(1758–1831) was the fifth president of the United States of America (1817–1825), best known for sponsoring the Monroe Doctrine, and for presiding over a period of peace and (mostly) prosperity and a lessening of partisan tensions known as the “Era of Good Feelings.” He was the last of the Virginia Dynasty that controlled the presidency for 32 of the 36 years from 1789 to 1825. He held many political and diplomatic offices, and was a loyal lieutenant to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the previous Republican presidents.
Monroe was the only president to be elected by unanimous vote subsequent to George Washington, in 1820, not counting a “faithless elector” who switched his vote to John Quincy Adams. The collapse of the Federalist Party was a contributing factor to Monroe’s lack of opposition. Conservatives rate him highly due to his opposition to government spending, foreign wars, and European colonization in the Americas. Some criticize him for his sympathetic view in the 1790s of the French Revolution, but that was based on incomplete information.1
James Monroe’s great-grandfather, Captain Andrew Monroe, fought as a Royalist on behalf of King Charles I in the English Civil War. He was taken prisoner, and in 1647, was exiled to Virginia. There Andrew acquired a farm, which grew in two generations to 1,100 acres, part of which was inherited by Colonel Spence Monroe. Spence signed Richard Henry Lee’s Westmoreland Protests in 1765 against the British Stamp Act. Spence’s son, James Monroe, was born APRIL 28, 1758, and was baptized in the Anglican Church in Washington Parish, Westmoreland County, Virginia, the same country George Washington was born in.
As a youth, James was tutored at home by Scottish Anglican minister Reverend William Douglas, whose career included tutoring Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Meriwether Lewis. James Monroe then attended Campbellton Academy, considered one of the finest schools in Virginia. It was run by its founder, Scottish minister Reverend Archibald Campbell of Washington Parish. James Monroe’s classmates were James Madison and John Marshall, the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
James’ maternal uncle, Judge Joseph Jones, was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses and the Continental Congress, serving with Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. Jones was on the committees which declared Virginia independent from Britain and chose George Washington to be the Commander of the Continental Army.
At the age of 14, James’ mother died, and two years later, his father died, leaving him the family plantation. Judge Joseph Jones brought James Monroe to Williamsburg, where he met Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Patrick Henry. James attended the College of William and Mary, the second-oldest institution of higher education in the United States, after Harvard University.
Students were required to be at morning and evening prayer in the Sir Christopher Wren Chapel, and Sunday service at Bruton Parish Church.
When the Revolutionary War started, Monroe dropped out of school at age 17 and joined the Continental Army. In June of 1775, he and 24 others raided the Virginia Governor’s arsenal, carrying away 200 muskets and 300 swords to arm the Williamsburg Militia.
Monroe was part of General Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River the night of December 25, 1776. He is portrayed in Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware” as standing behind Washington holding the flag.
At the age of 18, Monroe was leading solders in the dark of night toward Trenton, New Jersey, when the dogs of Dr. John Riker started barking. Woke by the noise, Dr. Riker, a patriot, decided to follow the troops. Monroe led the charge at the Battle of Trenton and was struck in the shoulder by a musket ball, bleeding profusely. He would have quickly bled to death had not Dr. Riker been there to immediately clamp the ruptured artery. Monroe was cited for his bravery by General Washington.
In John Trumbull’s famous painting “Capture of the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton,” James Monroe is portrayed center left, wounded, lying on the ground.
Without fully recovering, Monroe returned to the front lines. He served on the staff of Scottish American General Lord Sterling, who noted for helping stop the Conway Cabal to replace Washington. While there, Monroe became friends with French officer Marquis de Lafayette, who was six months older.
In 1777-1778, Monroe fought in the Philadelphia Campaign, and spent the freezing winter with the army at Valley Forge, sharing a log shelter with John Marshall.
He fought in the Battle of Monmouth, June 28, 1778, and after the British captured Savannah, Georgia, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel, but was unable to recruit a regiment.
