successor Charles Pinckney
U.S. Senator from Virginia
From: November 9, 1790 – March 29, 1794
Predecessor John Walker
Successor Stevens Mason
Party Republican (Jeffersonian)
Spouse(s) Elizabeth Kortright Monroe
Religion Episcopalianism

James Monroe (1758–1831) was the fifth president of the United States of America (1817–1825), best known for sponsoring the Monroe Doctrine, and for presiding over a period of peace and (mostly) prosperity and a lessening of partisan tensions known as the "Era of Good Feelings." He was the last of the Virginia Dynasty that controlled the presidency for 32 of the 36 years from 1789 to 1825. He held many political and diplomatic offices, and was a loyal lieutenant to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the previous Republican presidents.

Monroe was the only president to be elected by unanimous vote subsequent to George Washington, in 1820, not counting a "faithless elector" who switched his vote to John Quincy Adams. The collapse of the Federalist Party was a contributing factor to Monroe's lack of opposition.

Conservatives rate him highly due to his opposition to government spending, foreign wars, and European colonization in the Americas. Some criticize him for his sympathetic view in the 1790s of the French Revolution, but that was based on incomplete information.

Early career

Monroe was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, to Spence Monroe and Eliza Jones Monroe, of Scottish and Welsh ancestry respectively. They were moderately wealthy Virginia tobacco planters who relied on slave labor. Monroe attended a local school and at age 16 matriculated at William and Mary College. Two years later with the outbreak of the American Revolution he became a lieutenant in a Virginia regiment of the Continental line. Rising to the rank of major, he fought in the New Jersey campaign and led the charge at the Battle of Trenton. He was hit by a musket ball in his shoulder, striking an artery. After he recovered, he returned to combat.[2] He was an aide to George Washington at the "crossing of the Delaware" in December 1776. Monroe served during the operations around Philadelphia and at Monmouth but resigned from the Continental Army in 1778.

From 1780 to 1783 Monroe studied law under Thomas Jefferson, then governor of Virginia. This proved the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

Political career

In 1782 Monroe was elected to the Virginia Assembly. The following year he was elected as one of Virginia's representatives to the Confederation Congress in New York, where he served from 1783 to 1786. Although a staunch defender of states' rights, Monroe proposed and supported a measure to give the Congress the right to control interstate commerce.

Returning to Virginia, he married Eliza Kortright, of Dutch stock, by whom he had two daughters, plus a son who died in infancy. He attended the Annapolis Convention in 1786 but was not selected as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. He worried that the proposed Constitution would be dangerous to the sovereignty of Virginia, and joined the "anti-Federalist" opposition. Like most opponents he wanted a Bill of Rights, and once that was promised he supported the new government. In 1788 he ran against James Madison for the new national Congress, but was overwhelmingly defeated. In 1791 Monroe was chosen by the legislature to fill an unexpired term in the U.S. Senate. There he joined the Jeffersonian faction, later to become the Republicans, which opposed the Federalist Party and the policies of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton



President Washington appointed Monroe as minister to France in 1794, charged with removing the serious tension between the two countries, at a time the treaty of alliance of 1778 was still in effect. France was at war with Britain. The appointment kept a prominent Jeffersonian in office after Jefferson himself went into retirement. Monroe made little progress because Alexander Hamilton had shaped a pro-British foreign policy by means of the Jay Treaty of 1794. Monroe was too obvious in his sympathy for the Terror stage of the French Revolution, and he was recalled in 1796. Monroe published a lengthy defense, which Washington considered as a personal attack.

Monroe was elected governor of Virginia in 1799–1802. He proved himself a popular executive and an able administrator. His effective handling of the abortive slave uprising known as Gabriel's Rebellion was highly praised by the planter class.

