James Monroe Biography
James Monroe was the fifth President of the United States, a veteran of the American Revolutionary War, and a Founding Father. He was born in Virginia on April 28, 1758, and attended the College of William & Mary. During the war, he was seriously wounded — and nearly died — at the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1775. Monroe was also with the Continental Army during the Winter at Valley Forge. After leaving the military, Monroe returned to Virginia and studied law under Thomas Jefferson. Afterward, he served in the Virginia House of Delegates and as a delegate to the Confederation Congress. Along with Jefferson and James Madison, Monroe helped found the Democratic-Republican Party. From 1794–1796, he served as Minister to France and then as Governor of Virginia from 1799–1802. In 1803, he helped negotiate the final terms of the Louisiana Purchase. During the War of 1812, he served as Secretary of State and then as Secretary of War. In 1816, he ran for President, won, and was reelected in 1820. His first inauguration is widely recognized as the beginning of the “Era of Good Feelings.” During his tenure, he issued the Monroe Doctrine, authorized the purchase of Florida, and advocated “gradual abolition.” He died on July 4, 1831, becoming the third of the “Founding Father Presidents” to die on July 4. Monroe was the last Founding Father to serve as President of the United States.
Quick Facts About James Monroe
- Date of Birth: James Monroe was born on April 28, 1758, in Westmoreland County, Virginia.
- Parents: Monroe’s parents were Spence Monroe and Elizabeth Jones.
- Date of Death: He died on July 4, 1831, in New York City.
- Place of Burial: Monroe is buried at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.
- Fun Fact: He was the third “Founding Father President” to die on July 4. The others were John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
Life and Career of James Monroe
Early Life of James Monroe
James Monroe, the Fifth President of the United States, was born on April 28, 1758, on his family’s tobacco plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia. He was the second of five children born to Spence and Elizabeth Jones Monroe. His father was a farmer, carpenter, and slave owner who signed Richard Henry Lee’s 1765 Westmoreland Resolves in protest of the Stamp Act.
As a youth, Monroe enjoyed the advantages of the privileged class. At age eleven, he enrolled at Campbelltown Academy, one of the more prestigious schools in the colony of Virginia. While attending there, he was a classmate of John Marshall, the future Chief Justice of the United States.
Although the exact date is unknown, Monroe’s mother died shortly before he entered the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, at age sixteen. Shortly thereafter, Monroe’s father died in 1774. Monroe and his siblings became the wards of his maternal uncle, Judge Joseph Jones, who later served in the Continental Congress.
Service in the American Revolutionary War
While attending William and Mary, Monroe joined the college militia and took part in a successful raid of the arsenal of the Governor’s Palace. When the American Revolution began, Monroe enlisted as a lieutenant in the Continental Army’s Third Virginia Infantry Regiment. Monroe fought with distinction during the unsuccessful defense of Manhattan Island in the fall of 1776. On December 26, 1776, at the Battle of Trenton, a British musket ball tore through Monroe’s shoulder, severing an artery, and he nearly bled to death. Later, Monroe received a promotion to captain for his gallantry during the battle. Following his recuperation, Monroe was promoted to the rank of major and served as Aide-de-camp to General William Alexander in the fall of 1777. He subsequently fought at the Battle of Brandywine (September 11, 1777) and the Battle of Germantown (October 4, 1777) before suffering through the Continental Army’s wretched Winter at Valley Forge (1777-1778). In 1779, when Monroe’s prospects for further advancement in the Continental Army appeared dim, he resigned his commission to accept a position as a lieutenant colonel in the Virginia militia.
Beginning of Political Career
In 1780, Monroe began studying law under the guidance of Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson while continuing his military service. In 1782, Monroe began a long and distinguished career in public service when Virginia voters elected him to the General Assembly. Following the American victory in the Revolutionary War in 1783, voters selected him as a representative to the Confederation Congress where he served until 1786.
Marriage and Family
While serving in the Confederation Congress, Monroe met and began courting Elizabeth Kortright, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a wealthy New York family. The couple wed in New York on February 16, 1786. Their union produced three children and lasted until “Eliza’s” death in 1830.
