Harry Ammon. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
Inauguration day, 4 March 1817, was one of those rare late winter days in Washington with more than a hint of spring—sunny and balmy. Throughout the morning a steady stream of citizens hastened along the dusty, rutted streets toward the temporary congressional quarters in a frame structure across from the burned-out Capitol. The crowd, largely composed of residents of the city, included visitors from as far away as New York who had taken advantage of the cheaper rapid transportation offered by the newly introduced steamboats. By noon a crowd estimated at eight thousand, the largest ever assembled in Washington, had gathered.
The circumstances that occasioned an outdoor ceremony were entirely fortuitous. Usually inaugurations were held in the House chamber, but the refusal of the representatives to let the senators bring with them their new red upholstered armchairs had culminated in a deadlock broken only by deciding to move the ceremony outdoors. The managers were so distracted by this dispute that they forgot to invite the diplomatic corps, which was conspicuously absent. President-elect James Monroe and his vice president, Daniel D. Tompkins, arrived shortly before noon, escorted by a troop of volunteer cavalry. After being greeted by retiring President James Madison, the party entered the House chamber, where the vice president was sworn in, before returning to the outdoor platform. Monroe was then administered the oath of office by Chief Justice John Marshall, a friend of his youth but since alienated by political differences.
The new president, who stepped forth to deliver his inaugural address, was a familiar figure to Washingtonians, who were accustomed to seeing him go about the city clad in the smallclothes of an earlier age—a black coat, black knee breeches, and black silk stockings. On ceremonial occasions he often wore a blue coat and buff knee breeches, an outfit reminiscent of Revolutionary War uniforms. Now in his fifty-ninth year, Monroe was erect in bearing, robust and vigorous in manner. His hair (worn long and tied behind with a black ribbon) had grayed, and his face had become deeply lined during the recent war. Nearly six feet tall, with dignified and formal manners, he was an impressive figure but by no means handsome—his face was plain, the nose large though regular. His wide-set gray eyes were his most striking feature, exhibiting a generosity of spirit confirmed by the warmth of his smile. Never arousing the same passionate devotion as Jefferson, Monroe was admired for his heroism during the Revolution and for his long service to the nation.
In his inaugural address—described by one auditor as of a “plain homespun character”—Monroe spoke of the renewed sense of national unity apparent after the difficulties of the war years. Espousing a course of moderate nationalism, he recommended the continued protection of domestic manufactures. He also stressed the need for the construction of roads and canals to facilitate the movement of commerce, but failed to clarify his position on the constitutionality of federally funded internal improvements. He devoted the lengthiest portion of his message to a project in which he took a personal interest—the need to improve the defenses of the nation by maintaining a larger peacetime army and by the construction of a chain of coastal fortifications to avert the danger of future invasion.
Early Political and Diplomatic Career
James Monroe, the fifth president and the last of the great trio of Virginia Republicans who had held the presidency since 1801, was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, on 28 April 1758. His father’s family, of Scottish origin, had been settled in the county for a century, but with modest holdings of only six hundred acres the Monroes had never cut a large figure in colonial affairs. When his father, Spence, died in 1774, Monroe, his sister, and two younger brothers were placed under the guardianship of his uncle, Joseph Jones of King George County, one of the most influential leaders during the revolutionary era. Jones, who was then childless, took an active interest in his nephew, and it was with Jones’s encouragement that Monroe entered William and Mary College in 1774—the first of his family to attend college, as he later proudly recalled—but his residence there was brief.
Caught up in the enthusiasm for the revolutionary cause, he enlisted in the Third Virginia Regiment in the spring of 1775. Within months the young lieutenant was fighting with Washington at New York. He won fame and promotion to major for his heroism when he and a handful of men put out of action the British cannons blocking Washington’s advance at Trenton. As aide-de-camp to General William Alexander, Monroe wintered at Valley Forge and fought at Monmouth. Preferring a field command to the routine of a staff officer, Monroe returned to Virginia in the summer of 1779, in the hope of raising a regiment.
Unable to obtain recruits, Monroe’s spirits were at a low ebb when he met Thomas Jefferson, the governor of Virginia. This meeting constituted a turning point in Monroe’s life, establishing a close and enduring friendship, cemented by common intellectual interests and political objectives. Jefferson sensed in Monroe not only a warm and generous character but also a powerful determination to be of service to his country no matter what the cost might be. Monroe’s close association with one of the most original and best informed minds of the day was a decisive influence in his intellectual development.
In 1782, Monroe entered the House of Burgesses from King George County, where he had begun to practice law. His abilities were immediately recognized by the established leaders in the state and the next year won him membership in the Virginia delegation to the Continental Congress, along with Jefferson. When Jefferson left in July 1784 to take up his post as minister to France, he left for Monroe a collection of books and his French cook, but his most valuable gift was a letter of introduction to James Madison. Jefferson’s praise of Monroe to his old friend was unstinted: “The scrupulousness of his honor will make you safe in the most confidential communications. A better man cannot be.” Thus was forged the final link in the great collaboration that shaped the future of the early Republic.
In Congress, Monroe moved rapidly to the fore-front of the leaders committed to strengthening the Articles of Confederation. His most constructive work as a delegate was the drafting of the plan of territorial government incorporated in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the blocking of the move to close the Mississippi to American navigation in return for commercial concessions from Spain.
When his term ended in 1786, Monroe was not alone on his homeward trip to Virginia. Beside him in his carriage was his bride of eight months, the former Elizabeth Kortright, daughter of a once wealthy New York merchant. Much admired for her beauty, the elegance of her dress, and the refinement of her polished, if rather formal, manners, she brought to Monroe the happiness of family life so much prized by his generation. In the terms of the age, she conducted herself as an ideal wife should, devoted to her children and never obtruding in political concerns. The Monroes lived for two years in Fredericksburg, where he opened a law office. Then, in 1789, they moved to a plantation he purchased in Albemarle County, thus realizing Monroe’s cherished dream of living within a few miles of Jefferson’s estate, Monticello. Since the Madisons lived but twenty miles away in Orange County, social visits and political conferences were easily arranged. It was in Virginia that Monroe’s two daughters were born—Eliza in 1786 and Maria Hester in 1802.
