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American President Essays: James Monroe

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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.

Early Revolutionary

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.

James Monroe: Life Before the Presidency

Born on April 28, 1758, in Westmoreland County, Virginia, James Monroe enjoyed all the advantages accruing to the son of a prosperous planter. His father, Spence Monroe, traced his ancestry back to relative who had fought at the side of Charles I in the English civil wars before being captured and exiled to Virginia in 1649. His mother, Elizabeth Jones Monroe, was of Welsh heritage but little is known about her. Beginning at the age of 11, Monroe attended a school run by Reverend Archibald Campbell. His time at this school overlapped with that of John Marshall, who later became the chief justice of the United States.

Eager Patriot

Monroe's parents died when he was in his mid-teens, his father having passed away in 1774 and his mother likely doing so some time earlier (though her actual date of death is unknown). James and his siblings shared an inheritance of land and some slaves, and he and his two brothers—his sister had already married—became wards of their uncle, Joseph Jones. Jones became a mentor and friend to James, often offering him advice and support.

In 1774, Monroe entered the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. His education took place not only in the classroom but also throughout the town, which was the capital of colonial Virginia. It was an exciting time to be in Williamsburg. Royal Governor Dunmore had fled the capital, fearing that the colonists were a danger to him and his family; after he left, Monroe and some of his fellow classmates helped loot the arsenal at the Governor's Palace. They escaped with 200 muskets and 300 swords, which they donated to the Virginia militia. By the winter of 1776, in the wake of Lexington and Concord, Monroe had joined the Virginia infantry. He became an officer in the Continental Army and joined General George Washington's army in New York.

During the Revolution, Monroe fought with distinction in several important battles, including Trenton, Monmouth, Brandywine, and Germantown. He was severely hurt at the Battle of Trenton, suffering a near fatal wound to his shoulder as he led a charge against enemy cannon. After recuperating, he became a staff officer for General William Alexander. By the end of his service with the Continental Army, he had gained the rank of major; however, because of an excess of officers, he had little possibility of commanding soldiers in the field. He thus resigned his commission in the Continental Army in 1779 and 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.

Quick Jump into Politics

After the war, Monroe studied law, taking Thomas Jefferson as his mentor. He was elected to the Virginia Assembly in 1782 and then served on the Council of State, which advised the governor. Elected to the Continental Congress in 1783, Monroe worked for expanding the power of Congress, organizing government for the western country, and protecting American navigation on the Mississippi River.

While in New York as a member of the Continental Congress, Monroe met Elizabeth Kortright, the daughter of Lawrence Kortright, a prominent local merchant who had lost much of his wealth during the Revolution. She was sixteen at the time, and Monroe was twenty-six; they married the following year, on February 16, 1786. Having passed the Virginia bar in 1782, Monroe and his new bride moved to Fredericksburg, Virginia, where he practiced law.

Among the leading political figures in Virginia, Monroe exhibited an independent streak when he voted against ratifying the U.S. Constitution as a delegate to the state's ratification convention. He wanted a Constitution that allowed for the direct election of senators as well as the President, and the inclusion of a strong bill of rights. After the ratification of the new Constitution, Monroe unsuccessfully challenged James Madison for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Monroe lost by 300 votes, yet the state legislature appointed him to the U.S. Senate in 1790. He thereafter joined with Madison and Jefferson, with whom he had become friendly in the mid-1780s, to oppose the Federalist policies championed by Vice President John Adams and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. The three Virginians would remain lifelong friends and allies.

Minister to France and Britain

In 1794, President George Washington sent Monroe to Paris as U.S. minister to France. It was an eventful appointment that lasted two years. When Thomas Paine, the British pamphleteer and supporter of the American Revolution, was imprisoned for having spoken against the execution of King Louis XVI, Monroe won his release and allowed Paine to live for a time with his family at the American minister's residence in Paris.