President Jefferson sent Monroe to France to help Robert R. Livingston, the U.S. minister, negotiate for the purchase of the mouth of the Mississippi River. They instead purchased the entire Louisiana Territory in a spectacular diplomatic triumph. Monroe became minister to the Court of St. James (Britain) but Jefferson rejected the treaty Monroe negotiated because it would not allow the U.S. to engage in commercial warfare against Britain. Monroe went to Spain, which rejected the American offer to purchase the Spanish Floridas. Monroe returned home in 1807, expecting Jefferson's support for the presidency, and insisted upon being a candidate for the Republican nomination even when Jefferson and most party leaders wanted James Madison to get the nomination. Madison was elected.

Monroe was a talented diplomat with a fatal flaw that ruined some of his efforts: he never appreciated that he was a representative of the President and the government and had to articulate and advance its objectives. Unlike his Secretary John Quincy Adams (who drafted the Monroe Doctrine), Monroe never had a broad vision for his own nation.

As minister to France, he openly sided with the radical factions in the French Revolution, encouraged France to go to war with Britain, and tried to arrange a loan from the U.S. government. At the same time the Washington Administration was negotiating the Jay Treaty with Britain, which ended the risk of war between the U.S. and Britain, and opened up a decade of highly profitable foreign trade that dramatically improved the American economy. Monroe opposed the Jay Treaty and told the French it would be overturned after the Jeffersonians won the 1796 presidential election. (They lost the election and the treaty stayed in effect). When his foolish behavior was discovered, he was recalled home.[3]

As special envoy to France in 1803 Monroe did an excellent job in negotiating the Louisiana Purchase.

But as Jefferson's minister to Britain in 1806 it was Monroe's duty to extend the advantageous Jay Treaty, but he again misread the intentions of his own government. The treaty he negotiated and signed with offered new advantages to the U.S. but was rejected by Jefferson, who wanted no treaty and instead turned the U.S. onto a path leading to war with Britain in 1812.[4]

War of 1812

Old Republicans, who claimed to adhere to the traditional party principles of 1798, tried to coopt Monroe as their presidential candidate in 1808. John Randolph of Roanoke took the lead in the movement to thwart Jefferson's choice of James Madison as his successor. Jefferson had snubbed Monroe on foreign policy in 1807 and thereby alienated Monroe from the administration. Regular Republican control of key Virginia politicians, along with a number of other factors, however, insured Madison's 1808 electoral success.

Returning to Virginia politics, Monroe was elected to the legislature in 1810 and was chosen governor for the second time in 1811. Meanwhile, the Madison administration, confronted by a possible war, needed strengthening. Monroe accepted the position of secretary of state in 1811. For a time he believed that the difficulties between the United States and Britain could be solved peacefully, but after long and fruitless negotiations he came to the conclusion that the War of 1812 was inevitable. In 1814, largely at his insistence, John Armstrong, the incumbent secretary of war, was forced to resign and Monroe took over the office, simultaneous with the State department, in which he displayed his usual energy and administrative ability. He held it until March 1815. The American victories at the end of the war dramatically changed the national mood from despair to joyous celebration of independence and Monroe was almost unanimously made the choice of the Republican caucus in Congress (which selected the party candidate) in 1816. He easily defeated Federalist Rufus King.


Once in office, Monroe dropped his strict states' rights views to a more moderate position that better reflected the spirit of the country. Although he vetoed an internal improvements bill, he clearly indicated a willingness to approve an alternative, the result of which was the extensive internal improvements planning measure of 1824. Moreover, Monroe approved the tariff act of the same year. His appointments of John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun, William H. Crawford, and William Wirt to the Cabinet were strong selections; all were staunch nationalists with a vision of a strong nation-state. Monroe refused to engage personally in the debate over the controversial Missouri Compromise question.


