James Monroe, (1758-1831), 5th President of the United States. Monroe’s public career was shaped by three great influences: the American Revolution; the principles of the Republican party, which he helped found; and his diplomatic experiences. He worked to achieve the revolutionary ideal of a representative government based on free institutions, first through the battle to defeat the Federalists and, secondly, as president, by attempting to eliminate party divisions, which he regarded as destructive of republican government.
Monroe’s policies, stressing the concept of limited government and strict construction of the U.S. Constitution, were shaped in accordance with the principles of the Jeffersonian Republican party. As a result of his experiences as a diplomat, he acquired a determination to free the United States from subservience to European powers. Hence he rejected British proposals in 1823 for joint action to protect the newly won independence of the Latin American states in favor of a unilateral policy declaration later known as the Monroe Doctrine.
Unlike his close friends and political collaborators Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Monroe was neither an intellectual nor a political innovator. His talent lay in the practical implementation of ideals and policies. Without any gifts as an orator or writer, he owed his influence and prestige both to his generally recognized integrity and honesty and to his personal charm. The latter was largely the result of an evident personal warmth, a genuine thoughtfulness, and a temperament remarkably free from vindictiveness. He was able to work with little friction with men of the most varied character and ability. A slow thinker, who carefully canvassed all alternatives before making a decision, he was praised by his contemporaries for the soundness of his judgment. In many ways his values were those of the 18th century. Therefore, it was typical of him that during his presidency this tall, raw-boned, plain-looking man still wore the knee breeches and buckled shoes of an earlier age.
Monroe was born in Westmoreland county, Va., on April 28, 1758, the son of a modest planter. He entered William and Mary College in July 1774, but, caught up by the fervor of the revolutionary spirit, he enlisted in the Third Virginia Regiment in the spring of 1776. As a lieutenant he saw action in the battles in New York preceding Washington’s retreat into New Jersey, and he distinguished himself in a vanguard action at Trenton, where he was seriously wounded. For two years he served as an aide with the rank of colonel to Gen. William Alexander (Lord Stirling). He was present during the winter of Valley Forge (1777-1778) and participated in the Battle of Monmouth.
In 1780, unable to obtain a field command, Monroe returned to Virginia to study law under Thomas Jefferson, who became a lifelong friend, patron, and major influence on his intellectual development. Monroe was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1782, and his abilities and total dedication to public service won him election in 1783 to the Confederation Congress, where he sat until 1786. Here he organized the opposition to the Jay-Gardoqui proposals, by which the United States would have yielded to Spain its claim to the free navigation of the Mississippi River. He also helped lay the groundwork for territorial government embodied in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. While in Congress, Monroe joined the advocates of a stronger government, continuing the work of his friend James Madison. Yet as a member of the Virginia ratifying convention he joined Patrick Henry and George Mason in opposing the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. He considered it defective in the excessive power granted the Senate and in authorizing direct taxes.
In 1789, now a married man, he settled in Albemarle county to be close to Jefferson. Monroe’s wife, the former Elizabeth Kortright of New York, was regarded as one of the great beauties of the day. Reserved and rather cold in her manner, she was to bring to the White House a formality not always relished by Washingtonians. Here in Albemarle their two daughters, Eliza and Maria Hester, were born. A son died in infancy.
Opponent of the Federalists
Elected to the United States Senate in 1790, Monroe joined Madison (then in the House) in combating Hamilton’s domestic measures, which emphasized centralization of powers in the federal government. He also opposed Washington’s seemingly pro-British foreign policy. Monroe worked with Jefferson and Madison in organizing the Republican Party. His contribution lay in the realm of political strategy and in establishing liaison with anti-Hamilton forces in other states. He also ably assisted Madison in defending the Republican position in the press.
In 1794, when Washington dispatched Federalist John Jay on a mission to Britain, Monroe was named minister to France in the hope that this would appease Republican critics of the administration who feared a diplomatic rupture with France. Because Monroe conceived the purpose of his mission as the preservation of Franco-American amity in the face of Washington’s pro-British stance, he acted more as a Republican party spokesman than as the representative of his government. Dissatisfaction with his conduct led to his recall in 1796, engineered by Secretary of State Timothy Pickering. Monroe defended himself by publishing a harsh attack on Washington’s foreign policy.
From 1799 to 1802, Monroe served as governor of Virginia, demonstrating great administrative ability and winning praise for his decisive action to suppress a slave uprising (Gabriel’s Insurrection) in 1800.
