This is another in an occasional series of articles by Clay Jenkinson on some of the less well-known presidents of the United States.
Poor James Monroe (1758-1831). His greatest challenge was living in the shadow of his two illustrious predecessors, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Most people know that Jefferson and his frenemy, John Adams, died on the same day, the Fourth of July 1826 — Adams 91, Jefferson 83, exactly 50 years after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. By the time of their near-simultaneous death, Jefferson and Adams had fully reconciled and exchanged the finest set of letters in presidential history. Monroe died on the Fourth of July five years later, in 1831, as if to connect himself to those giants of the American Revolution, but that coincidence has not secured him a place in the pantheon of the Revolutionary era’s worthiest men.
Which is unfair.
Unsung War Hero
Unlike the pacific Jefferson and the hypochondriac Madison, Monroe was a veteran of the Revolutionary War. In fact, he was something of a war hero. He was wounded severely at the Battle of Trenton. He was with the beleaguered and diseased continental troops at Valley Forge. During that time, a frustrated Washington asked, “Where is Jefferson?”
Monroe was with George Washington on Christmas night 1776, when the plucky American army crossed the Delaware River to make a surprise attack on Hessian (that is, German) mercenaries at Trenton.
There he is in Emanuel Leutze’s heroic 1851 painting, standing next to Washington in the crowded boat and holding up the American flag. We now know that Monroe was actually in another, earlier boat, that nobody was standing, and the flag depicted in the famous painting was not fashioned until 1777. But who’s counting?
Monroe’s political career was illustrious. He was a member of the Confederation Congress (before the Constitution of 1787). He was a U.S. senator. He was the 12th and the 16th governor of Virginia. He was the American minister to England and the American minister to France. He served as the secretary of war. He served as the secretary of state. And he was the fifth president of the United States.
Central to the Virginia Dynasty
Jefferson served two terms (1801-1809). Then he hand-picked his successor, James Madison, his closest friend and his secretary of state. Madison served two terms (1809-1817). Then Jefferson and Madison hand-picked Monroe, who served from 1817 until 1825. The three came to be known as “the Virginia Dynasty.” They presided over the United States for a quarter century. Monroe was one of the eight presidents from Virginia: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor and Woodrow Wilson.
Monroe’s vice presidential running mate in 1816 was a man named Daniel Tompkins, the governor of New York, now entirely swallowed up by historical oblivion. Monroe’s opponent was Massachusetts’ high Federalist Rufus King, whose running mate John E. Howard, is another historical nonentity. Monroe won in a landslide: 183-34 in the Electoral College. That was the first term. Standing for re-election in 1820, he was essentially unopposed. A single electoral vote was cast for John Quincy Adams, merely to prevent Monroe from compromising George Washington’s status as the only unanimously elected president. The Federalist Party (the party of Hamilton and John Adams) had simply disappeared. Even in his lifetime, Monroe’s eight-year tenure was labeled the Era of Good Feeling.
Monroe was the first president to deliver his inaugural address outside the Capitol. Apparently, Speaker of the House Henry Clay of Kentucky refused to permit Monroe to speak inside the Capitol because he had been overlooked for the position of secretary of state. Thus, political pettiness created a new American norm that continues to this day, more than 200 years later. In his inaugural address, Monroe said it was “gratifying to witness the increased harmony of opinion which pervades our Union. Discord does not belong to our system.” What?!
A woman who attended President Monroe’s 1825 New Year’s reception at the White House wrote, “He is tall and well-formed. His dress plain and in the old style. … His manner was quiet and dignified. From the frank, honest expression of his eye, I think he well deserves the encomium passed upon him by the great Jefferson, who said, ‘Monroe was so honest that if you turned his soul inside out there would not be a spot on it.’”
Monroe was the last president to wear breeches rather than trousers. He was also the last of the Founding Fathers to be president of the United States.
Two momentous events occurred during Monroe’s presidency. In 1819, the United States finally obtained The Floridas (the current state of Florida and the Gulf Coast all the way to the Mississippi River). The Adams-Onís Treaty pieced out the eastern flank of the United States, gave us firm control of the Gulf of Mexico and increased American power over the Caribbean.
In 1820, after long and acrimonious debate, Congress passed the Missouri Compromise, which brought Maine in as a free state and Missouri as a slave state at the same time, thus maintaining the fragile sectional balance in the Senate. It also banned slavery from any new states carved out of the Louisiana Purchase territory north of the southern border of Missouri (parallel 36 degrees, 30 minutes north). After that compromise broke down in 1854, the Civil War became essentially inevitable. When Jefferson learned of the Missouri Compromise in retirement at Monticello, he said it was “the death knell” of the republic — because it created two Americas, one slave, the other free, separated by an artificial line of latitude.
