The Presidents of the United States, 1789-1914/James Monroe

Also in this chapter … Elizabeth, wifeJames, nephew

James Monroe Edit

James Monroe, fifth president of the United States, born in Westmoreland County, Va., April 28, 1758; died in New York City, July 4, 1831. Although the attempts to trace his pedigree have not been successful, it appears certain that the Monroe family came to Virginia as early as 1650, and that they were of Scottish origin. James Monroe's father was Spence Monroe, and his mother was Eliza, sister of Judge Joseph Jones, twice a delegate from Virginia to the Continental congress. The boyhood of the future president was passed in his native county, a neighborhood famous for early manifestations of patriotic fervor. His earliest recollections must have been associated with public remonstrances against the stamp-act (in 1766), and with the reception (in 1769) of a portrait of Lord Chatham, which was sent to the gentlemen of Westmoreland, from London, by one of their correspondents, Edmund Jennings, of Lincoln's Inn. To the College of William and Mary, then rich and prosperous, James Monroe was sent; but soon after his student life began it was interrupted by the Revolutionary war. Three members of the faculty and twenty-five or thirty students, Monroe among them, entered the military service. He joined the army in 1776 at the headquarters of Washington in New York, as a lieutenant in the 3d Virginia regiment under Col. Hugh Mercer. He was with the troops at Harlem, at White Plains, and at Trenton, where, in leading the advance guard, he was wounded in the shoulder. During 1777–'8 he served as a volunteer aide, with the rank of major, on the staff of the Earl of Stirling, and took part in the battles of the Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth. After these services he was commended by Washington for a commission in the state troops of Virginia, but without success. He formed the acquaintance of Gov. Jefferson, and was sent by him as a military commissioner to collect information in regard to the condition and prospects of the southern army. He thus attained the rank of lieutenant-colonel; but his services in the field were completely interrupted, to his disappointment and chagrin.



From the painting by John Vanderlyn in the City Hall, New York

His uncle, Judge Jones, at all times a trusted and intimate counsellor, then wrote to him: "You do well to cultivate the friendship of Mr. Jefferson … and while you continue to deserve his esteem he will not withdraw his countenance." The future proved the sagacity of this advice, for Monroe's intimacy with Jefferson, which was then established, continued through life, and was the key to his early advancement, and perhaps his ultimate success. The civil life of Monroe began on his election in 1782 to a seat in the assembly of Virginia, and his appointment as a member of the executive council. He was next a delegate to the 4th, 5th and 6th congresses of the confederation, where, notwithstanding his youth, he was active and influential. Bancroft says of him that, when Jefferson embarked for France, Monroe remained "not the ablest but the most conspicuous representative of Virginia on the floor of congress. He sought the friendship of nearly every leading statesman of his commonwealth, and every one seemed glad to call him a friend." On March 1, 1784, the Virginia delegates presented to congress a deed that ceded to the United States Virginia's claim to the northwest territory, and soon afterward Jefferson presented his memorable plan for the temporary government of all the western possessions of the United States from the southern boundary (lat. 31° N.) to the Lake of the Woods. From that time until its settlement by the ordinance of July 13, 1787, this question was of paramount importance. Twice within a few months Monroe crossed the Alleghanies for the purpose of becoming acquainted with the actual condition of the country. One of the fruits of his western observations was a memoir, written in 1786, to prove the rights of the people of the west to the free navigation of the Mississippi. Toward the close of 1784 Monroe was selected as one of nine judges to decide the boundary dispute between Massachusetts and New York. He resigned this place in May, 1786, in consequence of an acrimonious controversy in which he became involved. Both the states that were at difference with each other were at variance with Monroe in respect to the right to navigate the Mississippi, and he thought himself thus debarred from being acceptable as an umpire to either of the contending parties to whom he owed his appointment.

In the congress of 1785 Monroe was interested in the regulation of commerce by the confederation, and he certainly desired to secure that result; but he was also jealous of the rights of the southern states, and afraid that their interests would be overbalanced by those of the north. His policy was therefore timid and dilatory. A report upon the subject by the committee, of which he was chairman, was presented to congress March 28, 1785, and led to a long discussion, but nothing came of it. The weakness of the confederacy grew more and more obvious, and the country was drifting toward a stronger government. But the measures proposed by Monroe were not entirely abortive. Says John Q. Adams: "They led first to the partial convention of delegates from five states at Annapolis in September, 1786, and then to the general convention at Philadelphia in 1787, which prepared and proposed the constitution of the United States. Whoever contributed to that event is justly entitled to the gratitude of the present age as a public benefactor, and among them the name of Monroe should be conspicuously enrolled."