Monroe's tenure in France was far from easy. Revolutionary France was an unstable place and the new minister had to tread carefully. His mission was to uphold President Washington's policy of strict neutrality toward Britain and France while still assuring the French that America was not favoring Britain. This task became harder when France learned that the United States had signed a new accord— the Jay Treaty—with Great Britain. When France asked Monroe to spell out its details, the President found himself unable to comply: Jay had refused to send him a copy of the document. Although Monroe told the French that the treaty did not alter their agreements, the French were convinced that the United States now favored Britain. In the end, U.S. domestic politics doomed Monroe's tenure in Paris. The Federalists blamed Monroe for deteriorating relations with France, and Washington recalled him.

Out of power momentarily, Monroe returned to Virginia to practice law and attend to his plantations. He was elected governor in 1799 and worked vigorously in support of public education and the election of Thomas Jefferson as President in 1800. In 1803, the victorious Jefferson sent Monroe to France as a special envoy to help negotiate the Louisiana Purchase. Monroe then served as the U.S. minister to Britain from 1803 to 1807 with a brief stint as a special envoy to Spain in 1805. In Spain, Monroe tried to negotiate a treaty to cede the Spanish territory along the Gulf of Mexico to the United States. However, he soon realized that Spain had no intention of signing such a treaty and so returned to Britain.

During his tenure in Britain, he tried to negotiate an end to impressments—the British practice of seizing U.S. sailors and forcing them to serve in the British Navy. Although Monroe signed a treaty with Britain in 1806 resolving some outstanding issues, the treaty did not include a ban on impressments, and President Jefferson did not even submit the treaty to the U.S. Senate for consideration. Monroe was upset that Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison did not see the treaty as he did—as a first step toward better relations with Britain. But Jefferson and Madison knew that current political attitudes would never support a treaty without a ban on impressments. Although this episode caused a brief rift between the three friends, Monroe recognized that the President had to take domestic politics into account when considering his foreign policy options. Following his return home in 1808, Monroe was tapped by dissident Republicans to oppose Madison for the Democratic-Republican presidential nomination. Although Monroe allowed himself to be nominated, he never considered his challenge to Madison seriously and stressed that he differed with Madison only with respect to foreign affairs; in all other areas, the two saw eye-to-eye. Madison easily won the 1808 presidential election. Three years later, in January 1811, Monroe was once again elected governor of Virginia, though he did not serve for long; that April, Madison named him secretary of state.

Secretary of State and Secretary of War

As the nation's chief diplomat, Monroe focused on relations with Britain and France. The two European countries were at war with one another and their fighting infringed upon U.S. shipping and trade. The United States wanted France and Britain to respect American commercial interests as befitted those of a neutral country. Although both nations targeted American trade, the Madison administration concentrated primarily on Britain because of its frequent practice of seizing U.S. sailors and forcing them to serve in the British navy. The United States declared war on Britain in June 1812, but the war was far from popular. Many New Englanders found that it disrupted their access to European markets. Additional numbers thought that neutrality rights were not a sufficient reason to go to war. However, Madison and Monroe both believed that the United States needed to resist British depredations by force of arms.

From the beginning, the war was a disaster for the United States. The army was unequipped and unprepared, and the initial military actions resulted in defeat. When Madison's secretary of war resigned, Monroe took over the office on a temporary basis, from December 1812 to February 1813; he would do so again from August 1814 until March 1815. Monroe was well suited to the demands of the post because of his understanding of the military and his strong organizational skills. He helped reorganize the army and brought new energy to the war effort.

In August 1814, when British troops appeared at the mouth of the Potomac River, Monroe led a scouting party to report on their advance. He sent word to Madison warning that the British were marching toward Washington, D.C. As British troops headed toward the capital, Monroe stayed in the city to help with its evacuation. After the British attacked Washington and burned most of the government buildings, Monroe returned to the city. Madison then placed him in charge of its defenses.