U.S. Senator From Virginia
Following Monroe’s stint in the Confederation Congress, he returned to Virginia, where he practiced law while once again serving in the Virginia Assembly until 1789. In 1788, he was a member of the Virginia Convention that ratified the U.S. Constitution. After states adopted the Constitution, Monroe sought a seat in the first U.S. House of Representatives, but Virginia voters selected his friend and political colleague James Madison instead. Monroe made his way to Congress soon enough, however, when Virginia’s senate selected him to replace John Walker as one of the dominion’s two U.S. senators on December 6, 1790. While serving in the Senate, Monroe worked closely with Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Congressman James Madison to congeal the principles of those opposed to the emerging Federalist Party. Monroe’s efforts made him one of the leading spokespersons of the opposition Democratic-Republican Party.
Minister to France
In 1794, Monroe resigned his Senate seat after President George Washington unexpectedly appointed him as Minister to France. When Monroe’s friendship with the French Republic became too much for Washington’s pro-British administration, the president recalled him in 1796 for his “inefficiency, disruptive maneuvers, and failure to safeguard the interests of his country.”
Governor of Virginia
Stung by Washington’s criticisms, Monroe returned to Virginia, where he practiced law before voters elected him to the first of three consecutive one-year terms as the state’s governor in 1799. During his first term, Monroe activated the Virginia militia to suppress Gabriel’s Rebellion, a slave uprising that resulted in the execution of 26 conspirators.
Negotiations with France for the Louisiana Purchase
Soon after Monroe completed his third gubernatorial term, his friend, President Thomas Jefferson, sent him to France in 1803 as Envoy Extraordinary to help negotiate the Louisiana Purchase. By April, Monroe and his colleague, Robert R. Livingston, brokered a deal to purchase the port of New Orleans and all French territories east of the Mississippi River. After the Senate approved the agreement on October 20, and France made the formal transfer of land on December 20, 1803, the size of the United States nearly doubled.
U.S. Minister to Great Britain
Monroe’s successful role in negotiating the Louisiana Purchase led Jefferson to appoint his former law student as U.S. Minister to Great Britain in 1803. While serving in Europe, Monroe fell out of favor with Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison when he and Special Commissioner William Pinkney negotiated a treaty with Great Britain that failed to address the impressment of American sailors by the British Royal Navy. Jefferson was so displeased with the Monroe-Pinckney Treaty that he refused to submit it to the Senate for confirmation, and he recalled Monroe.
Return to Politics
Monroe’s fall from grace created a rift with James Madison that had not healed by 1808 when Madison ran for president. Consequently, Monroe unsuccessfully challenged Madison as the Democratic-Republican candidate in the 1808 presidential election. Following Madison’s victory, Thomas Jefferson interceded to restore harmony between his two protégés.
Monroe returned to public service in 1810 when voters once again elected him to the Virginia Assembly. He served a brief stint as governor of Virginia from January 19 to April 3, 1811, when he accepted Madison’s appointment as U.S. Secretary of State. Disputes with England dominated events during Monroe’s tenure with the state department. In 1812, relations deteriorated markedly and Congress declared war on Great Britain. Initially, the war went badly for the U.S. and on September 27, 1814, President Madison asked Monroe to replace John Armstrong Jr. as Secretary of War. Four days later, Monroe resigned his position as Secretary of State, but Madison did not nominate a replacement, so Monroe held both positions throughout the rest of the war. After the War of 1812, Monroe resigned as Secretary of War on March 15 and formally resumed his position as Secretary of State.
Election of 1816
Monroe’s public notoriety soared after the American victory in the War of 1812. When Madison followed President Washington’s precedent of serving only two terms as the nation’s chief executive, Monroe became the most logical Democratic-Republican candidate for the election of 1816. Although he faced some opposition from party members who were growing uneasy about Virginia’s domination of the presidency, Monroe secured the party’s nomination over Georgia native William H. Crawford.
Monroe’s victory in the general election was a foregone conclusion. Federalist opposition to the War of 1812 tarnished the party with an unpatriotic, or even treasonous, stigma. The party of Washington and Alexander Hamilton was in such disrepute that they did not even bother to formally nominate a candidate to run against Monroe. When voters went to the polls, Monroe received over 68% of the popular vote, easily defeating New York Senator Rufus King, the candidate preferred by Federalist supporters. The Electoral College vote was even more lopsided. Monroe carried all but three states and collected all but 34 of the 217 electoral votes cast.