End of nasty partisanship

Monroe deliberately downplayed party politics. With the death of the old Federalist party, old animosities faded away and few new ones emerged. Indeed, the Republican party itself faded away, as Monroe avoided using patronage to strengthen partisanship. To emphasize the coming era of national unity, Monroe followed Washington's example by embarking on a tour of the nation. He visited New England and the Middle Atlantic states in 1817, and the West and South in 1819. His purpose was clearly understood. Fittingly, it was in a Federalist newspaper, as the editor welcomed the approaching end of party warfare, that the phrase "Era of Good Feelings" was first used. Monroe's arrival became the scene of unprecedented demonstrations—troops of militia, parades, banquets, and delegations of citizens who greeted him enthusiastically not only as president but as a celebrated hero of the Revolution.

Panic of 1819

A sharp financial disaster known as the Panic of 1819 hit the country in 1819; many blamed the distress on the policies of the Second Bank of the United States (chartered in 1817 with Monroe's support), which was badly managed by William Jones, its first president. Monroe, who considered the bank essential to ensure a sound currency and to control the careless habits of state banks in making loans, succeeded in 1819 in persuading the directors to replace Jones with Langdon Cheves, a former Congressman and a far abler financier. Monroe approved Chief Justice John Marshall's decision in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), which upheld the constitutionality of the bank.

Despite the economic downturn, Monroe remained popular and was reelected in 1820 almost unanimously.[5]

The economy recovered after 1820. Monroe vetoed an appropriation for road repairs in the Cumberland Road Bill (1822), stating that "congress does not possess the power under the constitution to pass such a law."[6] With Monroe in the White House, the House rejected most spending bills on internal projects.

Missouri Compromise

The U.S. Senate was evenly split during the Monroe Administration: 11 free states and 11 slave states (Delaware and Kentucky were slave states), and admission of a new state threatened the balance. Monroe peacefully resolved the difficult dispute over slavery in new states with the Missouri Compromise: admit one free state (Maine) to balance one new slave state (Missouri), and ban slavery above a certain latitude (36 degrees, 30 minutes) in the Louisiana Territory.

Foreign affairs

Perhaps the most brilliant achievements of Monroe's administration were in the sphere of foreign affairs, where much of the credit is due his brilliant Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. In succession the outstanding questions with Britain were resolved. The issue over Oregon Territory was settled on the basis of joint occupation, the Rush-Bagot agreement of 1817 imposed a limitation of armaments on the Great Lakes, and a mutually satisfactory fisheries treaty was negotiated in 1818.

Spain and Florida

The relations with Spain over the purchase of Florida proved to be more troublesome, especially after General Andrew Jackson invaded that territory on what he believed to be the president's authorization, which Monroe later denied giving. But largely through the skillful work of John Quincy Adams, a treaty was signed with Spain in 1819 by which Florida was ceded to the United States in return for the assumption of $5,000,000 in claims and the relinquishment of any claims to Texas.

Monroe Doctrine

After the Napoleonic wars (which ended in 1815), almost all of Latin America revolted against Spanish or Portuguese rule and declared independence.[7] Americans welcomed this development as a validation of the spirit of Republicanism. Adams suggested delay in formal recognition until Florida was secured in 1819. The whole problem of imperial invasion was intensified by a Russian claim to the Pacific coast down to the fifty-first parallel and simultaneous European pressure to have all of Latin America returned to its colonial status. In March 1822 Monroe informed Congress that permanent stable governments had been established in the United Provinces of La Plata (present-day Argentina), Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico. Adams, under Monroe's careful supervision, wrote the instructions for the ministers (ambassadors) to these new countries. They declared that the policy of the United States was to uphold republican institutions and to seek treaties of commerce on a most-favored-nation basis. The United States would support inter-American congresses dedicated to the development of economic and political institutions fundamentally differing from those prevailing in Europe. The articulation of an "American system" distinct from that of Europe was a basic tenet of Monroe's policy toward Latin America. Monroe took pride as the United States was the first nation to extend recognition and to set an example to the rest of the world for its support of the "cause of liberty and humanity."

Monroe and Adams realized that American recognition would not protect the new countries against military intervention to restore Spain's power. In October 1823 Richard Rush, the American minister in London, advised that Foreign Secretary George Canning was proposing that the U.S. and Britain jointly declare their opposition to European intervention. Galvanized by the British initiative, Monroe consulted with American leaders and then formulated a plan with Adams and incorporated it in his annual message to Congress in December 1823. The principles that have become known as the Monroe Doctrine.