Monroe's popularity rose after the war, due to his tireless service in Madison's cabinet. A new generation of war veterans would remember his leadership with fondness and respect, leaving him well-positioned to receive the Democratic-Republican nomination for President in the 1816 election.

James Monroe: Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1816:

When James Madison announced his decision to continue the custom of serving only two terms as President, James Monroe stood in a commanding position for the Democratic-Republican nomination as Madison's heir apparent. He encountered opposition, however, as some people chafed at the prospect of yet another President from Virginia—of the first four Presidents, three had been from the Commonwealth.

Monroe's main opposition came from William H. Crawford, a former senator from Georgia who had also served in Madison's cabinet. Although Crawford had a lot of support in Congress, he lacked a national constituency. By contrast, Monroe had great support throughout the country. Crawford held back from waging a full campaign for the nomination for fear of alienating Monroe and losing the possibility of a cabinet seat following a Monroe victory. When Republicans in Congress caucused to choose their presidential nominee, they selected Monroe by a vote of 65 to 54. They also nominated New York Governor Daniel D. Tompkins to run as vice-president.

The Federalists, who had all but disappeared as a political entity in the aftermath of the War of 1812, did not formally nominate a presidential candidate. Federalist opposition to the war and public perceptions of the party as unpatriotic and possibly treasonous led most members to abandon the party name altogether. The opposition candidate with whom old-time Federalists identified and informally endorsed was Rufus King of New York, who had had a long and distinguished public career.

Before the election, a few of King's supporters restated Monroe's diplomatic failures, but few newspapers openly criticized Monroe or suggested that King would make a better President. In fact, Monroe's popularity carried the day. He was respected as the "last framer" of the Constitution, even though he had opposed its ratification. Supporters also painted him as the man who had fought alongside General Washington and as the last of the Revolutionary generation to be President of the United States. Monroe ended up winning a majority of electoral votes in sixteen states: Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, and Virginia. King won only three states: Connecticut, Delaware, and Massachusetts. The total Electoral College vote came in at 183 for Monroe and 34 for King.

The Election of 1820

After four years in office, Monroe's renomination was such a foregone conclusion that few Democratic-Republicans attended the congressional nominating caucus in April 1820. Not wanting to embarrass the President with only a handful of votes, the caucus declined to make a formal nomination. Neither did the few remaining Federalists bother to endorse an opponent. As a result, Monroe and Vice President Tompkins ran unopposed.

This was the first time since the election of President Washington that a presidential election went uncontested. Even former President John Adams, founder of the Federalist Party, came out of retirement to serve as a Monroe elector in Massachusetts. Only one of the electors, Governor William Plumer of New Hampshire, did not vote for Monroe, casting a vote for Secretary of State John Quincy Adams instead.

James Monroe: Domestic Affairs

At the beginning of Monroe's presidency, Americans were feeling generally optimistic. The nation had declared victory in the War of 1812 and the economy was booming, allowing Monroe to turn his attention toward domestic issues. The new President, moreover, was personable, extremely popular, and interested in reaching out to all the regions of the country.

National Tours

Prior to moving into the still damaged Executive Mansion, which was burned by the British during the War of 1812, President James Monroe revived the presidential tour of the country, which was first undertaken by George Washington. The stated reason for the tour was to inspect defense fortifications, but it also allowed Monroe to reach out to Americans throughout the nation and exhibit his relaxed and affable personality. In June 1817, Monroe began his first tour of the North, traveling up the coast to Portland, Maine. From there, he turned west to Detroit and then southeast back to Washington, D.C. The trip took fifteen weeks and allowed Monroe to come in contact with more people than any previous sitting President. Everywhere he went, he was praised and applauded. The Boston Columbian Centinel described his reception in Massachusetts as the beginning of an "Era of Good Feelings" for the nation—a phrase that is now often used to describe Monroe's presidency.

The first tour was such a success that Monroe embarked on two others—one of the Chesapeake Bay area in 1818 and one of the South and West in 1819. Although those trips did not match the enthusiasm of the first, they gave Monroe an opportunity to reach out to different regions of the country. All three tours helped familiarize the people with their President, and Monroe's endearing personality won many converts.

