The last of the founding era presidents, James Monroe sometimes is seen as somehow less illustrious than his predecessors. However, the fifth president of the United States oversaw a key transition in the country and undoubtedly left his mark on the country.
Join me this week as I dive into the presidency of James Monroe.
Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Rufus King." Encyclopedia Britannica, April 25, 2021. (LINK)
Hart, Gary. James Monroe. New York: Times Books, 2005.
History.com Editors. “James Monroe.” History. Updated June 17, 2019. (LINK)
James Monroe, Inaugural Address Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project (LINK)
Message of President James Monroe at the commencement of the first session of the 18th Congress (The Monroe Doctrine), 12/02/1823; Presidential Messages of the 18th Congress, ca. 12/02/1823-ca. 03/03/1825; Record Group 46; Records of the United States Senate, 1789-1990; National Archives. (LINK)
“Monroe Doctrine, 1823.” Office of the Historian, Foreign Service Institute. United States Department of State. (LINK)
Monroe, James. The Writings of James Monroe: Including a Collection of His Public and Private Papers and Correspondence Now for the First Time Printed. United Kingdom: G. P. Putnam's sons, 1898.
Preston, Daniel. “James Monroe: Life Before the Presidency.” UVA Miller Center. (LINK)
Reynolds, David. “Panic of 1819: The First Major U.S. Depression.” The Globalist. February 10, 2009. (LINK)
Trickey, Erick. "The Brief Period, 200 Years Ago, When American Politics Was Full of "Good Feelings." July 17, 2017. Smithsonian Magazine. (LINK)
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“Dangers from abroad are not less deserving of attention. Experiencing the fortune of other nations, the United States may be again involved in war, and it may in that event be the object of the adverse party to overset our Government, to break our Union, and demolish us as a nation. Our distance from Europe and the just, moderate, and pacific policy of our Government may form some security against these dangers, but they ought to be anticipated and guarded against. Many of our citizens are engaged in commerce and navigation, and all of them are in a certain degree dependent on their prosperous state. Many are engaged in the fisheries. These interests are exposed to invasion in the wars between other powers, and we should disregard the faithful admonition of experience if we did not expect it. We must support our rights or lose our character, and with it, perhaps, our liberties. A people who fail to do it can scarcely be said to hold a place among independent nations. National honor is national property of the highest value. The sentiment in the mind of every citizen is national strength. It ought therefore to be cherished.” James Monroe March 4th, 1817.
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey peeps, welcome back.
The quote you heard at the top of the episode was from the inaugural address of the fifth president of the United States, James Monroe.
Perhaps most known for the foreign policy doctrine that bears his name, Monroe had similarities to the men he preceded him. Like Washington, he was a soldier and served as a diplomat like Jefferson. And while he competed against Madison on a few occasions, they were close political allies who shared a vision for the country.
Coming into office in the aftermath of the War of 1812, Monroe’s experience as a soldier played a large role in his vision for what the country needed and influenced his policies and response to the various challenges faced throughout his administration. Monroe’s presidency oversaw a transition of sorts for the nation; it was the last of the founding generation and the last of the quoted Virginia Dynasty. Monroe oversaw a country where one political party dominated in what is referred to as the Era of Good Feelings, only to see one party fall apart and another begin to emerge in its wake.
So this week, I am diving into the presidency of James Monroe.
Grab your cup of coffee peeps. Lets do this.
While this episode will focus primarily on his presidency, I wanted to provide a little background on Monroe since, unlike Madison, Adams and Jefferson, Monroe hasn’t made many guest appearances throughout the show. Like the other founding era presidents, Monroe was touched and influenced by his experiences in fighting for the new nation and these experiences helped guide him once he took office.
Born in Westmoreland County, Virginia on April 28, 1758 James Monroe was one of five children born to his father Spence and mother Elizabeth. He was orphaned as a teenager and became the charge of his uncle Joseph Jones. Jones would be a confidant and friend throughout Monroe’s life. At the age of sixteen, Monroe enrolled into the College of William and Mary, only to drop out during a minor disagreement known as the American Revolution. You may have heard about it.
Caught in a sense of national pride, Monroe signed up for the Continental Army in defense of the American cause against the British. Active throughout the war, Monroe was injured during the Battle of Trenton and was with Washington during the cold winter of Valley Forge. He was memorialized in a painting documenting the crossing of the Delaware by artist Emanuel Gottlieb-Luetz in 1851. If you have no idea what I am talking about, google Washington Crossing the Delaware. The young man standing right behind Washington holding the flag? That is Monroe.
Upon resigning his commission in the Continental Army at the rank of major, Monroe went into studying law with Thomas Jefferson as his mentor. Monroe and Jefferson would forge a bond that remained throughout their lives and Monroe often sided with Jefferson and to certain extent Madison in the various political matters. And Monroe was almost immediately interested in politics.
