Years in office: 1817-1825
Pre-service occupations: soldier, diplomat, Confederation congressman, Virginia legislator and governor, U.S. senator, secretary of state (Madison), secretary of war (Madison)
Key events during his administration: acquisition of Florida (1819) and first Seminole war (1819); Missouri compromise (1820), Monroe Doctrine (1823); states admitted to the Union: Mississippi (1817), Illinois (1818), Alabama (1819), Maine (1820), Missouri (1821); Panic of 1819
Presidential rating: Mostly successful and popular
On Christmas Day, 1776, George Washington led his army across the ice-clogged Delaware River to attack a Hessian force encamped at Trenton, New Jersey. The battle was more complicated than legend says—the Hessians weren’t caught in a drunken stupor—but Gen. Washington’s men achieved surprise and carried the day.
Only two Americans were wounded, both seriously. One was young Lieutenant James Monroe, shot in the shoulder while rushing an artillery battery. A doctor clamped his severed artery, which prevented his bleeding to death.
Lt. Monroe would return to the army in late 1777 in time to freeze at the infamous winter camp at Valley Forge. He would later fight in Washington’s solid victory at Monmouth Courthouse in 1778, and would leave the army for good as a colonel. Bitterly disappointed that he couldn’t obtain a field command, Monroe turned to politics in 1780, a path that lead him to the White House 36 years later.
James Monroe was the last man to become president as a hero of the Revolution—as an officer of the line, not as a political, theoretical or rhetorical hero. But no other man connected with the Revolution itself—politician or soldier—ever attained the White House again.
Monroe is the only president to be remembered primarily for a policy bearing his name—a policy that is still in effect. The Monroe Doctrine, in biographer Gary Hart’s odd words, makes him our “first national security president.” But it’s by no means all there was to Monroe, or all that defines his era. Monroe lead the nation in a time that was mislabeled the “Era of Good Feelings” where westward expansion truly commenced, commerce started anew after the war—and the nation’s first economic depression set in following that war—and the nation shook with the first of many major convulsions over slavery.
It was a time when America first got cocky. After all, we had just defeated the world’s mightiest power—at least, we fooled ourselves into thinking that—and seemed, for a little while, invincible. The era did seem full of good feelings. And James Monroe seemed like the right man for the job to carry forward Democrat-Republican principles from the east coast to the ever-expanding west.
By 1816, James Monroe was one of the most qualified men in the country to be considered the next chief executive, if not the most. Governor, state legislator, congressman of the Confederation, senator, secretary of state, secretary of war, diplomat and foreign minister: he was indeed an amazingly well-rounded man. But the experience that counted most in men’s eyes was that prize of presidential appointments: secretary of state.
He was also well-known, thanks to his foreign adventures: he helped negotiate with Napoleon for Louisiana, and waged war and peace with Madison in the late conflict with England. But all was not well in his party. New Yorkers in particular weren’t keen at the thought of yet another Virginian becoming president. Purist Republican members of Congress held a caucus in early 1816, in hopes of choosing another candidate, but in another caucus among all Republican members a few days later, Monroe was selected. This had the dual effect of Monroe being selected by Congress to be the next president, thus “owing” his ascendancy to them, and also ensuring that Monroe would be the next president. The Federalist standard bearer, Rufus King, never actively campaigned, and Monroe swept to an easy victory.
A strong cabinet and one-party unity
Unlike his predecessor’s choices for officers, Monroe’s cabinet choices were superb. At state, he named John Quincy Adams of New England, a Federalist convert to Republicanism and famed not so much for his father but for his established skills as a diplomat. For war, he had asked Henry Clay, but Clay declined in a puff, mad that he wasn’t given State. (Clay would become his nemesis in Congress.) The post would go to John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. At treasury, Monroe retained Madison’s last secretary, William H. Crawford.
Monroe’s wish was to have a strong representative from each section of the nation in his cabinet, in part to have a voice from those sections—smart—but also because he wanted to continue Jefferson’s mission of burying the Federalists. Monroe wanted to return to the earliest days of America where there were no parties, and it seemed like an obtainable goal with the Federalists marginalized to New England.
