James Monroe

The American Presidents Series: The 5th President, 1817-1825

The American Presidents

Gary Hart; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., General Editor

Times Books

James Monroe
1
The Portrait of a Patriot
The tall, rough-hewn eighteen-year-old, quick to join his William and Mary classmates in insurrection against the king, was a product of Westmoreland County, what was called the Northern Neck of Virginia. Born on April 28, 1758, James Monroe was the son of Spence Monroe, who signed himself both carpenter and gentleman, and the former Elizabeth Jones, daughter of the architect James Jones. In 1766, when James was eight, Spence Monroe joined Northern Neck farmers in signing a pledge against the consumption of English imports until repeal of the hated Stamp Act, marking him a "patriot." James's uncle, Joseph Jones, was a judge and member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, serving on its committees that drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Virginia Constitution, and a member of the Continental Congress. Judge Jones claimed a "confidential" friendship with George Washington and close relations with both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and he was to be the formative early political influence on James Monroe's life, his patron, and a constant adviser on matters ranging from personal finance to high political ambition.
One biographer has written that Monroe, as an adult, "resembled his uncle in many ways--reflective, never rushing to conclusions but forming opinions deliberately. The same tact, warmth, and patience in human relations, so pronounced in the judge's character, wereequally apparent in the nephew."1 Later in life, when it came to confrontation with Alexander Hamilton, Edmund Randolph, less directly John Adams, and even George Washington himself, Monroe's tact and patience would be sorely tested and frayed.
Young Monroe was accompanied on his long, woods-lined walks to Parson Campbell's school, Campbelltown Academy, by his neighbor and friend John Marshall, the future chief justice of the United States. With their schoolbooks in mathematics and Latin, both boys carried frontier rifles. Marshall, slightly older, would also join Monroe at William and Mary in 1774 and from there into the Continental army. Just three months after the Revolutionary Virginia Convention passed its own "declaration of independence" on May 15, 1776, Lieutenant Monroe, with the Third Virginia Regiment, marched out of Williamsburg northward to join the Continentals under Washington at New York. Three years later, when Monroe headed back to Virginia seeking recruits for another regiment, he left with the letter from Washington describing his combat service in considerable detail and recommending him as "a brave, active, and sensible officer" and expressing "the high opinion I have of his worth."
Despite his plan, conveyed to Jefferson in the fall of 1781 at the conclusion of five years' military service, to travel to Europe to study, Monroe was elected to the Virginia Assembly from neighboring King George County the following year. During this period, Jefferson began his lifelong role as mentor to Monroe. "Jefferson, as he was to do on many subsequent occasions, exerted a decisive influence on Monroe's life," writes Monroe's biographer Harry Ammon. "At this time, Monroe, who was floundering about and had no idea what to do with himself, badly needed advice and encouragement. The Governor [Jefferson] provided exactly the right tonic, administered with tact, understanding, and a very real concern about the young man's fate."2 With his friend Marshall, Monroe was soon elected to Virginia's eight-member Executive Council, "rather young for a Councillor," according to one observer. He continued on the political fast track by being elected to the fourth ConfederationCongress in June 1783 and two subsequent congresses thereafter. Rembrandt Peale's famous painting of Washington resigning his commission before the Congress in Annapolis on July 27, 1783, following the signing of a treaty of peace with England, has both Monroe and Madison foremost wearing cocked hats. Monroe, still only twenty-five, dined regularly with Jefferson before the senior figure left for France, as the American minister in Paris.
