Future U.S. Senator and President James Monroe is born on this day in 1758.
Monroe, a contemporary of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, was the last of the original revolutionaries to become president. He served in the Continental Army and was wounded in the shoulder at the Battle of Trenton in New Jersey. Prior to becoming president, Monroe served as Washington’s ambassador to France (1804-1807) and Madison’s secretary of state (1811-1817). He was also the first U.S. senator to become president and the first president to ride on the technological wonder of his era, the steamboat. Monroe’s presidency is best known for his negotiation of the Missouri Compromise and his philosophy regarding territorial expansion in the Western Hemisphere, which became known as the Monroe Doctrine.
In 1820, President Monroe signed into law the Missouri Compromise, also known as the Compromise Bill of 1820. The bill attempted to solve tensions over slavery by promising to add an equal number of slave-holding and non-slave-holding states into the Union in the future. Although Monroe realized that slavery conflicted with the values written into the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, he favored strong states’ rights over federalism and feared the fissure over slavery would split the Union he and his contemporaries had fought so hard to establish.
Passage of the Missouri Compromise contributed to the Era of Good Feelings over which Monroe presided and facilitated his election to a second term. In his second inaugural address, Monroe optimistically pointed out that although the nation had struggled in its infancy, no serious conflict has arisen that was not solved peacefully between the federal and state governments. By steadily pursuing this course, he predicted, there is every reason to believe that our system will soon attain the highest degree of perfection of which human institutions are capable. In the end, though, the Missouri Compromise failed to permanently ease the underlying tensions caused by the slavery issue. The conflict that flared up during the bill’s drafting presaged how the nation would eventually divide along territorial, economic and ideological lines 40 years later during the Civil War.
Monroe’s foreign policy fared better. In 1823, Monroe delivered a message to Congress outlining U.S. policy toward territorial expansion. He warned foreign nations with possessions in North America and the Western Hemisphere against any further expansion, saying that the U.S. would consider any additional colonial expansion as dangerous to America’s peace and safety. In return, he promised not to interfere in these nations’ existing colonial affairs. This policy, originally articulated by former president James Madison and fleshed out by Monroe’s Secretary of State (and future president) John Quincy Adams, was thereafter referred to as the Monroe Doctrine.
To those who knew him well, Monroe had a reputation as a hard-working and good-natured man who was a little old-fashioned when it came to personal dress. As president, he wore what was by then considered outdated Revolutionary War-era attire. White House social life under Monroe was low-key–both he and his wife Elizabeth preferred private, stately affairs modeled after European society to the larger, more lively parties hosted by some of Monroe’s predecessors. Private and stately did not come cheap, however, and Monroe was forced to lobby Congress for money to refurbish the barely livable White House, which had been badly damaged in the War of 1812.
After leaving office, Monroe tried to get Congress to reimburse him for additional personal funds he had spent on furniture for the White House. Partly as a consequence of funding White House furnishings with his own money, Monroe fell heavily into debt, and was forced to sell his Virginia estate and move in with his daughter, who lived in New York City. He died in 1831.