Image courtesy The Valentine
James Monroe, a son of Westmoreland County and former Fredericksburg lawyer, was a lifelong friend and Valley Forge bunkmate of John Marshall. Supreme Court Chief Justice Marshall swore in Monroe as the nation’s fifth president on March 4, 1817, at the first outdoor inauguration.
It was four decades after the Declaration of Independence and 28 years since the Constitution went into effect. The White House was under reconstruction after being set on fire by British troops during the summer of 1814.
Monroe entered office as a popular war hero. He carried shrapnel in his shoulder from a near-fatal wound in the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Trenton. During the War of 1812, while serving as secretary of state, Monroe packed his wife and daughters off from Washington, D.C., and picked up his sword, rifle and side arms to rally the defense despite incompetent officers and untrained soldiers. The effort allowed President James Madison and his wife, Dolley, to flee the city.
In 1817, a Boston newspaper designated the beginning of Monroe’s term as “The Era of Good Feelings.” When the president toured the country not long after his inauguration, veterans lined up to shake his hand and announce where they met the enemy, “Monmouth” or “Brandywine,” rendering him speechless.
But the honeymoon didn’t last. As president, Monroe contended with economic collapse, a heel-dragging Congress and hotheads like Treasury Secretary William H. Crawford, a former Georgia senator. At a contentious White House meeting about patronage appointments for customs officers in the Northeast, the president dismissed Crawford’s list, saying he’d decide. Crawford — who’d killed a man in a duel — demanded to know Monroe’s choices. The president replied, “Sir, that is none of your damn business.” Crawford, whipping his cane at Monroe, shouted, “You damned infernal old scoundrel!” and Monroe hefted fireplace tongs to defend himself. Navy Secretary Samuel Southard intervened and dragged Crawford from the office.
So much for good feelings. Earlier, in 1797, Monroe almost fought a duel with Alexander Hamilton because secret papers given to Monroe detailing the then-Treasury Secretary Hamilton’s affair with a married woman and the money he paid to keep the husband quiet suddenly appeared in print five years later — perhaps by Thomas Jefferson’s instigation. Aaron Burr talked them down.
“Monroe took offense readily,” author and former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart writes in a 2005 biography. “He became especially prickly when his conduct was questioned or his judgments second-guessed.” He defended against perceived slights with long letters and voluminous reports.
This is the stuff they write musicals about. But no anthem-filled “Monroe Doctrine” exists alongside “Hamilton” and “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.”
The fifth president didn’t possess the charismatic heft of George Washington, the polymath brilliance and Machiavellian conniving of Thomas Jefferson or the profound philosophic intensity of James Madison. At center, Monroe was a soldier and a stalwart defender of the republic. Hart calls him the first “national security president.”
As commander in chief, he tended toward a hands-off administration that emphasized building consensus. His Cabinet included representatives from each region of the nation. He picked John Quincy Adams for secretary of state, the industrious John C. Calhoun for secretary of war (after Hanover County native Henry Clay rejected the post and remained House speaker), and retained the mercurial Crawford. The proto-“team of rivals” included slavery supporters and anti-slavers.
Monroe, a paternalistic slaveholder, knew the practice needed to end — but he wouldn’t be the one to do it. He was governor of Virginia during Gabriel’s revolt and capture in August 1800. After the escaped slave’s apprehension, Gabriel said he’d speak of his actions only with Monroe — but that interview never took place. Instead Richmond’s special slave court ordered 27 men to the gallows. Gabriel hanged, without being dropped through the scaffold.
During Monroe’s presidency, controversy ensued during the 1819 and 1820 discussions about admitting Missouri and Maine into the union, one allowing slaves and one not. The issue resulted in vehement orations in Congress, and Virginia Sen. James Barbour urged the secession of slave states. The eventual Missouri Compromise accepted the state with its constitution validating slavery and Maine as free. John Quincy Adams, an abolitionist, viewed the compromise as the “title page to a great tragic volume.”
Monroe also witnessed how western movement pushed American Indians farther away from homelands and the devastation and death wreaked upon them. Deep in his second presidential term, he sought the establishment of territories where “the aborigines within our limits” might be induced to reside.
In the realm of international relations, Monroe proclaimed that Europe had no business in the Western Hemisphere and that the U.S. needn’t involve itself in internal squabbles overseas. The five-point “Principles of 1823,” which became known as the “Monroe Doctrine,” have been used and abused by almost every successive president.
Five years after his term ended, Monroe’s often ill but splendid wife, Elizabeth Kortwright Monroe, died on Sept. 23, 1830, at their Oak Hill estate in Loudoun County. By then physically frail himself, Monroe became hysterical and urged his children to seal him in the vault with her. Crazed with grief, he burned her diaries, scrapbooks and letters they had written to each other when they were apart.
Monroe, not a typical Virginia blueblood planter, sold Oak Hill to cover overwhelming debts, a substantial portion of which he accrued while serving as ambassador to France. Emotionally exhausted and destitute, he moved to New York City to live with his younger daughter, Maria, and her husband, former Monroe administration private secretary Samuel Laurence Gouverneur. He died, perhaps of undiagnosed pneumonia, on July 4, 1831, five years to the day after the deaths of Jefferson and John Adams.
The rise of sectional pride that threatened to fracture the country also inspired Virginia Gov. Henry A. Wise (who signed the death warrant for radical abolitionist John Brown) to bring the Monroes to Richmond for re-interment at Hollywood Cemetery. The simple sarcophagus is in an elaborate iron “birdcage” designed by German-born Albert Lybrock. Elizabeth is outside.