Among political leaders during this period, Monroe was on the forefront of those who viewed things nationally, rather than merely as citizens of individual states. Early on, he demonstrated the national security prism through which he was to view great events with these words regarding the many issues facing the new nation: "There are before us some questions of the utmost consequence that can arise in the councils of any nation," among them, "whether we are to have regular or standing troops to protect our frontiers, or leave them unguarded; whether we will expose ourselves to the inconveniences, which may perhaps be the loss of the country westward, from the impossibility of preventing the adventurers [pioneers] from settling where they please; the intrusion of the settlers on the European powers who border us, a cause of discontent and perhaps war."3
Here we see, presciently, Monroe's very early anticipation of matters that would dominate his own presidency decades later, the frictions caused by the new nation's natural expansion against and eventually onto the territory claimed by European powers and perhaps even the role of those powers in the entire American hemisphere. And, significantly, Monroe anticipated matters in terms ("discontent and perhaps war") of a military officer. "From the beginning," writes his biographer W. P. Cresson, "James Monroe, a former militia man, who had served beneath the Rattlesnake Flag with the pioneers, was by instinct and sympathy a 'Man of the Western Waters.' From the frontiersmen he was to draw much of his political strength and, in return, was to serve them with all the ability and energy at his command."4
Monroe's view was, at least in part, influenced by his uncle JudgeJones, who was an early exponent of the cession of frontier lands to the federal government for the purpose of creating new states. Other proponents of this plan included Washington, Jefferson, George Mason, and others of the "new states" persuasion. For himself and others, Washington advocated reward of the frontier lands to poorly compensated Continental army veterans, a movement soon to be led by the newly formed Society of the Cincinnati. Monroe's commitment to this cause is demonstrated by his trip in the fall of 1784 through the territories west of New York and southward through the Ohio Territory, where he reported, "It is possible I may lose my scalp from the temper of the Indians, but if either a little fighting or a great deal of running will save it I shall escape safe."5 In this, he later wrote Jefferson, he was not being entirely frivolous, for three members of his expeditions were in fact killed by angry Indians.
Monroe's interests in questions of western expansion were to preoccupy him throughout his public life. Following this early trip, he argued in the Confederation Congress for rigorous steps to garrison the former British posts on the western frontier with American troops, and he took up the emerging cause of American rights to navigate the Mississippi River. As Cresson notes:
In the struggle for this greater empire, which now forms the might and glory of the Republic, no statesman of his time played a more significant part than James Monroe. As the champion in Congress of the still-undefined rights of the United States to the lands ceded by the Treaty of 1783 and to the free navigation of the Mississippi, he performed a service for which credit has too often been denied him. When Jefferson left for France, it was Monroe who took his place as the champion of the "Men of the Western Waters." His authority in these matters was recognized by his contemporaries and they elected him to the chairmanship of the two important committees chiefly concerned with western interests.6
In these matters Monroe quickly found himself at odds with John Jay, who had just been named the Confederation Congress's minister for foreign affairs. Jay was willing to sacrifice westward expansion by pioneers and frontiersmen in favor of transatlantic trading relationships with Great Britain and France on behalf of eastern commercial interests.
Jay was a New Yorker and on the side of New England and the eastern states. Their economic future was tied to the transatlantic and West Indies trade. As the dominant southern power, Virginia, together with North Carolina, claimed land west to the Mississippi and northwestward to include the Northwest Territory (today's Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin). Jefferson, who proposed ceding these claims to the national government for westward expansion, left to serve as minister to France in 1785, and Monroe took up this cause. In 1787 he succeeded in creating a territorial government through passage of the Northwest Ordinance. Jay, speaking for the eastern commercial interests, saw westward expansion and the opening of western waterways, particularly the Mississippi River and the port of New Orleans, as competition for New England. In negotiating with Spanish envoy Don Diego de Enrique Gardoqui, Jay, against his instructions, implicitly traded western interests in opening the Mississippi for expanded trade between New England and Spain.
In a letter to Patrick Henry, then governor of Virginia, on August 12, 1786, the outraged Monroe described Jay's dishonesty and manipulations: "This is one of the most extraordinary transactions I have ever known, a minister negotiating expressly for the purpose of defeating the object of his instructions, and by a long train of intrigue & management seducing the representative of the states to concur in it." He went on to summarize Jay's true intentions as "a dismemberment of the States east of the Hudson from the Union & the erection of them into a separate govt."7 Thus the Monroe-Jay feud, to surface mightily with the Jay Treaty in 1794, was born.
