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James Monroe

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James Monroe
5th President of the United States
In office
March 4, 1817 – March 4, 1825
Vice President Daniel D. Tompkins
Preceded by James Madison
Succeeded by John Quincy Adams
7th United States Secretary of State
In office
April 2, 1811 – September 30, 1814
February 28, 1815 March 4, 1817
President James Madison
Preceded by Robert Smith
Succeeded by John Quincy Adams
8th United States Secretary of War
In office
September 27, 1814 – March 2, 1815
President James Madison
Preceded by John Armstrong, Jr.
Succeeded by William H. Crawford
16th Governor of Virginia
In office
January 16, 1811 – April 5, 1811
Preceded by George William Smith
Succeeded by George William Smith
12th Governor of Virginia
In office
December 19, 1799 – December 1, 1802
Preceded by James Wood
Succeeded by John Page
Personal details
Born (1758-04-28)April 28, 1758
Westmoreland County, Virginia
Died July 4, 1831(1831-07-04) (aged 73)
New York City, New York
Nationality American
Political party Democratic-Republican
Spouse(s) Elizabeth Kortright Monroe
Alma mater The College of William and Mary
Occupation Farmer ( Planter)
Religion nominal Episcopal

James Monroe ( April 28, 1758 July 4, 1831) was the fifth President of the United States (1817–1825). His administration was marked by the acquisition of Florida (1819); the Missouri Compromise (1820), in which Missouri was declared a slave state; and the profession of the Monroe Doctrine (1823), declaring U.S. opposition to European interference in the Americas, as well as breaking all ties with France remaining from the War of 1812.

Early years

The president’s parents, father Spence Monroe (ca. 1727–1774), a woodworker and tobacco farmer, and mother Elizabeth Jones Monroe, had significant land holdings but little money. Like his parents, he was a slaveholder. Born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, Monroe went to school at Campbelltown Academy and then the College of William and Mary, both in Virginia. After graduating from William and Mary in 1776, Monroe fought in the Continental Army, serving with distinction at the Battle of Trenton, where he was shot in his left shoulder. He is depicted holding the flag in the famous painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware. Following his war service, he practiced law in Fredericksburg, Virginia. James Monroe married Elizabeth Kortright on February 16, 1786 at the Trinity Church in New York.

Monroe was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1782 and served in the Continental Congress from 1783 to 1786. As a youthful politician, he joined the anti-Federalists in the Virginia Convention which ratified the Constitution, and in 1790, was elected United States Senator.

After his term in the Senate, Monroe was appointed Minister to France from 1794 to 1796. His appointment there was made difficult as he had strong sympathies for the French Revolution, but dutifully maintained President Washington's strict policy of neutrality between Britain and France.

Out of office, Monroe returned to practicing law in Virginia until elected governor there, serving from 1799 to 1802.

Under the first Jefferson administration, Monroe was dispatched to France to assist Robert R. Livingston to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase. Monroe was then appointed Minister to the Court of St. James (Britain) from 1803 to 1807. In 1806 he negotiated a treaty with Britain to replace the Jay Treaty of 1794, but Jefferson rejected it as unsatisfactory, as the treaty contained no ban on the British practice of impressment of American sailors. As a result, the two nations moved closer toward the War of 1812.

Monroe returned to the Virginia House of Delegates and was elected to another term as governor of Virginia in 1811, but he resigned a few months into the term. He then served as Secretary of State from 1811 to 1814. When he was appointed to the post of Secretary of War in 1814, he stayed on as the Secretary of State ad interim. At the war's end in 1815, he was again commissioned as the permanent Secretary of State, and left his position as Secretary of War. Thus from October 1, 1814 to February 28, 1815, Monroe effectively held both cabinet posts. Monroe stayed on as Secretary of State until the end of the James Madison Presidency, and the following day Monroe began his term as the new President of the United States.

Presidency 1817–1825: The Era of Good Feelings

Official White House portrait of James Monroe


In both the presidential elections of 1816 and 1820 Monroe ran nearly unopposed. Attentive to detail, well prepared on most issues, non-partisan in spirit, and above all pragmatic, Monroe managed his presidential duties well. He made strong Cabinet choices, naming a southerner, John C. Calhoun, as Secretary of War, and a northerner, John Quincy Adams, as Secretary of State. Only Henry Clay's refusal to accept a position kept Monroe from adding an outstanding westerner. Most appointments went to deserving Democratic-Republicans, but he did not try to use them to build the party's base. Indeed, he allowed the base to decay, which reduced anxiety and led to the naming of his period as the " Era of Good Feelings". To build good will, he made two long tours in 1817. Frequent stops allowed innumerable ceremonies of welcome and good will. The Federalist Party dwindled and eventually died out, starting with the Hartford Convention. Practically every politician that held a Federal office belonged to the Democratic-Republican Party, but the party maintained its vitality and organizational integrity at the state and local level but dwindled at the federal level due to redistricting. The party's Congressional caucus stopped meeting, and there were no national conventions.

During his presidency, Congress demanded high subsidies for internal improvements, such as for the Cumberland Road. Monroe vetoed the Cumberland Road Bill, which provided for yearly improvements to the road, because he believed it to be "unconstitutional" for the government to pass such a bill.

