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James Monroe, fifth president of the United States (1817–25), presided over an era sometimes called one of "Good Feelings" but actually filled with intense factional strife. The Monroe Doctrine climaxed a series of brilliant foreign policy successes during his administrations.
Monroe was born on Apr. 28, 1758, on his parents' small plantation in Westmoreland County, Va. An orphan at age 16, he was fortunate to have as his guardian a wealthy uncle, Joseph Jones, who turned the young man's attention toward law and politics. After 2 years at the College of William and Mary, Monroe left in March 1776 to fight in the American Revolution. He was commissioned lieutenant in a Virginia regiment and marched to join George Washington's army. He fought in the battles around New York that summer and was one of the conspicuous heroes of the Battle of Trenton in December 1776. Monroe served for 2 more years, earning Washington's praise as "a brave, active, and sensible officer"—qualities that were in fact the hallmarks of his long public career.
In 1779, Monroe formed the most important association of his life when he began the study of law under Thomas Jefferson, who was then governor of Virginia. Jefferson came to value Monroe for his persistence, patriotism, and devotion to republican principles. The two men, together with James Madison, formed political and personal bonds that lasted for half a century. Monroe soon began a steady accumulation of offices: member of the Virginia legislature (1782); delegate to the Continental Congress (1783–86); member of the Virginia ratifying convention (1788), where he opposed adoption of the new federal Constitution; U.S. senator from Virginia (1790–94); minister to France (1794–96); and governor of Virginia (1799–1802). By 1800 he was among the national leaders of the Jeffersonian, or Democratic-Republican, party.
President Jefferson sent him on a second mission in 1803 to help Robert R. Livingston (see Livingston family) negotiate the purchase of New Orleans from the French. The two Americans were astonished when Napoleon I offered to sell the entire Louisiana Territory, which they quickly and adroitly negotiated to purchase for the United States (see Louisiana Purchase). The rest of Monroe's mission in Europe was less successful. He spent 18 months in Madrid negotiating inconclusively for the purchase of Florida from Spain. After a further 18 months of negotiation he and William Pinkney obtained a commercial treaty with Great Britain. It did not, however, prohibit impressment, the chief American grievance against Britain. Therefore Jefferson refused to submit the treaty to the Senate for ratification. Monroe felt betrayed and unappreciated and was enough estranged from his colleagues to challenge Madison for the presidency in 1808. When Madison won, the unhappy Monroe kept aloof from the new administration for two years. He restored his political fortunes, however, by being elected governor of Virginia again in 1811.
In 1811, Madison, who had always regretted the break with his old friend, invited Monroe to become his secretary of state. Monroe accepted and was thus Madison's chief counselor as hostilities with Britain became increasingly inevitable. Although Monroe yearned for a military command, he loyally stayed at Madison's side throughout the War of 1812. After the British capture of Washington in August 1814 he also became secretary of war, giving firm direction to the war effort and sharing in the military and diplomatic triumphs that concluded the war in 1815.
As Madison's heir apparent, and with the Federalists in disgrace for having opposed and even hindered the war, Monroe was elected president by an overwhelming majority in 1816. His unopposed reelection in 1820 ranks him with Washington as the least partisan of American presidents. This apparent political harmony gives some justification to the label Era of Good Feelings, an expression coined by a Federalist newspaper.
Monroe, who appointed one of the most talented cabinets in American history, hoped that the period of factionalism, and even of political parties, had indeed ended. The tensions and disputes inherent in a free political system, however, left him entangled in sectional differences and beset by personal rivalries—especially among John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun, and William H. Crawford (all members of his cabinet) for succession to the presidency. Monroe gave some direction to domestic events—by supporting increases in the tariff, opposing restrictions on slavery in Missouri as a prerequisite to statehood (see Missouri Compromise), and rejecting federal subsidy of internal improvements except by constitutional amendment—but in general, partisan and sectional jealousies overwhelmed his good intentions.
In foreign affairs, however, Monroe's presidency was triumphant, thanks largely to the efforts of the brilliant secretary of state, John Quincy Adams. Monroe approved the Rush-Bagot Agreement (1817), demilitarizing the long boundary with Canada; a treaty (1818) that provided for joint Anglo-American occupation of the Oregon Territory; the Adams-Onís Treaty (1819), which purchased Florida from Spain and demarked the U.S. boundary with Spanish territory across the Rocky Mountains all the way to the Pacific Ocean; and a Russo-American treaty (1824) limiting Russian expansion down the Pacific coast. These treaties, establishing the United States for the first time as a transcontinental power, together with the declaration of the Monroe Doctrine (1823), which validated Anglo-American cooperation in supporting the newly won independence of Spain's Latin American colonies, set the outlines of both U.S. westward expansion and relations with the rest of the world for nearly a century. Monroe left the presidency in 1825 and retired to his country estate in Virginia.
Less heroic than Washington, less brilliant than Madison, less creative than Jefferson, less charismatic than Alexander Hamilton, and less learned than the Adamses, Monroe was nevertheless the prototype of the public servant vital to the new republic: honest, hardworking, self-sacrificing, judicious, and trusting in democracy. His good judgment and conscientious attention to the public welfare made him, like Washington, a trusted soldier and a worthy president. He died in New York City on July 4, 1831, revered by his countrymen as "the last of the cocked hats," that is, the last revolutionary soldier and statesman to have served the nation in high public office.Ralph Ketcham
Ammon, Harry, James Monroe (1971).
Cunningham, Noble E., Jr., The Presidency of James Monroe (1996).
Dangerfield, George, Awakening of American Nationalism, 1815–1828 (1965).
Monroe, James, Autobiography of James Monroe, ed. by S. G. Brown (1959) and Writings of James Monroe, ed. by S. M. Hamilton, 7 vols. (1898–1903).
Wilmerding, L., James Monroe, Public Claimant (1960).
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