The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Monroe, James

Edition of 1920. See also James Monroe on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

MONROE, James, fifth President of the United States: b. in Westmoreland County, Va., 28 April 1758; d. New York, 4 July 1831. His father, Spence Monroe, was descended from Hector Monroe, an officer of Charles I; while his mother, Eliza Jones, of King George County, was of Welsh descent. Monroe attended William and Mary College, but with the outbreak of the Revolutionary War he became a lieutenant in a Virginia regiment (1776). He was with his troops at the battle of Harlem Heights, White Plains and at Trenton, where he distinguished himself, being wounded in the shoulder. During the campaign of 1777-78 Monroe served on the staff of Lord Stirling with the rank of major, taking part in the battles of Brandywine, Germantown and Monmouth. As staff officer Monroe lost his place in the Continental army, and failing to raise a new regiment authorized by the legislature of Virginia, Monroe withdrew from active military services, confining himself to volunteer efforts in defense of his State. In this capacity he attained the rank of lieutenant-colonel in a new regiment to be raised in Virginia. In 1780 his military services were definitely interrupted and concluded by his undertaking the study of law under Thomas Jefferson, then governor of the State. So began the life-long friendship and intimacy between these two representative Virginians. In 1782 he was elected to the Virginia legislature, and although still a very young man, was appointed to the executive council. From 1783 to 1786 he served in the Congress of the Confederation where he played a conspicuous part in endeavoring to strengthen the Confederation's powers for the regulation of commerce, and the favorable report of the special committee appointed as the result of his motion on this topic contributed to the ultimate alteration of the articles. Monroe also disclosed a lively interest in the development and division of the West, on the right of the United States to the navigation of the Mississippi, on the subject of trade between the States and in the public lands. On retiring from Congress he began the practice of law at Fredericksburg, Va.; but in 1787 he was chosen a member of the Virginia legislature and in 1788 a member of the State convention to ratify the Federal Constitution. In this convention Monroe sided with the opponents of the new draft, and in the two main speeches which he made — characterized as “dull and weighty” — he objected to the ratification on account of “the power of direct taxation, absence of a bill of rights, the lack of legislative and executive responsibility, and the re-eligibility of the President.” In 1790 he was selected by the legislature United States senator to fill the vacancy caused by the death of William Grayson. From 1790 to 1794, as United States senator, he was classed as one of the most decided Anti-Federalists of the administration of Washington. Yet, in 1794 he was appointed Minister to France to succeed Gouverneur Morris, at the same time Jay was sent to England. These were troublesome days for American commerce when the United States endeavored to preserve its strictly neutral attitude in the death struggle between France and England. Morris had made himself unpopular to the Republican government of France, and undoubtedly one reason for Monroe's appointment was his well-known opposition to England. In other words, Monroe's selection was “forced by the exigencies of the situation.” It was hoped that Monroe's well-known French inclinations would harmonize the strained relations between France and the United States. He was instructed to assure France of the firm friendship of the government; the determination of the United States to maintain strict neutrality; to help adjust outstanding disputes between the two lands over spoliations, but to refrain from negotiating a treaty of commerce; and to quiet French suspicions regarding the Jay mission, Monroe was not informed of the wide latitude of Jay's instructions toward negotiating a treaty of commerce with Great Britain. Trouble therefore ensued, due to the fact that Monroe's French sympathies caused him to act indiscreetly on certain occasions: and also to the fact that he was not fully in the confidence of his home government concerning the Jay negotiations. Accordingly, in 1796, he was recalled because the Federalists criticized his republicanism and his failure to appease the French. Nevertheless, he had accomplished almost all the points set forth in his instructions by securing the recall of the French decree injuring American commerce, by protecting the interests of American citizens in France, by securing treaties with Algiers and Spain and by maintaining peace between the United States and France.

