James Monroe was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia in 1758. He attended the College of William and Mary, but with war on the horizon, the atmosphere was not conducive to study.
James Monroe and the American Revolution
When war broke out with Britain in 1776, Monroe dropped out of school and joined the Continental Army. He served with distinction under General Washington and was wounded in the shoulder at the Battle of Trenton.
James Monroe in Politics
As a young politician, Monroe joined the anti-federalists. During the Virginia Convention he helped to ratify the Constitution and in 1790 Monroe was elected to the United States Senate as a Republican. He also served as Minister to France from 1794 to 1796. Monroe’s sympathy for the French was noted during the French Revolution. Those sympathies for the French were called upon when Monroe was asked to assist in the negotiations that led to the Louisiana Purchase by Thomas Jefferson.
Monroe became the fifth President of the United States following the retirement of James Madison in 1818. His cabinet was considered to be a particularly strong one and included his successor, John Quincy Adams as Secretary of State and John C Calhoun as Secretary of War. Only the adamant refusal of Henry Clay prevented Monroe from adding an outstanding westerner to his cabinet.
Early in his administration, Monroe undertook a goodwill tour of the United States. While visiting Boston, Madison’s presidency was heralded as “The Era of Good Feelings.” Despite the popularity that allowed Monroe to pursue nationalist policies, the so-called “good feelings” didn’t last.
The regional and racial divisions that would eventually lead to the American Civil War were already appearing in the early days of Monroe’s presidency. The United States was suffering through an economic depression. Matters were made worse in 1819 when Missouri applied for entrance into the Union as a slave state. Missouri’s first petition was denied and two years of debate in Congress ensued. Eventually the Missouri Compromise Bill was passed and Missouri was paired with Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state. The Missouri Compromise also barred slavery to the north and west of the state of Missouri.
The Monroe Doctrine
Monroe also left a mark on American foreign policy that remains to this day. Fearing that the more conservative governments in Europe might try to help the Spanish win back their Latin American colonies, Monroe chose not to recognize them as independent nations until Spain gave up Florida, which occurred in 1821. In 1822 Congress began appropriating funds for the establishment of diplomatic missions to the new Central American republics.
Meanwhile, Britain also opposed any potential conquest of Latin America. The British government approached the United States with the suggestion that their diplomatic efforts might be more successful if the two countries were to present a united front. Both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson believed that Monroe should accept the British offer. However, John Quincy Adams believed that the United States must be seen asserting its independence.
Monroe accepted this advice and the views of the United States regarding the former Spanish colonies in the Americas were clearly explained to the French and Russian governments. The inference of an Imperial power in the New World would not be tolerated and would be viewed as an act of war by the United States.
In the years following his death in 1831, this key moment in the history of American foreign policy would eventually become known as the Monroe Doctrine.