James Monroe – Life, Presidency, & Doctrine

James Monroe

James Monroe (1758 -1831) – the fifth U.S. President

Serving as the fifth President of the United States from 1817 to 1825, James Monroe was commonly seen by many as the last Founding Father from the era of the American Revolution. He was famously described by his mentor, Thomas Jefferson, as a very honest man. The Virginia-born lawyer and politician served bravely with the Continental Army under the leadership of George Washington. His stellar political career included being a delegate in the Continental Congress; a senator; a Virginia governor; and Secretary of State during James Madison’s presidency. Some of his famous accomplishments include gaining political and economic support from France. He was also at the helm of affairs during the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

Below, we present to you the life, presidency and the doctrine (the Monroe Doctrine) of a man whose stay in the White House ushered the United States into an “Era of Good Feelings”:

James Monroe’s Birth and Early Life

Born on 18 April 1758, James Monroe’s place of birth was at Westmoreland County, Virginia. His parents were Spence Monroe and Elizabeth Jones Monroe. The Monroe’s were a relatively well-to-do family. They owned about 600 acres of farmland in Virginia.

Service in the Continental Army

Upon attaining the age of 16, James Monroe enrolled at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. Two years later, he left the school to enlist in the Continental Army in order to fight for the colonies’ independence course. James Monroe served as a lieutenant in General George Washington’s army. He was outstanding during the Battle of Trenton. However, he paid a dear price for his bravery, injuring himself in the shoulder. After a quick recovery, he was made captain and honored for his bravery.

In the subsequent battles at Brandywine and Germantown, James was at it again, fighting gallantly for the independence of the colonies. With high doses of hard work and intelligence, James gradually rose to the rank of major in the Colonial Army. At one point in time, during the Battle of Monmouth, he served as a scout for George Washington.

Early Years in Politics

Once the war had died down a bit, James Monroe brought his time with the army to an end. He proceeded to work as an understudy in a law firm that belonged to Thomas Jefferson. It was during this time that Monroe and Jefferson built a strong bond. For the next three decades or so, these two Founding Fathers had a very mutually beneficial relationship. To a large extent, Monroe is generally considered by many as Jefferson’s protégé.

In addition to Jefferson’s, Monroe’s political philosophy was largely similar to the ones of James Madison. The trio built a very strong friendship amongst themselves and supported each other during their presidential bids. All presidential terms of the three men came one after the other: Thomas Jefferson from 1801 to 1809; James Madison from 1809 to 1817; and James Monroe from 1817 to 1825.

Delegate to the Virginia House

After carefully learning the ropes in politics from his mentor Thomas Jefferson, Monroe won a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates in 1782. He also served briefly on Governor Benjamin Harrison’s council.

Member of Congress

James Monroe was a member of Congress from 1783 to 1786. He was very articulate in defending the need for the U.S. to expand beyond the Mississippi River. He also tried to wrestle a bit of power for Congress to take charge of the country’s trade and commerce.

Initially, Monroe favored James Madison’s argument for a new constitution. However, he later had second thoughts about the proposed constitution. He believed that the new constitution gave a bit too much power to the federal government. Monroe and Jefferson were vocal supporters of inserting 10 Amendments into the U.S. Constitution that guarantee individual and state rights. By so doing, Monroe became one of the earliest members of the newly formed Democratic-Republican Party – an anti-federalist party,

Law Practice

After he left Congress in 1786, Monroe pursued a law career at Fredericksburg, Virginia. A year later, he served in the Virginia House of Delegates. This was followed by a four-year tenure in the U.S. Senate (from 1790 to 1794).

Ambassador to France

In spite of his mild criticism of some of George Washington’s cabinet, Monroe still got an appointment from Washington to serve as the ambassador to France in 1794.

Monroe, just like Jefferson and Madison, had always had a slightly soft spot for the French. Hence, his appointment as minister to France came as no surprise. He worked extremely hard to secure better ties between the U.S. and France. He also wholeheartedly leaned towards the French Revolution.

Although he tried working to smooth out the thorny issues between France and the U.S., George Washington summoned him back to the U.S. in 1796.

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Governor of Virginia

Between 1799 and 1802, James Monroe served as the governor of the state of Virginia. His priority was on transportation, education and militia training. He also built Virginia’s first penitentiary.

