James Monroe (1758-1831) was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia. His family's 500-acre tobacco plantation provided the resources that enabled the eleven-year-old Monroe in 1769 to enter Campbelltown Academy, then considered the best school in the entire colony of Virginia. John Marshall and he were schoolmates, and their close friendship endured until the political rivalries of the 1790s placed them in opposite camps. Monroe must have been a good student, for his proficiency in Latin and mathematics enabled him to begin in the upper division when he entered the College of William and Mary in 1774.
Once in Williamsburg, Monroe was distracted from his studies by political turmoil. He bought a musket and drilled with the college militia, and in June of 1775, he was the youngest member of a small band of patriots that successfully seized the arsenal of the Governor's Palace. Italian-born Philip Mazzei, Thomas Jefferson's wine-growing associate, also participated in the attack. The following spring, Monroe joined an infantry regiment. His rugged constitution and athletic frame recommended him for military life. In September 1776, his regiment fought with distinction in the unsuccessful defense of Manhattan Island. Monroe was later seriously wounded at the battle of Trenton, and he received a promotion to captain for his gallantry under fire. After recovering from his wound, he returned to the army in 1777 and served with Alexander Hamilton as an aide-de-camp for Lord Stirling. Monroe once again saw combat at the battle of Monmouth in 1778, but the surplus of qualified officers in the army prevented him from securing a field command of his own. His attempts to raise a volunteer unit met with no success, and he contemplated withdrawing from public life to pursue his secondary interest in farming.
At this point, Monroe unburdened himself to Thomas Jefferson, his new acquaintance and the governor of Virginia. Jefferson advised Monroe to prepare for a career in public service by studying the law. To that end, Monroe returned to William and Mary in 1780 and joined William Short in studying law under Jefferson's tutelage. In gratitude, Monroe wrote his mentor, "I feel that whatever I am at present in the opinion of others or whatever I may be in future has greatly arose from your friendship." Monroe's value as a military adviser induced Jefferson to appoint his protégé military commissioner for Virginia. Monroe supplied information on troop dispositions and established a military postal service for sending rapid news of enemy actions. With the end of the war, he moved from Williamsburg to his farm in King George County intending to complete his study of the law. Shortly afterwards, in the spring of 1782, he was elected as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.
Through 1782 and 1783, Monroe was active in state political affairs, particularly in the management of the western lands (his military service had earned him over 5,000 acres of bounty land in Kentucky). He was chosen in June 1783, along with Jefferson and three others, to represent Virginia in the Confederation Congress. The first year, in Annapolis, Jefferson and Monroe shared lodgings. The younger man availed himself of Jefferson's library and practiced his French on Jefferson's hired chef. It was during this time that Jefferson urged Monroe and James Madison to establish a closer relationship. Jefferson recommended Monroe to Madison, writing, "The scrupulousness of his honor will make you safe in the most confidential communication. A better man cannot be." Monroe remained on the Virginia delegation to the Congress for the next three years, an experience that convinced him of the necessity of a strong central government.
In 1786, Monroe married Elizabeth Kortright of New York. Jefferson was particularly warm in his congratulations. His marriage, however, made Monroe's chronic shortness of money a more pressing concern, and from 1786 until 1790 he divided his attention between public service and his law practice. He was again elected to the House of Delegates in 1787, but was left off the Virginia delegation to the Constitutional Convention. After seeing the document that emerged from Philadelphia, Monroe found that he "had some strong objections to it." In 1788 he brought those objections to the ratifying convention in Richmond. After twenty days of debate, which Monroe said were "conducted generally with great order, propriety and respect of either party to the other," the ratifying convention approved the Constitution by a vote of 89 to 79. Monroe forwarded a copy to Jefferson in Paris. Later that year, Monroe ran for the House of Representatives intending to continue his struggle to modify the Constitution. Madison, his unlikely opponent, also advocated amendment and handily won the election. The former adversaries immediately resumed their friendly correspondence.