At home in Virginia, Monroe combined an active county law practice with the management of his plantation and membership in the state legislature. As a member of the Virginia ratifying convention, he opposed the Constitution, objecting to the excessive power granted to the Senate and the president. The law had little appeal for Monroe, and he readily abandoned his practice after his election to the United States Senate in 1790. He continued, nonetheless, to supervise his plantation, which remained the principal source of his income. He always considered farming his profession and politics but an avocation.
As a senator, Monroe worked closely with Madison, then in the House, in combating the Hamiltonian fiscal program. He aided Jefferson and Madison in laying the groundwork of opposition to Washington’s policies, which culminated in the formation of the Republican party. In 1794, President Washington appointed Monroe to succeed Federalist Gouverneur Morris as minister to France in the hope that the selection of a Republican would improve relations strained by France’s conviction that the Washington administration was pro-British. The ratification of Jay’s Treaty in 1795 confirmed the French government in its belief that Washington was hostile to the revolutionary movement and rendered ineffective Monroe’s efforts at reconciliation. Irritated by Monroe’s open enthusiasm for the revolutionary regime, Washington abruptly recalled him in 1796. Monroe responded with a lengthy pamphlet attacking the administration. His View of the Conduct of the Executive in Foreign Affairs … (Philadelphia, 1798) was approved by fellow Republicans and won him the governorship of Virginia in 1799.
Just before leaving for France in 1794, Monroe had purchased a more extensive estate adjacent to Monticello. Selling his earlier holdings, he now made his home on his new plantation of twenty-five hundred acres, which he named Highlands (now known as Ashlawn). Until his election as president, he and his family lived in a simple frame house at Highlands.
As Virginia’s governor from 1799 to 1802, Monroe improved the administrative organization of the state government, providing stronger leadership than his predecessors. He was the first governor to use the annual message to outline matters needing legislative action. His effective handling of the abortive slave uprising known as Gabriel’s Rebellion was highly praised.
Monroe’s third term as governor had no sooner ended than Jefferson, in January 1803, appointed him as special envoy to France to negotiate the purchase of a site on the lower Mississippi as a port of deposit. The abrupt suspension of the right of deposit by the Spanish authorities made the mission an urgent one. Accompanied by his wife and daughters, Monroe reached Paris on 12 April 1803, to be coolly greeted by the resident minister, Robert R. Livingston, who had just learned after months of importuning that Napoleon was willing to sell all Louisiana. Faced by the fact that it was all or nothing, Livingston and Monroe ignored the limitations of their instructions and signed an agreement. Monroe rightly assumed that his friendship with President Jefferson and Secretary of State Madison would ensure the acceptance of the treaty.
After completing his mission to France, Monroe was named minister to Great Britain, where he remained until 1807 except for a foray to Madrid in a vain effort to purchase Florida. His main objectives in England were to secure recognition of American principles of neutral rights and a cessation of impressment. Not until 1806, when Charles James Fox became foreign secretary after twenty years in opposition, did Monroe see any hope of a modification of long-standing British policy. He at once began negotiations but had to postpone them, pending the arrival of special envoy William Pinkney.
Fox’s illness and death a few months after Pinkney’s arrival so weakened the cabinet that major policy changes could not be undertaken. Nonetheless, Monroe and Pinkney concluded an agreement that modified British commercial restrictions but contained no provision on impressment. The best they could obtain from the British commissioners was a note appended to the treaty promising that the “strictest care” would be taken “to preserve the citizens of the United States from any molestation or injury.” In accepting this informal statement, Monroe assured Madison that it meant the end of impressment. Although the British, he said, would never abandon a basic principle, they would alter policy through admiralty orders.
Monroe was truly shocked when Jefferson rejected the treaty without submitting it to the Senate. Having been absent so long, Monroe did not realize that the administration regarded impressment as the central issue. Madison, expecting Monroe to return much earlier, had failed to make the point clear in his instructions. The treaty had the misfortune to arrive in Washington at the same time as the news of the British orders-in-council of January 1807, which banned neutral trade with the Continent.
When Monroe returned home in 1807, he was warmly received by Jefferson and Madison but disappointed at their failure to seek his advice on foreign affairs. During the next few years his relations with Madison, whom he blamed for the rejection of the treaty, were strained. No longer did the Madisons stop at Highlands on their regular visits to Monticello. It was through Jefferson’s good offices that the friendship was restored, for, as Jefferson told Monroe, if he were to lose the friendship of either he would regard it as the “greatest of calamities which could assail my future peace of mind.”
Secretary of State, 1811-1817
With Madison’s foreign policy subject to rising criticism from Republicans and Federalists alike, in March 1811 he replaced Secretary of State Robert Smith with Monroe. Both critics and friends of the administration welcomed the appointment of Monroe, an experienced diplomat, for Smith was widely regarded as incompetent. In bringing Monroe into the cabinet, Madison had decided to take a firmer stand with the European belligerents by refusing to settle minor issues unless major concerns were first resolved. As Monroe explained to John Taylor of Caroline, the time had come for the nation to “cease dealing in the small way of embargoes, non-intercourse, and non-importation” and prepare to defend its rights by force. Since neither the French minister nor his British counterpart had authority to make concessions, Monroe’s efforts to press them for alterations in policy proved fruitless.
During August 1811 the president and Monroe met while in Virginia and agreed that unless the 1807 orders-in-council were repealed, the only recourse would be to declare war. When Congress met, Monroe worked closely with Speaker Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Their cooperation, as well as the support of younger War Hawks, enabled Madison to secure the approval of defense measures. Monroe, in fact, helped Calhoun’s committee draft a response to Madison’s war message of 1 June 1812. The House responded promptly, but not until 18 June did the Senate concur.