At the age of 24, Monroe became a member of the Virginia Assembly and later was elected to the Continental Congress in 1783. It was while serving as a member of the Continental Congress that Monroe met the woman who would soon become his wife, Elizabeth Kortright. They were married on February 16th, 1786 and Monroe and his new bride returned to Virginia where Monroe set up legal practice. Monroe was on hand for Virginia’s constitutional ratifying convention, voting against the constitution due to the lack of a bill of rights and the failure to include the direct election of the senate and the president.
Once the constitution was in place, however, Monroe unsuccessfully vied for a seat on the House of the Representatives, only to get blown out of the water by frenemy James Madison. But never fear, dear listeners; though he may have been beaten by Madison for the House, he was appointed to the Senate in 1790. So not all was lost. And while they may initially have been competitors, Monroe and Madison formed a bond thanks to Thomas Jefferson, who made the introductions a few years prior.
Monroe held various posts as a diplomat, first serving George Washington’s administration as the U.S. Minister to France. His tenure was challenging and he was recalled after relations soured after the Jay Treaty was signed with Great Britain. In 1803, he acted as special envoy in negotiating the treaty to acquire the Louisiana Territory from France. This was followed by serving as U.S. Minister to Great Britain from 1803 to 1807. Overall, Monroe had moderate success as a diplomat, usually falling victim to the surrounding politics. He returned home from his overseas post and briefly served as Virginia Governor until he was called to the post that would make him the natural successor to James Madison.
Madison was in need of a new Secretary of State, the cabinet position seen as the stepping stone to the presidency and the job responsible for ensuring smooth relations with foreign powers. After dealing with the politically forced appointment of Robert Smith for two years, Madison was done and wanted someone upon whom he could rely on and who shared his vision. He appointed Monroe to the post on April 2, 1811. Though Monroe’s previous diplomatic experience had been underwhelming, he seemed to excel as Secretary of State. As war broke out with the British during the War of 1812, Monroe was called upon to serve a dual role as both the Secretary of State and War.
Monroe’s experience as a soldier helped his success as Secretary of War. He took charge, reorganizing the army and leading a scouting party to report on the British advance on the capitol. His dual roles made him a very attractive candidate for president as Madison prepared to step down and retire. Nationally recognized and respected, Monroe faced a largely empty political field, due to the quickly disintegrating Federalist party in the aftermath of the War of 1812. The Federalists had been vocally opposed to the war and had even met in secret to consider seceding from the union; now that war was over and the nation wrapped in a sense of patriotic pride, the Federalists looked like back stabbing cowards.
Monroe’s challenger, if you could call it that, was Rufus King of New York, a man with a long career in public service. King was a major supporter of a strong central government and was one of the last men standing in the Federalist camp. However, his attempt would be unsuccessful. Elected in what political pundits today like to call a landslide, Monroe won the electoral college by a vote of 183 to 34. The Virginia Dynasty would continue.
One of the only complaints thrown against a Monroe presidency was his place of birth. Too many presidents, it seemed, came from Virginia. Monroe, a politically astute individual, was aware of this and therefore went about setting up his cabinet in as geographical diverse a manner as possible. In choosing his Secretary of State, Monroe was sure to pick someone who did not come from southern roots, choosing John Quincy Adams, son of former president John Adams.
In explaining his decision to longtime friend and mentor Thomas Jefferson, Monroe wrote quote, “you know how much has been said to impress a belief, on the country, north and east of this, that the citizens of Virginia, holding the presidency, have made appointments to that department to secure the succession from it, to the presidency, of the person who happens to be from that state… It is, however, not sufficient that this allegation is unfounded. With this view, I have thought it advisable to select a person for the department of state, from the eastern states, in consequence of which my attention has been turned to Mr. Adams.” end quote.
As I shared in the opening quote of this episode, Monroe was focused on providing for national security for the quickly expanding country. After his experiences during the War of 1812, Monroe was of the opinion that a standing army was essential to the security of the nation and could no longer rely on state militias to respond in a time of crisis. Monroe had been advocating for a change in military structure since his experience as Secretary of War, submitting a report to the senate with his arguments about the need for a standing army. As president, he would continue this mission and work to gather support for the effort.
Shortly after assuming office, Monroe embarked on a goodwill tour, which was also aimed at observing the country’s fortifications. He used the tour to both promote his idea of building up the nation's defenses and also used it as a way to further his desire to see the official end of the federalist party within the country, believing quote: “the existence of parties is not necessary for free government.” While touring Boston, a bastion of federalist feelings, Monroe was welcomed heartily, including visits by second president John Adams. When news of this meeting was reported in the local press in the Columbian Centinel, the headline read Era of Good Feelings.
