The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness by Harlow Giles Unger

James Monroe was born in 1758. He grew up helping with farm chores such as feeding animals, gardening, milking cows, and hunting. At eleven, he went to the same school as future chief justice John Marshall. The two became life-long friends.

At 14, his mother died in childbirth and his father died shortly afterward. His 19-year-old sister raised his three younger brothers. As the oldest boy, he inherited the farm. He was overwhelmed by the responsibility. Fortunately, his wealthy uncle stepped in to help and sent James to college.

Monroe was described as a quiet, stern-looking young man. While a student at William and Mary, tensions with Britain were high. Monroe and others stormed the Governor’s Palace, forcing Governor Dunmore to flee. At 18, he enlisted in the Virginia Infantry and decided to serve without pay because Washington did. (Unlike Monroe, Washington was wealthy enough he didn’t need the money.)

The famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware features James Monroe holding the American flag. However, Monroe actually crossed ahead of Washington and was wounded by a musket ball which nearly killed him. Washington promoted him to captain and later made him aide-de-camp. During the Revolutionary War, Monroe befriended the Marquis de Lafayette, Alexander Hamilton, and reunited with his old friend John Marshall.

After the war, Monroe returned to college where he studied under Thomas Jefferson. Monroe and Marshall both got elected to the Virginia legislature, however back then it was little more than a social club. Virginia’s wealthy plantation owners ruled over their plantations like private fiefdoms and had no interest in giving up any of their power to the government. The council members spent their time in card games, dice, billiards, horse races, and cock fights. Monroe was an avid player of whist, poker, chess, checkers, and dominoes. In fact, Marshall’s account books show at least one loss ($1,200 in today’s dollars) to Monroe at whist.

Although he did nothing on the council, he made enough friends to get elected to the Confederation Congress along with Jefferson. Monroe was virtually penniless at this time, so he stayed with Jefferson who took the 25-year-old under his wing and took him to high society teas, balls, and the theater.

After the Revolutionary War, the states were divided in many ways. Many states only allowed the most wealthy to vote, so there was resentment from the working class. Roads were often poor so travel between states was difficult, leading to geographic isolation. While sixty percent of Americans were of British descent, there were many other nationalities and not everyone spoke the same language.

Monroe met his future wife Elizabeth Kortright while serving as best man at his friend Elbridge Gerry’s wedding. She was the daughter of a British Army captain. Elizabeth was more educated than most women of her time. She was an artist, singer, and musician who was fluent in French, and considered to be beautiful. She had a slight British accent and was only five feet tall (Monroe was six feet tall which was especially tall at the time). Monroe married her when he was 28 and she 18.

Monroe was shy around women, and not considered to be attractive, but Elizabeth was actually interested in what he had to say about politics and other things that bored most women he’d tried to talk to. After getting married, Monroe couldn’t afford to remain a Congressman, so he became a lawyer.

He ran for the House of Representatives against his friend Madison. Monroe was opposed to the Constitution Madison had written because it gave the federal government too much power. Madison won, but the two remained friends. Monroe bought a farm near Jefferson’s Monticello and he ended up getting elected to the Senate to replace a senator who had died.

When the French declared war on Britain after the French Revolution, Washington appointed Monroe as minister to France. Although America was neutral, both countries were seizing American vessels to prevent their enemy from receiving supplies. He brought his wife and seven-year-old daughter Eliza with him to France.

They arrived just after Robespierre was executed. They received a warm welcome and became a hit in the Paris social scene. They both spoke French fluently, dressed elegantly, and knew the appropriate mannerisms. The French agreed to leave American ships alone and to release American prisoners.

Monroe would risk his diplomatic status if he tried to free his friend’s wife Adrienne de Lafayette (who had an appointment with the guillotine), so his wife Elizabeth went to the prison and got them to release her. Adrienne stayed with the Monroes until they were able to get her out of the country safely.

Monroe also saved the life of Thomas Paine who had become a French citizen and member of the Convention. However, when Paine voted against executing King Louis XVI, Robespierre sent him to prison. Paine lived with Monroe in France for a year until he wore out his welcome by attacking Washington for letting him languish in prison so long.

Things were going well until John Jay signed a treaty with Britain that caused France to end its treaty with America. Monroe got the French to respect American neutrality, but Britain got Jay to agree to favor Britain. Monroe was recalled as minister as if he was the one who failed. By the time Monroe returned to America, John Adams was president.