According to the principle of rotation then in force, Monroe's congressional service expired in 1786, at the end of a three years' term. He then intended to make his home in Fredericksburg, and to practise law, though he said he should be happy to keep clear of the bar if possible. But it was not long before he was again called into public life. He was chosen at once a delegate to the assembly, and soon afterward became a member of the Virginia convention to consider the ratification of the proposed constitution of the United States, which assembled at Richmond in 1788. In this convention the friends of the new constitution were led by James Madison, John Marshall, and Edmund Randolph. Patrick Henry was their opponent, and James Monroe was by his side in company with William Grayson and George Mason.

In one of his speeches, Monroe made an elaborate historical argument, based on the experience of Greece, Germany, Switzerland, and New England, against too firm consolidations, and he predicted conflict between the state and national authorities, and the possibility that a president once elected might be elected for life. In another speech he endeavored to show that the rights of the western territory would be less secure under the new constitutions than they were under the confederation. He finally assented to the ratification on condition that certain amendments should be adopted. As late as 1816 he recurred to the fears of a monarchy, which he had entertained in 1788, and endeavored to show that they were not unreasonable. Under the new constitution the first choice of Virginia for senators fell upon Richard Henry Lee and William Grayson. The latter died soon afterward, and Monroe was selected by the legislature to fill the vacant place. He took his seat in the senate December 6, 1790, and held the office until May, 1794, when he was sent as envoy to France. Among the Anti-Federalists he took a prominent stand, and was one of the most determined opponents of the administration of Washington. To Hamilton he was especially hostile. The appointment of Gouverneur Morris to be minister to France, and of John Jay to be minister to England, seemed to him most objectionable. Indeed, he met all the Federalist attempts to organize a strong and efficient government with incredulity or with adverse criticism. It was therefore a great surprise to him, as well as to the public, that, while still a senator, he was designated the successor of Morris as minister to France.

For this difficult place he was not the first choice of the president, nor the second; but he was known to be favorably disposed toward the French government, and it was thought that he might lead to the establishment of friendly relations with that power, and, besides, there is no room to doubt that Washington desired, as John Quincy Adams has said, to hold the balance between the parties at home by appointing Jay, the Federalist, to the English mission, and Monroe, the Republican, to the French mission. It was the intent of the United States to avoid a collision with any foreign power, but neutrality was in danger of being considered an offense by either France or England at any moment. Monroe arrived in Paris just after the fall of Robespierre, and in the excitement of the day he did not at once receive recognition from the committee of public safety. He therefore sent a letter to the president of the convention, and arrangements were made for his official reception August 15, 1794. At that time he addressed the convention in terms of great cordiality but his enthusiasm led him beyond his discretion. He transcended the authority that had been given to him, and when his report reached the government at home Randolph sent him a despatch, "in the frankness of friendship," criticising severely the course that the plenipotentiary had pursued. A little later the secretary took a more conciliatory tone, and Monroe believed he never would have spoken so severely if all the despatches from Paris had reached the United States in due order. The residence of Monroe in France was a period of anxious responsibility, during which he did not succeed in recovering the confidence of the authorities at home.

When Pickering succeeded Randolph in the department of state, Monroe was informed that he was superseded by the appointment of Charles C. Pinckney. The letter of recall was dated August 22, 1796. On his return he published a pamphlet of 500 pages, entitled "A View of the Conduct of the Executive" (Philadelphia, 1797), in which he printed his instructions, correspondence with the French and United States governments, speeches, and letters received from American residents in Paris. This publication made a great stir. Washington, who had then retired from public life, appears to have remained quiet under the provocation, but he wrote upon his copy of the "View" animadversions, that have since been published. Party feeling, already excited, became fiercer when Monroe's book appeared, and personalities that have now lost their force were freely uttered on both sides. Under these circumstances Monroe became the hero of the Anti-Federalists, and was at once elected governor of Virginia. He held the office from 1799 till 1802. The most noteworthy occurrence during his administration was the suppression of a servile insurrection by which the city of Richmond was threatened. Monroe's star continued in the ascendant. After Thomas Jefferson's election to the presidency in 1801, an opportunity occurred for returning Mr. Monroe to the French mission, from which he had been recalled a few years previously. There were many reasons for believing that the United States could secure possession of the territory beyond the Mississippi belonging to France. The American minister in Paris, Robert R. Livingston, had already opened the negotiations, and Monroe was sent as an additional plenipotentiary to second, with his enthusiasm and energy, the effort that had been begun. By their joint efforts it came to pass that in the spring of 1803 a treaty was signed by which France gave up to the United States for a pecuniary consideration the vast region then known as Louisiana. Livingston remarked to the plenipotentiaries after the treaty was signed: "We have lived long, but this is the noblest work of our lives."