Monroe got his wish, at least temporarily. The federalist party buckled; unable to secure patronage or political appointments, organized opposition disappeared. However, this didn’t last long as without a party, the political field turned into a free for all where everyone was vying for the job of president without loyalty to any one ideology or person.
When not touring the country, Monroe focused on gaining support for improving and further securing the national defense. Faced with increasing marauding parties of the coast of Georgia and increasing tensions along the Spanish border of the Florida territory, Monroe looked to the military man who had been successful during the War of 1812: Andrew Jackson. I covered the first Seminole War on a previous episode, but as it was a key piece of Monroe’s presidency, it’s worth mentioning again.
Monroe, who had been interested in Florida ever since his negotiations during the purchase of the Louisiana territory, tried to avoid providing direct guidance or support to Jackson in his actions in Florida. This is likely to provide plausible deniability if things ever got out of hand. If Jackson overstepped, which he inevitably died, Monroe could claim Jackson acted on his own without support from the White House. As such, Monroe sat back and let his Secretary of War John C Calhoun correspond with Jackson and made sure to never “authorize” any invasion. There remains some debate as to whether Jackson had Monroe’s approval, however when given the chance to repudiate his behavior, Monroe’s response was mild at best. At the end of the day, Monroe got what he wanted when the Spanish agreed to cede Florida and other territory, making the United States a bicoastal country.
As the country expanded, new territories came up for consideration for statehood, including the territory of Missouri. The fight for Missouri’s statehood would ignite the largest area of contention for the new country; should slavery be allowed to continue unabated in newly established states or permanently prohibited? And even more, with the country evenly split with 11 slave and 11 free states, adding Missouri would tip the political power towards the slave states, further aggrivating the representatives of the north.
For his part, Monroe tried to stay out of the fight and failed to call a single cabinet meeting to discuss the issue. This coming from a president who had called more cabinet meetings than any of his predecessors. While avoiding speaking publicly on the matter, Monroe let it be known he would veto any bill that limited Missouri’s ability to determine for itself whether or not to be a slave state. The issue over the future of Missouri would take over a year and result in the Missouri Compromise.
Signed on March 6, 1820, the Missouri Compromise admitted Missouri to the union as a slave state and Maine as a free state, maintaining the tenuous balance of political representation. Additionally, moving forward, slavery would be prohibited in the remaining unsettled territory from the Louisiana Purchase north of the latitude line 36 / 30.
While the fight for Missouri raged on, Monroe dealt with the nation's first depression, with the Panic of 1819. Banks, who had over extended credit lines without the hard money to secure them, began failing; property values plummeted and credit, once an easy thing to access, became unavailable. However devastating it was to most Americans, it appeared to have a minimal impact on Monroe's presidency. Facing re-election in 1820, Monroe seemed to be a lock, without even the hint of an opponent.
Monroe won every electoral vote, minus one. William Plumer, an elector from New Hampshire, refused to cast a ballot to reelect Monroe. Citing his disagreement with Monroe’s economic policies, Plumer said Monroe did not have quote, “the weight of character which his office requires” end quote. He also wanted to make sure George Washington remained the only president in history to be unanimously elected; mission accomplished.
It was in his second term that Monroe provided the principles that would become known as the Monroe Doctrine. With assistance from John Quincy Adams, Monroe sent his seventh message to congress on December 2, 1823 outlining said beliefs quote: “As a principle in which the rights and interests of the people of the United States are equally involved, that the American continent, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintained, and henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European power” end quote. Basically, Monroe put the European nations on notice: you stay on your side of the ocean, we’ll stay on our side. As one biographer wrote, the Monroe Doctrine quote “positioned the United States as the dominant power in the entire western hemisphere” end quote. And while it was largely seen as symbolic initially, the Monroe Doctrine has evolved into one of the longest lasting and cited foreign policy positions in United States history.
Following in the footsteps of his fellow Virginians, Monroe decided to hang up his hat after two terms in office. Retiring from public life in 1825, Monroe spent his post-presidency working to rebuild his finances, something that was always in a precarious position due to his life in public service which paid little, but whose costs were excessive due to the expectation of hosting placed on the diplomat. And unlike today, there was no presidential pension for which Monroe could depend. He spent several years asking Congress for payments owed, which he finally was able to secure, allowing him to pay off his vast debts.
Monroe enjoyed six years of presidential retirement before passing away on July 4th, 1831, joining John Adams and Thomas Jefferson who passed away on the same date in 1826. These three presidents remain the only ones in history to have passed away on the nations birthday.
James Monroe was a soldier and diplomat committed to the security of the country and oversaw the country’s transition from a new republic struggling to find its voice to a determined nation prepared to protect its principles. He was a nationalist in the best sense of the phrase and committed himself and his administration to achieving those goals. And while sometimes unfairly compared against his fellow Virginians, Monroe succeeded in leaving his mark on the country just like his predecessors with a foreign policy doctrine cited throughout United States history.
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