Hamilton challenged Monroe to a duel for publishing the dossier on Hamilton’s affair with Reynolds. Monroe had investigated the affair five years earlier and left it with Jefferson, but had no idea it had been published. Ironically, Aaron Burr convinced them to call off the duel. (Burr would kill Hamilton in a duel seven years later.)

The press attacked Monroe, claiming he kicked Paine out of his Paris home, claiming he refused to toast Washington in France, and claiming he got France to abandon its treaty with America. He wrote a hundred page pamphlet to defend himself. His fellow Democratic-Republicans loved it, while the Federalists, including President Adams, vilified it.

Monroe returned to Virginia. His friend Madison and new wife Dolley lived with them. After living lavishly in Paris, his small farmhouse wasn’t big enough. Like most Virginia planters, he was land rich but cash poor and the government hadn’t paid him his minister salary yet or repaid him for expenses incurred.

In 1799, Elizabeth gave birth to their first son James. Monroe was also elected to governor of Virginia, which was a prestigious position with good pay for doing virtually nothing. Fear of executive tyranny made the position of governor largely symbolic. However, Monroe made many speeches as governor advocating for reforms and convincing the legislature to establish public education, public roads, and training for the militia. He spearheaded the state’s first penitentiary, replacing barbaric punishments like whipping, branding, and hanging, with incarceration.

Slave revolts became more common in the South due to the transition from tobacco to cotton. Tobacco required skill to grow, tend, and harvest which prompted slave owners to treat slaves better. Cotton required no skill, opening up agriculture to any white man with a whip and enough money to buy a slave.

In 1800, Monroe called upon the state militia to put down Gabriel’s Rebellion. Monroe regretted sentencing the rebels to death and asked President Jefferson if future slaves in revolt could be exiled out west or to an island instead. Jefferson asked the Sierra Leone Company if slaves could be sent to their land in western Africa, but the Company rejected the idea. Monroe continued to sentence leaders of slave revolts to death, although he pardoned many.

His infant son died of whooping cough the same year. When Monroe’s sister died, her husband left it to Monroe to pay for his children’s education. Monroe’s younger brothers were constantly borrowing money from him and getting him to pay off their debts, leaving him in debt himself.

Jefferson appointed Monroe to make the Louisiana Purchase. The government only paid for Monroe’s expenses. He had to pay out of pocket to take his family with, which at this time included his wife, a teenaged daughter, and an infant daughter. He was instructed to purchase New Orleans and West Florida, but instead purchased all of the Louisiana territory (which included Montana, Colorado, the Dakotas, and more).

He believed the US had a natural right to the Floridas and wanted to negotiate with Spain, but he was called to Britain which was taking American merchant vessels and impressing both British and American seaman.

London at first welcomed the Monroes, but they became social pariahs after Jefferson snubbed Britain’s minister by not following diplomatic protocols. (Jefferson dressed in farmer’s clothes, dispensed with etiquette, shook hands with diplomats with muddy shoes and dirt on his hands, had no assigned seating at official dinners, etc.) The pollution in London caused Monroe’s infant daughter to be hospitalized and made the whole family sick. Also, the cost of living was so expensive, Monroe had to borrow money and sell property just to afford living there.

Jefferson offered Lafayette the governorship of Louisiana, but fearing Napoleon would punish his family if he did, Lafayette turned it down. Jefferson next offered it to Monroe who also turned him down, wanting to focus on Britain and Spain for the time being.

Monroe wasn’t able to get Britain to stop taking American vessels. He went back to France, but they insisted Florida was Spanish territory, not part of the Louisiana Purchase. He went to Spain, but they weren’t willing to give Florida to him either. He urged Jefferson to go to war to take Florida, but Jefferson declined.

His failure to secure a peace treaty with Britain made Congress demand Jefferson replace Monroe. He wanted to come back to America anyway, but not in disgrace. He found out about his replacement in the newspapers, not from Jefferson. Madison had stopped responding to his letters as well, leading to a rift between them.

Nevertheless, he worked with his replacement to get a treaty with Britain. It wasn’t great, but it was all they could get. Jefferson didn’t like the treaty and didn’t even show it to Congress. Monroe thought Jefferson was burying the treaty to make Monroe look bad and secure the presidency for Madison. Jefferson offered Monroe the governorship of Louisiana again, but this would have isolated Monroe politically as well as geographically.