The so-called “Era of Good Feelings” actually began shortly after Monroe’s inauguration. The new president embarked on an unprecedented—and never repeated—good-will tour around the Union. At first, he wanted to remain inconspicuous, and just visit coastal defenses as a pretext to building them up (a major hallmark of his presidency), but Republican well-wishers and ordinary citizens turned out wherever he went. Even Federalist New England received him well—a Connecticut newspaper editorialized that “The demon of [political] party for a time departed, and gave place for a general burst of National Feeling.” (Cunningham, p.36)
Monroe was not an eloquent speaker, or even a memorable one, unlike his predecessors in the presidency. But he could speak on the fly, and often responded with off-the-cuff or rapidly prepared speeches several times a week or even several times a day during his tour. He also became the first president to venture west of the Appalachians, traveling as far west as Detroit—which fit perfectly with his idea that the west was the future of America. (Keep in mind that, back then, the Ohio and Tennessee river valleys were the American west, with the Louisiana territory being considered the American desert.) The president visited the northeast and the northwest in 1817, and went on a second tour through the south and mid-western states and even the Cherokee nation in 1819. He was urged to make a third trip to visit New Orleans and western territories like Missouri, but the trips were exhausting, and he never went again.
Still, no other president has equaled Monroe’s goodwill travels, nor been so repeatedly enthusiastically received everywhere he went. (A president coming to town in those days was a once in a lifetime event, so naturally they were grand affairs.)
Headaches with General Jackson and Florida
The goodwill sparked by Monroe’s travels lasted for some time—even throughout the era, for there were no wars, and the major domestic political issues of the day were settled rather quickly when compared to the usual snail pace of matters in Washington. But the “Era of Good Feelings” masked some of the tensions of the period, which saw the smallest hint of a flexing of America’s muscle, now that she seemed, at last, free from the possibility of foreign interference.
Gen. Andrew Jackson, however, seemed determined to impose his will on the new president, Monroe’s policies be damned. Jackson, victor of the battle of New Orleans, commanded the southern department. Monroe and his secretary of war, James Calhoun, ordered Jackson to deal with the aggressive Seminole Indians in Florida. Florida was not yet a state and still belonged to Spain, except for a western segment that would eventually form the gulf segments of Alabama and Mississippi.
Jackson, however, “interpreted” his orders to pacify the Seminole to include eliminating those agitating the Indians: the Spanish. Against orders, Jackson advanced on and captured two Spanish forts and Spanish-held Pensacola, and executed two men he claimed were British agents. While Jackson’s actions actually did pacify upper Florida, they created an unwelcome diplomatic situation for the president. Jackson had already proven troublesome by refusing an order from the War Department until Monroe straitened out that matter; now he threatened to bring war with Spain.
Monroe and his party definitely wanted to add Florida to the Union (a goal of Jefferson’s, actually), but he wanted to do it legally and without war with Spain. Subsequent congressional investigations produced nothing. In a fascinating letter exchange between the president and Jackson, Monroe soften his dismay and rendered the matter a misunderstanding; Jackson, however, was miffed that he was even questioned. Monroe eventually dropped the matter because Jackson’s actions exposed Spain’s weakness in Florida and led directly to the Adams-Onis treaty (see the Monroe Doctrine below). Jackson, by the way, emerged more popular than ever.
Historians differ over who was at “fault” here: an ambiguous Monroe or an over-zealous Jackson. I’m inclined to think the latter, based on the letters exchanged between the two men, Monroe’s coolness and Jackson’s reputation for being a hothead.
An expedition into the wilderness
Florida was not the only region to lay in Monroe’s expansionist plans. He also looked to the west and upper west, and with the enthusiastic support of secretary of war Calhoun, he commissioned a joint military-scientific expedition to the mouth of the Missouri in 1819-1820. The idea was to both place a military presence in the Yellowstone region and begin mapping and recording the vast Louisiana territory beyond what Louis & Clark had done nearly 15 years earlier.