Having never fully recovered from his wounds, on the advice of his uncle, Joseph Jones, Monroe returned to Williamsburg in 1779 to study law under professor George Wythe, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and America’s first university law professor. Wythe had been a notable leader in the Virginia House of Burgesses and Mayor of Williamsburg.
He designed the Seal of Virginia, which depicted the warrior woman “Virtus” with a spear, sword, and broken chain, standing victoriously over the fallen king, with the words, “Sic Semper Tyrannis” — “Thus Always to Tyrants.” The reverse side has: Deus Nobis Haec Otia Fecit” — “God has granted us this rest.”
In his Remonstrance to the Stamp Act of 1765, George Wythe wrote:
“it is essential to British liberty that laws imposing taxes on the people ought not to be made without the consent of representatives chosen by themselves … British patriots will never consent to the exercise of anti-constitutional power.”
James Monroe moved to Richmond in 1780, to study law under Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson, selling his family’s small plantation to pay for it.
In 1780, at the age of 22, Monroe was chosen as a delegate to the Continental Congress. He later purchased an estate, Ash Lawn-Highland, which was next to Jefferson’s Monticello estate. Monroe was admitted to the Virginia bar and practiced law in Fredericksburg, where he attended St. George’s Episcopal Church and served as a vestryman.
After the Revolution, Monroe was elected as a delegate to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1782. As a delegate to the Virginia Ratifying Convention, Monroe joined Patrick Henry in opposing the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, as it did not have a Bill of Rights, limiting the Federal Government’s power. The next year, he was elected to the U.S. Congress.
In 1786, at the age of 28, James Monroe married Elizabeth Kortright, 18-years-old, at Trinity Episcopal Church on Wall Street in New York City. She was the daughter of a wealthy merchant from Holland, Netherlands, who helped found the New York Chamber of Commerce.
In 1790, he was elected a U.S. Senator, where he served till he was appointed Minister to France in 1794.
Being in France during the Reign of Terror, James Monroe’s wife, Elizabeth, helped secure the release of Madame Lafayette, the wife of Marquis de Lafayette, who was threatened with death by guillotine like Queen Marie Antoinette.
Monroe was elected Governor of Virginia, serving 1799-1802.
The Monroes attended St. John’s Episcopal Church in Richmond.
In 1803, Monroe was made Ambassador to Britain and Spain.
On April 30, 1803, Jefferson sent Monroe and Robert Livingston to France to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of the United States.
James and his wife, Elizabeth, were invited to Napoleon’s coronation in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, December 2, 1804.
Monroe was again Governor of Virginia in 1811, then later that year, he served as President Madison’s Secretary of State.
In 1816, James Monroe was elected the 5th U.S. President.
He attended St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square, directly across from the White House. He and Elizabeth sat in the “President’s Pew.”
He sent General Andrew Jackson into Florida in 1817, and sent his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, to negotiate the Adams-Onis Treaty, acquiring Florida from Spain in 1819.
States that were added to the Union during Monroe’s administration were:
- Mississippi, 1817;
- Illinois, 1818;
- Alabama, 1819;
- Maine, 1820; and
- Missouri, 1821.
President Monroe proclaimed the “Monroe Doctrine” in 1823, authored by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, which forbade European powers from interfering with the independent nations of the Western Hemisphere.
Monroe helped freed slaves found the nation of Liberia on west coast of Africa. In 1823, their capital city was named in his honor – Monrovia. It is the only foreign capital named after a U.S. President.
In his First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1817, President James Monroe warned:
“What raised us to the present happy state?… The Government has been in the hands of the people. To the people, therefore … is the credit due … It is only when the people become ignorant and corrupt, when they degenerate into a populace, that they are incapable of exercising the sovereignty.
Usurpation is then an easy attainment, and an usurper soon found. The people themselves become the willing instruments of their own debasement and ruin …”
“If we persevere … we can not fail, under the favor of a gracious Providence … My fervent prayers to the Almighty that He will be graciously pleased to continue to us that protection which He has already so conspicuously displayed in our favor.”