Monroe's Cabinet

One of Monroe's first acts as President was to put together his cabinet. Wanting to assemble a group of advisers from different regions of the country, he turned to New England native John Quincy Adams as his secretary of state. Adams had a long diplomatic career, and with their similar backgrounds in foreign affairs the two men established a good working relationship. Monroe then chose William H. Crawford from Georgia as secretary of treasury and sought out a westerner to serve as secretary of war. Unable to persuade his first choices, he picked to John C. Calhoun from South Carolina. Monroe turned to an old friend, William Wirt, to be his attorney general and decided to keep Benjamin Crowninshield as secretary of the navy. Monroe's cabinet has often been noted as an exceptionally strong one. The President assembled a group of intelligent and talented men who were very good administrators. He then gave them a lot of freedom to do their jobs. Although he encouraged debate and solicited advice from his cabinet, there was never any doubt that he was firmly in charge. He made the final decisions and expected his cabinet to support and implement them.

The Panic of 1819

Two years into his presidency, Monroe faced an economic crisis known as the Panic of 1819. It was the first major depression to hit the country since the 1780s. The panic stemmed from declining imports and exports, and sagging agricultural prices. A number of state banks suspended payment on their notes and declared bankruptcy, with the Second Bank of the United States shifting to more conservative policies. The result was high unemployment and an increase in bankruptcies and foreclosures.

Although some critics derided Monroe for not responding more forcefully to the economic downturn, he could do little to alleviate its short-term effects. The power to change economic policies rested with the states and the Bank of the United States. In addition, Monroe believed that depressions were natural features of a maturing economy and that the U.S. economy would soon rebound from the panic (and indeed it did—the depression ended by 1823). Monroe did support the policy proposed by Secretary of Treasury William Crawford to relax payment terms on mortgages for lands purchased from the federal government.

The Missouri Compromise

Early in 1819, settlers in the Missouri Territory applied for admission to the Union. Approximately 16 percent of the Missouri settlers were enslaved blacks, and most of the white settlers either owned slaves or hoped to become slave owners in the future. Congressional debate on Missouri exploded when Congressman James Tallmadge, Jr. of New York attached two amendments to the statehood bill. The first barred new slaves from entering the state; the second emancipated all Missouri slaves born after admission upon their 25th birthday. In other words, the Tallmadge amendments would admit Missouri only as a free state.

The North held a small majority in the House of Representatives in 1819, and the South controlled a bare majority in the Senate. Voting on the Tallmadge amendments was strictly sectional: the amendments passed in the House but lost in the Senate. The House refused to admit Missouri as a slave state and the Senate insisted upon it. Monroe, along with many congressional leaders, understood the volatile nature of the debate and the strong regional divide over slavery.

However, he thought it was unconstitutional to place special restrictions on the admission of one state, as the Tallmadge amendments did, and threatened to veto any bill including such restrictions. Monroe feared that the dispute would divide the Union and worked in support of a compromise package in Congress. However, he did not forcefully inject himself into the process because he did not want to be accused of meddling in congressional affairs. A new Congress convened in the winter of 1819, allowing legislators to reach an accord that settled the dispute. Massachusetts allowed its far northern counties to apply for admission to the Union as the free, or non-slave, state of Maine, thus offsetting fears that the South would gain votes in the Senate with the admission of Missouri. Additionally, it was agreed—after much behind-the-scenes deal-making—that Missouri would be admitted as a slave state in return for the South's willingness to outlaw slavery in western territories above the 36/30' north latitude line. That line would open present-day Arkansas and Oklahoma to slavery but would forbid it throughout the rest of the Louisiana Territory—land that would eventually be organized into nine states. Monroe signed the bill on March 6, 1820, after he was satisfied that the provisions were, indeed, constitutional.

