Biography of James Monroe

Monroe served as president during the "time of good feelings."

James Monroe, Fifth President of the United States
James Monroe, Fifth President of the United States. Painted by C.B. King ; engraved by Goodman & Piggot. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-16956

James Monroe (1758-1831) served as the fifth president of the United States. He fought in the American Revolution before getting involved in politics. He served in both Jefferson's and Madison's cabinets before winning the presidency. He is remembered for creating the Monroe Doctrine, a key tenet of US foreign policy. 

James Monroe's Childhood and Education

James Monroe was born on April 28, 1758, and grew up in Virginia. He was the son of a relatively well-off planter. 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. He later studied law under Thomas Jefferson.

Family Ties

James Monroe was the son of Spence Monroe, a planter and carpenter, and Elizabeth Jones who was very well educated for her time. He had one sister, Elizabeth Buckner, and three brothers: Spence, Andrew, and Joseph Jones. On February 16, 1786, Monroe married Elizabeth Kortright. They had two daughters together: Eliza and Maria Hester. Maria was married in the White House while Monroe was president. 

Military Service

Monroe served in the Continental Army from 1776-78 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 off Virginia. 

James Monroe's Career Before the Presidency

From 1782-3, he was a member of the Virginia Assembly. He joined the Continental Congress (1783-6). He left to practice law and became a Senator (1790-4). He was sent to France as a Minister (1794-6) and was recalled by Washington. He was elected Virginia Governor (1799-1800; 1811). He was sent in 1803 to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase. He then became minister to Britain (1803-7). He served as Secretary of State (1811-1817) while concurrently holding the post of Secretary of War from 1814-15.

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. This marked the death knell for the Federalist Party.

Re-Election in 1820:

Monroe was the obvious choice for reelection and had no opponent. Therefore, there was no real campaign. He received all electoral votes save one which was cast by William Plumer for John Quincy Adams.

Events and Accomplishments of James Madison's Presidency

James Monroe's administration was known as the "Era of Good Feelings." 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 (1817-18). When Seminole Indians and escaped slaves 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.

Two major developments during Monroe's presidency were the Missouri Compromise (1820) and the Monroe Doctrine (1823). The Missouri Compromise admitted Missouri into the Union as a slave 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.

The Monroe Doctrine was issued in 1823. This would become a central part of American foreign policy throughout the 19th century. In a speech before Congress, Monroe warned European powers against expansion and 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. He moved to New York City upon his wife's death. He died on July 4, 1831.

Historical Significance

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 though were the Missouri Compromise which attempted to solve potential conflict over free and slave states and the Monroe Doctrine which would affect American foreign policy to this day.