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James Monroe Biography: Fifth President of the United States

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James Monroe White House portrait circa 1819.

James Monroe White House portrait circa 1819.

A Distinguished Career

James Monroe was the fifth President of the United States, in office between 1817 and 1825. Born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, he had a prolific career in politics and remains in American history as a Founding Father. After fighting in the American Revolutionary War, he rose to prominence in politics by occupying several key positions, including senator, governor of Virginia, secretary of state, secretary of war, and eventually president. Monroe also had an extensive diplomatic career, negotiating many important treaties with Britain, France, and Spain in times of great international turmoil.

Under Monroe’s presidency, the United States spread its sovereignty over new territories from the Atlantic to the Pacific. His foreign policy and especially the Monroe Doctrine set an unprecedented path in international relations. As he was the last president who fought as an officer in the American Revolution, Monroe’s presidency is an example of the republican ideals and principles of 1776.

Early Life

Born on April 28, 1758, in Westmoreland County, Virginia, in a family of modest means, James Monroe grew up on the small farm of his parents. His father, Spence Monroe, was a relatively thriving planter and carpenter while his mother, Elizabeth Jones, devoted her time to taking care of the children.

Because he had to work on the family’s farm with his parents and siblings, James Monroe attended the only school in the county rather sporadically, and his formal education began late. In 1772, his mother died and two years later, he lost his father as well. Although he inherited the family’s property, Monroe could no longer attend school and had to support his younger siblings. His maternal uncle, Joseph Jones, was a respectable and prosperous judge living in Fredericksburg, and he took over the responsibility of taking care of his late sister’s children.

Jones arranged for Monroe to attend the College of William and Mary with the hope that his nephew would pursue a career in politics. Monroe proved indeed to be an outstanding student and his knowledge of Latin and math put him in advanced courses. Most importantly, through his uncle, Monroe met many influential figures of Virginia, including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

Monroe’s studies were interrupted when the political climate in the Thirteen Colonies suffered a breach in opposition to the British government. In 1775, the conflict escalated to armed fighting, and the colonial and British troops measured their powers in Massachusetts. A year later, the colonies declared their independence from Britain. Anxious to take part in the making of history, Monroe decided to drop out of college after only a year and a half of studies in order to join the Continental Army. At the beginning of 1776, he enrolled in the Third Virginia Infantry and was commissioned as a lieutenant.

In December 1776, Monroe’s regiment run a successful surprise attack on a Hessian encampment during which he was badly injured. A severed artery almost caused his death. When the battle ended, George Washington praised Monroe for his bravery and he was promoted to captain. With an intervention from his uncle, Monroe returned to the front after his wounds healed, and during the winter of 1777-1778, he served in the Philadelphia campaign. Soon Monroe found himself destitute and chose to resign his commission.

Holding letters of recommendation from influential military names such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Lord Stirling, Monroe returned to his home state. He decided to follow the advice of his uncle and resume his studies. He settled back in Williamsburg to study law and soon became the protégé of Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson. Despite not having a particular interest in law, Monroe was encouraged by Jefferson to finish his studies and read law under Jefferson. He agreed that law provided him with the most immediate professional rewards, easing his path to social status and wealth. Later, when the state capital was moved from Williamsburg to Richmond, Monroe moved to the new capital to continue his studies with Jefferson as his mentor. By working closely together, they became lasting friends.

Painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware," an 1851 oil-on-canvas painting by the German American artist Emanuel Leutze. According to the 1853 exhibition catalog, the man standing next to Washington and holding the flag is Lieutenant James Monroe.

Painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware," an 1851 oil-on-canvas painting by the German American artist Emanuel Leutze. According to the 1853 exhibition catalog, the man standing next to Washington and holding the flag is Lieutenant James Monroe.

Senator and Governor of Virginia

In 1782, Monroe was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. A year later, he was elected to the Congress of the Confederation, serving a total of three years before having to retire due to the rule of rotation. As a Congressman, Monroe was a vocal advocate for western expansion, playing a key role in the passage of important expansion bills. Jefferson remained his mentor and advisor during this period.

In 1785, when Congress started to hold its sessions in New York City, Monroe met Elizabeth Kortright, the daughter of a prosperous trader and former British officer. A year later, they married. In 1789, James and Elizabeth settled in Charlottesville, Virginia, where they purchased an estate. They had two daughters, Eliza and Maria, and a son, James, who died 16 months after birth.

After marriage, Monroe began to juggle between the responsibilities of his legal career and his political aspirations. In 1788, he was a delegate to the Virginia Ratifying Convention. Caught in a clash between federalists and anti-federalists, Monroe saw the Constitution as a threat to republican principles although he realized that the national government needed a stronger legitimacy. However, he wanted a bill of rights and believed that the president and the Senate should be elected by popular vote. The Virginia convention eventually ratified the Constitution by a narrow vote, but Monroe voted against it.