The American System

As the United States continued to grow, many Americans advocated a system of internal improvements to help the country develop. Monroe thought this a good idea; he believed that the young nation needed an improved infrastructure, including a transportation network to grow and thrive economically. However, he did not think that the Constitution said anything about the authority to build, maintain, and operate a national transportation system. He therefore urged Congress to introduce a constitutional amendment granting it such power. Congress never acted on his suggestion because many legislators thought they already had the implied authority to enact such measures.

The issue came to a head when Congress passed a bill in 1822 to repair the Cumberland Road, or National Road, and equip it with a system of tolls. This great national road ran from Cumberland, Maryland, to the town of Wheeling in western Virginia. Monroe vetoed the bill, however; it was his contention that the states through which the road passed should undertake the setting up and collecting of tolls because Congress lacked the authority to do so. Yet after discussing the issue with many people, including some justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, the President changed his mind. In 1824, he signed an internal improvements bill that allocated money for surveys and estimates for the proposed roads. In 1825, he signed a bill that extended the Cumberland Road from Wheeling to Zanesville, Ohio.

Political Parties

After the War of 1812, the Federalists were mostly discredited because of their opposition to the conflict. Although the government had enacted much of their program, such as the national bank and a protective tariff, they could not mount a serious challenge to Monroe.

As President, Monroe encouraged the decline of the parties, believing that the government could operate without them. His tenure was not without partisanship, however; although Monroe talked about ridding American politics of party affiliation, he was unwilling to appoint any Federalists to his cabinet, believing the ideological differences were just too great. In some ways, the absence of a party system increased his difficulties as President. Without parties, he could not rely on a presumed loyalty to help accomplish his goals. With clear divides over issues and the existence of many different factions, Monroe had to create coalitions and build consensus to get his programs enacted.

Even without the existence of two clear parties, the evident partisanship in American politics reached new heights during the presidential election of 1824. In fact, during the last few years of his presidency, some of Monroe's policies were hampered by the political aspirations of congressmen and by even his own cabinet members. So instead of presiding over the decline of political parties, the Monroe presidency helped to foster 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.

James Monroe: Foreign Affairs

In the realm of foreign affairs, James Monroe sought to improve the country's international reputation and assert its independence. By virtue of his solid working relationship with Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, the two men successfully pursued an aggressive foreign policy, especially with regard to European intervention in the Americas.

In its early days, the Monroe administration wanted to improve relations with Britain. Toward that end, it negotiated two important accords with Britain that resolved border disputes held over from the War of 1812. The Rush-Bagot Treaty of 1817, named after acting Secretary of State Richard Rush and Charles Bagot, the British minister, demilitarized the Great Lakes, limiting each country to one 100-ton vessel armed with a single 18-pound cannon on Lake Chaplain and Lake Ontario. The Convention of 1818 fixed the present U.S.-Canadian border from Minnesota to the Rocky Mountains at the 49th parallel. The accords also established a joint U.S.-British occupation of Oregon for the next ten years.

Spanish Florida

For years, southern plantation owners and white farmers in Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina had lost runaway slaves to the Florida swamps. Seminole and Creek Indians offered refuge to these slaves and led raids against white settlers in the border regions. The U.S. government could do little about the problem because the swamps lay deep within Spanish Florida. If the United States moved decisively against the Seminoles, it would risk war with Spain. Although the United States had tried to convince Spain to cede the territory on various occasions (including during Monroe's stint as special envoy to Spain in 1805), its efforts had failed.

With the end of the War of 1812, the U.S. government turned its attention to the raids. President Monroe sent General Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, to the Florida border in 1818 to stop the incursions. Liberally interpreting his vague instructions, Jackson's troops invaded Florida, captured a Spanish fort at St. Marks, took control of Pensacola, and deposed the Spanish governor. He also executed two British citizens whom he accused of having incited the Seminoles to raid American settlements.