Monroe preferred a field command during the war rather than the relative inactivity of the State Department, but this proved impossible, since it would have meant placing him over officers who had held higher ranks during the Revolution. When Secretary of War William Eustis, overwhelmed by the increased administrative burden, resigned late in 1812, Madison had to abandon his plan of appointing Monroe after it was learned that confirmation would encounter opposition from northern Republicans and Federalists critical of continued Virginia domination of the national government. To mollify his critics, Madison turned to John Armstrong, Robert Livingston’s brother-in-law.
From the outset friction was evident between the two secretaries, for Armstrong felt that Monroe had deprived Livingston of the proper credit due for the Louisiana Purchase. Armstrong vigorously opposed the recommendation made by Monroe and others that the defenses of the capital and Chesapeake Bay area needed strengthening against the possibility of an invasion. Preferring to direct the affairs of his department from the field with the northern army, Armstrong continued to minimize the threat even after it was learned in the spring of 1814 that the British were amassing a large force in the West Indies.
On 2 July, disregarding Armstrong’s objections, Madison created a new military district for the bay area under the command of General William Winder, whose preparations were persistently obstructed by the secretary of war. Thus, when a large British force appeared in the bay, no arrangements had been made for reconnaissance. It was Monroe, riding out with a troop of volunteer cavalry, who brought the first reports of the British movement.
Armstrong was blamed for the resultant fiasco at Bladensburg—where the president, Monroe, and Armstrong were all on the field—and the subsequent British occupation of Washington and burning of the public buildings in August 1814. Armstrong’s resignation and his replacement by Monroe, who continued as acting secretary of state, were greeted enthusiastically by the citizens of Washington and the military.
Working long hours—frequently sleeping in his office—Monroe brought order into the confused state of affairs in the War Department. His service came too late to affect the outcome of the war, for the Treaty of Ghent arrived in February 1815. As secretary of state, Monroe had drafted the original instructions for the peace commissioners as well as the later modification authorizing them to abandon the American demands on impressment and neutral rights. After relinquishing the War Department in March 1815, Monroe left for a much needed rest in Virginia. Not until six months later was he well enough to return to the capital and begin the negotiations that culminated in the Rush-Bagot agreement to demilitarize the Great Lakes.
With the war over, public interest promptly focused on the coming presidential election. It was generally assumed that Monroe, because of his close association with Jefferson and Madison and long service to the nation, would be the Republican nominee. However, the nomination was by no means assured, for many northern politicians were weary of Virginia domination. New Yorkers were the most outspoken, feeling that they had too long been relegated to the second place on the ticket. Without a northern candidate of national stature, they turned to the secretary of the treasury, William H. Crawford. A former senator from Georgia, Crawford owed his prominence to the fact that his easygoing, jovial manner had made him immensely well liked by congressmen; since the nomination was in the hands of a congressional caucus, his personal popularity was a major asset. He also had the backing of Jefferson’s secretary of the treasury, Albert Gallatin, to whose influence Crawford owed his elevation to the Treasury.
Monroe and his congressional supporters were sufficiently worried by Crawford’s candidacy that they considered boycotting the congressional caucus in favor of a state nomination. Madison, following Jefferson’s example, was outwardly neutral, but his preference for Monroe was well known. The columns of the National Intelligencer, the semi-official administration paper, were full of pro-Monroe items. Crawford, only forty-four, was reluctant to challenge his senior colleague but did not publicly withdraw his name. Consequently, when the caucus met in March 1816, Monroe was nominated by the disappointingly small margin of sixty-five to fifty-four. In effect the caucus was the real election, since the Federalists were so weakened by their opposition to the war that they mustered only minimal support for Rufus King, who received 34 electoral votes to the 183 cast for Monroe.
The disparity in the electoral count marked the end of the first two-party system, a development welcomed by leaders of Monroe’s generation in both parties. They had long regarded party conflict as a divisive element tending to destroy republican institutions. They cherished the ideal expressed by Washington in his farewell address of a nation without parties, governed by men chosen on their merits. Shortly after his election Monroe expressed his commitment to this goal when he observed that the “Chief Magistrate of the Country ought not to be the head of a party, but of the nation itself.” However, he did not fall in with Andrew Jackson’s suggestion that the process of party amalgamation be facilitated by appointing Federalists to high office. Free government, Monroe told Jackson, must still depend on its “decided friends, who stood firm in the day of trial.”
Monroe as President: The “Era of Good Feelings” Begins
In choosing his cabinet Monroe honored established precedent, reappointing his predecessor’s secretaries and preserving a geographical balance. Crawford was continued in the Treasury, although he had hoped for a transfer to the State Department as the probable successor to Monroe. Benjamin Crownin-shield, a New Englander with a mercantile background, remained in the Navy Department, and Richard Rush of Pennsylvania continued as attorney general until late in 1817, when he was named minister to Great Britain, a post more to his liking. Rush’s replacement was William Wirt, a successful Baltimore lawyer celebrated for his popular biography of Patrick Henry. Having no political ambitions, Wirt continued to busy himself with his private practice, since the attorney generalship was a part-time office.
In an effort to broaden the geographical basis of his administration, Monroe wanted to place a westerner in the War Department. After a series of refusals, including one from Henry Clay, who, as a presidential aspirant, was unwilling to enter the cabinet in a lesser post than that held by Crawford, Monroe selected John C. Calhoun. The South Carolinian had demonstrated a command of military affairs while a member of the House during the war. Intellectually gifted, tall, and handsome, the thirty-five-year-old Calhoun presented an image vastly different from the gloomy one of his later years. He gave the War Department an efficient administration that effected substantial economies.
The major post, that of secretary of state, went to John Quincy Adams, who had been absent from the United States since 1809 on a series of diplomatic appointments that had taken him from St. Petersburg, to Ghent, and then to London. The son of a Federalist president and himself a former Federalist, he had been one of the moderate Federalists who had entered Republican ranks during Jefferson’s administration. Monroe chose Adams because of his extensive diplomatic experience, a consideration Monroe felt had been ignored by previous administrations. Monroe also intended to disabuse people of the notion that the incumbent in the Department of State was necessarily the president’s hand-picked successor. In this Monroe failed. Within a year Adams had developed a solid core of supporters in Congress and was considered a major candidate for the presidency.
