Era of Good Feelings: 19th Century History

Era of James Monroe Seemed Placid Yet Masked Underlying Problems

Engraved portrait of President James Monroe
President James Monroe. Getty Images

The Era of Good Feelings was the name applied to the period in the United States corresponding with the term of President James Monroe, from 1817 to 1825. The phrase is believed to have been coined by a Boston newspaper shortly after Monroe took office.

The basis for the phrase is that the United States, following the War of 1812, settled into a period of rule by one party, the Democratic-Republicans of Monroe (which had their roots in the Jeffersonian Republicans). And, following the problems of the administration of James Madison, which included economic problems, protests against the war, and the burning of the White House and Capitol by British troops, the Monroe years seemed relatively placid.

And Monroe's presidency represented stability as it was a continuation of the "Virginia dynasty," as four of the first five presidents, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, had been Virginians.

Yet in some ways, this period in history was misnamed. There were a number of tensions developing in the United States. For instance, a major crisis over slavery in America was averted by the passage of the Missouri Compromise (and that solution was, of course, only temporary).

The very controversial election of 1824, which became known as "The Corrupt Bargain," brought an end to this period, and ushered in the troubled presidency of John Quincy Adams.

Slavery as an Emerging Issue

The issue of slavery was not absent in the early years of the United States, of course. Yet it was also somewhat submerged. The importation of African slaves had been banned in the first decade of the 19th century, and some Americans expected that slavery itself would eventually die out. And in the North, slavery was being outlawed by the various states.

However, thanks to various factors, including the rise of the cotton industry, slavery in the South was not only not fading away, it was becoming more entrenched. And as the United States expanded and new states joined the Union, the balance in the national legislature between free states and slave states emerged as a critical issue.

A problem arose when Missouri sought to enter the Union as a slave state. That would have given slave states a majority in the U.S. Senate. In early 1820, as the admission of Missouri was debated in the Capitol, it represented the first sustained debate about slavery in Congress.

The problem of Missouri's admission was eventually decided by the Missouri Compromise (and the admission of Missouri to the Union as a slave state at the same time Maine was admitted as a free state).

The issue of slavery was not settled, of course. But the dispute over it, at least in the federal government, was delayed.

Economic Problems

Another major problem during the Monroe administration was the first great financial depression of the 19th century, the Panic of 1819. The crisis was prompted by a fall in cotton prices, and the problems spread throughout the American economy.

The effects of the Panic of 1819 were most deeply felt in the South, which helped exacerbate sectional differences in the United States. Resentments about the economic hardship during the years 1819-1821 were a factor in the rise of Andrew Jackson's political career in the 1820s.