Major Accomplishments of James Monroe – the Louisiana Purchase

The Treaty of San Ildefonso of October 1800 allowed for Spain to grant ownership of Louisiana back to France. This caused a lot of tension to sprawl up between the interested countries. There were even talks about going to war with Spain.

Due to the delicate touch exercised by Thomas Jefferson, the issue did not escalate any further. Rather, Jefferson tasked Monroe to work together with Robert R. Livingston to resolve the issue. The duo then proceeded to France and successfully got a deal to buy the said territory. The deal also came with the island of New Orleans. The final deal for the Louisiana Purchase took place on May 2, 1803. It was undoubtedly the greatest land deal in U.S. history. At the price of $11,250,000 outright (with interest, the final figure was $27,267,622), the U.S. was able to acquire 828,000 square miles of land. Monroe negotiated a deal that saw the U.S. pay three cents for every acre of land. By so doing, the U.S. doubled its land area

Also, Monroe worked with Charles Pinckney to try and get Spain to offer East and West Florida. The negotiations began around 1804, but it went at a very slow pace with relatively little progress. Feeling a bit frustrated, Monroe returned to London and worked brilliantly with William Pinkney to secure a treaty between Great Britain and the U.S. concerning the issue of impressments.

Another very influential piece of accomplishment of James Monroe came during his tenure as the minister to Great Britain. The appointment came in April 1803.

Secretary of State of the United States

In 1807, Monroe returned home and was elected into the Virginia House of Delegates in 1810. He followed this with a win for the governorship of Virginia in January 1811. About 11 months into the job, he stepped down in order to take an appointment as the Secretary of State under President James Madison.

Monroe received good acclaim for his delicately fine-tuned foreign affairs policies during the War of 1812. The war was fought between Great Britain and the U.S. At the height of the war, Monroe also held the post of Secretary of War for about 6 months – from September 1814 to March 1815.

James Monroe’s Presidency

Monroe clinched the White House job after defeating Federalist Rufus King during the 1816 presidential election. The Federalist Party was in complete shambles due to a lot of factions and infighting. Rufus King could only obtain 34 of the electoral votes versus James Monroe’s 183 votes.

The story was almost similar in the 1820 presidential election as well. President James Monroe glided to victory, virtually unopposed due to the demise of the Federalist Party.

All throughout Monroe’s presidency, there was always a sense of calmness and peace in the country. The bitter War of 1812 had long ended. Monroe inherited a country that was picking itself up amidst the sense of optimism all around. His tenure is most frequently described as the “Era of Good Feelings”. Monroe’s administration was very effective at the job at hand. This and many more others are what translated into those good feelings among the citizens.

One of the notable events during Monroe’s tenure was the First Seminole War, the war that was fought for just close to a year, from 1817 to 1818. It saw the U.S. come into conflict with the Seminole Indians of Florida. The spat came as a result of the U.S. ransacking the Seminole tribes in a bid to bring back runaway black slaves that had taken refuge in those tribes and areas.

It was also during James Monroe’s presidency that America acquired the Floridas (East and West Florida) from Spain. The long-awaited, and a bit thorny, deal that Monroe and Pinckney worked on some decade and a half ago finally came to fruition when Spain and the U.S. signed the Transcontinental Treaty (also called the Adam-Onís Treaty) in 1819.

It was during Monroe’s presidency that the conflict over the topic of slavery came in full force, which saw the North and the South lock horns for quite a time until the Missouri Compromise of 1820 calmed things down a bit. The deal, which was brokered by Senator Henry Clay, allowed for Maine to be admitted into the Union as a free state and Missouri to be admitted as a slave-holding state.

The Monroe Doctrine

Monroe’s quest for decolonizing Latin America States in Central and South America is encompassed in what would later become the Monroe Doctrine. The doctrine formed the foundation of American foreign policy for well over a century. Monroe did, however, get enormous help from his Secretary of State John Quincy Adams (later 6th President of the United States).

Both Quincy Adams and Monroe vehemently opposed new forms of colonization attempts (by Europe) in the Pacific as well as several parts of the western hemisphere. This stand of theirs brought them into direct confrontation with several European powers such as Great Britain, Russia, and Spain. Therefore, what is the Monroe Doctrine?

