The Last Revolutionary President – James Monroe


James Monroe was the last of the “Virginia Dynasty” to be elected President. He was also the last of the Revolutionary War veterans to serve in the White House. He wore a cocked hat, knee breeches, silk stockings, cockade and sword long after such attire went out of fashion. Like his close friend, Thomas Jefferson, he insisted on “friendly, republican, and unassuming manners.” Once a foreign diplomat came to the White House to call on the President and came across a “bald-headed. watery-eyed man in a striped seersucker coat, a dirty waistcoat spotted with ink, and slippers down at the heels,” working at a desk. The diplomat was shocked that the President would employ such a sloppy clerk, but was even more surprised to find that this person was the President of the United States himself.

Monroe’s term is remembered for the Monroe Doctrine and the Era of Good Feelings. Monroe was optimistic about the nation’s future, and looked forward to its glorious future. The frontier was moving westward and industry was growing. Monroe represented the heroes of the Revolution to the next generation as they built the new nation.

James Monroe was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia on April 28, 1758. He was tutored at home until he was twelve, when he enrolled in the local school taught by Parson Archibald Campbell, “a disciplinarian of the sternest type…” One of his classmates was his neighbor, John Marshall, later the Chief Justice of the United States. The two boys walked the several miles to school and back each day, sometimes taking their rifles and shooting game on the way.

At the age of sixteen, he entered William and Mary College. His father died the next year and the Revolutionary War was getting started. Although barely eighteen, Monroe was commissioned a lieutenant in the Third Virginia Regiment.

Monroe’s regiment was ordered to New York, arriving too late to prevent the fall of New York City. Monroe fought at Harlem Heights, Trenton, Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth. At Trenton, Monroe led a gallant charge against an arsenal, taking two 3-pound cannons that were about to be turned on the Americans. He was wounded in the shoulder and almost bled to death, and took two months to recover. For his bravery, he was promoted to captain. Later scouting for General George Washington, he was promoted to major for his heroism.

He then returned to Virginia, and was named military commissioner of Virginia with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. His efforts to raise more troops failed, but he took advantage of the time and studied law with then-Governor Thomas Jefferson. His promotion and his opportunity to study with Jefferson were largely due to one of Washington’s rare letters of recommendation in which he said of Monroe, “He has, in every instance, maintained the reputation of a brave, active, and sensible officer.”

His political career began with his election in 1783 to the first of three one-year terms in the Continental Congress. In 1788, he served as a member of the Constitutional Ratification Convention in his state. Later that year, he ran for a seat in the first U.S. House of Representatives, but lost badly to James Madison, his friend and neighbor. In 1790, he was elected by the legislature to a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate, filling the remaining four years of the term. In the Senate, he became a chief lieutenant of Thomas Jefferson, and ally of James Madison.

In 1794, Washington needed a Democratic-Republican acceptable to the French to represent his Federalist government as minister to France. He chose Monroe. In France, Monroe took a very pro-French stance rather than representing Washington’s policy of neutrality. Eventually, Washington recalled Monroe. This led to a feud between Washington and Monroe that was never reconciled, and can be said to have led to Washington’s death several years later. In December 1799, Washington returned home from a horseback ride around his estate, and received word that Monroe had been elected governor of Virginia. Angry, Washington sat and discussed the situation in his study without removing his snow-soaked clothing. This was how he caught the cold, which became pneumonia, from which Washington died shortly thereafter.

In 1803, Monroe was named a Special Envoy by President Jefferson to negotiate a treaty for free navigation of the Mississippi River. Before he arrived in Paris, however, Robert Livingston had negotiated the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson then sent Monroe to Madrid to negotiate the purchase of Spanish Florida. When Spain refused to sell, Jefferson then ordered Monroe to England to deal with Anglo-American tensions over shipping rights. The treaty Monroe negotiated did not mention American rights on the high seas, and Jefferson refused to even submit the treaty to the Senate. Jefferson offered Monroe the governorship of Louisiana, but Monroe declined.

