Biography of James Monroe, Fifth President of the United States

Monroe Doctrine
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James Monroe (April 28, 1758–July 4, 1831) was the fifth president of the United States. He fought with distinction in the American Revolution and served in the cabinets of Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison before winning the presidency. He is best remembered for creating the Monroe Doctrine, a key tenet of United States foreign policy, which warned European nations against intervening in the Western Hemisphere. He was a staunch anti-Federalist.

Fast Facts: James Monroe

  • Known For: Statesman, diplomat, founding father, the fifth president of the United States
  • Born: April 28, 1758 in Westmoreland County, Virginia
  • Parents: Spence Monroe and Elizabeth Jones
  • Died: July 4, 1831 in New York, New York
  • Education: Campbelltown Academy, the College of William and Mary
  • Published WorksThe Writings of James Monroe
  • Offices Held: Member of the Virginia House of Delegates, member of the Continental Congress, U.S. senator, minister to France, governor of Virginia, minister to Britain, secretary of state, secretary of war, president of the United States
  • Spouse: Elizabeth Kortright
  • Children: Eliza and Maria Hester
  • Notable Quote: "Never did a government commence under auspices so favorable, nor ever was success so complete. If we look to the history of other nations, ancient or modern, we find no example of a growth so rapid, so gigantic, of a people so prosperous and happy." 

Early Life and Education

James Monroe was born on April 28, 1758, and grew up in Virginia. He was the son of Spence Monroe, a well-off planter and carpenter, and Elizabeth Jones, who was well educated for her time. His mother died before 1774, and his father died soon after when James was 16. Monroe inherited his father's estate. He studied at Campbelltown Academy and then went to the College of William and Mary. He dropped out to join the Continental Army and fight in the American Revolution.

Military Service

Monroe served in the Continental Army from 1776–1778 and rose to the rank of major. He was aide-de-camp to Lord Stirling during the winter at Valley Forge. After an attack by enemy fire, Monroe suffered a severed artery and lived the rest of his life with a musket ball ​lodged beneath his skin.

Monroe also acted as a scout during the Battle of Monmouth. He resigned in 1778 and returned to Virginia, where Governor Thomas Jefferson made him Military Commissioner of Virginia. 

Political Career Before the Presidency

From 1780–1783, Monroe studied law under Thomas Jefferson. Their friendship was the springboard for Monroe's swiftly rising political career. From 1782–1783, he was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates. He then became a delegate to the Continental Congress (1783–1786). In 1786, Monroe married Elizabeth Kortright. They had two daughters together, Eliza and Maria Hester, and a son who died in infancy.

Monroe left politics briefly to practice law, but he returned to become a U.S. senator and served from 1790–1794. He had a short tenure in France as a minister (1794–1796) and then was recalled by Washington. He was elected Virginia governor (1799–1800; 1811). President Jefferson sent him to France in 1803 to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase, a key achievement of his life. He then became minister to Britain (1803–1807). In President Madison's cabinet, Monroe served as secretary of state (1811–1817) while concurrently holding the post of secretary of war from 1814–1815, the only person in U.S. history to have served both offices at the same time.

Election of 1816

Monroe was the presidential choice of both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. His vice president was Daniel D. Tompkins. The Federalists ran Rufus King. There was very little support for the Federalists, and Monroe won 183 out of 217 electoral votes. His victory marked the death knell for the Federalist Party.

First Term of Presidency

James Monroe's administration was known as the "Era of Good Feelings." The economy was booming and the War of 1812 had been declared a victory. The Federalists posed little opposition in the first election and none in the second, so no real partisan politics existed.

During his time in office, Monroe had to contend with the First Seminole War (1817–1818), when SeminoleNative Americans and freedom seekers raided Georgia from Spanish Florida. Monroe sent Andrew Jackson to rectify the situation. Despite being told not to invade Spanish-held Florida, Jackson did and deposed the military governor. This eventually led to the Adams-Onis Treaty (1819) where Spain ceded Florida to the United States. It also left all of Texas under Spanish control.

In 1819, America entered its first economic depression (at that time called a Panic). This lasted until 1821. Monroe made some moves to try and alleviate the effects of the depression.

In 1820, The Missouri Compromise admitted Missouri into the Union as a pro-slavery state and Maine as a free state. It also provided that the rest of the Louisiana Purchase above latitude 36 degrees 30 minutes was to be free.

Re-Election in 1820 and Second Term

Despite the depression, Monroe ran unopposed in 1820 when he ran for re-election. Therefore, there was no real campaign. He received all electoral votes save one, which was cast by William Plumer for John Quincy Adams.

Perhaps the crowning achievements of Monroe's presidency occurred in his second term: the Monroe Doctrine, issued in 1823. This became a central part of American foreign policy throughout the 19th century and to the current day. In a speech before Congress, Monroe warned European powers against expansion and colonial intervention in the Western Hemisphere. At the time, it was necessary for the British to help enforce the doctrine. Along with Theodore Roosevelt’s Roosevelt Corollary and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy, the Monroe Doctrine is still an important part of American foreign policy.

Post Presidential Period

Monroe retired to Oak Hill in Virginia. In 1829, he was sent to and named the president of the Virginia Constitutional Convention. After his wife's death, he moved to New York City to live with his daughter.


Monroe's health had been declining throughout the 1820s. He died of tuberculosis and heart failure on July 4, 1831 in New York, New York.


Monroe's time in office was known as the "Era of Good Feelings" due to the lack of partisan politics. This was the calm before the storm that would lead to the Civil War.

The completion of the Adams-Onis Treaty ended tensions with Spain with their cession of Florida. Two of the most important events during Monroe's presidency were the Missouri Compromise, which attempted to solve a potential conflict over free and pro-slavery states, and his greatest legacy the Monroe Doctrine, which continues to influence American foreign policy.


  • Ammon, Harry. James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity. Mcgraw-Hill, 1971.
  • Unger, Harlow G. The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation's Call to Greatness. Da Capo Press, 2009.
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Kelly, Martin. "Biography of James Monroe, Fifth President of the United States." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Kelly, Martin. (2023, April 5). Biography of James Monroe, Fifth President of the United States. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "Biography of James Monroe, Fifth President of the United States." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).