Diplomat for Jefferson
President Jefferson sent Monroe to France in 1803 as a special envoy to assist Minister Robert R. Livingston in purchasing a port of deposit on the lower Mississippi River, because Spain was closing the river to American navigation in preparation for the recently negotiated retrocession of Louisiana to France. On his arrival Napoleon presented Livingston and Monroe with the choice of buying all of Louisiana or nothing. Although not authorized by their instructions they promptly accepted, a decision approved by Jefferson in spite of his doubts about the constitutionality of such an extensive territorial acquisition. Popular approval of the Louisiana Purchase established Monroe securely as a national figure, whose elevation to the presidency was but a matter of time.
From 1803 to 1807, Monroe served as minister to Britain. In 1805 he went to Madrid in a fruitless attempt to persuade Spain to acknowledge the American claim that West Florida should be included in the Louisiana Purchase. In 1806 he and William Pinkney (sent as a special envoy) negotiated a treaty providing for some relaxation of Britain’s commercial restrictions. Because the treaty lacked provisions for ending the impressment of American seamen, Jefferson did not submit it to the Senate for ratification. Monroe, convinced that the treaty contained the best obtainable terms, was deeply offended.
In 1808, Monroe ran against Madison, whom he blamed for the rejection of the treaty, for the presidency in Virginia, more as a protest than as a serious candidate. He received little support, and Madison was elected president.
Member of the War Cabinet
Monroe served in the Virginia assembly in 1810 and 1811 and as governor again in 1811. In the latter year President Madison, facing a Federalist resurgence and divisions in the Republican party, appointed Monroe secretary of state. The appointment restored Monroe’s friendship with Madison and Jefferson.
Admired as a practical man by younger congressmen, Monroe formed excellent working relations with Congress and obtained the cooperation of the so-called War Hawks in advancing administration programs. After the outbreak of the War of 1812 with Britain, Monroe’s desire for a military command was frustrated by Secretary of War John Armstrong. The latter believed that Monroe had deprived Robert R. Livingston, Armstrong’s brother-in-law, of his rightful claim to be the negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase.
In 1814, after the British invasion of Washington, which was widely laid to Armstrong’s failure to mount a proper defense of the city, President Madison replaced the disgraced secretary of war with Monroe, who thus held two cabinet posts. A capable and active administrator, Monroe restored the morale of Washingtonians. The war ended, however, before the full effect of his reorganization of the War Department could be felt.
His service in the cabinet had made Monroe an obvious choice for president in 1816. The Republican congressional caucus chose him as the party’s candidate over William H. Crawford, who had succeeded Monroe as secretary of war. The Federalist Party had been badly damaged–fatally, as it turned out–by its opposition to the War of 1812. Monroe easily defeated Sen. Rufus King (N.Y.), the Federalist candidate for president, by 183 to 34 in the voting of the Electoral College.
The new president adopted a conciliatory policy toward the Federalist critics of the war. Immediately after his inauguration, Monroe toured the New England states, where there had been talk of secession during the war. The Federalists rushed to welcome him and demonstrate their loyalty. Monroe did everything he could to promote the “Era of Good Feelings”–a term first used in a Boston newspaper to refer to the mood created by his New England trip. Monroe believed that this new “era” would place free government on a solid footing by eliminating party rivalry. The experiment, however, did not outlast his second term, because sectional hostility and individual political rivalries shattered the brief unity.
Once he rejected the two-party system, Monroe could not use party loyalty as a means of advancing administration measures. Instead he had to rely on his own considerable personal contacts with congressmen and on the support of cabinet members with substantial congressional followings. He drew into his cabinet some of the most influential men of the day. The four most important were all in their posts by late 1817 and served until 1825. The secretary of the treasury, William H. Crawford, had been Monroe’s rival in 1816 and was regarded as his most logical successor. The secretary of state was the experienced diplomat John Quincy Adams. The secretary of war, John C. Calhoun, had been a notable War Hawk. Attorney General William Writ was a popular figure, famed as a lawyer and writer.
The Navy Department was headed by men of sectional rather than national influence: Benjamin Crowninshield of Massachusetts (1817-1818), Smith Thompson of New York (1818-1823), and Samuel Southard of New Jersey (1823-1825).
Acquisition of Florida
Monroe’s greatest achievements as president lay in foreign affairs. Ably supported by Adams, he made substantial territorial additions and gave American policy a distinctly national orientation. Monroe welcomed an opportunity to press Spain to cede Florida and define the boundaries of Louisiana. His chance came when Gen. Andrew Jackson invaded Florida in 1818. In pursuit of hostile Indians, Jackson seized the posts of St. Marks and Pensacola, acts that many persons regarded as violations of congressional war powers. In the cabinet, Adams, an expansionist, urged Jackson’s complete vindication, while Crawford and Calhoun demanded that he be reprimanded for exceeding his instructions.
