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James Monroe

Official White House portrait of James Monroe, by Samuel Finley Breese Morse (ca. 1819)

“National honor is the national property of the highest value.”

James Monroe was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia on April 28, 1758.  He was the fifth president and known as the last “Founding Father” president.

His father died when he was 16, and he became responsible for his mother and siblings thereafter.  In 1774, he enrolled at the College of William and Mary, but later left to fight in the Revolutionary War.  From 1780 to 1783, he studied law under Thomas Jefferson.

After Virginia ratified the new Constitution in 1788, Monroe lost to James Madison for a seat in the first Congress.  However, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1790.  He resigned four years later when he was appointed Minister to France.  Later, when he was again made a diplomat to France, he and Robert Livingston, the United States Minister to France, negotiated the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.  That same year, Madison was appointed Minister to Great Britain, a position he held until 1807.  During that time, he negotiated the Monroe-Pinkney Treaty with Britain; the goal of the treaty was to end Britain’s impressment (forced recruitment) of American sailors into the Royal Navy, and to improve trade relations between the two nations (the treaty would have been a renewal of the Jay Treaty, which had expired).  Jefferson’s rejection of the treaty was one of the major

Monroe became James Madison’s Secretary of State in April of 1811.  Madison also appointed him Secretary of War in September 1814; thus, from October 1814  to February 28, 1815, Monroe held both cabinet posts.  Afterwards, he resigned as Secretary of War and was formally reappointed Secretary of State.

On March 4, 1817, Monroe was inaugurated the fifth President of the United States.  His administration was named the “‘Era of Good Feelings” named for its relatively few national crises.

The First Seminole War occurred during his administration, as did the acquisition of the Floridas from Spain and the Missouri Compromise, by which the first conflict over slavery under the Constitution was peacefully settled.

Portrait of James Monroe by John Vanderlyn (1816)

During December of 1823, Monroe published the Monroe Doctrine, in which he asserted the autonomy of the United States and newly formed Latin American nations from further European interference and colonization.

After the end of his second term Monroe retired to his home at Oak Hill, Virginia.  In 1826 he became a regent of the University of Virginia and in 1829 was a member of the convention called to amend the state constitution.  Having neglected his private affairs and incurred large expenditures during his missions to Europe and his presidency, he was deeply in debt and felt compelled to ask Congress to reimburse him.  In 1826 Congress finally authorized the payment to him of $30,000.  Almost immediately, adding additional claims, he went back to Congress seeking more money.  Congress paid him another $30,000 in 1831, but he still did not feel satisfied.  After his death Congress appropriated a small amount for the purchase of his papers from his heirs. Monroe died in 1831—like Jefferson and Adams before him on the Fourth of July—in New York City at the home of his daughter, Maria, with whom he was living after the death of his wife the year before.

“The best form of government is that which is most likely to prevent the greatest sum of evil. “