When Muslim Barbary Pirates committed terrorist attacks, President James Monroe refused appeasement. Instead, he deployed the U.S. Navy, stating March 5, 1821:
“Our relations with the Barbary Powers are preserved … by the same means that were employed when I came into this office. As early as 1801 it was found necessary to send a squadron into the Mediterranean for the protection of our commerce.”
In his 5th Annual Message, December 3, 1821, President James Monroe reiterated:
“A squadron has been maintained in the Mediterranean, by means whereof peace has been preserved with the Barbary Powers … From past experience … it is distinctly understood that should our squadron be withdrawn they would soon recommence their hostilities and depredations upon our commerce.”
President Monroe, with the U.S. Congress, ordered a city to be founded in 1823 in honor of Commodore Stephen Decatur – the city is Decatur, Alabama. Stephen Decatur was the renowned U.S. Naval officer who helped force the Muslim pirates to surrender, thus ending the Barbary Wars.
Though he was a consistent Episcopalian, Monroe seldom wrote about religion in his personal correspondence.
In his First Annual Message, December 2 1817, President James Monroe stated:
“In grateful acknowledgments to that Omnipotent Being … in unceasing prayer that He will endow us with virtue and strength.”
On November 16, 1818, in his 2nd Annual Message, President Monroe stated:
“For these inestimable blessings we can not but be grateful to that Providence which watches over the destiny of nations … When we view the blessings with which our country has been favored … Let us then, unite in offering our most grateful acknowledgments for these blessings to the Divine Author of All Good.”
On November 14, 1820, in his 4th Annual Message, President Monroe stated:
“When … we take into view the prosperous and happy condition of our country … it is impossible to behold … without being penetrated with the most profound and grateful acknowledgments to the Supreme Author of All Good for such manifold and inestimable blessings … especially … our most excellent system of government, the powerful instrument in the hands of our All-merciful Creator in securing to us these blessings.”
On March 5, 1821, in his 2nd Inaugural Address, President Monroe stated:
“The liberty, prosperity, and happiness of our country will always be the object of my most fervent prayers to the Supreme Author of All Good … With a firm reliance on the protection of Almighty God.”
On December 3, 1821, in his 5th Annual Message, Monroe stated:
“Deeply impressed with the blessings which we enjoy … my mind is irresistibly drawn to that Almighty Being, the great source from whence they proceed and to whom our most grateful acknowledgments are due.”
“The establishment of our institutions forms the most important epoch that history hath recorded … To preserve and hand them down in their utmost purity to the remotest ages will require the existence and practice of the virtues and talents equal to those which were displayed in acquiring them.”
Monroe wrote (James Monroe Papers, New York Public Library, Miscellaneous Papers and Undated Letters):
“Of the liberty of conscience in matters of religious faith, of speech and of the press; of the trial by jury; … of the benefit of the writ of habeas corpus; of the right to keep and bear arms … If these rights are … secured against encroachments, it is impossible that government should ever degenerate into tyranny.”
Monroe died July 4, 1831, being the third President to die on July 4th, Independence Day, following Jefferson and Adams in 1826.
In his 8th Annual Message to Congress, December 7, 1824, President James Monroe stated:
“For these blessings we owe to Almighty God, from whom we derive them, and with profound reverence, our most grateful and unceasing acknowledgments … Having commenced my service in early youth, and continued it since with few and short intervals, I have witnessed the great difficulties to which our Union has been exposed, and admired the virtue and intelligence with which they have been surmounted … That these blessings may be preserved and perpetuated will be the object of my fervent and unceasing prayers to the Supreme Ruler of the Universe.”
Chronological History of Events Related to James Monroe
The Secret Treaty of Verona between Austria, France, Prussia and Russia to Suppress the Freedom of the U.S.A. – with the Help of the Pope?