Monroe rejected the governorship and returned to America. Jefferson closed American ports to all foreign trade, hoping it would hurt Europe, but it only hurt America’s economy and increased unemployment. When he met with Jefferson and Madison, they were polite, but didn’t treat him like an old friend and side stepped any discussion of Monroe’s future role in government. Hurt by their treatment of him, he followed the advice of those urging him to run for president against Madison.

He didn’t campaign, however, and lost by quite a bit. He reconciled with Jefferson, but didn’t speak to Madison for two years. He had to take out loans to pay off some of his debts. He left public life and focused on his farm.

His daughter Eliza, now in her twenties, married George Hay (the federal prosecutor in Aaron Burr’s treason trial) and gave birth to Hortensia Hay (named after Hortense de Beauharnais who Eliza befriended in France and who was now Queen of Holland). Monroe’s other daughter Maria Hester, seven at the time, had a new playmate. Eliza and her family lived with the Monroes as often as they lived in their own house.

Monroe continued to bail out his ne’er-do-well brothers Joseph and Andrew and even basically adopted Andrew’s 9-year-old son James Monroe Jr. He reconciled with Madison and became his Secretary of State, the second most important job in the country after president. He convinced France to release the majority of American ships they had seized and to resume limited trade with America. When Congress recessed, Monroe and Madison returned to Virginia, visiting Jefferson and each other’s estates now that their friendship had been restored.

Washington City was still unpaved and swampy at this time. When Monroe returned to Washington, he brought his family. They bought a house and decorated it elegantly. Their parties were considered among the best in Washington. His wife Elizabeth, only in her forties, suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, so sometimes Monroe’s daughter would step in as hostess. People would have dance parties at the Navy Yard. The newest dance craze was the waltz.

When Madison declared war on British Canada, Monroe called for war against Florida as well, but Congress declined. With the War of 1812 not going well, the current Secretary of War resigned. Monroe, who was also still secretary of state, became acting secretary of war for a couple months.

When a new secretary of war took office, Monroe warned him the British were set to attack the capital, but John Armstrong hated Monroe and ignored his advice to strengthen defenses around Washington.

Armstrong already had a bad reputation. During the Revolutionary War, he provoked a mutiny. Later, as commander of the Pennsylvania militia, he ordered the massacre of Connecticut farmers who had settled in vacant Pennsylvania land.

Armstrong decided to lead the army himself as general, obliterating the constitutional separation of powers. Armstrong even ignored Monroe when the British were just a few miles away from the capital, insisting they were really headed for Baltimore. Even when it was clear the British were coming, he refused to send reinforcements.

Monroe evacuated his family and State Department documents from Washington, but remained himself to defend the capital. He rounded up two dozens soldiers and rode to Benedict, Maryland to reconnoiter.

President Madison ordered Armstrong to defend the capital, but he ignored the president’s orders. Madison took direct control of the military and named Monroe his first in command. They brought reinforcements to Bladensburg near Washington City.

Unfortunately, the militia was untrained, under-equipped, and some of the soldiers as young as 14. Before the battle begun, Monroe escorted the president back to Washington to order evacuation. However some of the soldiers retreating the battle overtook them in what was called “The Bladensburg Races” as the 7,500-man militia ran away from the 4,000 British troops, trampling and tripping over each other to escape. 2,000 of them didn’t even fire a single shot before running.

After the president was evacuated, Monroe remained in Washington trying to rally the troops until eight that night when the British entered the city. The British burned public buildings, but not private homes or the Patent Office which contained private property.

Monroe was named secretary of war again. He called in militia and volunteers from other states and ordered artillery placements to defend Washington. He also sent troops to defend New Orleans. The government was bankrupt and had no central bank to borrow from, so Monroe intimidated private banks and corporations to lend him more than 5 million dollars.

Andrew Jackson disobeyed Monroe’s orders to march directly to New Orleans. He was worried Spanish Florida would allow the British to land in Pensacola and attack with native allies. Jackson warned the Spanish governor to cease harboring Creek natives or he would retaliate with “an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, and scalp for scalp.” The governor was so terrified, he invited the British to land in Pensacola, which he wouldn’t have done if not for Jackson’s threat.