In February 1789, Monroe shared some good news with Jefferson: "It has always been my wish to acquire property near Monticello. I have lately accomplish'd it by the purchase of Colo. G. Nicholas improvments in Charlotteville ...." A few months before, Monroe had acquired 800 acres of land that would later become the site of the University of Virginia. Jefferson had been urging Madison and Monroe to settle near him in Albemarle County since the summer of 1784. Monroe took up residence on his property in August 1789. He declined requests from his Albemarle neighbors to run for public office, devoting himself instead to his law practice and new farms. The latter disappointed him. His efforts, he concluded later, should have been applied "to a more grateful soil." Jefferson returned from France in December of 1789 and reported to William Short that Monroe's presence greatly improved the neighborhood.
Most aristocratic Virginians in this period owed their financial well-being to large scale agriculture, and James Monroe was no exception. His father's death in 1774 had left him in possession of slaves. Though opposed to the institution itself, Monroe, like Jefferson, feared the outbreak of violence that could result from immediate abolition. He therefore supported gradual solutions to this societal dilemma. As U.S. president, for example, he endorsed the American Colonization Society's efforts to settle former slaves in Liberia, which led to the capital of that nation being named Monrovia in his honor. His daily interaction with the men and women he owned was unsurprisingly governed by the unwritten standards of conduct pursued by enlightened slave-owners throughout the upper South. This paternalistic philosophy resulted in his protection of family units, a minor amount of self-determination in work assignments, and the provision of medical care. It did not oblige him to free his slaves, an action he, like Jefferson, believed to be irresponsible.
In 1790, Monroe returned to public service as senator from Virginia and held that office until 1794. When he first arrived in Philadelphia, Madison and Jefferson invited their friend and his wife to share lodgings at their boarding house. Throughout this period, Monroe worked closely with Madison (a member of the House of Representatives) and Jefferson (secretary of state) in organizing an opposition political party and in achieving their republican goals. During recesses, these three men visited each other's estates: Madison at Montpelier, Jefferson at Monticello, and Monroe at his residence in Charlottesville. They enjoyed one another's society, but also spent time preparing legislative goals and deciding on strategies to counter the efforts of Hamilton's Federalists. In 1793, Monroe acquired 3,500 acres adjacent to Monticello. Highland, the house he constructed there, was completed in December of 1799.
Monroe's appointment in 1794 as minister to France by Washington's Federalist administration was somewhat unexpected, especially considering Monroe's prominence in the opposition party. His wide legislative experience and republican principles, however, made him the perfect agent for resolving tensions in American-French relations. By 1796 Washington's administration no longer felt comfortable with a Republican holding such an important post. Monroe bitterly resented what he perceived to be an unjustified recall; his resentment was somewhat soothed by the warm reception afforded him by his fellow Republicans when he returned to America in June of 1797.
From 1797 to 1799, Madison and Monroe were frequently at Monticello to confer with Jefferson on party matters. Monroe's friends were anxious to put his talents to work in some high governmental post, and in 1799, Monroe won the governorship of Virginia. Vague reports circulated during the summer of 1800 of an impending slave revolt. When specific details reached him on August 30, Monroe promptly called up the state militia and suppressed "Gabriel's rebellion." He attempted without success to alleviate the severity of the punishments handed down to the captured conspirators. The tied presidential ballot that autumn was another source of alarm for the governor. As Madison in the House of Representatives labored to break the tie between Aaron Burr and Jefferson, Monroe prepared the state militia to resist a Federalist coup that never materialized.
Monroe completed his third gubernatorial term in the autumn of 1802 and left office intending to restore his finances by devoting his full attention to his law practice. In January 1803, however, Jefferson appointed him envoy extraordinary to France. Jefferson and Madison (now secretary of state) believed that only Monroe had the reputation and experience to complete the delicate negotiations involved in buying from France a port at the mouth of the Mississippi. "[A]ll eyes, all hopes are now fixed on you," Jefferson told his old friend. Within three weeks of his arrival in France, Monroe and his colleague, Robert Livingston, had completed a treaty that secured the entire Louisiana territory at the cost of $15 million (80 million francs). During the remainder of his stay in France, Monroe visited two comrades from the revolution and forwarded news of them to Jefferson: Lafayette he found recovering from a broken hip, while Thaddeus Kosciusko was involved with his garden.
