The fifth president of the United States was a native of the grand Old Dominion, being born in Westmoreland county, Virginia, April 28, 1758. Like his predecessor, Madison, he was the son of a planter. Another strange incident:—Within sight of Blue Ridge in Virginia, lived three presidents of the United States, whose public career commenced in the revolutionary times and whose political faith was the same throughout a long series of years. These were Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe.
In early youthhood Monroe received a good education, but left school to join the army and soon after was commissioned a lieutenant. He took an active part in the campaign on the Hudson, and in the attack on Trenton, at the head of a small detachment, he captured one of the British batteries. On this occasion he received a ball in the shoulder, and was promoted to a captaincy. As aide-de-camp to Lord Sterling, with the rank of major, he served in the campaign of 1777 and 1778, and distinguished himself in the battles of Brandywine, Germantown and Monmouth.
Leaving the army, he returned to Virginia and commenced the study of law under Thomas Jefferson, then Governor of the State. When the British appeared soon afterward in the State, Monroe exerted himself to the utmost in organizing the militia of the lower counties; and when the enemy proceeded southward, Jefferson sent him as military commissioner to the army in South Carolina.
In 1782, he was elected to the assembly of Virginia from the county of King George, and was appointed by that body, although but twenty-three years of age, a member of the executive council. In 1783 he was chosen a delegate to congress for a period of three years, and took his seat on December 13th. Convinced that it was impossible to govern the people under the old articles of confederation, he advocated an extension of the powers of congress, and in 1785 moved to invest in that body power to regulate the trade between the States.
The resolution was referred to a committee of which he was chairman, and a report was made in favor of the measure. This led to the convention of Annapolis, and the subsequent adoption of the Federal Constitution. Monroe also exerted himself in devising a system for the settlement of the public lands, and was appointed a member of the committee to decide the boundary between Massachusetts and New York. He strongly opposed the relinquishment of the right to navigate the Mississippi river as demanded by Spain.
Once more we see the value of a proper and elevating marriage, as a feature in the success of our great men. In 1785 he married a daughter of Peter Kortright, a lady of refinement and culture. He, being inelligible for the next three years according to the laws, settled in Fredericksburg.
In 1787 he was re-elected to the general assembly, and in 1788 was chosen a delegate to the Virginia convention to decide upon the adoption of the Federal Constitution. He was one of the minority who opposed the instrument as submitted, being apprehensive that without amendment it would confer too much authority upon the general government. The course of the minority in Congress was approved by the great mass of the population of the Old Dominion, and Monroe was chosen United States Senator in 1790. In the Senate he became a strong representative of the anti-Federal party, and acted with it until his term expired in 1794.
In May of that year he was appointed Minister Plenipotentiary to France, and was received in Paris with enthusiastic demonstrations of respect. His marked exhibition of sympathy with the French Republic displeased the administration. John Jay had been sent to negotiate a treaty with England, and the course pursued by Monroe was considered injudicious, as tending to throw serious obstacles in the way of the proposed negotiations. On the conclusion of the treaty his alleged failure to present it in its true character to the French government excited anew the displeasure of the cabinet; and in August, 1796, he was recalled under an informal censure.
On his return to America he published a ‘View of the conduct of the Executive in the Foreign Affairs of the United States,’ which widened the breach between him and the administration, but socially Monroe remained upon good terms with both Washington and Jay.
He was Governor of Virginia from 1799 to 1802 and at the close of his term was appointed Envoy Extraordinary to the French government to negotiate, in conjunction with the resident minister, Mr. Livingston, for the purchase of Louisiana, or a right of depot for the United States on the Mississippi. Within a fortnight after his arrival in Paris the ministers secured, for $15,000,000, the entire territory of Orleans and district of Louisiana.
In the same year he was commissioned Minister Plenipotentiary to England, and endeavored to conclude a convention for the protection of neutral rights, and against the impressment of seamen. In the midst of these negotiations he was directed to proceed to Madrid as Minister Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to adjust the difficulties between the United States and Spain, in relation to the boundaries of the new purchase of Louisiana. In this he failed, and in 1806 he was recalled to England to act with Mr. Pickney in further negotiation for the protection of neutral rights. On the last day of that year a treaty was concluded, but because of the omission of any provision against the impressment of seamen, and its doubtfulness in relation to other leading points the president sent it back for revisal. All efforts to attain this failed and Monroe returned to America.
The time was approaching for the election of a president, and a considerable body of the Republican party had brought Monroe forward as their candidate, but the preference of Jefferson for Madison was well known and of course had its influence. Monroe believed that the rejection of the treaty and the predilection expressed for his rival indicated hostility on the part of the retiring President, and a correspondence on the subject ensued.