Jackson fended off the British from Pensacola, but this detour cost him. 7,500 British troops were waiting for him by the time he got to New Orleans. He ended up winning the battle of New Orleans, but it was an unnecessary battle since a truce had already been signed. The news just hadn’t reached America yet. The Americans hadn’t really won the war, since the treaty restored the status quo of prewar times, but Americans declared it a victory.

Due to the “victory” over the British, and America’s increased economic prosperity due to land and resources taken from Native Americans, Monroe was easily elected president after Madison’s term was over. (Unger even claims Monroe was president in all but name the last two years of Madison’s term.)

Monroe’s life-long friend Chief Justice John Marshall administered the oath of office to him. Even though they belonged to different political parties now, both had attended the same backwoods school, the same college, both had bunked together at Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War, both studied law, and both served as congressmen, diplomats in Europe, and secretaries of state. Although Monroe’s party was opposed to a strong federal government with a strong executive, this didn’t stop him from taking full advantage of his presidential power.

In order to promote unity, Monroe appointed people from different regions of the country to his cabinet. He was the first president since Washington to tour the nation to get to know the interests of each region. He traveled as a private citizen without military escort, intending to pay his own way at inns and public houses, but usually people would host him. Thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of people greeted him at every stop, turning his tour into a triumphal procession.

He was extremely popular and beloved. His presidency was declared the Era of Good Feelings. His political opponent John Adams even made him guest of honor at a dinner he was hosting. Monroe wanted to unite Federalists and Democratic-Republicans and largely succeeded. He was soon on friendly terms with most members of Congress.

Due to all the money coming in from the sale of newly acquired land, he was able to do away with all property taxes and internal taxes in the United States. When Monroe returned to Washington, the presidential mansion which had been blackened by burning had a fresh coat of white paint, giving it the nickname of The White House.

Now that he was president, he finally had the power to make Spanish Florida part of the United States. Runaway slaves and Seminole natives in Spanish Florida would sometimes raid settlements in Georgia, which gave him a reason to send in the military. He told Andrew Jackson not to attack any Spanish posts as that would be war, which required congressional approval. However, he made it clear to Jackson that acquiring the Floridas was essential to US security. As secretary of war, he’d looked the other way when Jackson had assaulted Pensacola without Congressional approval. So when he said not to attack Spain, he was doing it with a wink.

Jackson marched into the Florida panhandle, slaughtering the inhabitants and burning their villages. He hung two Creek chieftains to terrify the population. He also executed a couple British traders, accusing them of aiding the enemy. Jackson wrote to Monroe, declaring he’d won the Seminole War. Monroe was elated and continued on the next leg of his tour of the nation. However, he had to cut his trip short when Jackson’s act of war became controversial. He went back to Washington to defend his general.

He said Spain should either cede the Floridas to the US, or ensure renegades there not make attacks on US soil. Faced with revolts in South America, the Spanish gave East and West Florida to the US as well as renouncing its claim to the Pacific Northwest in exchange for the US relinquishing its claims on Texas, California, and all the territory in between. The US now stretched all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Britain was now willing to end years of skirmishes along the Canadian border and establish a boundary line between the two countries, with citizens of both countries allowed to settle west of the Rocky Mountains. By the end of his second year as president, Monroe had paid off the debt from the War of 1812. The US had a more well-trained military than it did back then as well. The additional land spurred America’s economy.

However, many banks printed their own money backed by nothing. Land speculators sold the same piece of land to multiple people or sold land that they didn’t actually own. Early in 1819, the land speculation bubble burst leading to a financial panic. Hundreds of banks shut down and thousands of investors were wiped out. Fortunately, farmers, the vast majority of the population, wasn’t affected by the panic.

When Missouri applied for statehood, there was debate over whether it should be a free or slave state. The Missouri Compromise ended up allowing slavery below the Mason-Dixon line with states above being free.

Fear of slave rebellion led many slave-owners to form a society to send rebellious enslaved people back to Africa, while keeping the enslaved people who were sufficiently docile. Monroe urged Congress to appropriate $100,000 to fund an agency to return emancipated slaves to Africa. They sent them to a settlement in present-day Liberia named Monrovia after the president.