The Monroe Doctrine can be summarized into three or four core dicta. They are:

  1. The halting of further European colonization in the new world;
  2. The withdrawal of the U.S. from Europe’s political affairs;
  3. The elimination of Europe in the internal matters of the Americas;
  4. A rejection of any European country transfer of existing colonies to another European country.

In a faceoff with the Russians, President Monroe and Secretary of State Quincy Adams strongly opposed claims by Russia to make the fifty-first parallel in the Pacific a Russian zone.

Monroe Doctrine

John Quincy Adams’ reply to the Russian czar after Russia declared large sections of the Pacific (north of the fifty-first parallel) Russian territory

With regard to Imperial Spain-controlled territories in Latin America, the Monroe doctrine ramped up efforts to weaken Spain’s colonial rule in South and Central America. As a result, revolutions against Spanish rule in those areas were fast-tracked.

Several presidents after Monroe invoked the Monroe Doctrine in order to facilitate the territorial expansion of the United States. The most notable of them was in 1842 during the struggle to seize Texas.

Also, in the lead up to the American Civil War, the doctrine resurfaced and was used by many American politicians all throughout the 1850s. Other famous usages and invocations of the Monroe Doctrine were during the presidencies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.

Life after the Presidency

After a reasonably good tenure in office, Monroe retired to Oak Hill, Northern Virginia.  While in retirement, he lent his effort to the University of Virginia, serving as the regent of the school.

Unfortunately, Monroe spent his retirement largely bedeviled by heavy debts and financial misery. This was due to his lavish spending during his time in Europe. Congress did come to his aid by reimbursing him to some extent. Monroe received a check of $30,000 from Congress in 1826 and 1831.

James Monroe’s Death and Legacy

At age 73, James Monroe had grown very frail and weak. The former president eventually gave up the ghost on July 4, 1831. The cause of his death was a heart failure coupled with a mild form of tuberculosis. The former statesman and diplomat died at his daughter Maria’s house in New York City. Aside from it being America’s Independence Day, the day James Monroe died was the very day that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on (Adams and Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826).

Exactly 100 years since his birth, in 1858, Congress re-interred his body in his hometown Virginia at the Hollywood Cemetery.

As one of the last members from the Revolutionary War generation, James Monroe was able to leverage this to appeal to the American audience. He was described as a very calm and well-spoken politician that exuded a lot of assurance in the hearts and minds of the American public. His legacy lies deep in his relentless effort in ensuring that the U.S. expanded westward. He will forever be remembered for helping curtail European influence in not just North America but in several Latin America territories. Monroe’s noninterventionist policy in the affairs of European nations certainly won him a lot of domestic praise and support.

Liberia’s capital – Monrovia – was named in honor of James Monroe. The president was instrumental in helping freed black slaves relocate willingly to the West African country. Another lasting legacy of Monroe has to be his contribution during Virginia’s draft of a new constitution in 1829.

When many people looked at James Monroe, what they saw was someone who not only had a slight resemblance to George Washington in both appearance and ideals. In effect, these ideals were the very ideals that were embodied by most of the Founding Fathers of the United States.

James Monroe’s marriage to Elizabeth Kortright

In February 1786, Monroe and Elizabeth Kortright, 17, tied the knot. Elizabeth was from a very affluent family that owned massive trading businesses. Monroe and Elizabeth went on to have two children – Eliza Kortright and Maria Hester. The family made Charlottesville, Virginia their home.

During her husband’s presidency, Elizabeth Kortright introduced a lot of French culture and art into the White House. For example, the renovation of the White House (after it had been razed by the British during the War of 1812) was done with several materials largely imported from France. Prior to her stay in the White House, Monroe’s wife successfully saved the wife of Marquis de Lafayette, Madame Lafayette. While in France with her husband, Elizabeth Kortright Monroe earned the name la belle Americaine.

Due to her frequent illness, her duties as the first lady fell largely on the shoulders of her daughter, Eliz Kortright. On September 23, 1830, Elizabeth Kortright Monroe passed away after a brief illness.

Famous Quotes by James Monroe

Quotes by James Monroe

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