Jefferson candidly explained his course and assured him that his preference was based solely upon solicitude for the success of the party, the great majority of which had declared in the favor of Madison. The misunderstanding ceased and Monroe withdrew from the canvass. In 1810 he was again elected to the general assembly of Virginia, and in 1811 once more Governor of the State.
In the same year he was appointed Secretary of State by President Madison, and after the capture of the capitol in 1814, he was appointed to take charge of the war department, being both Secretary of State and Secretary of War at once. He found the treasury exhausted and the national credit at the lowest ebb, but he set about the task of infusing order and efficiency into the departments under his charge, and proposed an increase of 40,000 men in the army by levying recruits throughout the whole country.
His attention was also directed to the defence of New Orleans, and finding the public credit completely prostrated, he pledged his private means as subsidary to the credit of the Government, and enabled the city to successfully oppose the forces of the enemy. He was the confidential adviser of President Madison in the measures for the re-establishment of the public credit of the country and the regulation of the foreign relations of the United States, and continued to serve as Secretary of State until the close of Madison’s term in 1817.
In that year he succeeded to the Presidency himself, by an electoral vote of 183 out of 217, as the candidate of the party now generally known as Democratic.
His Cabinet was composed of some of the ablest men in the country in either party. Soon after his inauguration President Monroe made a tour through the Eastern and Middle States, during which he thoroughly inspected arsenals, naval depots, fortifications and garrisons; reviewed military companies, corrected public abuses, and studied the capabilities of the country with reference to future hostilities.
On this tour he wore the undress uniform of a continental officer. In every point of view this journey was a success. Party lines seemed about to disappear and the country to return to its long past state of union. The President was not backward in his assurances of a strong desire on his part that such should be the case. The course of the administration was in conformity to these assurances, and secured the support of an overwhelming majority of the people.
The great majority of the recommendations in the President’s message were approved by large majorities. The tone of debate was far more moderate; few of the bitter speeches which had been the fashion in the past were uttered, and this period has passed into history as the “Era of good feeling.” Among the important events of the first term of President Monroe was the consummation in 1818 of a treaty between the United States and Great Britain in relation to the Newfoundland fisheries—the interpretation of the terms of which we have of late heard so much; the restoration of slaves and other subjects; also the admission into the Union of the States of Mississippi, Illinois and Maine; in 1819 Spain ceded to the United States her possessions in East and West Florida with the adjacent islands.
In 1820 Monroe was re-elected almost unanimously, receiving 231 out of the 232 electoral votes. On August 10th, 1821, Missouri became one of the United States, after prolonged and exciting debates, resulting in the celebrated “Missouri Compromise,” by which slavery was permitted in Missouri but prohibited forever elsewhere north of parallel thirty-six degrees and thirty minutes. Other events of public importance during the second term of President Monroe were the recognition in 1822 of the independence of Mexico, and the provinces in South America, formerly under the dominion of Spain; and the promulgation in his message of December 2, 1823, of the policy of ‘neither entangling ourselves in the broils of Europe, nor suffering the powers of the old world to interfere with the affairs of the new,’ which has become so famous as the “Monroe Doctrine.” On this occasion the president declared that any attempt on the part of foreign powers to extend their system to any part of this hemisphere would be regarded by the United States as dangerous to our peace and prosperity, and would certainly be opposed.
On March 4, 1825, Monroe retired from office and returned to his residence at Oak Hill in Virginia.
He was chosen a justice of the peace, and as such sat in the county court. In 1829 he became a member of the Virginia convention to revise the constitution, and was chosen to preside over the deliberations of that body but he was obliged, on account of ill-health, to resign his position in that body and return to his home.
Although Monroe had received $350,000 for his public services alone, he was greatly harrassed with creditors toward the latter part of his life. Toward the last he made his home with his son-in-law, Samuel L. Gouverneur of New York city, where he was originally buried, but in 1830 he was removed to Richmond with great pomp and re-interred in Holleywood Cemetery.
The subject of this sketch held the reins of government at an important time and administered it with prudence, discretion, and a single eye to the general welfare. He went further than any of his predecessors in developing the resources of the country. He encouraged the army, increased the navy, augmented the national defences, protected commerce, approved of the United States Bank, and infused vigor into every department of the public service.
His honesty, good faith, and simplicity were generally acknowledged, and disarmed the political rancor of the strongest opponents. Madison thought the country had never fully appreciated the robust understanding of Monroe. In person, Monroe was tall and well-formed, with light complexion and blue eyes. The expression of his countenance was an accurate index of his simplicity, benevolence, and integrity. The country never fully appreciated Monroe, partly on account of his never having gained distinction as an orator.