James Monroe: Life in Brief
James Monroe was the last American President of the “Virginia Dynasty”—of the first five men who held that position, four hailed from Virginia. Monroe also had a long and distinguished public career as a soldier, diplomat, governor, senator, and cabinet official. His presidency, which began in 1817 and lasted until 1825, encompassed what came to be called the "Era of Good Feelings." One of his lasting achievements was the Monroe Doctrine, which became a major tenet of U.S. foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere.
James Monroe was born in 1758 to prosperous Virginia planters. His parents died when he was a teenager, leaving him part of the family farm. He enrolled at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg in 1774, and almost immediately began participating in revolutionary activities. With a group of classmates, he raided the arsenal at the British Governor's Palace, escaping with 200 muskets and 300 swords, which the students presented to the Virginia militia. He became an officer in the Continental Army in early 1776 and, shortly thereafter, joined General George Washington's army at New York. He was severely wounded at the Battle of Trenton.
Monroe was promoted to captain and then major, and was assigned to the staff of General William Alexander, where he served for more than a year. After resigning his commission in the Continental Army in 1779, he was appointed colonel in the Virginia service. In 1780, Governor Thomas Jefferson sent Monroe to North Carolina to report on the advance of the British.
After the war, Monroe studied law with Jefferson and was elected to the Continental Congress in 1783. While a delegate to the Congress, then meeting in New York, he met Elizabeth Kortright, the daughter of a New York City merchant. A year later they were married; he was twenty-seven and she was seventeen. The newlyweds moved to Fredericksburg, Virginia, where Monroe practiced law.
High Political Office
In 1787, Monroe began serving in the Virginia assembly and was chosen the following year as a delegate to the Virginia convention considering ratification of the new U.S. Constitution. He voted against ratification, holding out for the direct election of presidents and senators, and for the inclusion of a bill of rights. Partly due to politicians, such as Monroe, who brought attention to the omission of such constitutional guarantees, the Bill of Rights became the first ten amendments of the Constitution upon ratification in 1791. Although Monroe narrowly lost a congressional election to James Madison in 1790, the Virginia state legislature appointed him to the U.S. Senate. As a member of that body, he allied himself with Madison and Thomas Jefferson, his close personal friends, against the Federalist faction led by Vice President John Adams and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. In 1794, President Washington sent Monroe to Paris as U.S. minister to France. Monroe's actions as minister angered the Federalists, however, and Washington recalled him in 1797. In 1799, he was elected governor of Virginia, where he served three one-year terms. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson sent him back to France to help negotiate the Louisiana Purchase. Monroe continued to serve his government in Europe, representing the United States as U.S. minister to Britain from 1803 to 1807, with a brief stint as special envoy to Spain in 1805. After he returned home, dissident Republicans nominated him to oppose James Madison for the Democratic-Republican presidential nomination in 1808. Monroe, however, never considered the challenge serious, and Madison won the election easily. Monroe was once again elected governor of Virginia in January 1811, but headed back to Washington, D.C., that April, when President Madison named him secretary of state. Monroe served in that capacity, and also for a time as secretary of war, until 1817.
Easy Race to the White House
When President Madison announced his decision to continue the custom of serving only two terms, Monroe became the logical candidate for the Democratic-Republicans. After some maneuvering within the party, Monroe prevailed to win the nomination. He had little opposition during the general election campaign. The Federalists were so out of favor with the public that a majority had abandoned the party name altogether. They ultimately nominated New York's Rufus King, but the result was a foregone conclusion. In the Electoral College, Monroe carried sixteen states to King's three. Monroe began his presidency by embarking on a presidential tour, a practice initiated by George Washington. His trip through the northern states took fifteen weeks, by which time more Americans had seen him than they had any other sitting President. A newspaper in Boston described Monroe's reception there as the beginning of a new "Era of Good Feelings" for the nation. The President later made two similar tours, one of the Chesapeake Bay area in 1818 and one of the South and West in 1819.
Era of Good Feelings
At the beginning of Monroe's presidency, the nation had much to feel good about. It had declared victory in the War of 1812 and its economy was booming, allowing the administration to turn its attention toward domestic issues. The economy was booming. The organized opposition, in the form of the Federalists, had faded largely from sight, although the government had adopted many Federalist programs, including protective tariffs and a national bank. The President, moreover, was personable, extremely popular, and interested in reaching out to all the regions of the country. Monroe faced his first crisis as President with the Panic of 1819, which resulted in high unemployment as well as increased foreclosures and bankruptcies. Some critics derided Monroe for not responding more forcefully to the depression. Although he believed that such troubles were natural for a maturing economy and that the situation would soon turn around, he could do little to alleviate their short-term effects. Monroe's second crisis came the same year, when the entrance of Missouri to the Union as a slave state threatened to disrupt the legislative balance between North and South. Congress preserved that equilibrium, negotiating a compromise in which Massachusetts allowed its northernmost counties to apply for admission to the Union as the new free state of Maine. The Missouri Compromise also called for the prohibition of slavery in the western territories of the Louisiana Purchase above the 36/30' north latitude line. Monroe worked in support of the compromise and, after ascertaining that the provisions were constitutional, signed the bill. In trying to sustain the "Era of Good Feelings," Monroe had hoped to preside over the decline of political parties. However, his administration offered only a brief respite from divisive partisan politics. The rancor surrounding the 1824 presidential election was a reminder that strong feelings still animated American political life even without the existence of two distinct parties. In fact, the Monroe presidency stood at the forefront of a transition from the first party system of the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists to the second party system of the Democrats and the Whigs.
Spanish Florida and the Monroe Doctrine
In 1818, President Monroe sent General Andrew Jackson to Spanish Florida to subdue the Seminole Indians, who were raiding American settlements. Liberally interpreting his vague instructions, Jackson led his troops deep into areas of Florida under the control of Spain and captured two Spanish forts. In addition to securing greater protection for American settlements, the mission pointed out the vulnerability of Spanish rule in Florida. Monroe and his secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, used that vulnerability to pressure Spain into selling Florida to the United States. As Spain's dominion in the America's continued to disintegrate, revolutions throughout its colonies brought independence to Argentina, Peru, Chile, Colombia, and Mexico. When European powers threatened to form an alliance to help Spain regain its lost domains, Monroe, with the prodding of Secretary of State Adams, declared that America would resist European intervention in the Western Hemisphere. Announced in the President's message to Congress on December 2, 1823, the Monroe Doctrine thus became a cornerstone of American foreign policy. Leaving Washington after a lifetime of public service, Monroe and his wife retired to their estate in Loudoun County, Virginia. Monroe returned to private life deeply in debt and spent many of his later years trying to resolve his financial problems. He petitioned the government to repay him for past services, with the government eventually providing a portion of the amount he sought. After his wife died in 1830, Monroe moved to New York City to live with his daughter. He died there on July 4, 1831.