James Monroe was unique in that he was the first American president to make a career out of public service. From his earliest college days, interrupted by the Revolutionary War, Monroe rarely spent longer than a few months in private life–a career, unfortunately, that left him almost penniless. Although his professional life was not entirely without scandal, he was generally well-regarded as a hard-worker and a good governor, albeit a little indecisive.
Monroe was born in Westmoreland County, Va., on April 28, 1758, to a planter's family. His father, Spence Monroe, and his mother, Eliza Jones, had been born and raised in Virginia–in an area now famous for the children it gave the country. George Washington's birthplace was not far away; Richard Henry Lee and the Lee family lived nearby; James Madison's birthplace, although not in the same county, was on the same peninsula. The large number of notable figures who came from Monroe's state would later be the target of criticism by northern states that worried about the "Virginia influence."
Monroe attended private schools and studied hard before entering William and Mary College–but here his education was interrupted by the Revolutionary War. He served nobly in the Third Virginia Regiment, and was wounded in the Continental attack on Trenton. He rejoined the service after his wound healed although he eventually grew bored with his new assignment as an aide-de-camp. Monroe longed for a command position, but found none available, so he returned to his private life to study law under Thomas Jefferson. He soon won election to the House of Delegates, where he worked to develop western Virginia (beginning a life-long interest in western expansion), and later won election to the Continental Congress where he continued his push for expansion. However, multiple "shortcomings" in the finalized Constitution led Monroe to oppose the final document. After the establishment of the United States, Monroe returned to the capital as a senator.
Hoping to balance concerns that his foreign policy was too pro-British, President Washington appointed Monroe, a Francophile, to be minister to France. Monroe's three-year term amid the days of the French Revolution was alternately marked between thawing and cooling relations with the European power. Just when Monroe would succeed in bettering relations with America's ally, Washington's administration would do something to anger the French. Caught in the middle, Monroe had little success and was recalled in 1796. For the next several years, he worked closely with Madison and Jefferson building the Anti-Federalist Party.
In 1799, Monroe won the race for governor of Virginia. He served ably, successfully defending the capital from a slave rebellion and halting the spread of a yellow fever outbreak in Norfolk. When he left office in 1802, he spent only a few months in private law practice before Jefferson asked him to travel to Europe in an attempt to purchase New Orleans. Monroe arrived to find that Napoleon had offered America not just the port city, but also the rest of the Louisiana territory. After successfully negotiating a price, Monroe informed Jefferson of the transaction–the Louisiana Purchase that roughly doubled the size of the country. The success transformed Monroe into a national figure. Monroe, in turn, saw his "temporary" assignment overseas before more permanent as Jefferson sent him to be minister to Britain for three years. He returned to serve in the Virginia legislature again and a brief stint as governor before he returned to national service in the Madison administration.
His role as secretary of the state in the period leading up to the War of 1812 helped cement his leadership within the Anti-Federalists, who were by now known as the Republicans. After the secretary of war was removed for perceived incompetence following the burning of Washington by the British, Monroe assumed the second cabinet post–thereby fulfilling his life-long dream of a military command.
When the next presidential race came around, Monroe was the natural choice. It was the first time since Washington's election that the presidency was awarded to a candidate largely because of merit–and not the result of a bitter political battle. Monroe's monumental fifteen-week tour of the northern states kicked off what came to be the "Era of Good Feelings," a time of prosperity and relative safety within the U.S. The "good feelings" lasted some two years before the collapse of several major banks caused the Panic of 1819, a devastating financial crisis that left thousands bankrupt and homeless. Adding to the busiest period in Monroe's administration was the annexation of Florida and the debate over slavery in Missouri. The famed Missouri Compromise finally allowed Missouri to join the Union as a slave state and Maine to join as a free state, and prohibited slavery north of the thirty-six degree thirty' parallel. It was, however, the revolutions in South American Spanish colonies that would come to cement Monroe's place in history.
Monroe worried about European intervention in the Spanish colonies and so in his annual address in 1823, he laid out what became a cornerstone of American foreign policy: No European power could interfere with affairs in the Americas and additionally America was closed to further colonization. The Monroe Doctrine asserted U.S. foreign policy for the first time and cast the young country as a player on the world stage–at least in its own hemisphere.
Monroe retired from public office and, penniless, spent his last years trying to be reimbursed for expenses related to his governmental work dating back to his first mission to France. Finally, the government granted him thirty thousand dollars, about half his original claim. He died July 4, 1831 before he completed his autobiography.
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