Two Terms as President of the United States During the Era of Good Feelings
President Monroe’s inauguration on March 4, 1817, ushered in a period of American history known as the “Era of Good Feelings.” Coined by Boston newspaper publisher Benjamin Russell in the July 12, 1817, edition of the Columbian Centinel, the term hinted at the decline of political discord brought about by the dissolution of the Federalist Party, and by the wave of nationalism spawned by America’s victory in the War of 1812. Monroe proved to be a popular president and voters elected him to a second term in 1820. Running nearly unopposed, Monroe received over 80% of the popular vote and all but one of the 231 votes cast in the Electoral College.
Despite being the Era of Good Feelings, all was not rosy during Monroe’s two terms as president. In 1817, U.S. Army forces led by future president Andrew Jackson started the first of three wars against the Seminole Indians in Georgia and Florida. Jackson’s invasion of Spanish Florida opened the door to negotiations that resulted in Spain selling Florida to the United States in 1821. In 1819, the American economy collapsed, plunging the nation into a severe depression featuring many bankruptcies and a period of high unemployment that lasted over two years. Also in 1819, debates over the extension of slavery in the West introduced the specter of sectional disunity, when Congress considered the admission of Missouri to the Union. As tensions rose, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 diffused the situation, but the issue remained unresolved until the end of the Civil War 45 years later.
Development of the Monroe Doctrine
Undoubtedly, the most noteworthy milestone of Monroe’s presidency occurred on December 2, 1823. During his seventh annual message to Congress, Monroe proclaimed that “the American continents . . . . are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” He warned that the United States would consider any attempt by European nations “to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.” The dictum that the United States would not tolerate European interference in the Western Hemisphere became known as the Monroe Doctrine. Developed in concert with Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Monroe’s edict has served as a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy ever since.
Madison’s Involvement in Slavery and the American Colonization Society
Throughout his presidency, Monroe maintained his 3,500-acre plantation, “Highland,” near Thomas Jefferson’s estate, “Monticello,” in Virginia. Although Monroe remained a slave owner throughout his life, like Jefferson, he supported gradually eliminating the “peculiar institution.” As a member of the American Colonization Society, he endorsed the repatriation of freed slaves to their ancestral continent. During Monroe’s presidency, the society established the African colony of Liberia for the resettlement of freed slaves from the United States and Caribbean countries. In 1824, Liberians christened their capital city Monrovia in recognition of Monroe’s support for the endeavor.
When Monroe’s presidency ended on March 4, 1825, he was the last of the “Founding Father” presidents and the last president of the “Virginia Dynasty.” Upon leaving the White House, Monroe returned to Virginia where he tackled the daunting task of paying off huge debts he had accumulated during his years in public service. In 1828, financial obligations forced him to sell “Highland,” which had been his family’s home since 1793.
During the last years of his life, Monroe served on the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia. In 1829, while presiding over Virginia’s constitutional convention, he again advocated a gradual end of bondage in the United States and the resettlement of freed slaves to Africa.
Death and Burial
Monroe’s wife, Elizabeth, died on September 23, 1830. The grieving widower, who himself was in poor health, moved to New York to live with his daughter, Maria Hester Monroe Gouverneur, and her husband, Samuel Gouverneur. Monroe died there a year later on July 4, 1831, from heart failure and tuberculosis. By a strange coincidence, Monroe was the third of the nation’s first five presidents to die on Independence Day — Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on July 4, 1826, within hours of each other.
Monroe’s body was interred in the Gouverneur family vault in the New York City Marble Cemetery, where it remained for twenty-seven years. In 1858, Monroe’s remains were removed and buried at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.
Significance of James Monroe
James Monroe is important to the history of the United States for his service to the nation as a soldier in the American Revolutionary War and as a politician, including serving two terms as President of the United States. He is considered to be a Founding Father and also helped establish the Democrat-Republican Party. Monroe played a key role in the expansion of the nation’s territory by helping negotiate the Louisiana Purchase. As President, he guided the nation through the “Era of Good Feelings” and authorized the purchase of Florida from Spain.