The Monroe Doctrine, which followed up George Washington's admonitions against foreign entanglements, was the work of British Foreign Minister George Canning and Monroe's Secretary of State John Quincy Adams more than of Monroe. At the time it pertained more to the Russians in North America than to the former Spanish colonies in South America. The result was a system of American isolationism under the sponsorship of the British navy.

The Monroe Doctrine held that the United States considered the Western Hemisphere as no longer a place for European colonization; that any future effort to gain further political control in the hemisphere or to violate the independence of existing states would be treated as an act of hostility; and finally that there existed two different and incompatible political systems in the world. Therefore, the United States promised to refrain from intervention in European affairs and demanded Europe to abstain from interfering with American matters. In the event there were few serious European attempts at intervention.

By the time James Polk was elected president in 1844, the Monroe Doctrine was regarded abroad not so much as a shining white sword to debar evil European nations from despoiling South America, but as a handy all-purpose weapon, by means of which the United States could carve out vast tracts of territory for itself in the northern hemisphere. It did not become relevant to South America until the Venezuela-British Guiana dispute of 1895. Its prestige reached its zenith under Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909), who interpreted to it to give the United States police powers. Since that time the good-neighbor policy has gained ground.

The most important violation was the French takeover of Mexico during the American Civil War; at war's end the U.S. sent a combat army to the border and the French went home.


As governor of Virginia from 1799 to 1802, Monroe took a cautious position regarding a slave uprising in Southampton County in October 1799. Monroe took pains to see that the charged rebels received proper legal treatment before they were executed, demonstrating a marked concern for their legal rights. He conducted an exhaustive investigation into the incident and saw to it the slaves involved received a fair trial.

Monroe's governorship is best known for the violent suppression of "Gabriel's slave conspiracy" in 1800, in which freedom-seeking slaves from Henrico and neighboring counties plotted to burn the capital, Richmond, kill its white slaveholders, and kidnap Governor Monroe. The rebellion was quickly crushed, and over 30 blacks were executed in its aftermath. Monroe again took an unpopular position in supporting fair trials and attempting to explain and justify slave actions.

As president of Virginia's constitutional convention in the fall of 1829, Monroe reiterated his belief that slavery was a blight which, even as a British colony, Virginia had attempted to eradicate. "What was the origin of our slave population?" he rhetorically asked. "The evil commenced when we were in our Colonial state, but acts were passed by our Colonial Legislature, prohibiting the importation, of more slaves, into the Colony. These were rejected by the Crown." To the extreme chagrin of states' rights proponents, he was even willing to accept the federal government's financial assistance in emancipating and deporting the slaves. At the convention, Monroe made his final public statement on slavery, proposing that Virginia emancipate and deport its bondsmen with "the aid of the Union."

Although he opposed abolition, Monroe was a leading supporter of African colonization proposals as vice president of the Richmond branch of the American Colonization Society, and the capital of Liberia was named Monrovia after him. He favored gradual, compensated emancipation. In the final analysis, Monroe was a planter and a slave owner who believed in the eventual peaceful end of slavery.[8]

Retirement and Legacy

Turning the presidency over to Adams on March 4, 1825, Monroe retired to his plantation, operated by slaves and an overseer, in Loudoun County, Virginia. Tobacco farming was unprofitable and he struggled to get out of debt. Elected to Virginia's constitutional convention in 1829, he opposed the widening of the franchise but took little part in the debates over other questions. With land prices depressed Monroe could not pay his debts and he lost all his real estate. In declining health, he moved in with his daughter in New York City in 1830, where he died on July 4, 1831. He was universally mourned.

His greatest legacy was the Monroe Doctrine, which still shapes American policies.