You’ve probably never heard of the Long expedition because things went wrong from the start: supply problems, steamboat troubles, money woes, death, and other concerns dogged the expedition so that in never came off as planned. In the end, the scientific arm of the expedition wound up reaching the mouth of the Platte, then cut south then back east. Despite being something of a fiasco, it nevertheless brought back a plethora of scientific data, maps, reports and diaries—and even excited the nation for a brief while. It’s a small feather in Monroe’s cap that has seemingly been lost to history.
The Panic of 1819 and presidential style
Monroe had a hands-on approach to his presidency, as proven by his involvement in the Long expedition (but not to the extent that Jefferson was in planning Lewis & Clark’s journey) and also in the written record of his communications with his department heads. Although Monroe was not brilliant like Jefferson or Madison, or commanding like Washington, he was able to have his way as president by seeking his cabinet’s opinion—or that of Congress—and then making his decision. Never one to act hastily, Monroe would gage all sides of an argument, often hearing contradictory advice from Adams, Calhoun and Crawford (his principle cabinet) and then acting. Although the Jeffersonian tradition was that the executive did not place direct pressure on Congress, Monroe’s department heads actually had a hand in writing legislation—which, of course, means that Monroe had a hand in moving Congress, however indirectly.
Sometimes, though, because of his style, he missed some of the signs. While the “era of good feelings” churned along, it was about to come to a crashing halt with the very first panic, or economic depression, in United States history. (There had been depressions in colonial history but this is the first for the nation itself.) President Monroe was caught somewhat off guard by this, as he either misread the warning signs while on his second tour in 1819, or was not fully informed by his cabinet officers of the seriousness of the situation. A scandal in the Second Bank of the United States was dealt with and that seemed to mitigate matters, but the Panic nevertheless came on in later 1819. It lasted into the next year, and interestingly enough, Monroe took little action to combat it other than to economize and make sure that the government remained fiscally solvent. (Can you imagine a president doing that today?)
Partially in response to the Panic of 1819 and partially because of the belief that America’s freedom was secure, Congress ordered a military cutback. Secretary of War Calhoun proved quite adept at meeting Congress’ demands, expertly crafting a military structure that was heavy on officers. His idea was that in time of war, the army would have plenty of officers, with only the easily trained private ranks needing to be filled.
Meanwhile, Monroe, based on his brief tenure as Madison’s secretary of war and perhaps his own army experience, was quite keen to build up America’s coastal fortifications. These projects were well underway until Congress cut off funding. Congress was less stingy with money for the navy, recognizing the need to protect American shipping from pirates, for example. Several major ships of the line and frigates were laid down during Monroe’s term.
The Compromise of 1820
The Panic of 1819 didn’t fully shatter the illusion of the Era of Good Feelings; something more sinister did. The admission of Missouri to the Union was proceeding normally until two northern congressmen introduced amendments stating that slavery be prohibited from any new state west of the Mississippi River. The issue of slavery, which had lay beneath open national discussion seemingly as part of a “gentleman’s agreement,” if you will, soon became the talk of the nation. For months, Congress considered no other business except Missouri, and discussion became incredibly heated.
The issue literally threatened to rend the nation. Representatives of slave states argued that congress had no business telling a state whether it could or could not have slavery. Free state representatives argued that Congress could indeed decide the terms on which a state could enter the Union. Monroe, for his part, did not directly enter the debate—believing it not the executive’s place to do so—but worked through his son-in-law, George Hay, to publish “anonymous” letters expressing his opinion. And that opinion was that Congress could not impose restrictions on a state’s entry where none had been imposed on any other. Contrary to some opinions, Monroe actually did make his presence felt directly in the debate, particularly with his close, informal contact with members of Congress, especially the Virginia delegation.
The president committed to veto any bill that placed restrictions on Missouri’s admission, so when Congress finally voted on a compromise, Monroe embraced it publicly. Missouri would be admitted as a slave state, Maine as a free state, and no slavery would be permitted north of 36 degrees 30’ latitude.
