James Monroe Biography
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James Monroe (April 28, 1758 – July 4, 1831) was the last of the “Founding Fathers” to become President. A veteran of the Revolutionary War, Monroe presided over the nation during both the relatively calm “Era of Good Feelings” and the aptly-named Panic of 1819. Five states were admitted to the Union under his presidency: Mississippi, Illinois, Alabama, Maine, and Missouri, whose admission was the subject of a divisive nationwide debate and the controversial Missouri Compromise. Monroe is most associated with the Monroe Doctrine, which officially announced the United States’ intolerance for any attempts by European powers to establish new colonies in the Americas; Monroe’s Secretary of State John Quincy Adams was instrumental in devising this doctrine and succeeded Monroe as President.
James Monroe was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia. He was classmates with future Chief Justice John Marshall at Campbelltown Academy. In the spring of 1775, Monroe dropped out of the College of William and Mary to join the Continental Army, where he earned the rank of Major and served until 1780. He then studied law under Thomas Jefferson and practiced in Fredericksburg, Virginia. During this time period, he also owned a plantation inherited from his father, but it was unsuccessful and he sold it in 1783. His political career began in the Virginia House of Delegates in 1782, followed by three years in Congress starting in 1783. As a delegate to Virginia’s convention which ratified the US Constitution, Monroe was one of the most vocal skeptics, noting that the proposed Constitution gave too much power to the central government and vowing to work towards amendment of the Constitution post-ratification. Monroe served as a US Senator representing Virginia from 1790-94 and Ambassador to France from 1794-96, securing the release of all Americans held in French prisons. He was Governor of Virginia from 1799-1802 and again in 1811; meanwhile, on behalf of President Jefferson, he helped Robert R. Livingston negotiate the Louisiana Purchase and was Ambassador to Great Britain from 1803-1808. Under President Madison, Monroe was both Secretary of State (1811-1817) and Secretary of War (1814-1815) but had little involvement in the War of 1812.
The breakdown of the Federalist Party afforded Monroe an easy victory as a Democratic-Republican in the presidential election of 1816. Monroe’s Cabinet choices seemed designed to unite the country, with the northern Adams as Secretary of State and the southern John C. Calhoun as Secretary of War (Henry Clay would have added a western voice to Monroe’s Cabinet had he not declined the offer). His goodwill tours in 1817 kicked off the “Era of Good Feelings,” in which partisan divisiveness gave way to shared national goals. Or so it seemed: 1819 brought two major challenges in the form of the Panic of 1819 and Missouri’s application to join the Union. The former was a short-lived but devastating economic crisis the likes of which the young nation had never seen. The latter was like a storm cloud over the country, eventually settled through the Missouri Compromise which allowed Missouri entry as a slave state, balanced that by allowing Maine entry as a free state, and established geographical restrictions on the legality of slavery.
Monroe remained popular and with the party system practically nonexistent by the election of 1820, Monroe became the first presidential candidate since George Washington to run unopposed. His second term is most remembered for the Monroe Doctrine, which has been interpreted and re-interpreted many times since to justify the actions of the US or condemn the actions of other nations in the Western Hemisphere.