The invasion of Florida caused quite a stir in Washington, D.C. Although Jackson said he had acted within the bounds of his instructions, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun disagreed and urged Monroe to reprimand Jackson for acting without specific authority. In addition, foreign diplomats and some congressmen demanded that Jackson be repudiated and punished for his unauthorized invasion. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams came to Jackson's defense, stating that Jackson's measures were, in fact, authorized as part of his orders to end the Indian raids. Monroe ultimately agreed with Adams. To the administration, the entire affair illustrated the lack of control Spain had over the region. Secretary of State Adams thought that he could use the occasion to pressure Spain to sell all of Florida to the United States. Preoccupied with revolts throughout its Latin American empire, Spain understood that the United States could seize the territory at will. Adams convinced Spain to sell Florida to the United States and to drop its claims to the Louisiana Territory and Oregon. In return, the United States agreed to relinquish its claims on Texas and assume responsibility for $5 million that the Spanish government owed American citizens. The resulting treaty, known as the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819—named after John Quincy Adams and Luis de Onís, the Spanish minister—was hailed as a great success.

Questions about the Florida raids resurfaced during Jackson's presidency. In 1830, a rift opened up between President Jackson and his vice president, John C. Calhoun. One of the issues involved Jackson's prior conduct in Florida and Calhoun's reaction as secretary of war. At the time of the invasion, Jackson claimed that he had received secret instructions from Monroe to occupy Florida. Weeks before his death, Monroe wrote a letter disclaiming any knowledge of the secret instructions that Jackson claimed he had received.

Monroe Doctrine

During much of his administration, Monroe was engaged in diplomacy with Spain regarding its Latin American colonies. These lands had begun to break free from Spain in the early 1800s, gaining the sympathy of the United States, which viewed these later revolutions as reminiscent of its own struggle against Britain. Although many in Congress were eager to recognize the independence of the Latin American colonies, the President feared that doing so might risk war with Spain and its allies. It was not until March 1822 that Monroe officially recognized the countries of Argentina, Peru, Colombia, Chile, and Mexico.

At the same time, rumors abounded that Spain's allies might help the once vast empire reclaim its lost colonies. To counter the planned move, Britain proposed a joint U.S.-British declaration against European intervention in the Western Hemisphere. Secretary of State Adams convinced Monroe that if the United States issued a joint statement, it would look like the United States was simply adopting Britain's policy without formulating one tailored to its own interests. The United States, he argued, should devise its own strategy to address European intervention in the Western Hemisphere.

On December 2, 1823, in his annual message to Congress, President Monroe addressed the subject in three parts. He first reiterated the traditional U.S. policy of neutrality with regard to European wars and conflicts. He then declared that the United States would not accept the recolonization of any country by its former European master, though he also avowed non-interference with existing European colonies in the Americas. Finally, he stated that European countries should no longer consider the Western Hemisphere open to new colonization, a jab aimed primarily at Russia, which was attempting to expand its colony on the northern Pacific Coast.

This statement, which in the 1850s came to be known as the Monroe Doctrine, sounded tough, but most countries knew that America had little ability to back it up with force. Nevertheless, because Britain had also favored Monroe's policy, the United States was able to "free ride" on the back of the Royal Navy. In addition, London had extracted a promise from Paris that France would not assist Spain in the recovery of its colonies.

The Monroe Doctrine constituted the first significant policy statement by the United States on the future of the Western Hemisphere. As befitting the leader of a nation founded on the principles of republican government, Monroe saw the United States as a model and protector to the new Latin American republics. His declared intention to resist further European encroachment in the Western Hemisphere was the foundation of U.S. policy in Latin America during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and remains one of Monroe's lasting achievements.

James Monroe: Life After the Presidency

Monroe decided to follow the precedent set by Washington, Jefferson, and Madison and serve only two terms as President. His decision meant that an incumbent would not be running for the post in 1824. During the last few years of Monroe's tenure, some of his initiatives were defeated or delayed simply because of the maneuverings of those looking forward to the 1824 election. The main contenders during that campaign season were Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, Secretary of Treasury William H. Crawford, Representative Henry Clay, and Senator Andrew Jackson. Monroe declared his intention to remain neutral during the election and did not endorse any candidate.