Monroe, himself a slave owner and destroyer of a slave rebellion in 1800 in Virginia, was not happy with this sectional hostility, and blamed Federalists and extreme Democrat-Republicans.
But the Missouri Compromise actually had little effect on the presidential election that year. With the Federalists shrinking ever closer to oblivion, the dominant party, in absence of real opposition, naturally began to fracture. By the time Monroe sailed to an easy re-election in 1820 (there was no one who offered a serious challenge and he won an electoral landslide) the fractures were apparent.
Some members of Congress, including his House nemesis, Henry Clay, considered his presidency to have ended as soon as his second term started. The contraction of funds for the military, a sign of Monroe’s weakness during his second term, iwas tself a sign of the weakening cohesion of the Republican party founded by Jefferson and Madison. The fractioning of the Republicans left Monroe without a solid party base from which to draw strength; factions were forming around possible successors to Monroe. Even his own cabinet contained three possible strong contenders: Adams, Calhoun and Crawford at Treasury (his vice president, Daniel Tompkins, was a non-entity).
The question of succession often left Monroe isolated: He was at odds with Congress over military funding, Indian affairs and internal improvements. Monroe vetoed measures by Congress geared toward internal improvements, e.g. roads. He felt that such improvements were more the purview of the states instead of the federal government. He was also at odds with COngress over foreign policy. Congress thought Monroe’s policies were too timid—but Monroe had the experience to back up his policies, and he had John Quincy Adams on his side.
The “Monroe Doctrine”
Of all the actions that Monroe took during his eight years in office, none has had more lasting impact than the doctrine that bears his name. Few presidents, in fact, could make claim to having so enduring a legacy that is practical in nature.
The Monroe Doctrine was partially the brainchild of Monroe’s secretary of state, the accomplished Adams, but Monroe deservs the credit. It sprang from a complicated set of circumstances in Latin and South America and the Russian-controlled segment of North America. Many colonies rebelled against Spanish control, and Congress, led by Henry Clay, was itching to recognize them. Monroe wasn’t, but not because he didn’t sympathize. He just wanted to do it when he felt the time was right. Monroe wanted to make sure that Spain would ratify the Adams-Onis treaty ceding Florida to the United States and establishing the boundaries between the U.S. and Spanish possessions to the west.
Spain ratified the treaty in 1820, and the U.S. signed it in 1821. With the treaty signed, Congress stepped up pressure to recognize the colonies. Fearing that the mislabeled “Holy Alliance” of Spain and a few other European nations would send troops to suppress the revolutions, England proposed, through diplomatic channels, an alliance with America to stop this move.
After much consultation with his cabinet and his mentor friends, Monroe decided on a position. With Adams’ help, Monroe delivered what became known as the Monroe Doctrine in his December 1823 message to Congress. He stated that the United States would consider any interference in any American state by a European nation as a hostile act, and that the American continents were closed to colonization.
Congress and the public hailed the message; Europe, on the other hand, figuratively laughed—but no “Holy Alliance” armies came to reclaim the colonies, more because of England’s fleet than the declaration of the upstart American president.
The “Monroe Doctrine” was not actually labeled as such until two decades after Monroe’s death in 1831. While hailed in 1823 as a seminal event, it quickly faded over the excitement of the 1824 presidential election.
One last aspect of Monroe’s presidency deserves mention. In his final report to Congress (note: the same thing as the modern State of the Union address), Monroe proposed removing all Indian tribes to the west bank of the Mississippi. Previously, Monroe had advocated removal only if tribes agreed to exchanging land for land. Throughout his entire term, he resisted Georgia’s call to remove by force the Cherokees who refused to leave.
Monroe changed his mind about removal—but made no official policy and took no official action—because he thought that forced removal to western lands, and the introduction of schools and other “civilized” practices, would prevent their extermination. In a way, he was right. But it would be many decades before the United States adopted a policy toward making Indians actual citizens.