When Madison was elected President in 1808, Monroe hoped for a cabinet position, but instead was again offered the governorship of Louisiana, which he again declined. In 1810, Monroe was elected to the Virginia legislature, and the next year was once again elected governor of Virginia. Less than three months after becoming governor, he was offered the post of Secretary of State, to replace the incompetent Robert Smith, who had left the State Department in absolute chaos.

It was in the position of Secretary of State that Monroe revealed his tremendous talent for administration. In a short period of time, he had reorganized the department into an orderly, smoothly functioning agency. Because of this, during the War of 1812, Madison named Monroe to head the inefficient and disorganized War Department, making Monroe the only person to hold two cabinet positions at the same time. Supply systems, communications, chain of command and contracts were all made clear and efficient, greatly contributing to the American war effort. This left Monroe the obvious candidate to succeed Madison in the next election. In 1816, he was elected President in a landslide election victory.

The election of 1816 was extremely dull. James Monroe was the obvious choice of his party. As Secretary of State, Monroe had reorganized and streamlined the State Department. When the War Department needed better leadership and organization during the crisis of the War of 1812, Monroe took over that department while continuing to run the State Department. Again, he revitalized the inefficient War Department improving supplies, communications, organization of field departments, and improving the system of granting contracts. The successes of the army in the latter part of the war were due in large part to Monroe’s administrative ability.

The Democratic-Republican Congressional caucus nominated Monroe for President. The Congressional caucus of each party (Democratic-Republican and Federalist) nominated the national candidates. The national convention had not yet come into being.

The Federalist Party did not even bother making official nominations. The Federalist Party had been discredited by its opposition to the government’s efforts during the War of 1812. They had threatened secession (it was New England, not the South, that first brought up the possibility of secession) and refused to let state troops leave their home states, and generally hampered the war effort. With the Treaty of Ghent and the Battle of New Orleans, the voters turned against the Federalist Party.

The Federalists decided to support Rufus King, a leading Federalist from New York who had been the Federalist candidate for Vice President in 1804 and 1808. Monroe carried every state but Connecticut, Delaware and Massachusetts.

Monroe took office as the Era of Good Feelings was beginning. After the War of 1812, a surge of national pride swept the nation. For the first time, people put the needs of the nation ahead of the needs of their state or region. This nationalism led to a change in the position of the Democratic-Republican Party on key issues. Monroe’s Party had always opposed the Bank of the United States as well as internal improvements (canals, roads, railroads, bridges, etc.) at federal expense. They felt both of these plans gave too much power to the federal government.

The War of 1812 had shown the importance of a national government strong enough to protect its citizens. A central bank and a good transportation and communication system would have greatly helped the war effort. The Democratic-Republican Congress re-chartered the Bank of the United States in 1816, and Speaker of the House Henry Clay proposed a plan of internal improvements shortly thereafter.

With only one real political party, and everyone agreed on a national system of government, there were few points of serious disagreement. With pride in the “victory” over the British, and industry expanding rapidly, Monroe’s term saw virtually the entire nation supporting his administration.

Monroe’s first term was a great success. He sent Andrew Jackson to protect the southern border from marauding Indians and escaped slaves using Spanish Florida for protection. Jackson invaded Spanish Florida, overthrowing the Spanish governor, crushing the Seminole Indian resistance and destroying their villages. Jackson also executed two British citizens who had been illegally supplying the Indians with arms and inciting them to commit atrocities against the Americans. The entire episode convinced Spain that they could not hold or govern Florida, making them more willing to consider selling Florida to the United States.

The Rush-Bagot Agreement demilitarized the Great Lakes, easing tensions with England, and the Convention of 1818 granted fishing rights to Americans in certain Canadian waters and settled the boundary between Canada and the United States from Minnesota to the Rockies.

The Adams-Onis Treaty gave Florida to the United States and settled some boundary disputes between the United States and Spain. Spain also gave up all claims to the Oregon Territory.