Following the inauguration of John Quincy Adams as President in 1825, Monroe remained in the White House for three weeks because his wife was too ill to travel. The couple then retired to their estate, Oak Hill, in Loudoun County, Virginia. Monroe was glad to be relieved of the exhausting duties of the presidency. At Oak Hill, he enjoyed spending time with his family and overseeing the activities of his farm.

During much of his later life, Monroe worked to resolve his financial difficulties. He had long served publicly in positions that paid mediocre salaries and demanded expenditures for entertaining and protocol. Consequently, Monroe was deeply in debt when he left the presidency. For the next several years, he spent much of his time pressing the federal government for tens of thousands of dollars due him from past services. Eventually the federal government repaid Monroe a portion of the funds he desired, allowing him to pay off his debts and leave his children a respectable inheritance.

In 1826, Monroe accepted appointment to the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia. He was deeply committed to the university—founded by his friend Thomas Jefferson—and served on the board until he became too ill to continue. In 1829, he became president of the Virginia Constitutional Convention.

After struggling to complete a book comparing the U.S. government to the governments of ancient and modern nations, he abandoned the project and started work on his autobiography. It became the major focus of his later years, but he never completed it. Following his wife's death in 1830, Monroe, age seventy-two, moved to New York City to live with his daughter and son-in-law.

In the early spring of 1831, Monroe's health steadily declined. He died that year on July 4, in New York City. Monroe was the third of the first five Presidents to die on the Fourth of July; John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had died on that day five years earlier. Thousands of mourners followed his hearse up Broadway in Manhattan to the Gouverneur family vault in Marble Cemetery, while church bells tolled and guns fired at Fort Columbus. Monroe's body was later moved to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.

James Monroe: Family Life

While a delegate to the Continental Congress in New York, James Monroe met Elizabeth Kortright in 1785. They were married the following year and eventually had three children—Eliza Kortright Monroe, James Spence Monroe (who died in infancy), and Maria Hester Monroe. Despite Monroe’s many trips abroad, he spent precious little time away from his family, since they usually accompanied him on his travels.

The Monroes were devoted parents and gave much attention to their daughters. James believed education was important for girls as well as boys, and his daughters were well-educated for the era. Even after the marriages of their daughters, James and Elizabeth remained in close contact with them and were fond of both their sons-in-law. Indeed, for a time, Eliza and her husband lived in the White House with her parents, and she served as White House hostess when her mother was unwell. After Elizabeth's death in 1830, James and Eliza moved to New York City to live with Maria and her family.

James Monroe: The American Franchise

During Monroe's presidency, five new states had joined the Union: Mississippi (1817), Illinois (1818), Alabama (1819), Maine (1820), and Missouri (1821). Twenty-five percent of the American population was living west of the Appalachians by 1820. According to the Land Act of 1820, farmers could buy eighty acres at $1.25 per acre with a down-payment of $100 in cash. At such prices, nearly 3.5 million acres of land were purchased in 1820 alone, although not all of these sales reflected actual settlement. Land speculation in the West was uncontrolled, as wealthy investors bought giant tracts for resale to farmers and migrants. For these western settlers, the major political issues reflected their need for easy credit to clear the land, good transportation routes to move their products to market, debt relief, and cheap manufactured goods for them to consume.

Although the new states gave a western slant to American politics, most of the settlers still tended to identify with the regions from which they had recently migrated. Importantly, most Americans still thought of themselves as Americans first. With this strongly nationalist temperament, most Americans were swept up in the changes in transportation that began to revolutionize travel and the movement of goods, as well as by the effects of the so-called market revolution. By 1820, there were sixty steamboats on the Mississippi River alone; dozens more operated on the Hudson River and the Great Lakes. James Monroe was the first President to travel on a steamboat, which he did in 1817. That year, Monroe's first as President, the New York legislature authorized funding to build a canal linking the Hudson River with Lake Erie, thus opening a continuous water route connecting the Northwest to New York City. The Erie Canal, a giant ditch stretching 364 miles from Albany to Buffalo that was completed in 1825, was built by thousands of Irish immigrants, local farm boys, and convict laborers.