After the successful negotiations for Louisiana in the spring of 1803, Jefferson transferred Monroe to London to fill the vital post of minister to Great Britain. The two countries enjoyed a precarious peace, and Monroe's main responsibility was to seek the resolution of several issues relating to the sovereignty of the United States. During the last year of his ministry, in 1807, Monroe and William Pinkney negotiated a treaty that Jefferson and Madison could not accept because it failed to address the impressment of American sailors into British ships. Monroe's and Madison's differences of opinion on foreign policy, as well as Monroe's indignation over the perceived slight to his competence, induced him to run for the presidency in 1808 as a Republican alternative to Madison. While his friendship with Jefferson continued to thrive, Monroe and Madison remained estranged until May of 1810, at which time Jefferson's efforts to restore their former amity finally bore fruit. The following January, Monroe was elected once more to the governorship of Virginia, but he held the office for only three months. In March of 1811, Madison offered him the post of secretary of state.
National crisis, particularly the events of the War of 1812, marked the years of Monroe's service in Madison's cabinet. Not surprisingly, he rarely found leisure for lengthy visits in Albemarle County. His family spent the majority of its time at his Oak Hill estate in Loudoun County. With the outbreak of hostilities in 1812, Madison transferred Monroe temporarily to the post of secretary of war. Like Jefferson, Monroe believed that America's successful prosecution of the war depended on an invasion of Canada, but whereas Jefferson believed that such a conquest would be "a mere matter of marching," Monroe expected a protracted campaign and drew up plans for an army of 30,000 soldiers. Anti-Virginia grumbling in the Senate prevented Monroe's confirmation as secretary of war. His successor, John Armstrong, was a disaster: the secretary of war appointed generals who bungled the invasion of Canada, and his conclusion that the poorly-trained and inadequately-equipped state militias should bear the burden of defending Washington resulted in its virtually uncontested conquest by British regulars in August of 1814. Madison responded to the crisis by once again naming Monroe secretary of war. The latter's industry and organizational skills supplied the means for resisting British thrusts at Baltimore and New Orleans. With peace in 1815, Monroe resumed his direction of international affairs as secretary of state.
Jefferson, meanwhile, had been working on plans for Central College. In 1816, Madison, Monroe, and Jefferson were all named to its first Board of Visitors. Monroe traveled to board meetings from Washington, for he had won the presidency in the election of 1816. As president, Monroe sought to narrow the country's political divisions, a policy that led some contemporaries to speak of his presidency as an "Era of Good Feelings." Not all was well, however. Monroe's administration dealt with such problems as open warfare with the Seminoles, sectional strife over slavery in the debate concerning Missouri's admission to the union, and international tension with Spain over the status of Florida. Monroe's appointments to various governmental positions in the summer of 1824 generated stress of a more personal nature. Jefferson had asked his old friend to give the postmastership of Richmond to one of his creditors, Bernard Peyton. At the time, Jefferson did not know that his own son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph, had also applied for the post. Jefferson told Peyton that Monroe's appointment of a third party "sorely and deeply wounded" him. Even so, the two friends continued to correspond with their usual warmth. In October 1824, for example, Monroe told Jefferson:
It is my warmest desire to visit albermarle, & to pass a day, with you, and one with Mr Madison, before the commenc’ment of the Session. If I do, it must be soon, as I must be back, early in the next month, to prepare for that event.
After several postponements, presidential responsibilities forced Monroe to cancel the projected visit. The following summer, Lafayette made a last visit to Charlottesville before departing for France. Monroe accompanied Lafayette to Monticello and found Jefferson in poor health. This proved to be the last time Monroe and Jefferson saw one another.
Monroe left the presidency in 1825 intending to rectify his personal affairs. The deplorable state of his finances led him to commiserate with Jefferson in February of 1826 over their mutual difficulties. After Jefferson's death, Monroe continued to direct the daily labor of the seventy-seven slaves on his Oak Hill estate. A fall from horseback in 1828 exacerbated his ill health, yet Monroe remained active intellectually. He worked from 1829 until his death on an autobiography, for instance, and refused to let attacks on his administration go unanswered. His continued infirmity combined with his wife's death in September of 1830 induced him to move from Oak Hill to New York to live with his daughter, Maria Hester, and her husband, Samuel Gouverneur. He died there on July 4, 1831.
- J. Boehm, 10/98
Bitter rivalries, character assassinations, an electoral deadlock and a tie-breaking vote in the House of Representatives — the Election of 1800 had it all. See what all the fuss was about »
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