Adams—a cold, pedantic man, ill at ease in large gatherings and unprepossessing in appearance (he was short, plump, and balding)—proved the ablest of the secretaries and intensely loyal to his chief. Adams’ passion for work, concern for detail, and ability to draft forceful and logical state papers made him invaluable. He genuinely admired Monroe for his sound judgment, although he was frequently irked by the deliberate processes of the president’s mind. Sharing, as they did, a common view of American foreign policy goals, their working relationship was extremely harmonious. While Monroe kept full control over policy decisions, he entrusted Adams with all discussions with foreign diplomats. Because Monroe felt that Jefferson’s and Madison’s habit of casual discussion with diplomats had been a source of confusion, the president restricted his contact with diplomats to formal and ceremonial occasions. Adams’ lengthy political diary provides an intimate view of the workings of the Monroe administration.
The only significant change in the cabinet during Monroe’s two terms was in the Navy Department. Crowninshield resigned in 1818 and was replaced by Smith Thompson of New York, who remained until 1823, when he was shunted to the Supreme Court at the request of Senator Martin Van Buren of New York. Van Buren, a rising power in the Republican party, was committed to Crawford and felt it essential to squelch Thompson’s ambitions. Thompson was succeeded (probably at Calhoun’s suggestion) by former Senator Samuel L. Southard of New Jersey. Personally agreeable, Southard was a close friend of Samuel L. Gouverneur, the New Yorker who married Monroe’s younger daughter, Maria Hester.
To signalize the coming era of party harmony and the renewal of national unity, Monroe followed George Washington’s example by embarking on a tour of the nation. This he completed in two segments, visiting New England and the Middle Atlantic states in 1817 and making a less extensive tour in the West and South two years later. His purpose was clearly understood. Fittingly, it was in a Federalist newspaper, as the editor welcomed the approaching end of party warfare, that the phrase “Era of Good Feelings” made its appearance. Monroe’s northward journey was the occasion of unprecedented demonstrations—troops of militia, parades, banquets, and delegations of citizens who greeted him fulsomely not only as president but as a celebrated hero of the Revolution.
The high point was reached in Boston, where the streets were lined with a crowd estimated at forty thousand. After a public banquet attended by leading Federalists, Monroe made a round of private visits to old opponents of his party. So great was the rush of Federalists to do him homage that, as Abigail Adams shrewdly remarked, it was like an “expiation” for sins. She attributed Monroe’s success in winning approval to “his agreeable affability … unassuming manners … [and] his polite attentions to all orders and ranks.”
Monroe had every reason to feel that his tour had succeeded in its objectives. By 1819 every New England state but one was in the hands of the Republicans. The presidential election of 1820, in which he received all but one of the electoral votes, seemed another proof that party conflict had ceased to be a factor in national political life.
The president and his family did not move into the executive mansion until September 1817, for not until then were the renovations after the fire completed. It was at this time that the mansion, covered with white paint to conceal the scars of fire, became widely known as the White House. At first the Monroes used their own furniture, awaiting the arrival from France of draperies, china, furniture, wall coverings, marble mantelpieces, and ormolu clocks (ordered without nudes). During their residences in France, Monroe and his wife had acquired a preference for French styles not only in furnishings but in social usages.
The presidential family consisted of Mrs. Monroe; Eliza and her husband, George Hay; and the president’s youngest brother, Joseph, who acted as a private secretary. Until he returned to New York in 1820 after marrying Maria Hester, Monroe’s youngest daughter, Samuel L. Gouverneur was a frequent resident and occasional secretary to the president. Since funds were not provided for staffing the White House, Monroe employed his own servants. With the Monroes a note of formality reminiscent of the Washington years reappeared. At official dinner parties, strict precedence, much to the pleasure of the diplomats, replaced Jefferson’s pell-mell. Dinners were served in the formal French manner, with the dishes handed around by the servants. It took official and social Washington some time to recover from Mrs. Monroe’s announcement that she, unlike Dolley Madison, would neither return nor make calls. She would, however, be at home in the mornings to receive callers. During Monroe’s second term his wife was frequently ill, and so her duties as hostess were filled by her daughter Eliza.
Monroe continued the custom of biweekly evening receptions (known as drawing rooms), which had been abandoned by Jefferson but resumed by the Madisons. The doors were open to all citizens properly dressed. The president received guests standing in the Oval Room. His wife and Eliza, whose stylish dresses were the envy of every Washington lady, were seated beside him. As the guests walked about the rooms, servants passed trays of refreshments and music was usually provided by the marine band. Apart from these occasions, the president and his family led a very private life. When his daughter Maria Hester was married in the White House, only members of the family were present. The president, again following Washington’s usage, did not accept invitations from the diplomatic corps, members of the cabinet, or members of Congress.
During the sessions there might be as many as twenty at dinner, for every caller was usually invited to dine. On these all-male occasions Mrs. Monroe was not present. Since the president’s salary of $25,000 without any supplements was inadequate to cover the cost of entertaining, Monroe’s indebtedness, already large, increased rapidly.
During the war years Monroe had been able to make infrequent visits to Albemarle. He preferred to stay at Oak Hill, a property he had acquired many years earlier, only thirty miles from the capital. Although the plantation was not as large as Highlands, he regarded the Oak Hill estate as more fertile and potentially more productive; consequently, after his election to the presidency, he decided to make it his principal residence and constructed a handsome porticoed mansion.
