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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 258

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This is the grave of James Monroe.

Born in 1758 in Westmoreland County, Virginia to a middling family, unlike most of the Virginia elite that would so dominate the post-Revolution nation, Monroe’s family still needed their boy’s labor on the farm, so he only received a few months’ schooling a year. When his parents died in the early 1770s, he had to leave school entirely to support his younger siblings. But his uncle took him under his wing, sent him to William and Mary, and introduced him to the leading Virginians of the day. That help would propel Monroe into the elite. He dropped out of school to join the Revolution, was commissioned as a lieutenant, and nearly died in one battle. He became close to the Marquis de Lafayette while in the military, but in the end, did not have enough money to support his command. He left and joined his uncle in Philadelphia before going to study law in Williamsburg. There he became close to Thomas Jefferson, now the state’s governor. He was admitted to the bar and started a path of upward mobility.

Monroe got elected to the House of Delegates in 1782 and then to Congress the next year, where he stayed during the last years under the Articles of Confederation. He largely advocated for federal involvement in westward expansion. He left Congress briefly in 1786, continued working his connections with Jefferson and Madison, and rejoined the House of Delegates in 1787. While Madison wrote the Constitution, its fate in Virginia was highly unknown. The state was split between Federalists and Anti-Federalists and old friendships were strained. Although in France, Jefferson himself opposed Madison’s work. Monroe was a moderate, supporting ratification if the Bill of Rights was included, although then once Madison promised it, Monroe voted against it anyway.

Anyway, Madison actually defeated Monroe for election to the First Congress but they remained friends and rekindled their political alliance in opposing Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists. By this time, Monroe was basically what he was the rest of his career–capable, useful, not a great leader but a serious political figure. So when Washington tried to defuse tensions in his administration between the Federalists and Jeffersonians in 1794, a time when both sides wanted to declare war on the European power they hated, he named Anglophile John Jay to be the ambassador to Great Britain and the Francophile James Monroe to France. He managed that role capably, including saving Tom Paine from the guillotine. But Washington was frustrate with him because of his failure to convince the French that the Jay Treaty was Britain was not an attack on them. He recalled Monroe in 1796, leading Monroe to write a 400-page treatise defending himself and criticizing Washington.

Monroe retired from politics for awhile and worked on building up his growing plantation, which of course used slave labor. He returned to politics in 1799 as governor of Virginia and one of his first early acts was to suppress Gabriel’s Rebellion, the slave revolt that led the state to execute 27 people. He also of course did all he could to make sure the state went for Jefferson in 1800. In 1803, after Monroe left the governor’s seat, Jefferson sent him to France to help negotiate the Louisiana Purchase, which went well to say the least. He then became British ambassador. There he wasn’t successful. He negotiated an extension of the Jay Treaty, but Jefferson, angry that his protege hadn’t managed to convince the British to stop impressing American sailors, which a weak country like the U.S. simply did not have the power to do in talks with the superpower, refused to submit it to the Senate. Deeply angry about this, he considered running against James Madison for the presidency in 1808 and did not reconcile with his old friend until 1810, although he did not actively oppose his bid in the end.

Monroe again became governor in 1811, but after 4 months, Madison named him Secretary of State. This wasn’t because they were really friends again, but because of factionalism within the Democratic-Republican Party. Monroe became a big backer of the War of 1812 and wanted to personally lead an invasion force against Canada, which was blocked by Secretary of War John Armstrong. After Washington was burned, Madison forced out Armstrong and gave Monroe his position. For a short time, he was effectively both Secretary of State and Secretary of War.

Monroe then was the heir apparent to the presidency in 1816. William Crawford really wanted the job but decided to defer and then run in 1824, which didn’t go well for him. Monroe easily won the general election, with the Federalist Party in shambles.

Monroe’s presidency is fascinating. Because Americans still wanted to believe that political parties weren’t really necessary, the Democratic-Republicans stopped functioning as a party when the Federalists collapsed. Monroe surrounded himself with some of the strongest political leaders in the nation, regardless of ideological predilection. John Quincy Adams was Secretary of State, Crawford was at Treasury, and John C. Calhoun at War–all three served a full eight years. And when Richard Rush left the Attorney General spot late in 1817 to become British ambassador, William Wirt would serve the remaining 7 1/2 years. Later, it would seem that Adams and Calhoun had nothing in common at all, but at this time, they were both broadly nationalists, as were most Americans. The Second Party System that would develop after Monroe left office would create the new divisions that again created political parties, but for now, this was the Era of Good Feelings, when the nation supposedly united to expand and grow in numbers and influence.

Of course, the nation was in fact divided. But Monroe never really played a major leadership role in solving those problems. The Missouri Compromise helped smooth over the slavery issue for awhile, but that was mostly Henry Clay’s baby. Monroe, despite his Jeffersonian background, wanted Congress to move forward on a constitutional amendment to call federal funding of internal improvements constitutional, but Congress refused as many people believed this was not the proper role of the federal government. Again, Monroe didn’t matter much here. The Panic of 1819 didn’t see much useful leadership from Monroe or anyone else. He was certainly supportive of Adams’ moves to acquire Florida from the Spanish and issue the Monroe Doctrine to declare the era of colonization over in Latin America, but despite the name of the famed message, this was all pretty much Adams’ work. Monroe was certainly sympathetic to the new Latin American republics and encouraged Adams so it’s not as if he was a cipher. It’s just that Adams was the real leader on the issue.

In the end, Monroe is a very average president. In some ways, there’s just that much to say about him as a president. He was a good manager of strong personalities, didn’t personally screw up in any important way, had a few good ideas, did a few things. And compared to a whole lot of presidents, including the current one most definitely, that ain’t bad.

Monroe returned to his Virginia home after his presidency ended in 1825. His last public act was chairing the Virginia constitutional convention in 1829-30, where he stated that slavery was an evil, but of course he relied on slaves his whole life and was in debt in no small part because he so wanted to live that Virginia planter lifestyle. He was involved in the American Colonization Society to send freed slaves back to Liberia, and of course that nation named its capital Monrovia, after Monroe. After his wife Maria died in 1830, he moved to New York to live with his daughter and died on July 4, 1831 of tuberculosis and heart failure.

James Monroe is buried in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia. For my money, he wins the prize for coolest presidential grave, at least among those I have seen.

This grave visit was supported by donations from the LGM community, which is tremendously appreciated and I hope was a good use of your contributions. If you would like this series to cover more early 19th century political figures, such as John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, or Andrew Jackson, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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