During the same period Monroe's relationship with James Madison, seven years his senior, whom he had replaced in the Virginia Assembly in 1783, began to develop, largely at the initial instigation of Jefferson, who glowingly introduced him to Madison: "The scrupulousness of his honor will make you safe in the most confidential communications. A better man cannot be."8
Madison shared Monroe's concerns about Jay's promotion of the eastern trade interests at the expense of the frontiersmen's rights of Mississippi navigation. Monroe believed "the whole development of the Union was at stake" on this issue; upon it would depend "whether the United States was to constitute a nation or was to repeat, upon a new continent, the petty and complicated state system of Europe."9 Like western expansion generally, the rights to navigation of the Mississippi specifically would be an issue consuming Monroe throughout most of his public life. "Indeed, until a generation of native western leaders emerged just before the War of 1812," according to one historian, "Monroe was looked upon as the only national figure identified with the aims of the West."10
Also during this period Monroe, who had yet to travel abroad, began to take a keen interest in foreign affairs and the appointment of appropriate diplomatic emissaries to important posts.
Two recurring themes now permeated Monroe's private life: his physical health and his financial health. Though constitutionally sturdy, he began to be plagued by a variety of ailments, some of which would send him to bed. Also, having gone virtually directly from military service into politics, he now found himself well into his twenties without a profession or a dependable source of income. Unlike his friend John Marshall, he continued to put off applying to the bar. Although described at the time as merely "respectable looking," Monroe managed to win the hand of a beautiful New York socialite, Elizabeth Kortright, who "had the hauteur of the born aristocrat and was something of a grande dame even in her girlhood," and they were married in February 1786. Later that fall Monroe resigned from Congress and, with his bride, returned to live at Judge Jones's house in Fredericksburg, where he was finally admitted to the bar.
It was a good match. Monroe's biographer Ammon summarized it thus: "The bond which united the Monroes was a remarkably close one, rendering every separation painful."11 Jefferson took the occasion to write a letter to Monroe, meant also for his wife's eyes, regarding the glories of quiet domestic life, possibly in preference to the social whirl she had left in New York: "Quiet retirement ... is the only point upon which the mind can settle at rest ... . But I must not philosophize too much with her lest I give her too serious apprehensions of a friendship I shall impose upon her."12
Politics, however, was still very much in Monroe's blood, and within months he managed to get himself elected to the town council in Fredericksburg and soon thereafter returned to the Virginia Assembly. The first of three children--two daughters and a son who died young--was added to his new family in December 1786. But to Jefferson, who was fifteen years older than Monroe and, like Madison, now a continuous correspondent, he wrote, "My anxiety however for the gen'l welfare hath not diminished." Of these three men, whose lives were to continue to intersect for another forty or more years, one historian has written: "No personal relationship founded on common interests, opinions, and loyalties such as united these three men ... has ever more profoundly affected the political life of a nation."13
In September 1787 the Constitutional Convention completed its labors, but without the participation of James Monroe. When Virginia governor Edmund Randolph had passed him over as a delegate, Monroe initially held Randolph and Madison responsible, but later he took the slight less personally. However, he did manage to become a delegate to the Virginia ratification convention in June 1788, and, as a neutral figure leaning toward the new national government and ratification--then tilting against, at least until the eloquent Madison spoke--he argued the case for the inclusion of some requirement of the federal government to guarantee his continuing cause, free navigation of the Mississippi by American frontiersmen.
Harry Ammon points out as well that Monroe "was almost alone among the anti-federalists in recommending that the federalgovernment be given direct control over the militia as a means of eliminating the need for a standing army."14 This was a crucial issue for both federalists and antifederalists. How could the new nation be secure from foreign threats, of which there were considerable, if defended primarily by citizen-soldiers, often not properly trained or equipped? Here Monroe's military service informed his judgment on national security matters. But he broke ranks with his republican allies adroitly. He wished the federal executive to have, under threat, the authority to "nationalize" the militia (later the National Guard) in the interest of national security--essentially the constitutional position that was to evolve many decades later.15 James Monroe was among the first of the early national leaders to appreciate the degree to which the security of the nation had to be a responsibility of the national authority and not dependent on the individual states.