Monroe made a new comeback to Congress in 1789, in time to join the political battle between Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Congressman James Madison, and the Federalists, led by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Loyal to his friends, Monroe supported Jefferson and Madison in organizing the Republican Party to stand against Hamilton’s Federalist Party.

As the 1790s progressed, trade relations with Europe were threatened by the French Revolutionary Wars. Like Jefferson and all his protégés, Monroe supported the French Revolution, and aware of that, Washington appointed him ambassador to France in 1794. Although things seemed to be going well between the United States and France, Monroe was shocked and confused to discover that the United States and Great Britain signed the Jay Treaty with unpleasant effects on Franco-American relations. Federalists believed that Monroe’s overly cordial relationship with France threatened to compromise negotiations with Britain. Washington was forced thus to end Monroe’s diplomatic career prematurely.

After returning to the United States in 1796, Monroe wrote about his work as an ambassador in a pamphlet that circulated widely and in which he criticized Washington. His attack caused new disagreements between Federalists and Republicans. Back in Charlottesville, Monroe once more resumed his career in law while seeking to expand his plantation. However, his political career took a new ascendant path when, in 1799, the dominance of the Republican Party in Virginia led to his election as Governor. He served until 1802, being reelected each year.

At the time, the constitution of Virginia offered few powers to the Governor, except commanding the militia, but Monroe used his political and diplomatic experience to push for reforms. He wanted to get involved in key areas of development, such as transportation and education, but his attempts to propose changes met only rejection. He managed, however, to accomplish some of his goals. Besides developing better training schemes for the militia, he was also responsible for the creation of Virginia’s first penitentiary. In 1800, Monroe supported Thomas Jefferson’s candidacy for the presidency. As the governor of the largest state in the country and member of Jefferson’s party, Monroe was considered a possible successor to Jefferson.

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

— James Monroe

Diplomatic Success

At the end of Monroe’s term as a governor, President Jefferson offered him the chance to travel to France again and provide his assistance to Ambassador Robert R. Livingston in the negotiations for purchasing Louisiana. Deviating from the instructions received from Jefferson, Monroe and Livingston bought Louisiana for a much larger sum than Jefferson intended to pay. The Louisiana Purchase proved vital for allowing the expansion of the nation to the West, and it doubled the size of the United States.

James Monroe Presidency

Ambassador to Great Britain

In 1803, Monroe was appointed as the ambassador to Great Britain and kept the position until 1807. Despite his efforts to sign a new treaty with Great Britain that could offer an extension of the Jay Treaty which had already expired, Monroe discovered that Jefferson opposed vehemently developing stronger ties with Britain. Monroe returned to the United States right in time for the 1808 presidential election. While many urged him to enter the race, his mentor and friend Thomas Jefferson decided to endorse James Madison. For the first time in his career, Monroe sided with Jefferson’s opponents, allowing them to use his name as an alternative, even though Monroe did not promote himself as a candidate. Madison won the presidential race, defeating Federalist Charles Cotesworth Pinckney while Monroe won numerous votes in Virginia but found no support outside his home state. After the election, Monroe and Jefferson reconciled, but Monroe avoided speaking with Madison. As his political career seemed to offer him no bright prospects anymore, he preferred to return to his private life, devoting his time to his family and his farm.

Despite his lack of optimism, Monroe’s political career was far from over. He was elected for two other terms as governor of Virginia and in 1811, Madison appointed him Secretary of State. Madison wanted to resume their friendship while seeking a way to reduce the tension within the Republican Party. The Federalists were strongly opposing his foreign policy in regard to Britain and Monroe was needed for his negotiating skills.

Secretary of War

James Monroe’s main responsibility as Secretary of State was thus to negotiate treaties with Britain and France and make sure that they stop violating American neutral rights by raiding American merchant ships. The British were less responsive than the French to Monroe’s efforts and on June 18, 1812, urged by Madison and Monroe, Congress declared war upon Britain. The conflict between the United States and Great Britain became known as the War of 1812.

Although the U.S. Navy experienced some successes, the war went poorly and the efforts of the Madison administration to seek peace brought only rejection from the British. James Monroe took a second role within the administration as Secretary of War. On August 24, 1814, the British invaded and burned Washington D.C. Because of the new hostilities, Monroe returned to lead the war department after he had given up the position. He quickly enforced new reforms and developed an efficient strategy to increase the resistance of the American army and militia. After months of sustained efforts, the war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, but it still left unresolved issues between Britain and the United States. As Secretary of State, James Monroe supervised the negotiations.

Due to his effective leadership during the war, James Monroe became the leading figure in the 1816 presidential race and he received outstanding acclaim for his activity in the cabinet. His candidacy was not without challenges but despite all the disputes within the party, Monroe managed to win the nomination. He entered the presidential election against Federalist Rufus King and easily defeated him as the Federalists had already grown very weak.