Monroe lacked the charisma of Washington and the brilliance of Jefferson and Madison. He was an energetic and able administrator and a harmonizer of conflicting viewpoints. His great achievement was to calm the political waters. He lived a simple but energetic life devoted almost entirely to the public affairs of his nation and his state. He kept his religious beliefs very strictly private, and historians do not know what they were.

In His Own Words

When elected President, James Monroe declared in his Inaugural Address, March 4, 1817:

I enter on the trust to which I have been called by the suffrages of my fellow-citizens with my fervent prayers to the Almighty that He will be graciously pleased to continue to us that protection which He has already so conspicuously displayed.

President Monroe declared in his First Annual Message to Congress in 1817:

For advantages so numerous and highly important it is our duty to unite in grateful acknowledgments to that Omnipotent Being from whom they are derived, and in unceasing prayer that He will endow us with virtue and strength to maintain and hand them down in their utmost purity to our latest posterity.


  • Ammon, Harry. James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity. (1971, 2nd ed. 1990). 706 pp. standard scholarly biography excerpt and text search
  • Ammon, Harry. "James Monroe" in Henry F. Graff ed., The Presidents: A Reference History (1997)
  • Bemis, Samuel Flagg. John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy (1949), the standard history of Monroe's foreign policy.
  • Cunningham, Noble E., Jr. The Presidency of James Monroe. 1996. 246 pp. standard scholarly survey
  • Dangerfield, George. Era of Good Feelings (1953) excerpt and text search
  • Dangerfield, George. The Awakening of American Nationalism: 1815 - 1828 (1965) standard scholarly survey excerpt and text search
  • Elkins, Stanley M. and Eric McKitrick. The Age of Federalism (1995). most advanced analysis of the politics of the 1790s. online edition
  • Finkelman, Paul. Encyclopedia of the New American Nation, 1754–1829 ed. by (2005), 1600 pp.
  • Gilman, Daniel Coit. James Monroe (1911) 312 pages; old barely adequate biography. online edition
  • Hart, Gary. James Monroe (2005) superficial, short, popular biography
  • Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (2007), Pulitzer Prize; a sweeing conservative interpretation of the entire era
  • Morgan, George. The Life of James Monroe (1921) 484 pages; old and barely adequate biography. online edition
  • Perkins, Bradford. Castlereagh and Adams: England and the United States, 1812-1823 (1964)
  • Perkins, Dexter. The Monroe Doctrine, 1823-1826 (1927)
  • Peterson, Merrill D. Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography (1975) online edition
  • Renehan Edward J., Jr. The Monroe Doctrine: The Cornerstone of American Foreign Policy (2007)
  • Scherr, Arthur. "James Monroe and John Adams: An Unlikely 'Friendship'". The Historian 67#3 (2005) pp 405+. online edition
  • Skeen, Carl Edward. 1816: America Rising (1993) popular history
  • White, Leonard D. The Jeffersonians: A Study in Administrative History, 1801-1829 (1951), explains the operation and organization of federal administration
  • Wood, Gordon S. Empire of Liberty: A history of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (2009) by a leading conservative historian

Primary sources

  • Monroe, James. The Political Writings of James Monroe. ed. by James P. Lucier, (2002). 863 pp.
  • Writings of James Monroe, edited by Stanislaus Murray Hamilton, ed., 7 vols. (1898-1903) online edition at books.google.com

See also


  1. http://www.trivia-library.com/a/5th-us-president-james-monroe.htm
  2. http://www.amerisearch.net/index.php?date=2004-04-28&view=View
  3. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty (2009) p. 205
  4. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty (2009) p. 645
  5. The only electoral vote cast against him was done so Washington would be the only unanimous choice.
  6. see quote
  7. The main exceptions were the West Indies islands especially Cuba and Puerto Rico which remained with Spain until 1898.
  8. Arthur Scherr, "Governor James Monroe and the Southampton Slave Resistance of 1799," Historian; 1999 61(3): 557-578 in EBSCO; Douglas R. Egerton, Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802 (1993).

External links