Economic Changes

In New England, a new system of factories, using steam-driven looms, began employing thousands of local farm girls in the production of cloth. In the New England countryside, moreover, farmers began raising livestock and consuming store-bought goods such as sugar, salt, coffee, sacks of western flour, silverware, and dishes. Urban centers of industry were also being transformed. New York City, for example, became the center of a national market of ready-made clothes in the 1820s. The city's manufacturing success was built upon the new supplies of cheap cloth, an expanding supply of female labor, and the emergence of southern and western markets that were accessible via coastal and overland trade routes. Thousands of women worked in sewing to crudely assemble "Negro cottons" for shipment to southern planters as slave clothing. By 1825, shoemakers in Massachusetts manufactured barrels of shoes—uniform in size—for shipment to the slave South.

Below the Mason-Dixon surveyor's line, which separated the borders of the slave South from the North, the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 had revolutionized southern agriculture. By the mid-1820s, cotton and plantation slavery were beginning to dominate the most fertile lands stretching from Georgia to Mississippi. Wealthy planters lived in richly furnished plantation mansions and had begun to create a lifestyle of white mastery over black slaves that shaped every aspect of southern life.

As the market revolution transformed subsistence farmers into commercial farmers who specialized in crops for sale, the average size of the American family began to decline from 6.4 children to 4.9 children; this was especially noticeable in the more commercialized farming areas of the North. Also, women began to labor more intensively in new kinds of household work. Store-purchased white flour and new iron stoves created demands for home-baked cakes, pies, and other fancy goods that had rarely graced the subsistence farmer's table prior to 1820. More and more farm families kept cleaner houses, painted them, and forbade spitting tobacco on parlor floors.

James Monroe: Impact and Legacy

James Monroe came to the presidency as one of the most qualified men ever to assume the office. His resume included service in the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress, and the U.S. Senate. Monroe also served as governor of Virginia, filled numerous diplomatic posts, and held two cabinet appointments. His success as a politician was the result of hard work and a steady and thoughtful manner. He was noted for his integrity, frankness, and affable personality, and he impressed those whom he met with his lack of pretension. As President, Monroe saw the country through a transition period in which it turned away from European affairs and toward U.S. domestic issues.

During the negotiations that resulted in the Missouri Compromise, his adroit backstage maneuverings help the country avoid a sectional crisis. His administration had a number of successes in foreign affairs, including the acquisition of Florida, the settlement of boundary issues with Britain, and the fashioning of the Monroe Doctrine. The President's relationship with his secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, was vital in each of these cases. The two men had a respect and admiration for each other that led to a successful working rapport. In fact, Monroe had an ability to assemble great minds and then allow them the freedom to work. Scholars have long regarded his cabinet as an exceptionally strong one.

As President, Monroe occasionally suffers from comparison to the other members of the Virginia Dynasty—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Indeed, he was not a renaissance man like Jefferson; his overwhelming interest and passion was politics. But he was a deliberate thinker and had the ability to look at issues from all sides, encouraging debate from his advisers. President Monroe was a great advocate of nationalism and reached out to all the regions of the country. In foreign policy, he put the nation on an independent course, no longer tied to the mast of European policy. Although the nation would have to wait until Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) to see a significant increase in presidential power over domestic affairs, Monroe's aggressive and successful conduct of foreign policy undoubtedly strengthened the presidency itself.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Daniel Preston

Dr. Preston is the editor of The Papers of James Monroe at the University of Mary Washington. The first two volumes in that eight-volume series have been published by Greenwood Press.