I won’t go into the details here of the election of 1824 or the “corrupt bargain” that elevated John Quincy Adams to the presidency (that’s for the next entry), except to say that, given how close Monroe was to two of the top four candidates (Adams and Crawford, with Calhoun destined to easily win the vice presidency), Monroe bowed out of any kind of participation.
His exit was graceful, and many a state legislature voted their thanks for his half-century of service to the nation. He left office in a dire financial condition, with Congress actually recompensing him more than $29,000 of a requested $53,000 for various services rendered, including two diplomatic missions and refurbishing the White House from his own funds. It would be many, many years before Congress would authorize a pension for presidents.
James Monroe is one of the easiest presidents to write about. An unassuming, inoffensive man, Monroe was not a brilliant theorist like John Adams or James Madison. He wasn’t a charismatic, luminary like Washington, nor was he a dazzling speaker, writer and personality like Jefferson. What he was, however, was a hard working man who was fully aware of his limitations and worked well within those boundaries. Once he set his mind to a task, he accomplished it.
He wasn’t afraid to surround himself with brilliant men (Crawford, J. Q. Adams, Calhoun), seek the advice of his mentor friends (Jefferson and Madison) and reject their advice when he made his decisions. He had the courage of his convictions, and never appeared wishy-washy on anything.
He had a strong grasp of the Constitution, his executive powers and limits, and an equally strong grasp of foreign affairs. He was an excellent communicator in that he kept on top of letters, correspondence, orders, bills, etc. As a public speaker, though, he was unmemorable. Reading his speeches and letters is something of a chore, as they contain none of the soaring prose of Jefferson or insights of Adams (but run-on sentences that anticipate Faulkner.)
On the downside, Monroe was such a workaholic that he could often miss the forest for the trees. When on his tour in 1819, people were telling him that things were starting to go sour, but he was seemingly blindsided when the Panic hit. And the desire to bury the Federalists and fulfill Jefferson’s dream of “we are all Federalists; we are all Republicans” had the unintended effect of leaving him without a party to lead, as the party fractured by his second term—leaving him more isolated than engaged as the hunt was on for his successor.
One final note: The Monroe Doctrine has of course long since outlived its creator, and has been cited many times by presidents to justify actions almost to the present day. Critics have decried its use, saying it is justification for United States hegemony over the Western Hemisphere.
Final assessment: Monroe was mostly successful in his endeavors (though definitly not entirely), and popular throughout his two terms.
I must admit that I was wary about reading The American Presidents volume on James Monroe, because it’s written by uber-liberal and failed presidential wannabe Gary Hart. I’d heard that Hart used this book to attack George W. Bush. Well, that proved to be true, but it was a small portion of Hart's book. But that's not why I dislike it. The volume is easily the weakest in The American Presidents series, because Hart goes to great pains to remind the reader that Monroe created the Monroe Doctrine—like, repeatedly, and several times, and over and over. What in the world possessed series editor Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. to commission Gary Hart to write this volume? If Hart wanted to write a book about just the Monroe Doctrine and the mind behind it, and make the case that Monroe was the first "national security president"—a notion I find intriging but somewhat forced—he succeed. But in the process of making his thesis he sidelines everything else in Monroe’s presidency.
Superior resources to Hart’s misplaced volume are Noble E. Cunningham’s The Presidency of James Monroe (1996) of the University of Kansas’ presidents series—this was my primary resource—and Harry Ammon’s James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity (1990).
1. James Monroe painted by Gilbert Stuart, 1817, while on his first tour of the Union. (public domain image)
2. Washington Crossing the Delaware, painted by Emanuel Leutze. Original in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In this highly fanciful painting, James Monroe is depicted holding the flag right behind George Washington. (public domain image)
3. James Monroe painted by Samuel F.B. Morse. Official White House Collection (White House Historical Association)
4. Map of the Adams-Onis Treaty. See here for rights for the map.
5. Monroe lies in state in the House of Representatives, the same place where he was sworn into office in 1821. (Library of Congress image)
6. Monroe’s final resting place in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Va. Originally he was buried with family in New York, but was moved here in 1858. (Library of Congress image)