James Monroe grew up in a world of rich Virginia planters, but what is more notable, perhaps, was who they were, not what they did. Growing up, Monroe met and befriended many of the men who would lead the United States–a nation that did not exist for the first two decades of Monroe's life–over the next half century: John Marshall, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee; and the list went on and on. His service in the Revolutionary War yielded even more famous connections, chief among them George Washington, who gave Monroe glowing letters of introduction.

Monroe's America was still largely agrarian and rural, although over the course of his lifetime it would more than double in size physically (largely thanks to his own efforts with the Louisiana Purchase and the eastern seaboard would fill up with people. Britain's attempts to raise revenue from the colonies to finance the French and Indian War angered many American colonists and hotbeds of resistance sprung up in Boston and Virginia. The introduction of British troops to American cities in response to the growing unrest created a time-bomb waiting to go off. After full-scale war broke out, the First Continental Congress became the coordinating body of government for the colonies. The Revolution went poorly for the Americans for many months until the British surrender at Saratoga convinced the French that the Americans could win. With French help, the British finally surrendered at Yorktown and sued for peace. The Treaty of Paris firmly established the independence of the former colonies, which now were called the United States. When the country's first attempt at forming a democratic government, the Articles of Confederation, proved too weak the Constitution was adopted. Monroe's adult life was a series of trials and errors as the new government tested its authority, broadened its scope and Congress, the president and the judiciary battled it out for control of various governmental functions. Political parties formed.

On the foreign front, Monroe served overseas in the diplomatic corps when America had few friends on the world stage and was thought of largely as an oddity. His work in securing the Louisiana Purchase helped ensure that the country would have enough space to grow and thrive, but other countries still freely provoked the United States, thinking it too weak to respond, as witnessed by incidents like the XYZ Affair (see John Adams and the entire War of 1812. It would not be until after his Monroe Doctrine was issued that other countries would really take the U.S. seriously. In fact, it was not until almost Monroe's death that the country had developed to the point where it could take itself seriously.

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