Monroe chose a middle course–the posts were restored to Spain, but the administration accepted Jackson’s explanation that his action had been justified by conditions in Florida. The incident led Spain to cede Florida and define, favorably to American claims, the boundary of the Louisiana Purchase in the Adams-Onís Treaty negotiated in 1819.
The Monroe Doctrine
The revolutions in Spain’s American colonies, which had begun in the Napoleonic era, had aroused great sympathy in the United States. Monroe, however, held back recognition, in spite of congressional pressure exerted by Henry Clay, until 1822, after Spain had ratified the Adams-Onís Treaty. The South American revolutions raised the possibility of intervention by the European powers linked in an alliance–commonly, but erroneously, known as the Holy Alliance–to suppress these revolutions as they had done in Europe. Britain, prospering from newly opened Latin American trade, opposed this move. In 1823, Foreign Minister George Canning proposed, through Richard Rush, the American minister, that the two nations jointly express their hostility to intervention. Monroe consulted Jefferson and Madison, who favored acceptance. The cabinet was divided, with only Adams strongly opposed.
Anxious to assert American independence in foreign policy, Monroe rejected the British offer, opting for a policy statement in his annual message of December 1823. In this statement, subsequently known as the Monroe Doctrine, he declared that the United States would regard any interference in the internal affairs of American states as an unfriendly act. At Adams’ suggestion, Monroe included a declaration aimed at Russia that the United States considered the American continents closed to further colonization. While greeted with enthusiasm by Americans, Monroe’s statement received little notice in Europe or South America, and it had no effect on European policy. England’s declared opposition blocked intervention by other nations.
In an administration committed to limited government, domestic policies received less attention. Monroe’s most positive program was the construction of a network of coastal fortifications to guard against future invasions. Although extensive construction was begun, the program was drastically reduced after the Panic of 1819, when government revenues fell sharply. Monroe, interpreting the economic crisis in the narrow monetary terms then current, limited governmental action to economizing and to ensuring fiscal stability. Although he agreed to the need for improved transportation facilities, he refused to approve appropriations for internal improvements without prior amendment of the Constitution.
The calm of the Era of Good Feelings was permanently shattered by the Missouri crisis of 1819-1820, which exposed an unsuspected depth of sectional hostility. Monroe’s role in the conflict was peripheral, because it was contrary to Republican doctrine for the executive to exert direct pressure on Congress. Once the compromise was worked out, Monroe gave it his full support. It admitted Maine as a free state and Missouri without restriction on slavery, barring slavery north of the 36degrees30′ line of latitude within the Louisiana Territory.
Monroe shared the widely held view that the effort to restrict slavery in Missouri sprang not from a selfless concern for the welfare of the slaves but from the ambitions of ex-Federalists and discontented Republicans, notably Gov. DeWitt Clinton of New York, to revive the two-party system on a sectional basis. The Missouri crisis had no effect on the presidential election of 1820. The Federalist party had disappeared as a force in national politics, and Monroe, unopposed, got all of the electoral votes but one.
Monroe’s second term was rendered uncomfortable by the bitterness created by the Missouri debates and by the rivalry of the aspirants to succeed him as president. In the absence of party machinery, they sought to advance their individual candidacies by attacking administration policies. The activities of Crawford’s supporters seeking to damage Secretary of State Adams caused a major setback in foreign policy in 1824, when the Senate so amended an Anglo-American agreement to suppress the international slave trade that the British government refused to ratify. As a result, hopes for an Anglo-American rapprochement were crushed. Calhoun’s rivals also blocked administration efforts (Indian affairs were then under the War Department) to begin a more generous policy toward Indians.
Upon his retirement, Monroe lived on an estate (Oak Hill) in Loudoun county, Va. Like Jefferson, he had been left so deeply in debt by his long years of public service that it seemed he might lose all of his property. Because he had never settled his accounts (some dating from his first mission to France) with the government, he now sought reimbursement with accrued interest. Many congressmen considered these claims not only embarrassing but excessive, and President Jackson’s hostility toward Monroe blocked an immediate settlement. Not until 1831 did Congress grant him $30,000 (half his claim). His last public service was as a presiding officer of the Virginia constitutional convention.
Monroe died on July 4, 1831, at the home of his daughter in New York City. He was initially interred in New York but was reburied in Richmond in 1858.*
*courtesy of Harry Ammon, Southern Illinois University