The story of the negotiations that terminated in this sale is full of romance. Bonaparte, Talleyrand, and Marbois were the representatives of France; Jefferson, Livingston, and Monroe guided the interests of the United States. The French were in need of money and the Americans could afford to pay well for the control of the entrance to the Mississippi. England stood ready to seize the coveted prize. The moment was opportune; the negotiators on both sides were eager for the transfer. It did not take long to agree upon the consideration of 80,000,000 francs as the purchase-money, and the assent of Bonaparte was secured. "I have given to England," he said, exultingly, "a maritime rival that will sooner or later humble her pride." It is evident that the history of the United States has been largely influenced by this transaction, which virtually extended the national domain from the mouth of the Mississippi river to the mouth of the Columbia. Monroe went from Paris to London, where he was accredited to the court of St. James, and subsequently went to Spain in order to negotiate for the cession of Florida to the United States. But he was not successful in this, and returned to London, where, with the aid of William Pinkney, who was sent to re-enforce his efforts, he concluded a treaty with Great Britain after long negotiations frequently interrupted. This treaty failed to meet the expectations of the United States in two important particulars—it made no provisions against the impressment of seamen, and it secured no indemnity for loss that Americans had incurred in the seizure of their goods and vessels. Jefferson was so dissatisfied that he would not send the treaty to the senate. Monroe returned home in 1807 and at once drew up an elaborate defence of his political conduct. Matters were evidently drifting toward war between Great Britain and the United States. Again the disappointed and discredited diplomatist received a token of popular approbation. He was for the third time elected to the assembly, and in 1811 was chosen for the second time governor of Virginia. He remained in this office but a short time, for he was soon called by Madison to the office of secretary of state. He held the portfolio during the next six years, from 1811 to 1817. In 1814–'15 he also acted as secretary of war. While he was a member of the cabinet of Madison, hostilities were begun between the United States and England. The public buildings in Washington were burned, and it was only by the most strenuous measures that the progress of the British was interrupted. Monroe gained much popularity by the measures that he took for the protection of the capital, and for the enthusiasm with which he prosecuted the war measures of the government.

Monroe had now held almost every important station except that of president to which a politician could aspire. He had served in the legislature of Virginia, in the Continental congress, and in the senate of the United States. He had been a member of the convention that considered the ratification of the constitution, twice he had served as governor, twice he had been sent abroad as a minister, and he had been accredited to three great powers. He had left two places in the cabinet of Madison. With the traditions of those days, which regarded experience in political affairs a qualification for an exalted station, it was most natural that Monroe should become a candidate for the presidency. Eight years previously his fitness for the office had been often discussed. Now, in 1816, at the age of fifty-nine years, almost exactly the age at which Jefferson and Madison attained the same position, he was elected president of the United States, receiving 183 votes in the electoral college against 34 that were given for Rufus King, the candidate of the Federalists. He continued in this office until 1825. His second election in 1821 was made with almost complete unanimity, but one electoral vote being given against him. Daniel T. Tompkins was vice-president during both presidential terms. John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun, William H. Crawford, and William Wirt were members of the cabinet during his entire administration. The principal subjects that engaged the attention of the president were the defences of the Atlantic seaboard, the promotion of internal improvements, the conduct of the Seminole war, the acquisition of Florida, the Missouri compromise, and the resistance to foreign interference in American affairs, formulated in a declaration that is called the "Monroe doctrine."