Though Monroe joined the antifederalists in voting against ratification of the proposed Constitution, he was--particularly under the influence of George Washington--among the first to cross the aisle to accept its adoption. Patrick Henry devised a gerrymandered scheme that would send a completely antifederalist delegation from Virginia to the first federal Congress, but Madison, standing in competition with Monroe for the same seat, prevailed against both. There was a major substantive disagreement between them on ratification of the Constitution: Madison thought that it should be adopted as proposed; Monroe, that it should not be ratified without amendments, including a Bill of Rights. Monroe's motives in this contest were not personal; neither resentment of Madison nor ambition for himself came into play. As Ammon observes, "Throughout his career Monroe cherished an intense, self-sacrificing acceptance of his obligations of public service, and no argument [by his supporters] was so effective in enlisting his aid as that stressing the needs of the public ... . Monroe clearly felt that refusal to run against Madison would seem to be a betrayal of a public trust in order to gratify private friendship."16 For Monroe, duty to country and conscience trumped personal relationships, but he never heldhis sense of duty to be antithetical to them. "The election over," writes Ammon, "the two friends resumed their correspondence, writing freely about politics and rendering friendly services for each other."17
Around Christmas 1789, Jefferson returned from his mission as minister to France to take up his post as America's first secretary of state and found his protégé James Monroe--now thirty-one years old, married, and a serious political leader in Virginia--a much more mature and self-possessed figure than the young man he had left. As Harry Ammon notes:
The promise Jefferson had seen in [Monroe] a decade earlier had been fully realized. Yet the change was more in externals than an inward one, for Monroe had retained all those qualities of warmth, sincerity and kindness which had led Jefferson to value his friendship. These attributes were now enriched by a mature judgment based on an extensive knowledge of public affairs. Monroe was not merely esteemed [as a] member of Jefferson's social circle but as a colleague whose views merited serious consideration. Thus the association between them underwent a change--Monroe was no longer a protege but a coworker dedicated to the same goals as his friend.18
Monroe had become a full member in the Virginia republican triumvirate.
Monroe at this time undertook a personal project which had preoccupied him for some time, his relocation to Albemarle County, first to Charlottesville, then years later to property adjoining Monticello. Having relocated his family and his estate to his original home in Albemarle, Monroe once again grew restless in private life. Writing to Jefferson in October 1790, he said, "I have at length yielded to my inclinations to suffer my name to be mention' d for a publick appointment," and in December, Monroe, now thirty-two years old, became a U.S. senator from Virginia, joiningMadison (then serving as a member of the House of Representatives) in Philadelphia, the temporary capital. His decision to accept this office was affected by an important personal consideration: living in Philadelphia would provide Mrs. Monroe proximity to her family in New York for the first time since her marriage.19 At their request Monroe lodged with his fellow Virginians Jefferson and Madison upon his arrival in the city. One of Monroe's first acts in the Senate was to propose that the "doors of the Senate Chamber remain open" during its sessions. In his only preserved Senate speech, Monroe said: "Let the jealous, the prying eye of their constituents uphold [observe] their proceedings, mark their conduct, and the tone of the body will be changed. Many a person whose heart was devoted and whose mind pursued with unceasing ardor the establishment of arbitrary power: whilst he supposed his movements were unseen ... wod. change his style and from motives of private interest become the fervent patron of the publick liberty."20 He proved unpersuasive, and the doors remained closed until February 1794.
The young U.S. government soon found itself, largely under the influence of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and the emerging Federalist faction, engaged in a perpetual struggle over national versus states rights. The initial contest over chartering the Bank of the United States and over federal assumption of state war debts brought the combatants to the surface. Monroe was one of five senators to vote against the bank. Seeing Federalist interests becoming extensively organized, anti-Federalists began to counter this trend by organizing their own colleagues dedicated to the Republican cause. Jefferson was at the forefront, but his friends Madison and soon Monroe were enlisted as prime lieutenants. For the Federalists, the Republicans were unruly, parochial primitives. For the Republicans, the Federalists were quite simply "monarchists." A blizzard of highly partisan press columns and invective-infested pamphleteering quickly emerged on both sides. Jefferson was stage manager; Madison was chief theorist; and Monroe was organizer and foot soldier.
