James Monroe was born on April 28, 1758, to a wealthy, slave-owning family in Virginia just as people were starting to speak out against Great Britain’s rule over the 13 North American colonies. Both of his parents died when he was a teenager.
At age 17, Monroe raided the local armory, or weapons supply shop, and stole hundreds of weapons to donate to the Virginia military in their fight for independence against Great Britain. He dropped out of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, the following year to join the Continental Army and fight in the Revolutionary War.
Monroe served under the command of General George Washington, rising in rank to major. He crossed the Delaware River with Washington’s troops, was severely wounded during a heroic capture of British cannons in the Battle of Trenton in New Jersey, and spent a bitter winter at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where thousands of soldiers died because of disease or freezing temperatures.
Near the end of the war Monroe left the army to study law in Thomas Jefferson’s law practice, and later opened his own. He also began his lifelong career of public service. Before being elected president, Monroe served in the Continental Congress, or the group of representatives from the 13 colonies that would eventually become the United States; as a U.S. senator representing Virginia; and as that state’s governor. He also served three of the first four presidents: as Washington’s minister to France, Jefferson’s minister to Great Britain, and secretary of state and secretary of war for James Madison.
ANOTHER VIRGINIAN PRESIDENT
Both Jefferson—the third U.S. president—and his successor, Madison, supported Monroe’s election as the fifth president. Some politicians disagreed and wanted to end the “Virginia Dynasty” of presidents. (Three of the first four presidents had come from Virginia. Eventually seven of the first 12 would be Virginians.) But Monroe’s abilities and experience were more important than where he was born, and he was easily elected in 1816.
THE ERA OF GOOD FEELINGS
The United States underwent major geographic changes during Monroe’s leadership. Five new states joined the nation. (The only other administration to add more—six—was Benjamin Harrison’s single term in office.)
Most important, Monroe and his secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, came up with a bold strategy for keeping other governments from meddling in the young country. While giving a speech to Congress, Monroe said that the American continents were off-limits for further colonizing by European nations. This declaration came to be known as the Monroe Doctrine. It set the stage for the expansion of the United States westward to the Pacific Ocean during the next 20 years.
Monroe added to his popularity by taking two “goodwill tours” during his time in office. In 1817 he traveled north and west as far as Maine and Michigan. Two years later he headed south to Georgia, went as far west as the Missouri Territory, and traveled back to Washington, D.C., through Kentucky. Thousands of people showed up to hear him speak during both of these tours.
During his first term, a newspaper credited Monroe with bringing the nation an “era of good feelings.” The phrase stuck and Monroe came to be known as the “Era of Good Feelings president.” He ran for reelection for a second term in 1820 and once again won with an overwhelming number of votes.
CRISIS AND COMPROMISE
Monroe’s presidency did have some controversy, though. The greatest debate of his administration was whether Missouri should join the Union as a state that permitted slavery. Politicians argued along their regional lines—the South was for slavery, the North against.
The debate threatened to divide the nation. If Missouri became a slave state, then more states would allow slavery than didn’t. If Missouri were free, then the free states would gain a majority.
In the end, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 admitted Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state. Since each side in the debate gained one state, lawmakers felt the country’s balance on slavery had been maintained. They also agreed to prohibit slavery north and west of Missouri’s border—for the time being. The “Missouri Crisis” was the first of many fights among the states that would eventually lead to the Civil War.
After his second term ended in 1825, Monroe and his wife, Elizabeth, retired to Virginia. Their home, called Highland, was located near Jefferson’s home, Monticello, in Albemarle County and was run by some 200 enslaved people. When Elizabeth died in 1830, Monroe moved to New York City to live with his daughter Maria and her family. Within the year he died, too on July 4, 1831. It was exactly five years after the death of both Jefferson and President John Adams.
Monroe’s biggest legacy is said to be the Monroe Doctrine, which shaped the next century of international relations between the United States and other nations and helped the United States become one of the most powerful countries in the world.
• Monroe once defended himself with fire tongs after a disagreement with his secretary of treasury.
• Monroe was the first U.S. president to have an outdoor inauguration.
• Monroe is the only U.S. president besides Washington with a country’s capital named after him: Monrovia, Liberia.