The Politics of James Monroe: Ideological Leanings During the “Era of Good Feelings”

President James Monroe: signer of the Missouri Compromise bills

Apart from George Washington, James Monroe is the closest America has ever come to having a unanimously elected president, leading the country during peaceful times.

James Monroe is often referred to as “The Era of Good Feelings President.” This nickname is quite apt, as the eight years from 1817-1825 which constitute his two terms can be easily seen to be one of the most politically peaceful times in the nation’s history.

The essentially non-partisan nature of Monroe’s Presidency seems to define well this era, though this is not to say that Monroe was without any personal political leanings.

The Anti-Federalist

Prior to becoming President, James Monroe had already had a fairly remarkable career in public life.

He served the new country heroically while fighting in the Continental Army during the Revolution (in that famous picture of Washington crossing the Delaware river – see images below – that’s Monroe standing behind the General, holding the American flag).

He served in the Virginia house of delegates after the war and was sent as a representative to the continental congress, afterwards expressing his political leanings by publically opposing the new constitution and fought its ratification in the Virginia convention as an anti-Federalist (opposing the Federalists led by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison).

After this, Monroe was sent by President Washington to be minister to France (a natural appointment, for like Thomas Jefferson, he was very sympathetic to the French revolution), before being elected governor of Virginia in 1799.

Under President Jefferson, Monroe was sent back to France to negotiate the Louisiana purchase with Robert Livingston, and to Britain, where he tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a new treaty which would hopefully keep the U.S. and Britain out of war (an attempt which failed – one of the factors which led to the war of 1812).

Under James Madison, Monroe was named Secretary of State in 1811, then Secretary of War in 1814, then Secretary of State once again in 1815 until the end of Madison’s second term.

The Presidency

Monroe was a natural successor to Madison, especially considering the political climate of the time.

Monroe was an ardent Democratic-Republican, but by this time, so was just about every other major politician in Washington. The Federalist party had all but died out with the crushing defeat of John Adams in the election of 1800, and another second party would not arrive until the rise of the Whig party in response to the presidency of Andrew Jackson (~1834).

So, for the first (and only) time in American history, the government operated, essentially, under a one-party political system. While disagreements were surely still evident, they were inter-party disputes.

Monroe furthered these “good feelings” by appointing a diverse group to his cabinet, such as former Northern Federalist and future President John Quincy Adams as Secretary of State and southerner John C. Calhoun Secretary of War.

A Few “Not-So-Good” Feelings

Despite being re-elected in 1820 nearly unanimously (only one opposing vote was cast, for John Quincy Adams), Monroe’s presidency was not entirely free from controversy.

Chief among these disputes came from that most divisive of all issues during the early years of the union – slavery. The failure of Missouri’s attempt to join the union as a slave state led, in 1820, to the passage of the Missouri Comprimise, which allowed statehood for Missouri under the condition that Maine would enter as a free state, and that no new slave states could be added in the northern Louisiana territory.

The panic of 1819, as well, became a major issue of Monroe’s Presidency, though to this day there are varying explanations as to its cause. Many view it as one of the first manifestations of the cyclical nature of national economies, the result of a post-war economic boom. By the end of Monroe’s second term, the panic had ended and the American economy was growing once again.

The Monroe Doctrine

The other major result of the Monroe Presidency was the establishment of a new foreign policy (which would only become known as the “Monroe Doctrine” a couple decades later) – that is, that the U.S. would attempt to retain neutral in foreign affairs, and a declaration that the America’s should be free from any further attempts at European colonization.

The Monroe Doctrine would remain, essentially, the declared foreign policy of America until, perhaps World War I (though elements of the doctrine are still cited to this day as national policy).

James Monroe is generally accepted to have been an able administator of national affairs and a man who successfully helped the nation rise above petty political squabbles (for a time, at least).

The “Era of Good Feelings” essentially ended as quickly as it began, with the controversial election of 1824 between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Once again, the dirtier side of politics was about to rear its ugly head.