The only dispute that interrupted the Era of Good Feelings was the tension created over Missouri’s application for statehood as a slave state. There was a balance in the Senate between slave and free states at eleven each. Missouri’s entry would upset that balance. Debate over the slavery issue in the remainder of the Louisiana Purchase territory became intense and acrimonious. Henry Clay forged a compromise called the Missouri Compromise, or Compromise of 1820.

Under the provisions of the Missouri Compromise, Missouri would enter the Union as a slave state. To maintain the balance in the Senate, Maine would enter as a free state. Up to that time, Maine had been the Northern District of Massachusetts, but had been working to become a separate state. The remainder of the Louisiana Purchase territory would be divided into slave and free territory along the line of 36 degrees 30 minutes north latitude, which formed the southern boundary of Missouri. With this compromise in place, tensions eased and the Era of Good Feelings continued for another four years.

In 1820, Monroe ran for re-election. This time the Federalist Party had no candidate, official or otherwise. Monroe carried every state. He did not, however, win unanimous re-election in the Electoral College. One elector voted against Monroe.

William Plummer, a former U.S. Senator and Governor of New Hampshire, voted for John Quincy Adams, Monroe’s Secretary of State. There are two stories as to why Plummer voted for Adams instead of Monroe, to whom he was pledged. One story goes that Plummer was an ardent admirer of George Washington, and didn’t want to see anyone compared to Washington, which he feared a unanimous election would do.

The other story is that he had become disenchanted with Monroe, and wanted to show his disapproval of Monroe’s administration. He also admired John Quincy Adams. Plummer later wrote, “My acquaintance with Mr. Adams has been long and intimate. I know he is in every respect qualified for that high trust. Mr. Monroe during the last four years has, in my opinion, conducted, as president, very improperly.” So John Quincy Adams was the runner-up to Monroe when he wasn’t even running in the race.

The main domestic issue during Monroe’s second term was internal improvements. The Democratic-Republican Party had been opposed to internal improvements at federal expense, calling them unconstitutional. Now the Party was in favor of them, but Monroe was still opposed. Toward the end of his second term, a compromise was reached. Although Monroe would not sign any internal improvements bill, still considering internal improvements unconstitutional, he did sign a bill authorizing money to study the issue. Since such studies of individual projects had to be done anyway, this was the first step in an internal improvements program. Thus, Monroe avoided dealing with the issue, leaving it for the next President. The next President was in favor of such internal improvements.

The main foreign policy issue concerned Europe and colonization in the western hemisphere. There was considerable fear that Spain would try to recapture its former colonies in Central and South America. These colonies had declared their independence from Spain when Spain was conquered by France during the Napoleonic Wars. After France’s defeat, the Spanish royal government came back into power. The United States wanted to keep Spain out of their former colonies.

Another worry was that Russia would expand it’s Alaskan colony to include Oregon. Oregon was already divided between the United States and England.

Monroe delivered a message to Congress in which he warned European powers against intervention in the Western Hemisphere. Monroe said that no new colonies could be established in this hemisphere (which included former colonies) and that European powers could not interfere in the affairs between the nations of the Western Hemisphere as a means of re-establishing control. In return, the nations of the Western Hemisphere would not interfere in the affairs of European nations.

Great Britain, whose commercial interests were also best served by a free and independent Latin America, offered to make a joint declaration. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, who was the principle author of the declaration, convinced Monroe to make it a unilateral statement. Adams said a joint declaration with Great Britain would make the United States appear “a cockboat in the wake of the British man-of-war.” Still, everyone understood that the United States could not then enforce this policy without the support of the British. This policy came to be called the Monroe Doctrine, and is probably the single most memorable event for which Monroe is remembered.

Monroe retired at the end of his second term to Oak Hill, his estate near Jefferson’s in Virginia. He served for five years as a regent of the University of Virginia. In 1829, he was the presiding officer of the Virginia Constitutional Convention. His many years of public service left him a poor man, and in 1830 he was forced to move to New York and live with his daughter and her husband. He died on July 4, 1831, the third President to die on the 4th of July.