In response to the disappearance of political parties, Monroe developed new methods of executive leadership. Every president since Washington had relied upon party loyalty to ensure congressional approval of administration measures. Bereft of party support, Monroe turned to the members of his cabinet as a source of power. Three of the secretaries—Adams, Crawford, and Calhoun—as aspirants to the presidency had substantial followings in Congress. Of the leading hopefuls only Henry Clay had elected to remain outside the administration. It was not until Monroe’s second term that Andrew Jackson’s strength as a candidate was evident. As John Quincy Adams’ diary makes abundantly clear, Monroe’s frequent cabinet meetings were not held to secure advice but to hammer out a consensus. It is noteworthy that Monroe was able to win congressional approval for every measure that had the support of the cabinet. He never consulted the secretaries when he knew agreement was impossible.
To a greater extent than his predecessors, Monroe used his annual messages to outline concerns needing legislative attention rather than merely as a general report on the main events of the past years. Personal contact with congressmen played an important role, and here Monroe’s openness and personal warmth were effective. Every day during the sessions of Congress there was a constant stream of visitors to the White House; no appointments were needed, the president received all, and, as was expected, he usually invited his callers to dinner.
Although foreign affairs, which the Constitution placed directly under the control of the executive, occupied much of his attention, a variety of domestic issues required executive involvement. In his first annual message, Monroe startled the members of Congress by recommending that the Constitution be amended to authorize federal construction of roads and canals. In making this proposal Monroe was attempting to resolve the dilemma created when Madison, just before leaving office, vetoed as unconstitutional a bill appropriating dividends from the federally owned stock in the Bank of the United States for internal improvements. Madison’s action had seemed inconsistent to many, for Madison, like Jefferson, had signed bills for the construction of the Cumberland Road. When Monroe queried Madison, he received the unsatisfactory response that the earlier bills had been signed hastily, without full consideration of the issue.
Monroe’s recommendation produced some acrimonious debates, but action on an amendment was blocked by those who insisted that Congress had adequate power. Monroe, to his surprise and pain, was vigorously criticized for meddling in a purely legislative matter. In the next few years Monroe contributed to the confusion by signing bills for the extension of the Cumberland Road. Not until 1822, when he vetoed a bill for the collection of tolls on the Cumberland Road, did he have an opportunity to clarify his position. In a lengthy essay he argued that the collection of tolls was an invasion of the police power of the states. It was true that the road had been built with federal funds, but jurisdiction had remained in the hands of the states that had cleared the right of way. This finespun argument did not strike contemporaries as very convincing, no matter where they stood on the issue.
Monroe took a particular interest in the strengthening of the defenses of the nation. Just before leaving the War Department in 1815, he had submitted a report to Congress recommending that the army be retained at twenty thousand men rather than returned to the prewar figure of ten thousand. He also outlined an extensive plan for constructing coastal fortifications. Although Congress reduced the army to its prewar level, the substantial sum of $400,000 was appropriated in 1818 for coastal fortifications. The next year the sum was increased to $800,000. However, the decline in federal revenues following the Panic of 1819 led to a cutback in 1821 to $220,000. Only after revenues improved in 1822 did Congress raise the annual appropriation to $400,000, in response to Monroe’s plea for the need to defend Florida.
Midway in his first term Monroe was confronted by two unexpected domestic crises. During his western tour in 1819, Monroe had become aware of the distress precipitated by the first peacetime depression—the so-called Panic of 1819. There was large-scale unemployment in urban areas, farm prices were depressed, and business failures were numerous in the new industries established during the war. The depression was the result of complex factors ill understood at that time. Monroe shared the prevailing opinion that the major causes were the influx of cheap European manufactures, which forced the closing of factories, and the financial instability resulting from excessive note issues and careless loan practices by state-chartered banks. Neither Monroe nor his contemporaries appreciated the role of the extensive speculation in western lands nor the impact of the catastrophic drop in cotton prices in 1818.
Contemporaries unjustly blamed the financial distress on the policies of the second Bank of the United States (rechartered in 1817), admittedly badly managed by William Jones, its first president. Monroe, who considered the bank essential to ensure a sound currency and to control the careless habits of state banks in making loans, succeeded in 1819 in persuading the directors to replace Jones with Lang-don Cheves, a far abler financier. Monroe approved Chief Justice Marshall’s decision in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), which upheld the constitutionality of the bank.
Within the limitations of current thinking about the role of government in the economy, there was little that Congress could do to ameliorate the suffering caused by the depression. In his annual message of 1819, the president urged citizens to respond to the current difficulties, which he considered temporary, by practicing industry and economy—a policy also considered proper for the federal government. In response to his suggestion that Congress “give encouragement to domestic industries,” a bill was introduced providing for increased duties on textiles, the industry most hurt by imports. This mild protectionist measure encountered immediate opposition from southern congressmen, many of whom had eagerly supported the tariff of 1816. The bill passed the House but failed in the Senate by one vote.
The only form of governmental intervention familiar to Americans during economic crises was in the form of debtor relief provided by the states. Although debtor problems lay mostly within the jurisdiction of the states, the federal government was faced with extensive defaults in payments for purchases of public land. In his annual message of 1820, Monroe recommended that purchasers who acquired the land when prices were high be granted a “reasonable indulgence.” Following a specific plan submitted by Crawford, a bill was passed permitting debtors unable to pay the balance to secure title for that portion for which they had already paid. A discount was granted those making their payments on time.
Since government revenues from customs and land sales had declined so sharply, the Treasury in 1820 was faced with a deficit of $7 million, a sizable sum in a budget of only $25 million. Calhoun had made substantial economies in the operation of the War Department, which absorbed nearly a third of the budget in 1818, but they were insufficient to reduce the deficit substantially. Regarding the depression as only temporary, Monroe accepted Crawford’s recommendation that the deficit be met by loans. However, as Monroe noted in his second inaugural, if the depression continued, he would request additional taxes.