These "good feelings" endured until 1824, when John Quincy Adams was elected President by the House of Representatives in what Andrew Jackson alleged was a "corrupt bargain." Monroe's popularity, however, was undiminished. Monroe followed nationalist policies. Across the commitment to nationalism, sectional cracks appeared. The Panic of 1819 caused a painful economic depression. The application for statehood by the Missouri Territory, in 1819, as a slave state failed. An amended bill for gradually eliminating slavery in Missouri precipitated two years of bitter debate in Congress. The Missouri Compromise bill resolved the struggle, pairing Missouri as a slave state with Maine, a free state, and barring slavery north and west of Missouri forever. [decades later, the Missouri Compromise was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court].

Monroe began to formally recognize the young sister republics (the former Spanish colonies) in 1822. He and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams had wished to avoid trouble with Spain until it had ceded the Floridas to the U.S., which was done in 1821.

Monroe is probably best known for the Monroe Doctrine, which he delivered in his message to Congress on December 2, 1823. In it, he proclaimed the Americas should be free from future European colonization and free from European interference in sovereign countries' affairs. It further stated the United States' intention to stay neutral in European wars and wars between European powers and their colonies, but to consider any new colonies or interference with independent countries in the Americas as hostile acts toward the United States.

Britain, with its powerful navy, also opposed re-conquest of Latin America and suggested that the United States join in proclaiming "hands off." Ex-Presidents Jefferson and Madison counseled Monroe to accept the offer, but Secretary Adams advised, "It would be more candid ... to avow our principles explicitly to Russia and France, than to come in as a cock-boat in the wake of the British man-of-war." Monroe accepted Adams' advice. Not only must Latin America be left alone, he warned, but also Russia must not encroach southward on the Pacific coast. "... the American continents," he stated, "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." Some 20 years after Monroe died in 1831 this became known as the Monroe Doctrine.

Administration and Cabinet

Statue of Monroe at Ash Lawn-Highland
The Monroe Cabinet
Office Name Term
President James Monroe 1817–1825
Vice President Daniel D. Tompkins 1817–1825
Secretary of State John Quincy Adams 1817–1825
Secretary of Treasury William H. Crawford 1817–1825
Secretary of War John C. Calhoun 1817–1825
Attorney General Richard Rush 1817
William Wirt 1817–1825
Secretary of the Navy Benjamin W. Crowninshield 1817–1818
Smith Thompson 1819–1823
Samuel L. Southard 1823–1825

Supreme Court appointments

Monroe appointed Smith Thompson to the Supreme Court of the United States.

States admitted to the Union

  • Mississippi December 10, 1817
  • Illinois December 3, 1818
  • Alabama December 14, 1819
  • Maine March 15, 1820
  • Missouri August 11, 1821

When his presidency was over on March 4, 1825, James Monroe lived at Monroe Hill on the grounds of the University of Virginia. This university's modern campus was Monroe's family farm from 1788 to 1817, but he had sold it in the first year of his presidency to the new college. He served on the college's Board of Visitors under Jefferson and then under the second rector and another former President James Madison, until his death.

Monroe had racked up many debts during his years of public life. As a result, he was forced to sell off his Highland Plantation (now called Ash Lawn-Highland; it is owned by his alma mater, the College of William and Mary, which has opened it to the public). Throughout his life, he was not financially solvent, and his wife's poor health made matters worse. For these reasons, he and his wife lived in Oak Hill, Virginia, until Elizabeth's death on 23 September 1830.


Monroe's grave at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. John Tyler's grave is visible in the background.

Upon Elizabeth's death in 1830, Monroe moved to New York City to live with his daughter Maria Hester Monroe Governor who had married Samuel L. Governor in the first White House wedding. Monroe died there from heart failure and tuberculosis on 4 July 1831, becoming the third president to die on the 4th of July. His death came 55 years after the U.S. Declaration of Independence was proclaimed and 5 years after the death of the Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. He was originally buried in New York at the Governor family's vault in the New York City Marble Cemetery. Twenty-seven years later in 1858 he was re-interred to the President's Circle at the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.

Religious beliefs

"When it comes to Monroe's ...thoughts on religion", Bliss Isely comments in his The Presidents: Men of Faith, "less is known than that of any other President." He burned much of his correspondence with his wife, and no letters survive in which he might have discussed his religious beliefs. Nor did his friends, family or associates write about his beliefs. Letters that do survive, such as ones written on the occasion of the death of his son, contain no discussion of religion.

Monroe was raised in a family that belonged to the Church of England when it was the state church in Virginia, and as an adult frequently attended Episcopalian churches, though there is no record he ever took communion. He has been classified by some historians as a Deist, and he did use deistic language to refer to God. Jefferson had been attacked as an atheist and infidel for his deistic views, but never Monroe. Unlike Jefferson, Monroe was not anticlerical.

Famous Quotes by James Monroe

Presidential Dollar of James Monroe

"It is only when the people become ignorant and corrupt, when they degenerate into a populace, that they are incapable of exercising their sovereignty. Usurpation is then an easy attainment, and an usurper soon found. The people themselves become the willing instruments of their own debasement and ruin."

"The best form of government is that which is most likely to prevent the greatest sum of evil."

"Never did a government commence under auspices so favorable, nor ever was success so complete. If we look to the history of other nations, ancient or modern, we find no example of a growth so rapid, so gigantic, of a people so prosperous and happy."

"In this great nation there is but one order, that of the people, whose power, by a peculiarly happy improvement of the representative principle, is transferred from them, without impairing in the slightest degree their sovereignty, to bodies of their own creation, and to persons elected by themselves, in the full extent necessary for the purposes of free, enlightened, and efficient government."

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