With the Federal party pretty much gone by this point, Monroe ran unopposed for his second term as president. His Secretary of Treasury Crawford, wanting to be the next president, lied to Monroe about there being a $7 million surplus, when there was really a $5 million deficit. Military spending had to be cut. Crawford hoped the secretary of war would be blamed for overspending and thus eliminate him as a potential presidential rival. Without the Federalist party as a common enemy, the Republicans started turning on each other.

To thwart British plans to claim Antarctica, Monroe sent a Navy frigate to claim Graham Land, an island on the north Antarctic Peninsula. Later in the year, Russia extended its claims to the northern Oregon Territory and closed surrounding waters to foreign vessels. Monroe threatened Russia and they backed down.

In 1822, Monroe urged Congress to recognize Mexico and Colombia as independent states since they declared their independence from Spain. France was offering to help Spain retake these colonies and Britain wanted the US to join them in a war in opposition. In response, Monroe, along with Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, wrote the Monroe Doctrine. It was basically a statement that Europe should stop trying to colonize the Americas. America wouldn’t get involved in Europe’s affairs (including Europe’s already existing colonies in the Americas) if Europe would stay out of America’s affairs. The US didn’t have the military power to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, but Britain did.

The economic boom continued with the improvements of roads and canals connecting states to each other. The Era of Good Feelings continued with a growing number of female academies, free schools for children, and institutes for adult education.

Monroe let it be known he would not seek a third term. This spurred his cabinet members, who each wanted to be president next, to turn on him and each other. His last two years in office were miserable with Andrew Jackson, now governor of Florida, getting in trouble for arresting the outgoing Spanish governor. Monroe tried to stay out of the controversy. Jackson resigned and accused his friend Monroe of setting him up by giving him an impossible post.

Monroe was $75,000 in debt when he left the presidency. $53,000 of it was due to the government not paying his salary and expenses when in London and Paris. In his last speech before congress, he urged them to pay back Lafayette, who was on the verge of bankruptcy, for his contributions to the Revolutionary War. They gave Lafayette $200,000 and land near present day Tallahassee, Florida.

Even though Andrew Jackson won the popular vote to succeed Monroe, he didn’t have a majority of votes, which meant the House of Representatives got to pick the next president. They decided on John Quincy Adams who got the second-most votes. Some Jackson supporters threatened violence, but Jackson himself congratulated Adams on the win.

Monroe retired to his plantation and began writing his autobiography and a book on government. His views on religion are unknown. Neither he nor any of his friends, family, or associates mention his religious beliefs in any surviving documents. Whatever he believed, it didn’t play much of a role in his life.

In 1826, the Bank of the United States threatened to sue Monroe for $25,000 he owed. He was forced to sell much of his land and slaves. Congress only paid him $29,513 of the $53,000 he asked for, saying the Paris mansion he’d bought shouldn’t be included. When Lafayette found out about his financial problems, he offered to help Monroe out, but Monroe declined.

In 1829, Monroe’s wife died. He became irrational and said he would remain in her vault until it was his time to die. He burned all of her letters, diaries, artwork, and personal papers. When news reached Congress that the former president was destitute and living off the charity of relatives, they gave him $30,000 which allowed him to pay off most of his debts.

He died on July 4th, 1831, the last Revolutionary War president, and the third to die on the Fourth of July.

How does James Monroe stack up to other presidents in terms of lives lost or lives saved?

There’s disagreement over how long the First Seminole War lasted and it’s unknown how many died, but at least 40 died during Monroe’s presidency. John Quincy Adams was already negotiating with Spain to purchase Florida at the time, so the deaths were unnecessary.

He saved a few lives by negotiating with Britain to end skirmishes along the Canadian border.

When France offered to help Spain reconquer its former South American colonies, Monroe responded with the Monroe Doctrine. While the US didn’t have a powerful enough military to enforce it, the UK did. The UK therefor deserves the credit for Spain backing down and the lives saved as a result.

Unlike Madison, Monroe actually did something to mitigate slavery. He sent several thousand emancipated slaves to Liberia and he signed the Missouri Compromise which banned slavery from territories north of the 36°30′ parallel. There’s no telling how many lives were saved by these actions. It seems like Monroe did the right thing for the wrong reason, however. He sent formerly enslaved people to Liberia in order to prevent them from leading slave revolts and he signed the Missouri Compromise reluctantly. Whether he did it for the right reasons or not, lives were still saved.

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