Not until after the Missouri question (see below) had been laid to rest near the end of the session of 1820-1821 did Congress move to enact measures to reduce governmental expenditures. The main thrust of the economizers was against the War Department, not only because it absorbed such a large share of the budget but because supporters of rival candidates used it as a means of attacking Calhoun. Republicans of the old school, who had always been hostile to military expansion, were only too happy to join the attack. In addition to cutting appropriations for fortifications, in March 1821 Congress approved a bill reducing the army from a complement of ten thousand men to six thousand, to effect a saving estimated at $2 million. Even after the revenues improved, the reduction in the army was made permanent.
The Missouri Question
In the winter of 1819-1820 the president and Congress engaged in the more serious, protracted conflict over the effort to prevent the admission of Missouri as a slave state. Nearly the whole session was consumed in this bitter controversy while the two houses remained deadlocked. The lower house insisted that slavery be banned as a condition for the admission of Missouri, but the Senate stubbornly rejected all measures imposing restrictions. Although deeply concerned over this issue, which threatened to divide the nation into two hostile sections, Monroe never raised the question with his cabinet prior to the passage of the final compromise, knowing that an agreement on the issue would be impossible. Monroe genuinely believed, and this was a widely held opinion, that the restrictionists, among whose leaders were many former Federalists, were trying to revive the old two-party system on a sectional basis.
Within the framework of the then current interpretation of the relationship between the executive and legislative branches, it was impossible for Monroe to intervene directly in the controversy. From the outset he let it be known that he would veto any measure restricting slavery in Missouri, since this would be contrary to the provision of the Constitution requiring that new states be admitted on an equal footing with the older states. Slavery was a legal institution and imposing limitations on Missouri would deprive that state of the right to determine a basic institution. In opposing restriction, Monroe was not only concerned with the constitutional issue: he shared the common view of many southerners that confining slavery to a few states would ensure its perpetuation. Slavery, he believed, would be more easily eliminated if it were diffused throughout the nation.
Monroe was himself a slaveholder. Like most southerners of the revolutionary generation, he condemned it as evil and anticipated its eventual destruction. He agreed with Jefferson, with whom he corresponded on the subject, that the only solution was the removal of blacks to Africa. He was a member of the American Colonization Society, which had this objective as its ultimate goal, and in 1821 he assisted the society in acquiring title to Liberia as a refuge for freed slaves. It was in gratitude for his efforts that the directors named the capital Monrovia.
While the Missouri debates were raging in Congress, Monroe was kept informed of developments by Senator James Barbour of Virginia. Through Barbour, Monroe let it be known that he would approve Henry Clay’s compromise admitting Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state and banning slavery in territory north of 36°30′. When Monroe finally consulted his secretaries after the passage of the compromise, he received only a qualified approval.
When the compromise was pending Monroe enlisted the aid of George Hay, his son-in-law (then in Richmond), to calm the Virginia hotheads who loudly talked of secession if southern interests were sacrificed. As Monroe told Jefferson, the plot to destroy the Union had been prevented only by the “patriotic devotion of several members of the non-slave-owning states, who preferred to sacrifice themselves at home, to a violation of the obvious principles of the Constitution.” Monroe—and this was typical of most southerners—failed to grasp the intensity of northern antislavery sentiment.
In spite of the furor over the Missouri question and the problems created by the depression, the presidential election of 1820 aroused scant popular interest. Fewer voters turned out than for local elections in which there was a real contest. As the only candidate (there was no caucus, the nomination being left to state legislatures), Monroe received all the electoral votes but one. The only conflict over the election took place in Congress when northern restrictionists objected to the inclusion of Missouri’s electoral vote in the final count, since the state had not as yet been formally admitted. The issue was solved by reporting two sets of electoral votes, one with, and the other without, Missouri’s three votes. This was by no means the end of the dispute over Missouri. During the session of 1820-1821 there was a prolonged conflict over provisions in the Missouri constitution making it illegal for free blacks to enter Missouri and forbidding manumission without specific authorization of the state legislature. Clay worked out a compromise providing that no provision of the Missouri constitution should be construed as denying any citizen the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States. While Clay labored in Congress, Monroe quietly helped round up the votes needed to ensure the passage of what has been termed “the second Missouri Compromise.”
In view of the responsibility the Constitution assigned to the executive for the conduct of foreign relations, Monroe understandably gave close attention to this aspect of his office. When Monroe and Adams were in the capital, daily conferences were the rule, for the State Department was but a few minutes—walk from the White House. When the president was at Oak Hill during the summer, messengers regularly brought him dispatches. Monroe read all the diplomatic correspondence, scrutinizing and frequently revising Adams’ notes.
Foundations of the Monroe Doctrine
Now that the wars precipitated by the French Revolution were over, Monroe had an opportunity to develop foreign policy in new directions. No longer need the executive be preoccupied with the protection of neutral rights and the need to preserve American neutrality. Among Monroe’s major objectives, fully supported by Adams, was the recognition of the United States as the only republic of consequence in the world and the strongest power in the Americas. The nation no longer would seek its aims through the patronage of European powers, as Jefferson had relied on France, but would pursue an independent course. Monroe shared the expansionist aims of his generation and with Adams’ help fully exploited every opportunity for expanding American territories.
The most immediate problems demanding attention after his inauguration were those arising from the revolutionary movements in Spain’s Latin American colonies. Some had been resolved while he was secretary of state, when he had helped formulate a policy of neutrality highly beneficial to the insurgents. Monroe, deeply sympathetic to the revolutionary movements, was determined that the United States should never repeat the policies of the Washington administration during the French Revolution, when the nation had failed to demonstrate its sympathy for the aspirations of peoples seeking to establish republican governments. He did not envisage military involvement but only the provision of moral support. To go beyond this would do the colonies more harm than good, since it would invite European intervention to restore them to Spain. Monroe’s caution was justified, for the European powers had intervened in Europe to suppress revolutions in Spain itself and in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.
Monroe’s policy was also shaped by his desire to obtain from Spain the long-sought cession of Florida and a definition of the boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase. Premature action in extending recognition to the former colonies would jeopardize the possibility of a settlement with Spain. Still, recognition had to be considered. In order to obtain more accurate information than that appearing in the press, Monroe, shortly after he entered office, sent a special commission to South America to report on the stability of the newly independent states.