The Failed Diplomat
Monroe’s pre-presidency diplomatic labors in Europe were not particularly successful. President Washington sent him to Paris in 1796 to explain the controversial and pro-British Jay Treaty. Monroe was sufficiently enthusiastic about the French Revolution to compromise his diplomatic independence. Washington recalled him in disgrace.
At that point, Monroe made a potentially career-ending mistake: He published a two-volume “defense” of his actions in which he offered criticism of the untouchable Washington. Somehow, he survived that crisis.
Monroe gets more credit for the 1803 Louisiana Purchase than he deserves. In the spring of 1803, President Jefferson persuaded him (somewhat high-handedly) to travel across the Atlantic to entreat with the Emperor Napoleon on “the Mississippi question,” as it was called. France and Spain were trading the Louisiana Territory back and forth. Jefferson’s goal was to secure permanent American rights to navigation on the Mississippi River. By the time Monroe arrived in Paris, America’s minister to France, Robert Livingston of New York, had already essentially concluded the famous land deal (in which a white man in France who had never visited the New World sold 530 million acres to a white man in the United States who had never visited the American West, no natives consulted). Monroe took more credit than he deserved.
Then Jefferson sent Monroe to England to try to resolve several nagging issues, including British impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy. The Monroe-Pinkney Treaty of 1806 failed to accomplish that goal. President Jefferson and Secretary of State Madison were so disappointed that they decided not to submit the treaty to the U.S. Senate. This created a rift between Monroe and Madison that was never completely healed. But Jefferson, America’s first Teflon president, was able to maintain Monroe’s perpetual loyalty.
The Monroe Doctrine
Monroe’s presidency is best remembered for the Monroe Doctrine, issued in 1823. In essence, the doctrine declares the Western Hemisphere (especially Central America and South America) off limits to European intervention or colonization. Jefferson (by now the Sage of Monticello) played an advisory role in the famous pronouncement, which has been surprisingly effective in discouraging European powers from meddling in Western Hemispheric affairs. An even greater role was played by John Quincy Adams, who was arguably the greatest secretary of state in American history.
And, of Course, Slavery
Monroe owned a total of 178 slaves in the course of his life. He freed only one, a man named Peter Marks. Eight of the first 12 presidents were slaveholders. Monroe, like Jefferson, was a paper or rhetorical emancipationist. In an 1829 letter, he wrote that slavery was “one of the evils still remaining, incident to our Colonial system.” This was a bit of self-soothing metaphysics. What Monroe was pretending was that slavery had been imposed on the innocent American colonists by British slave traffickers assisted by the British government. Jefferson had attempted a similar fiction in a passage in the Declaration of Independence that the Continental Congress rejected.
Monroe supported gradual abolition, followed by repatriation in Africa. He said he had “always been friendly to an emancipation and transportation from the country” because free Blacks in America would “become a publick burden.”
Monroe was the governor of Virginia in 1800, when a 24-year-old free Black man named Gabriel Prosser organized a slave insurrection. He intended to arm 1,000 slaves, march on Richmond, take control of the state armory and the Capitol and hold Gov. Monroe hostage. Two “friendly” slaves revealed the conspiracy at the last minute. The white response was hysterical, swift, ruthless and gruesome. Scores of African Americans were arrested (some slaves, some free Blacks), many tortured and 25 were hanged. Vice President Jefferson was sickened by the excessive reprisals. “There is a strong sentiment that there has been hanging enough,” he wrote to his friend Monroe. “The other states and the world at large will forever condemn us if we indulge in a principle of revenge, or go one step beyond absolute necessity.” Clearly, the white establishment of Virginia had already gone far beyond “absolute necessity.”
In the aftermath of the abortive insurrection, the Virginia Legislature passed a series of repressive laws designed to control the movement of African Americans in the state, particularly free Black men. The Assembly made it illegal for African Americans to own, pilot or navigate a boat. Another law made it illegal for Blacks to meet in groups after work or Sundays. Finally, in 1808, the Legislature passed a law requiring free Blacks to leave the state of Virginia within 12 months.
Monroe’s standing as an American president and his place in American history would be greater if he had not had to share the stage with Jefferson and Madison. He may have been the least of the three in intellectual power and statesmanship, but he was in some limited ways more successful than either of them. At a time when we are hopelessly damaged by partisan wrangling, Monroe’s Era of Good Feeling seems like a distant but wonderful fairy tale.
You can also hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the Governing podcast, “Listening to America.” Clay’s most recent book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing email@example.com or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.