On his return to America, Monroe published, in December 1797, a defense of his conduct in a pamphlet of 500 pages entitled “A View of the Conduct of the Executive in the Foreign Affairs of the United States as connected with the Mission to the French Republic during the years 1794-96.” The pamphlet was widely circulated and aroused much discussion throughout the nation. In 1799 Monroe was chosen governor of Virginia and occupied this office until 1803, when he was appointed by President Jefferson as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to France to aid the resident Minister, Robert R. Livingston, in obtaining the territory at the mouth of the Mississippi, including the island of New Orleans, as an outlet for the traders of the West, and to co-operate with Charles Pinckney, our Minister at Madrid, for cession of the Floridas. By the secret treaty of San Ildefonso (October 1800), Spain had ceded Louisiana to France, and in 1801 the Spanish intendant had given notice that New Orleans “would no longer be a ‘place of deposit’ ” This had aroused the inhabitants of the West and had occasioned the appointment of Monroe. However, by the time Monroe had reached Paris, Napoleon had given up his scheme of a colonial empire, and through one of his ministers had offered all of Louisiana to Livingston. On the arrival of Monroe, the two Ministers determined to exceed their instructions and so negotiated the purchase of Louisiana. In the same year he went as Minister to England and while there he met Nicholas Biddle of Philadelphia, who was then touring Europe. A friendship sprang up between the young man and the Minister which continued throughout their lives and ultimately resulted in Biddle's appointment by President Monroe as one of the directors of the Second Bank of the United States. In 1804 he proceeded to Spain to help Pinckney define the boundaries of Louisiana and acquire the Floridas. Failing to accomplish his purpose, Monroe returned to England where, assisted by William Pinckney of Maryland, a treaty was drawn up (December 1806) between England and the United States. But the treaty failed to provide against the impressment of American seamen and to secure indemnity for American losses, and accordingly Jefferson “pigeon-holed” it. In 1807 Monroe returned from England only to find his conduct the subject of much discussion; this called forth a pamphlet in defense, and for a time caused an estrangement between Monroe and Jefferson. In 1810 he was elected to the Virginia legislature, and in 1811 governor of the State, which office he held from January to November, when he resigned to become Secretary of State under Madison. He held this office until his election as President, during part of the time acting as Secretary of War. In both offices he displayed energy and diligence.

In 1816 Monroe was elected President by the Republican party, receiving 183 electoral votes against 34, for Kufus King, the Federalist candidate. His administration marks the advent of what is erroneously called the “era of good feeling,” when political rancor is supposed to have ceased. As a matter of note during his administration the first crisis of the slavery issue took place, resulting in the Missouri Compromise in 1820 and the Seminole Campaign of 1817, laying the foundation for the political strife of the Jacksonian era. In 1820 he was re-elected, receiving all the electoral votes but one, and this was cast by an elector of New Hampshire for J. Q. Adams, in order, it is said, that no one might share with Washington the honor of a unanimous election. The important events of Monroe's two administrations are the Seminole Campaign 1817-18; the acquisition of Florida, 1819; the Missouri Compromise, 1820; the veto of the Cumberland Road bill on constitutional grounds in 1823, and his celebrated message of 2 Dec. 1823, setting forth the Monroe Doctrine (q.v.). In 1825 Monroe retired to private life and took up his residence in Loudoun County, Va. He took part in the Constitutional Convention in 1829 called to revise the State constitution. In his later years, owing to financial difficulties, he was forced to seek aid from Congress, which body in 1826 authorized the payment of $30,000 to him, and after his death the purchase of his papers. He died in New York in 1831, and in 1858, the centennial year of his birth, his remains were reinterred with solemn ceremonies at Richmond, Va.

Theodore Roosevelt has characterised Monroe as “a very amiable gentleman, but distinctly one who comes in the category of those whose greatness is thrust upon them.” This statement is undoubtedly true. Monroe was not a good speaker, he lacked tact and was often indiscreet, and he often allowed party feelings to get the better of his own judgment. Yet he was highly respected by his associates, and retained their friendship and admiration until his death.

Bibliography. — ‘The Writings of James Monroe’ (7 vols., New York 1898-1903; edited by S. M. Hamilton); Gilman, D. C., ‘James Monroe’ in ‘American Statesmen Series’ (Boston 1898); Bond, B. W., ‘Monroe's Mission to France, 1794-1796’ (in ‘Johns Hopkins Studies,’ Vol. XXV, Baltimore 1907); Cox, I. J., ‘The West Florida Controversy, 1798-1813’ (Baltimore 1918); Irelan, J. R., ‘History of the Life, Administration and Times of James Monroe’ (in Vol. V of ‘History of the Republic,’ Chicago 1887). Consult also standard histories of the United States.

Assistant Professor of History, University of Cincinnati.

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Fifth President of the United States