As soon as Adams arrived in October 1817 to take his place in the cabinet, Monroe discussed a more immediate issue than recognition. The various insurgents had freely issued letters of marque to privateers, many of whom were Americans. Behaving more like pirates than privateers, they had made their headquarters on Amelia Island, within the jurisdiction of Spanish Florida. With the approval of his cabinet, Monroe authorized an expedition to occupy the island and end this annoyance.
In December, Monroe took more drastic action, authorizing Andrew Jackson to lead an expedition into Florida to pursue Indians raiding the southern frontier. This invasion was justified by the provision of Pinckney’s Treaty of 1795, in which Spain had promised to restrain the Indians living under its jurisdiction. Because Jackson had been specifically instructed not to occupy Spanish posts, his seizure of St. Marks and Pensacola was truly embarrassing for the administration. Moreover, his execution of two British traders after a summary trial on the grounds that they were inciting the Indians threatened to create a major international crisis.
Jackson’s conduct created a furor, for it was widely alleged that by his actions he had infringed on the congressional power to declare war. The cabinet was sharply divided on this issue. Calhoun and Crawford were among the many who urged that the general be repudiated, while Adams, sensing that at last Jackson had given the administration the lever needed to pry Florida from Spain, recommended that his conduct be approved.
Sensitive to the constitutional issues and yet unwilling to give Spain an advantage by an outright condemnation of the general, Monroe found a middle course acceptable to the secretaries. In reporting on events in Florida in his annual message, he informed Congress that Jackson had indeed overstepped his orders but had done so on information received during the campaign that made the action necessary. Monroe added that the posts had promptly been restored once Jackson had achieved his objectives. Monroe’s position was effective in checking the massive anti-Jackson campaign launched in Congress by states’ rightists and those anxious to weaken Jackson’s standing as a presidential candidate. Jackson was not pleased with Monroe’s formula, which fell short of the positive approval he believed he merited. His sensitivity on this point was a major factor in his breach with Calhoun in 1830.
The congressional debate on the resolutions condemning Jackson were under way at the very time that Adams and the Spanish minister were concluding a treaty for the cession of Florida and the extension of Louisiana’s western boundary line northward and westward to the Pacific. The administration’s concern that Jackson’s execution of British subjects might lead to war proved unfounded. The British, having more important concerns on the Continent, made no protest. When Spain failed to ratify the treaty within the six-month time limit, the president contemplated asking Congress in his annual message of 1819 for immediate authority to occupy Florida. However, after he learned that France and Britain were exerting pressure on Spain to ratify, he requested instead contingent authority, suspending action until the arrival of a special emissary from Spain. Although Clay and other advocates of immediate recognition of the new Latin American states were critical of Monroe’s delay, they were too much absorbed in the Missouri debates to raise serious objections in Congress.
Spain ratified the treaty late in 1820, but Monroe still held back from immediate recognition of the new Latin American regimes because of doubts about their stability. Not until March 1822 did he inform Congress that permanent governments had been established in the United Provinces of La Plata (present-day Argentina), Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico. He requested an appropriation for diplomatic missions to these nations.
Adams’ instructions for the new ministers, drafted under Monroe’s careful supervision, declared that the policy of the United States was to uphold republican institutions and to seek treaties of commerce on a most-favored-nation basis. The new diplomats were also instructed to let it be known that the United States would support inter-American congresses dedicated to the development of economic and political institutions fundamentally differing from those prevailing in Europe. The articulation of an “American system” distinct from that of Europe was a basic tenet of Monroe’s policy toward Latin America. Monroe took pride in the fact that the United States was the first nation to extend recognition and to set an example to the rest of the world for its support of the “cause of liberty and humanity.”
Monroe was aware that recognition did not provide an effective shield against foreign intervention to restore Spain’s colonies. This threat became an immediate concern in October 1823 when dispatches arrived from Richard Rush, the minister in London, informing the president that Foreign Secretary George Canning was proposing that the United States and Great Britain jointly declare their opposition to European intervention. This astounding proposal from so recent an enemy was given the closest consideration.
Monroe at once wrote Madison and Jefferson, who both urged him to accept. In spite of their endorsement, Monroe had serious doubts. To accept the British proposal would make the nation once again seem subordinate to a European power and would not enhance American prestige among Spain’s former colonies. Acceptance would also involve a declaration repudiating further territorial expansion at Spain’s expense and thus rule out the prospect of acquiring Cuba, an event Adams and many others thought most likely. Monroe also sensed that the people were not yet ready for such close cooperation with Great Britain.
Monroe explored the proposal in detail with his secretaries at lengthy cabinet meetings in November 1823. (Crawford, then seriously ill, was absent.) All agreed that joint action was neither possible nor essential, since the British cabinet had obviously already decided on its policy. At first Monroe felt that a circular diplomatic note would be sufficient to state American opposition to intervention. This had the disadvantage that as a private communication it would not be publicized.
It was the president who hit on the means of announcing the American position to the world: he would include a general statement in his annual message of 2 December 1823. Putting forward the principle that “the political system of the allied powers is essentially different … from that of America,” he announced that the United States would view any interference in the internal affairs of the American states as an “unfriendly” act. He coupled this with the statement that the United States itself adhered to a policy of noninterference in the internal affairs of other nations. A third principle, the work of Secretary Adams, concerned Russian expansion on the West Coast and declared that the United States considered the Americas closed to European colonization.
A few days after Monroe delivered his message, the American press reported that a large expedition destined for South America was being collected at Cádiz. This report, which later proved erroneous, led Monroe to review the position of the administration and to inform Rush that the United States would undertake further discussions with the British on the possibility of cooperation, should intervention take place. This did not mean, as he explained in a private letter to Rush, that he was committing the nation to “engage in war.” What Monroe did not know in December 1823 was that the threat of intervention had vanished in the face of the express opposition of the British government. (In the early twentieth century President Theodore Roosevelt and his successors employed the Monroe Doctrine to justify American intervention in the internal affairs of Latin American states—an interpretation never intended by its author.)