Important Topics Related to James Monroe
The Louisiana Purchase
The Louisiana Purchase was the extraordinary acquisition the United States made of roughly 530,000,000 acres of land from the French First Republic in 1803. The United States paid $15 million to take control of New Orleans and the land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. After the American Revolutionary War, the United States spread westward, over the Appalachian Mountains, and toward the Mississippi River. As the United States expanded, there were territorial disputes with Spain over the western and southern borders of the United States. Spain did not want to encourage the United States trade, so it closed the Mississippi River off to American shipping. However, Spain went to war with France, and Spain sought to improve relations with the United States. In 1795, Thomas Pinckney negotiated a treaty with Spain that gave Americans access to the Mississippi River. After Napoleon came to power in France, the Treaty of San Ildefonso gave France control of the Louisiana Territory, starting in 1802. President Jefferson authorized Robert R. Livingston, the Minister to France, to open negotiations with the French, and offer to buy New Orleans. Soon after, Jefferson sent James Monroe to France to assist with the negotiations. By the time Monroe arrived in Paris on April 12, 1803, the French had made a stunning offer to Livingston. For various reasons, Napoleon had decided to abandon his plans for Louisiana and he had Prime Minister Talleyrand offer not just New Orleans, but the entire territory to the United States for $15 million. Monroe and Livingston agreed to the purchase and they signed a treaty with France on April 30, 1803.
Era of Good Feelings
The Era of Good Feelings was a period in American history that lasted from 1815 to 1825. It started with the end of the War of 1812 and lasted until the presidency of John Quincy Adams. The period was marked by westward expansion, internal improvements, and growing confidence in the ability of the United States to defend its territory — and that of its neighbors — in the western hemisphere. James Monroe was President throughout the era and issued the Monroe Doctrine, which warned European powers against intervention in South America. The policy is still a cornerstone of American foreign policy. Some other important things that took place during the Era of Good Feelings were the implementation of Henry Clay’s “American System,” the acquisition of Florida, and the establishment of the Santa Fe Trail. Despite the peace and prosperity, the issue of slavery started to move into the forefront of American politics as the nation spread and expanded. The sectional divide between North and South, Free States and Slaves, was temporarily eased by the Missouri Compromise of 1820.
Adams-Onis Treaty and the Acquisition of Florida
James Monroe was involved in the purchase of Florida. Monroe sent John Quincy Adams, the Secretary of State, to negotiate with Don Luis de Onis, a Spanish diplomat. The negotiations resolved several longstanding disputes between the two countries. One of the main issues addressed by the treaty was the status of Florida, which had been controlled by Spain since the early 16th century but had been claimed by the United States since the end of the Revolutionary War. The treaty resulted in Spain ceding East Florida to the United States and renouncing all claims to West Florida, which the United States had already claimed as part of the Louisiana Purchase. In return, the United States recognized Spanish sovereignty over Texas. The treaty also established the western boundary of the Louisiana Purchase. The United States agreed to assume liability for $5 million in damages caused by American citizens who had rebelled against Spain in West Florida. The treaty was ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1821 and ended the disputes between the two countries over Florida and other territories. The Adams-Onis Treaty played a significant role in the expansion and development of the United States in the early 19th century, and it is considered an important milestone in U.S. diplomatic history.
The Monroe Doctrine was a foreign policy issued by President James Monroe in 1823 that declared the United States would not tolerate European colonization or intervention in the newly independent nations of the Americas. Monroe wrote the policy with John Quincy Adams and essentially established the United States as the protector of the Western Hemisphere. Monroe also promised the United States would not involve itself in European wars. The Monroe Doctrine continues to be an important part of American foreign policy and has been invoked by several leaders, including President James K. Polk, Secretary of State Richard Olney, and President Theodore Roosevelt.
Frequently Asked Questions About James Monroe
Monroe is considered by many historians to as one of the Founding Fathers. However, it is due mainly to his involvement in the American Revolutionary War, serving in the Confederation Congress, and advocating westward expansion. He helped write the Northwest Ordinance but did not sign any of the key documents of the American Revolution. Monroe is known as the last of the “Founding Father Presidents,” following Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. Monroe also shares the distinction of being one of the three Founding Father Presidents who died on July 4. The others were Adams and Jefferson, who both died on July 4, 1826.
Monroe supported the effort to draft the United States Constitution and participated in Virginia’s Ratifying Convention. However, Monroe felt the Constitution gave too much power to the Federal Government and did not support it. After the Bill of Rights was ratified, he changed his position and supported the Constitution.
James Monroe AP US History (APUSH) Study Guide
Use the following links and videos to study James Monroe for the AP US History Exam.
Monroe Doctrine APUSH Definition
The definition of the Monroe Doctrine for the AP US History exam is a foreign policy that warned European nations against interference in the Western Hemisphere. Further, the United States would not involve itself in European wars. The policy was developed by President James Monroe and Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, after the collapse of the Spanish Empire in Latin America.
Monroe Doctrine Video
This video covers the Monroe Doctrine for the APUSH exam.