[Fac-simile letter from James Monroe to the General Assembly of Virginia]

Two social events marked the beginning and the end of his administration: first, his ceremonious visit to the principal cities of the north and south; and, second, the national reception of the Marquis de Lafayette, who came to this country as the nation's guest. The purchase of the Floridas was brought to a successful issue, February 22, 1819, by a treaty with Spain, concluded at Washington, and thus the control of the entire Atlantic and Gulf seaboard, from the St. Croix to the Sabine, was secured to the United States. Monroe's influence in the controversies that preceded the Missouri compromise does not appear to have been very strong. He showed none of the boldness which Jefferson would have exhibited under similar circumstances. He took more interest in guiding the national policy with respect to internal improvements and the defence of the seaboard. He vetoed the Cumberland road bill, May 4, 1822, on the ground that congress had no right to execute a system of internal improvement; but he held that if such powers could be secured by constitutional amendment good results would follow. Even then he held that the general government should undertake only works of national significance, and should leave all minor improvements to the separate states.

There is no measure with which the name of Monroe is connected so important as his enunciation of the "Monroe doctrine." The words of this famous utterance constitute two paragraphs in the president's message of December 2, 1823. In the first of these paragraphs he declares that the governments of Russia and Great Britain have been informed that the American continents henceforth are not to be considered subjects for future colonization by any European powers. In the second paragraph he says that the United States would consider any attempt on the part of the European powers to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. He goes further, and says that, if the governments established in North and South America who have declared their independence of European control should be interfered with by any European power, this interference would be regarded as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition to the United States. These utterances were addressed especially to Spain and Portugal. They undoubtedly expressed the dominant sentiments of the people of the United States at the time they were uttered, and, moreover, they embodied a doctrine which had been vaguely held in the days of Washington, and from that time to the administration of Monroe had been more and more clearly avowed. It has received the approval of successive administrations and of the foremost publicists and statesmen. The peace and prosperity of America have been greatly promoted by the declaration, almost universally assented to, that European states are not to gain new dominion in America. For convenience of reference the two passages of the message are here quoted:

"At the proposal of the Russian imperial government, made through the minister of the emperor residing here, full power and instructions have been transmitted to the minister of the United States at St. Petersburg to arrange, by amicable negotiation, the respective rights and interests of the two nations on the northwest coast of this continent. A similar proposal has been made by his imperial majesty to the government of Great Britain, which has likewise been acceded to. The government of the United States has been desirous, by this friendly proceeding, of manifesting the great value which they have invariably attached to the friendship of the emperor, and their solicitude to cultivate the best understanding with his government. In the discussions to which this interest has given rise, and in the arrangements by which they may terminate, the occasion has been judged proper for asserting, as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European power. … We owe it, therefore, to candor, and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers, to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered, and shall not interfere. But with the governments who have declared their independence and maintained it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power, in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States."

Copyright, 1913, Southern Railway Co.


At the close of Monroe's second term as president he retired to private life, and during the seven years that remained to him resided part of the time at Oak Hill, Loudon County, Va., and part of the time in the city of New York. The illustration accompanying this biography is a picture of Oak Hill. He accepted the office of regent in the University of Virginia in 1826 with Jefferson and Madison. He was asked to serve on the electoral ticket of Virginia in 1828, but declined on the ground that an ex-president should not be a party-leader. He consented to act as a local magistrate, however, and to become a member of the Virginia constitutional convention. The administration of Monroe has often been designated as the "era of good feeling." Schouler, the historian, has found this heading on an article that appeared in the Boston "Centinel" of July 12, 1817.

It is, on the whole, a suitable phrase to indicate the state of political affairs that succeeded to the troublesome period of organization and preceded the fearful strains of threatened disruption and of civil war. One idea is consistently represented by Monroe from the beginning to the end of his public life—the idea that America is for Americans, that the territory of the United States is to be protected and enlarged, and that foreign intervention will never be permitted. In his early youth Monroe enlisted for the defence of American independence. He was one of the first to perceive the importance of free navigation upon the Mississippi; he negotiated with France and Spain for the acquisition of Louisiana and Florida; he gave a vigorous impulse to the second war with Great Britain in defence of our maritime rights when the rights of a neutral power were endangered; and he enunciated a dictum against foreign interference which has now the force of international law. Judged by the high stations he was called upon to fill, his career was brilliant; but the writings he has left in state papers and correspondence are inferior to those of Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and others of his contemporaries. He is rather to be honored as an upright and patriotic citizen who served his party with fidelity and never condescended to low and unworthy measures. He deserved well of the country, which he served faithfully during his career. After his retirement from the office of president he urged upon the government, the judgment of unsettled claims which he presented for outlays made during his prolonged political services abroad, and for which he had never received adequate remuneration. During the advance of old age his time was largely occupied in correspondence, and he undertook to write a philosophical history of the origin of free governments, which was published long after his decease. While attending congress, Monroe married, in 1786, a daughter of Lawrence Kortright, of New York. One of his two daughters, Eliza, married George Hay, of Virginia, and the other, Maria, married Samuel L. Gouverneur, of New York.