To compound bad feelings, in 1792 Monroe joined two other members of Congress inquiring informally into the details of the infamous Reynolds affair, in which his former comrade in arms Alexander Hamilton had become enmeshed. Hamilton's detractors had accused him of conspiring with James Reynolds in illegal monetary transactions; Hamilton confessed that he had made extortion payments to Reynolds because Reynolds's wife had been his mistress. To a degree, Hamilton held Monroe personally responsible for his humiliation, at least as an agent for Jefferson, and a breach was opened between the two that almost resulted in a resort to pistols and that was to last until Hamilton's death in his duel with Aaron Burr in 1804.
To a degree the early Federalist-Republican divisions reflected divergent regional and sectional interests. But they also were rooted in deep differences over cultural, historical, and philosophical outlooks. The Republicans, led by Virginia, were in large part the products of "the self-sufficient English manor-house system," dependent on the land, suspicious of cities, concentrated finance, and centralized government, and heavily influenced philosophically by the classic Greek and Roman republican writers.21 By and large Federalists were shopkeepers, tradesmen, and artisans living in towns and cities, dependent on sea-based commerce, comfortable with banks and lending required by complex financing, more accepting of concentrated merchant wealth, and less suspicious of centralized government. Battle lines formed early and influenced most public policy debate, at least until the demise of the Federalist party at the end of the second decade of the nineteenth century.
Monroe's emergence as a leader of the Republican faction in the Senate led to his involvement in matters of foreign relations, then to the beginning of an almost seven-year diplomatic career abroad, which would in time lead to his appointment as secretary of state, and from that stepping-stone to the presidency. And it was in his capacity as a Senate Republican leader that Monroe was most visible in opposition to the proposed appointment in 1794 of Alexander Hamilton as minister to England. That opposition in turn led to hisemergence as an identifiable friend of France and an admirer of its revolution. Monroe had already taken up the cudgel for the French revolutionaries in a series of essays written over the signature "Aratus" in 1791. In both the American and French revolutions, Monroe argued, "the power which belonged to the body of the people ... was resumed. It now rests where it should be ... . Whoever owns the principles of one revolution must cherish those of the other; and the person who draws a distinction between them [e.g., Hamilton] is either blinded by prejudice, or boldly denies what at the bar of reason he cannot refute."22
Throughout 1792 and 1793, Monroe worked closely with Jefferson and other Republicans to respond to Hamilton's accusations that Jefferson was undermining the Washington administration, that he was hostile to the Constitution, and that his pro-France leanings were undermining the interests of the new nation. Hamilton made these accusations in pamphlets he circulated over the name "Catullus." In response to the pamphlets and other accusations, Monroe and Madison produced their own series of essays, published in a Philadelphia newspaper, titled "Vindication of Mr. Jefferson." Most of the series of six pieces were written by Monroe and were sharply worded refutations of Hamilton. These contributed to Monroe's further emergence as a leading party figure and made him more visible in national circles. Before moving onto center stage, however, Monroe would require experience beyond U.S. borders in the wider world of international diplomacy. In 1794, President Washington would provide that opportunity.
By the age of thirty-eight, James Monroe had compiled a solid record of military service, had been a member of the Virginia Assembly and the Governor's Council, had served in the Confederation Congress in Annapolis, had successfully proposed the Northwest Ordinance, had participated in the constitutional ratification debates, and had been elected U.S. senator from Virginia. He had also become a member of the Virginia triumvirate, with Jefferson and Madison, of future presidents and had emerged as a leader of the informal party of Republicans. Most important, Monroe wasalso the leading champion of western expansion, a position that would require intense concentration on the need to secure America's southern and northern borders and expand its borders to the west. To this lifelong effort he brought the focus and intensity of mission of a combat veteran and military officer.
But it would be his service in his country's diplomatic corps that would elevate Monroe from an emerging figure in Virginia politics and Republican leader in the Senate to a serious national and international personage sufficiently experienced in foreign and domestic affairs to qualify for eventual national leadership. His first experience would be as minister to France beginning in the fall of 1794, and, after more than two years in that post during a dramatic time in U.S., British, and French relations, it would not be judged a success.
Copyright © 2005 by Gary Hart