James Monroe was born at Monroe’s Creek in Westmoreland County, Virginia, on April 28, 1758, to parents of Scottish and Welsh descents. He studied at the Campbelltown Academy from ages 11 to 16. When James was 16, his father died. That same year, 1774, he began his studies at the College of William and Mary. Revolutionary War fever was sweeping the country and one year later he dropped out of school and joined the Williamsburg Militia and eventually the Continental Army. James had a very distinguished military career rising in rank to Lieutenant Colonel. He fought in the battles of Harlem Heights, White Plains, Trenton, Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth.
James Monroe graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1776. He continued his education from 1780 to 1782, studying law under Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson once said of Monroe, “Monroe was so honest that if you turned his soul inside out there would not be a spot on it.” He practiced law in Fredericksburg, Virginia and joined the Virginia Convention, which ratified the US Constitution.
In 1790, he was elected United States Senator. He then served as Minister to France, under President Washington, and Governor of Virginia during President Adams’ term. He assisted Robert Livingston in negotiating the Louisiana Purchase for President Jefferson and later served as Jefferson’s Minister to France and Minister to Great Britain. As a young politician he followed in Jefferson’s footsteps with his strong belief in education and its importance to a strong and healthy democracy. He is quoted as saying, “Let us by wise and constitutional measures promote intelligence among the people as the best means of preserving our liberties.”
President Madison appointed James Monroe as his Secretary of State in 1811. Monroe tried to avert the impending war with Great Britain but soon realized that the war was inevitable. When the British landed on the Maryland coast he personally led a force of scouts and determined that the British were headed for Washington, DC. Monroe ordered all essential documents removed from Washington. After the British retreat he was appointed Secretary of War, while maintaining his position of Secretary of State. His integrity and energy, together with the backing of President Madison, made him the Republican choice for the Presidency in 1816. In 1820, he easily won re-election with all but one electoral vote. A New Hampshire delegate wanted Washington to be the only president elected unanimously.
Early in his first term President Monroe undertook a goodwill tour. A Boston newspaper coined his Presidency as the “era of good feeling” and it stuck. Monroe had spent many years as a diligent public servant and he was highly popular, especially because of his neutrality in regional disputes. He made unusually strong Cabinet choices, naming a southerner, John C. Calhoun, as Secretary of War and a northerner, John Quincy Adams, as Secretary of State. However balanced he tried to build his administration, disputes in the different sections of the country were rising on the issue of slavery, eventually resulting in the Civil War. In 1819, the people of the Missouri Territory applied for admission to the Union as a slave state. Being a border state their petition was denied. Eventually (1820) Monroe signed the Missouri Compromise, which admitted Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state for counter-balance and barred slavery west and north of the Missouri forever. While personally a supporter of the rights of the free states, Monroe took no public position on the issue due to his strong faith in representative government. “In this great nation there is but one order, that of the people, whose power, by a peculiarly happy improvement of the representative principal, is transferred from them ‘to persons elected by themselves’ for the purposes of free, enlightened and efficient government.”
Monroe’s greatest success as President was in foreign affairs. During his tenure much of South America had achieved independence from Spain. The former Latin American colonies were young democracies and were vulnerable to reconquest by Spain. Russia and France threatened to encroach on the American continents as well. Great Britain was also opposed to re-conquests by Spain and suggested that the United States join in proclaiming “hands off”. Ex-Presidents Jefferson and Madison counseled President Monroe to accept the offer. But Monroe’s Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, believed that the US should not join with Great Britain on this matter but to stand up for itself “to avow our principles explicitly to Russia and France” and deal with Spain later. Adams wanted to avoid trouble with Spain until it had ceded the Floridas, which was done in 1821.
On December 2, 1823, President Monroe delivered a policy message to Congress. This independent policy was approved by the Cabinet and warned the European states that they should not become involved in the affairs of the Western hemisphere. “In the American continents,” he stated, “by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European power.” The United States would not interfere in European wars or internal affairs, and expected Europe to stay out of American affairs. Some twenty years after President Monroe died on July 4, 1831, this became known as The Monroe Doctrine.