James Monroe

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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 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.

Early career

Monroe was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, on Apr. 28, 1758 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. The young Monroe attended a local school and at age 16 matriculated at William and Mary College. His education was interrupted by the outbreak of the American Revolution. At 18 he became a lieutenant in a Virginia regiment of the Continental line. Rising to the rank of major, he participated in the New Jersey campaign and was wounded at Trenton. 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 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, where he served from 1783 to 1786. Although a staunch defender of states' rights, Monroe proposed and supported a measure to give the U.S. Congress the right to control interstate commerce. Returning to Virginia, he married Eliza Kortright, of early 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 which followed. He considered 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. Two years later he 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 Democratic-Republican Party, which opposed the Federalist policies of 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 him 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 did not end the impressment (seizure) of American sailors. Relations spiraled toward war. 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.

War of 1812

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.

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.

A sharp financial crisis 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), admittedly 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.[1]

Foreign affairs

Perhaps the most brilliant achievements of Monroe's administration were in the sphere of foreign affairs. 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. 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 Mexico's Texan province.

Monroe Doctrine

After the Napoleonic wars (which ended in 1815), almost all of Latin America revolted against Spanish or Portuguese rule and declared independence.[2] Americans welcomed this development as a validation of the the spirit of Republicanism. Adams suggested delay in formal recognition until Florida was secured in 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 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. The most important 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.

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.

Monroe lacked the charisma of Washington, and the brilliance of Jefferson and Madison. He was an extremely 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.


  • 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
  • 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
  • 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

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


  1. The only electoral vote cast against him was done so Washington would be the only unanimous choice.
  2. The main exceptions were the West Indies islands especially Cuba and Puerto Rico which remained with Spain until 1898.