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James Monroe: Secretary of War and President of the United States

See also: About the Home of James Monroe
               James Monroe Museum

Picture of James Monroe

JAMES MONROE was born on April 28, 1758 in Westmoreland County, Virginia. He was one of five children of Spence Monroe and Elizabeth Jones who were both natives of Virginia. The Monroe’s lived on a small farm and young James walked several miles each day to attend the school of Parson Campbell, who taught him the stern moral code that he followed throughout his life.


When he was 16, Monroe entered the College of William and Mary. During his first year there, his father died and the cost of his education and guardianship was taken over by his uncle, Judge Joseph Jones, who became his trusted advisor. The year was 1774 and the colonies were moving ever closer to war with Great Britain. Young Monroe was finding it difficult to concentrate on his studies and in 1775, he left college to go to war. He became a lieutenant and during the Battle of Trenton, his captain was wounded and the command was given to him. However, he too was wounded at that battle and while recovering he was named aide-de-camp to Major General Lord Stirling. He fought with George Washington at Valley Forge and in 1779, and now a major, Monroe was commissioned to lead a militia of Virginia regiment as a lieutenant colonel. However, his unit was never formed and his military career was at its end. He became an aide to Thomas Jefferson, who was the Governor of Virginia at this time. He also became Jefferson’s student in the study of law and with Jefferson’s guidance, he began to see what course his life would take.


In 1782, at the age of 24, Monroe was elected to the Virginia State Legislature. He was the youngest member of the Executive Council and in 1783, was elected to the United States Congress that was meeting in New York City. He served in Congress for three years and during this time he became interested in the settlement of the “western” lands between the Allegheny Mountains and the Mississippi River. He was chairman of two important expansion committees – one dealing with travel on the Mississippi River and the other involving the government of the western lands.

Congress was meeting at that time in New York City, and while there Monroe met Elizabeth Kortright, whom he married on February 16, 1786. The couple had three children: Eliza Kortright Monroe (1786-1835), James Spence Monroe (1799-1800), and Maria Hester Monroe (1803-1850).

In October, 1786, Monroe resigned from Congress and settled in Fredericksburg, Virginia with his new bride. He was elected to the town council and once again to the Virginia Legislature. He was a delegate to the Virginia convention to ratify the new Constitution and was strongly opposed, feeling that it was a threat to fee navigation of the Mississippi. He voted against the constitution, but once it was ratified he accepted the new government without any misgivings.
In 1789, the Monroe’s moved to Albemarle County, Virginia. Their estate, Ash Lawn, was very near Jefferson’s estate, Monticello. In 1790, he was elected to a recently vacated seat in the United States Senate and was named to a full six-year term the following year. In the spring of 1794, Monroe accepted the diplomatic position of Minister Plenipotentiary to France. His assignment was to help maintain friendly relations with France despite efforts to remain on peaceful terms with France’s enemy, Great Britain. Monroe was recalled in September 1796 and felt he had been betrayed by his opponents who used him to appease France while they made great concessions to Britain in Jay’s Treaty that the United States had signed in 1794. He remained bitter about it for the rest of his life.

Monroe returned home in June 1797 and after two years of retirement from public office, he was elected governor of Virginia, a position that he served from 1799 until 1803. His great friend and mentor, Thomas Jefferson had been elected President in 1800 and in 1803, Monroe was sent back to France to help Robert R. Livingston complete the negotiations for the acquisition of New Orleans and West Florida. The French Emperor, Napoleon I, offered to sell instead the entire Louisiana colony and although the Americans were not authorized to make such a large purchase, they began negotiations. In April 1803, the Louisiana Purchase was concluded, more than doubling the size of the nation. Monroe spent the next two years in useless negotiations with Britain and Spain and returned to the United States in late 1807.

Monroe returned to Virginia politics and once more served in the legislature and was elected Governor for a second time. In 1811, Monroe became President Madison’s Secretary of State and when the War of 1812 was declared, he loyally supported Madison. He served as Secretary of State throughout the war and simultaneously served as Secretary of War for the latter part. He was back in uniform at the time of the British attack on Washington and led the Maryland militia in an unsuccessful attempt to hold off the British at Bladensburg. On December 24, 1814, the Treaty of Ghent was signed ending the war. In 1815, Monroe returned to the normal peacetime duties of Secretary of State.

Monroe was the logical presidential nominee at the end of Madison’s second term, and he won the election easily. On March 4, 1817 James Monroe took his oath of office. Some of the notable events of his term were: Congress fixed 13 as the number of stripes on the flag to honor the original colonies; the boundary between Canada and the United States was fixed at the 49th parallel.; Spain ceded Florida to the United States in exchange for the cancellation of $5 million in Spanish debt; The Missouri Compromise, admitted Missouri as a slave state, but forbade slavery in any states carved from the Louisiana Territory north of 36 degrees 30 minutes latitude. By the end of his first term, Monroe’s administration had been one of high idealism and integrity and his personal popularity was at an all time high. Monroe was virtually unopposed for reelection. He carried every state and received every electoral vote cast with the exception of one, cast by a New Hampshire elector for John Quincy Adams.

With the exception of the Monroe Doctrine, Monroe’s second term as president was relatively uneventful. The two principles of the Doctrine, noncolonization and nonintervention, were not new or original. However, it was Monroe who explicitly proclaimed them as policy and it was a keystone of foreign policy for many years.

Monroe had no thought of seeking a third term as the election of 1824 neared. He was 67 years old when he turned over the presidency to John Quincy Adams. He retired to Oak Hill, Virginia. He was plagued by financial worries and he was forced to sell his estate Ash Lawn to meet his debts. After his wife died, he sold Oak Hill and moved to New York City to live with his youngest daughter, Maria Hester Gouverneur and her husband. Monroe died there on July 4, 1831, the fifty-fifth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.


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