Burning of the Executive Mansion (White House) in 1814 during the War of 1812.

Burning of the Executive Mansion (White House) in 1814 during the War of 1812.

An “Era of Good Feelings”

At the beginning of his presidency, Monroe’s main goal was to avoid political tension by promoting a sense of unity and integrity among Americans. In 1817, he departed on an extensive tour of the northern states to personally assess the development stage of the American territories. Although he hoped to go unnoticed, at every stop on his tour, Monroe found manifestations of appreciation and goodwill as city leaders and large crowds of people gathered to greet him. The media saw in his visits and meetings with citizens the beginning of an “Era of Good Feelings”. The root of the joy was the triumph over Britain and the sense of “togetherness” that was starting to form. Two years later, Monroe departed on a second tour, visiting regions in the South and West, where he was welcomed with the same enthusiasm.

Monroe considered that as a young nation, the United States needed an efficient infrastructure with a good transportation network in order to attain economic progress. Cities had become more important meanwhile and urbanization was a key aspect of progress. However, the legislature did not grant him the power to change things in the ways he wanted.

With the memory of the 1812 war in his mind, Monroe tried to develop more cordial relations with Britain. His efforts led to the signing of treaties that allowed for greater trade and a more balanced relationship of power between the United States and the British Empire. Another important success for Monroe was the acquisition of Florida after Spain had repeatedly declined to negotiate a deal. Taking advantage of the continuous revolts that Spain had to face in her American colonies, which made the country incapable of governing or defending Florida, Monroe negotiated the Adam-Onis Treaty on February 22, 1819, which settled the terms of the purchase of Florida for $5 million.

Locally, James Monroe had to set aside all his plans for development as the nation faced a severe economic crisis known as the Panic of 1819. It was a major depression that slowed down trade and led to a spread of unemployment and bankruptcies, which made people develop resentment against banks and business enterprises. Monroe found himself in an uncomfortable position as he had no power to intervene in the economy.

During Monroe’s first term as a president, the Federalists faced a progressive decline which ended in a total collapse of their party. James Monroe discovered that he had to run for reelection unopposed. Although he won a second term as president, his power and influence in Congress waned severely. Many considered his career closed but he still managed to score an important achievement. One of the areas where James Monroe had really distinguished himself in his long career was foreign policy. His experience as an ambassador led him in his second term as president to some risky but effective diplomatic decisions. In March 1822, the President officially recognized the emerging nations of Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Mexico, and Peru, which had won independence from Spain. Monroe took pride in being an example for the rest of the world in promoting freedom but secretly, he also feared that Britain, France, or the Holy Alliance might be interested to take control over the former Spanish colonies, which could harm the security of the United States.

Map of the boundaries defined by the Adams-Onis treaty between the United States and Spain in 1819. The treaty ceded Florida to the U.S. and defined the boundary between the U.S. and New Spain.

Map of the boundaries defined by the Adams-Onis treaty between the United States and Spain in 1819. The treaty ceded Florida to the U.S. and defined the boundary between the U.S. and New Spain.

The Monroe Doctrine

His fear of future conflicts with the great powers of the world compelled Monroe to include a special message about the foreign policy of the United States in his annual address to Congress, which became known as the Monroe Doctrine. In its message, Monroe talked about the need for the United States to maintain a policy of neutrality regarding European wars and conflicts. He also enforced the idea the Americas should no longer fear European colonization. Even though the proclamation had no legislative value, the Monroe Doctrine touched an important nerve in world politics and it remained deeply ingrained in the American historical and cultural heritage.

Four Points of the Monroe Doctorine

(1) The United States will not interfere in the internal affairs of or the wars between European powers.

(2) The United States recognized and will not interfere with existing colonies and dependencies in the Western Hemisphere.

(3) The Western Hemisphere is closed to future colonization.

(4) Any attempt by a European power to oppress any nation in the Western Hemisphere will be viewed as a hostile act against the United States.

Post-presidency and Death

At the end of his presidency on March 4, 1825, James Monroe moved to Oak Hill, Virginia, where he lived with his wife until her death on September 23, 1830.

During his years as a public figure, Monroe incurred serious debts because of his lavish and expensive lifestyle, and in his later years, he was forced to sell his main estate. After Elizabeth’s death, Monroe moved in with his daughter Maria, who had married Samuel L. Gouverneur, an influential and wealthy man from New York City.

On July 4, 1831, James Monroe died from heart failure and tuberculosis.


© 2018 Doug West


Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on March 19, 2018:

Excellent article. James Monroe was definitely an interesting president. I didn't know how important his negotiating skills were for our nation. But as always as you do with other public and historical figures, you told his story with clarity and thoroughness. Thank you again.



Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on March 19, 2018:

You always do such a good job with these types of writings.

Very informative.

Readmikenow on March 19, 2018:

Very well written article. I enjoyed reading it. So much about James Monroe I did not know.