A large number of manuscripts, including drafts of state papers, letters addressed to Monroe, and letters from him, have been preserved. Most of these have been purchased by congress and are preserved in the archives of the state department; others are still held by his descendants. Schouler, in his "History of the United States," has made use of this material to advantage, particularly in his account of the administrations of Madison and Monroe, which he has treated in detail. Bancroft, in his "History of the Constitution," draws largely upon the Monroe papers, many of which he prints for the first time. The eulogy of John Quincy Adams (Boston, 1831) and his diary afford the best contemporary view of Monroe's characteristics as a statesman. Jefferson, Madison, Webster, Calhoun, and Colonel Benton have each left their appreciative estimates of his character.

The remains of James Monroe were buried in Marble cemetery, Second street, between First and Second avenues, New York, but in 1858 were taken to Richmond, Va., and there reinterred on April 28 in Hollywood Cemetery. See Samuel P. Waldo's "Tour of James Monroe through the Northern and Eastern States, with a Sketch of his Life" (Hartford, 1819); "Life of James Monroe, with a Notice of his Administration," by John Quincy Adams (Buffalo, 1850); "Concise History of the Monroe Doctrine," by George F. Tucker (Boston, 1885); and Daniel C. Gilman's life of Monroe, in the "American Statesmen" series (Boston, 1883). In this volume is an appendix by J. F. Jameson, which gives a list of writings pertaining to Monroe's career and to the Monroe doctrine. His writings in 7 vols., edited by S. M. Hamilton, were published in New York in 1898–1903. President Monroe's portrait by Gilbert Stuart is in the possession of Thomas J. Coolidge, of Massachusetts, late American minister to France, and that by John Vanderlyn, which is reproduced in this chapter, is in the City-hall New York.

Elizabeth Edit

His wife, Elizabeth Kortright, born in New York City in 1768; died in Loudon County, Va., in 1830, was the daughter of Lawrence Kortright, a captain in the British army. She married James Monroe in 1786, accompanied him in his missions abroad in 1794 and 1803, and while he was U. S. minister to France she effected the release of Madame de Lafayette, who was confined in the prison of La Force, hourly expecting to be executed. On the accession of her husband to the presidency Mrs. Monroe became the mistress of the White House; but she mingled little in society on account of her delicate health. She is described by a contemporary writer as "an elegant and accomplished woman, with a dignity of manner that peculiarly fitted her for the station." The vignette, which appears in the group at the end of this volume, is copied from the only portrait that was ever made of Mrs. Monroe, and was executed in Paris in 1796.

James Edit

His nephew, James, soldier, born in Albemarle County, Va., September 10, 1799; died in Orange, N. J., September 7, 1870, was a son of the president's elder brother, Andrew. He was graduated at the U. S. military academy in 1815, assigned to the artillery corps, and served in the war with Algiers, in which he was wounded while directing part of the quarter-deck guns of the "Guerrière" in an action with the "Mashouda" off Cape de Gata, Spain. He was aide to Gen. Winfield Scott in 1817–'22, became 1st lieutenant of the 4th artillery on the reorganization of the army in 1821, and served on garrison and commissary duty till 1832, when he was again appointed Gen. Scott's aide on the Black Hawk expedition, but did not reach the seat of war, owing to illness. He resigned his commission on September 30, 1832, and entered politics, becoming an alderman of New York City in 1833, and president of the board in 1834. In 1836 he declined the appointment of aide to Gov. William L. Marcy. He was in congress in 1839–'41, and was chosen again in 1846, but his seat was contested, and congress ordered a new election, at which he refused to be a candidate. During the Mexican war he was active in urging the retention in command of Gen. Scott. In 1850–'2 he was in the New York legislature, and in 1852 was an earnest supporter of his old chief for the presidency. After the death of his wife in that year he retired from politics, and spent much of his time at the Union club, of which he was one of the earliest and most popular members. Just before the civil war be visited Richmond, and, by public speeches and private effort, tried to prevent the secession of Virginia, and in the struggle that followed he remained a firm supporter of the National government. He much resembled his uncle in personal appearance.

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