Tuesday, February 25, 2014

James Monroe

Richmond, VA          Visited September 1998

James Monroe was the fifth President of the United States and the last of the Founding Fathers to ascend to the nation’s highest office.  Revolutionary War veteran, Founding Father, senator, governor, diplomat, Secretary of State – there may have been no president in history better qualified to occupy the nation’s highest office.  

James Monroe was born into a wealthy Virginia plantation family in 1758.  His parents died when he was in his teens and he wound up enrolling at the College of William and Mary in 1774.  Williamsburg was a hotbed for revolutionary sentiment and Monroe found himself caught up in it.  James and some friends raided the Governor’s Palace and stole a cache of muskets and swords to the fledgling Virginia Militia.

"Washington Crossing the Delaware" by Emanuel Leutze - James Monroe is holding the flag.

 With the outbreak of the war James Monroe enlisted in the Continental Army, soon joining George Washington’s army in New York.  He proved himself an able soldier and was severely wounded leading a charge on a cannon in the Battle of Trenton (December 26, 1776).  Following his recovery Monroe was promoted to major, and he later served as a colonel in the Virginia Militia through the end of the war. 

James Monroe had developed a relationship with Thomas Jefferson during the war and after Independence joined Jefferson’s law practice.  He was elected to the Continental Congress in 1783.  During the Congress, he met his future wife Elizabeth and, a year later the 27-year-old James and the 17-year-old Elizabeth were married.  The couple moved to Fredericksburg, VA where James set up a law practice.  The Monroe’s ultimately had three children.

Inauguration of James Monroe
In 1788, Monroe was named as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention.  He voted against ratification because the document lacked a Bill of Rights, which was, of course, later added.  He was appointed to the US Senate from Virginia, but in 1794 was sent by President Washington as Minister to France, only to be recalled in 1797.  He served three years as Governor of Virginia and then, in 1803, was sent back to France by President Jefferson to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase.  He later served as minister to England, returning to the States to run for president in the 1808 election.  He was easily defeated by James Madison, but was later asked by Madison to serve as secretary of state.  Monroe held this office during the War of 1812 and organized the evacuation of Washington prior to the British attack on the city.  After two terms, Madison declined to run again for the presidency and Monroe easily won election in 1816.

Official White House portrait by Samuel Morse

James Monroe entered the presidency at the time of greatest national stability and prosperity of any president up that time.  He was universally popular and, because of significant travel, was remarkably well known throughout the country.  The major event in his first term was the complicated political and constitutional arrangement that became known as the Missouri Compromise.  The Compromise was an attempt to resolve the first sectional dispute over slavery since the Constitution was ratified.  It was in essence a trade-off of the admission of Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state with an agreement to keep free/slave state balances in the years to come.  In the long term, the compromise didn’t resolve the slavery issue.  It took the Civil War to do that.    

James apparently selling his Monroe Doctrine

James Monroe has the distinction of being the only president to run un-opposed for the office (due to the lack of an organized opposition party) and he won what amounts to a second term by acclamation in 1820.  The biggest event of Monroe’s second term became known as the Monroe Doctrine.  Concerned with the threat of European countries (including Russia) re-colonizing the Western Hemisphere, President Monroe used his 1823 Congressional Address to declare that the United States would consider any invasive action by a European Power in the Western Hemisphere to be an attack on American interests.  The US government had no real means to enforce the doctrine, but it happened to coincide with British interests and the British Navy served as the practical enforcement agents of the policy.

A history of Monroe's presidency.  Also check out a Disney version of Monroe's life  here

Portrait of the President in retirement

Like his predecessors, James Monroe declined the opportunity to run for a third term as president.  He left office in 1824 with significant personal debt and retired to his home of Oak Hill, VA.  His wife Elizabeth passed away in 1830 and James moved to New York City to live with his children.  His health did not sustain and, on July 4, 1831, he died in New York at the age of 73.  James Monroe is the third of the first five presidents to die on Independence Day.  He was initially buried in New York City, but was later moved to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, VA. 

Gilbert Stuart Portrait of Second Term Presidency

James Monroe is usually ranked in the top ten presidents by those who do those sorts of things.  His presidency in many ways signaled the end of the colonial era of American history.  He was by all accounts a bright and capable leader who built consensus and worked often with the opposition in the pursuit of what he felt would be the national interest.  His mentor Thomas Jefferson said of his protégé,

'Monroe was so honest that if you turned his soul inside out there would not be a spot on it.'


I visited Hollywood Cemetery with my family as part of a two-day trip to Richmond on our way to a beach holiday.  I didn’t even know Monroe was buried in the Cemetery when I went.  I just saw an unusual wrought-iron crypt as I was driving through the cemetery and checked it out.  Hollywood Cemetery is a must see for anyone interested in Civil War history in the Richmond area.     

1 comment:

  1. My name is J. Yan. I'm interested in your content about Monroe. I will ask you the color painting of "James apparently selling his Monroe Doctrine"
    Where did you find this portrait? I'd like to know the source of this figure. I saw black & white image on the website of Harry Ammon /HAMPTON HIGH SCHOOL Gale Databases. Did you trim original image?