The rejection of the British proposal in regard to Spain’s colonies did not mean that Monroe was averse to joint action that did not make the nation seem to be playing a subordinate role. Since the end of the War of 1812 there had been tentative moves by Great Britain toward a rapprochement. The Great Lakes had been demilitarized by the Rush-Bagot Agreement in 1817, and the following year American negotiators had obtained a concession on the fisheries as well as an agreement compensating Americans for slaves removed by British forces at the end of the war. Efforts to obtain concessions for American trade in the British West Indies had been repeatedly rejected.
A more hopeful step was undertaken in the summer of 1823 when Monroe and Adams negotiated an agreement to establish an international patrol to suppress the slave trade. Monroe had rejected the initial proposal in 1819 because it would have required the United States to abandon its position on neutral rights by permitting British ships to stop and search American ships on the high seas. This objection was apparently lessened in 1822 when the House, yielding to the pressure of the American Anti-Slavery Society, adopted a resolution condemning the slave trade as piracy. Since pirates could not claim the protection of any national flag, suspect ships could be stopped and searched by the international patrol established by the British. Congressman Charles Fenton Mercer, a friend and neighbor of the president’s, had been the principal agent in securing the adoption of the resolution. Acting on this basis, Monroe, who had long sought to open the way to a rapprochement with Great Britain, was prepared to make a major change in American policy on neutral rights and participate in the international patrol, a measure long urged by the British. In 1823 an agreement to this effect was negotiated with the approval of all the cabinet except Adams, who suspected (correctly) that he would be blamed for what many would regard as a sacrifice of a basic American right.
The Senate ratified the treaty early in 1824 with such crippling amendments that the British government withdrew its ratification. The opposition was directed by supporters of Crawford seeking to damage Adams’ presidential ambitions. Monroe was deeply offended, since Crawford had been one of the most ardent advocates of the proposal. Crawford was too ill to have actively directed the maneuvering against the treaty, but it was not the first instance that Monroe felt that the secretary of the treasury had been disloyal. The year before, Monroe had seriously considered dismissing Crawford from the cabinet but held back, realizing that it would simply exacerbate political rivalries.
During Monroe’s last two years as president the struggle over the succession degenerated into what could be called the Era of Bad Feelings. Although Monroe was not a candidate, he was subjected to criticism—often of a petty nature. Crawford, Clay, and Jackson all saw it to their advantage to oppose administration policies. Adams and Calhoun (who withdrew from the campaign early in 1824) remained loyal to Monroe and restrained their supporters. The Crawfordites were especially bitter, since they felt that Monroe owed a particular debt to Crawford for not opposing him in 1816. Monroe remained neutral but the impression prevailed that he preferred Adams.
It was a combination of congressional supporters of Jackson and Crawford who raised questions impugning the president’s integrity in the management of the so-called Furniture Fund, money appropriated in 1817 and 1818 for the refurnishing of the White House. The investigation was handled in such a way as to leave a cloud of suspicion, although it was apparent that the only error had been inadequate bookkeeping by the agent Monroe engaged to manage the fund.
The Crawfordites managed to generate considerable embarrassment for the president over the discovery that Ninian Edwards, a Calhoun supporter, had been the author of the “A.B. Letter,” which questioned Crawford’s management of the Treasury. The subsequent investigation, controlled by Crawford’s friends, left the basic issues unanswered but placed the administration in the position of prodding Edwards, just appointed the first minister to Mexico, to resign. A further unpleasantness, stirred up by the Georgia delegation, was aimed at Calhoun but involved an attack on Monroe for refusing to force the Cherokee to agree to land cessions stipulated in earlier treaties.
After the harassments of his last two years in office, it was with a sense of relief that Monroe relinquished the office to Adams in March 1825, happy to retire to Oak Hill and the life of a country gentleman, which he so much loved. He stayed aloof from the political squabbles of the day in spite of all efforts to involve him. He busied himself with the affairs of the University of Virginia, Jefferson’s cherished educational project, attending the meetings of the Board of Visitors and serving as rector. Visits to Charlottesville were occasions of joyous reunions with Madison, the two being drawn together in an even closer bond after Jefferson’s death in 1826. Monroe’s last public service was as a member of the Virginia constitutional convention of 1829, also attended by Madison. Monroe was chosen president but was too feeble to preside, although he did speak on several occasions.
After Monroe’s retirement his most pressing concern was to lift the heavy debt, now amounting to $75,000, which had been accumulating since his first mission to France. The depressed state of Virginia land values made it impossible for him to sell Highlands. His efforts to obtain recompense for expenses of his past diplomatic missions (his accounts had never been settled with the State Department) were frustrated by the opposition of Jacksonians and Crawfordites. Finally, in February 1831, as news of the former president’s financial plight became generally known, Congress appropriated $30,000 in settlement of his claims. The Bank of the United States took over Highlands in lieu of a $25,000 debt.
The death of Monroe’s wife early in 1830 prostrated him with grief; rarely had they ever been separated since their marriage. Monroe’s health began to fail so rapidly that he moved to New York to live with his younger daughter, Mrs. Samuel L. Gouverneur. Oak Hill was put up for sale to pay the balance of his debts. Sadly he notified Madison in April 1831 that he would not be able to attend the meeting of the Board of Visitors. When Adams saw his predecessor at that time, he found Monroe extremely weak but nonetheless anxious to discuss the recent revolutions in Europe. On 4 July 1831—the fifth anniversary of the deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—Monroe died. The funeral, which took place in New York City, was attended by state and civic officials. Vast crowds lined the streets as the cortege made its way to the cemetery. Throughout the country his passing was observed by days of mourning, memorial services, and eulogies, the most moving of which was delivered in Boston by John Quincy Adams. In 1858, Governor Wise of Virginia planned to have Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe reburied in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, but only Monroe’s remains were reinterred.