Monroe was not a deep thinker, as were Jefferson and Madison, nor was he the charismatic leader that Washington was.
“Everything Wrong with the Presidents” series focuses on, as the title suggests, everything each president did wrong while in office. While many presidents enacted worthwhile, and even occasionally beneficial, policies, that’s not what these essays are about. Thus, silence regarding the good actions should not be taken as denial of their existence.
James Monroe is an important, yet often underappreciated, political figure in the early American republic. In some ways this result is because he was the last of the Virginia Dynasty, following George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison into the presidency. Monroe was not a deep thinker, as were Jefferson and Madison, nor was he the charismatic leader that Washington was. Monroe, instead, was a smart, capable leader who preferred to remain off center stage and operate in the shadows. In some ways his leadership style was a precursor to the “hidden‐hand presidency” of Dwight Eisenhower. Monroe was president during a remarkable time known today as the “Era of Good Feelings.” This era witnessed the westward expansion of the young republic, the first peacetime economic depression, a series of major Supreme Court decisions, a nasty fight over the issue of slavery, important developments in the field of foreign affairs and national security policy, and efforts to promote economic development. Monroe made many important decisions, many of which were correct, but he made his share of bad decisions and had his share of missed opportunities for better results. 1
Monroe took office in a nation that still bore the scars of the recent War of 1812. His inauguration occurred in a hastily constructed addition to the Capitol, because the British had burned the structure in 1814. Likewise, Monroe was unable to move into the Executive Mansion until September 1817 because of the damage caused by the fire set by the British in the same raid that burned the Capitol. 2 Monroe’s inaugural address was short on specifics, though he complimented the American people on the decline of factionalism and the national success in the recent war, while also recognizing the need for improved transportation and communications networks. Monroe did not provide his audience with any specific means to achieve the latter goal. 3
Shortly after taking office, Monroe left the capital on a tour of the northern and eastern states, something not done by a president since George Washington, in order to examine coastal defenses. He likewise toured southern states in early 1819. Those trips proved to be two of the early high points of Monroe’s presidency. Everywhere he passed through Monroe received a hearty welcome, especially as he moved into New England in 1817. Monroe’s presence served as a unifying force for a nation that had experienced significant opposition to the recent war in this region, most notably in the form of the Hartford Convention of 1814. He was a reminder of the Revolutionary War, during which he had served as an officer in the Continental Army and had been seriously wounded at the Battle of Trenton, and he was also seen by residents of New England as a force for reconciliation. Indeed, it was the Boston Columbian Centinel that first used the phrase “Era of Good Feelings” as a title of an article about Monroe’s visit to that city. There had been hope among some New England Federalists that Monroe would welcome them back into political respectability by offering them positions within the national government, but this proved illusory. Monroe did not wish to alienate his Republican supporters by appointing Federalists, and as he was quite aware, the Federalists lacked a viable alternative to supporting his administration, continuing their postwar decline. This decision by Monroe, while gratifying those who wished to see the end of political party conflict, created something much worse, namely politics that began to center around sectional divisions between North and South. 4 There was also a self‐serving element to Monroe’s trips. After praising Charles C. and Thomas Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina in 1819, Monroe urged his son‐in‐law, George Hay, to write a paragraph about the episode to reduce party feeling. Another episode occurred in Charleston, when Monroe made sure to mention Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase at a gathering. As Noble Cunningham notes, “Monroe missed few opportunities to bolster his political position.” 5
Early in his presidency, Monroe achieved two important foreign policy goals, the demilitarization of the Great Lakes and a temporary solution to the Oregon issue. The Great Lakes area had witnessed several battles on land and sea during the recent war; therefore, achieving the demilitarization of the Great Lakes was of high importance. Negotiations began in 1816, while Monroe was still Secretary of State but concluded during the first months of his presidency, and the Senate approved the Rush‐Bagot Agreement in April 1818. This agreement limited Great Britain and the United States to four ships in the Great Lakes, used primarily for revenue service, as well as permitting the use of forts and garrisons on land around the lakes. This agreement helped to create a peaceful border between the United States and British Canada. 6
The Convention of 1818 was an important agreement between the United States and Great Britain concerning issues such as fishing rights in the Columbia River, control of the fur trading station at Astoria, and more generally control of Oregon. Richard Rush and Albert Gallatin represented the United States during these negotiations in London in July 1818. The Convention of 1818 drew the northern national boundary of the United States along the 49th parallel from the Lake of the Woods to the Rocky Mountains. With regards to Oregon, both Great Britain and the United States agreed to joint control of this region, which allowed citizens of both nations to have access to Oregon. This agreement also led to eventual compensation from Great Britain for slaves seized and liberated during the War of 1812. 7
Those good feelings inspired by Monroe’s trip to the northern and southern states and the successful diplomatic breakthroughs with Great Britain proved to be short‐lived. Monroe’s first term in office as president was also his most problematic, with crises involving Florida, Missouri, the revolts against Spanish rule in Latin America, and the Panic of 1819. In addition, Monroe faced a southern backlash to nationalistic decisions made by the Supreme Court. The first episode from a chronological perspective involved Florida and the Latin American revolutions. Spain’s grip on its American possessions was steadily weakening, and indeed, Spanish rule in Latin America ended in 1821, though its control over Cuba would continue until 1898. Monroe and his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, took a measured approach to these developments, much to the chagrin of Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, who favored American recognition of the new Latin American republics. Monroe and Adams feared European reprisals should the United States pursue this course of action. 8
A bit closer to home, Spanish control of Florida continued to prove problematic. Spain’s control over this territory was weakening, a fact clearly revealed by its inability to control piracy and the Seminole Indians, who raided American settlements in southern Georgia and provided a haven for the Seminoles and runaway slaves from American slaveholders. Monroe and Adams, and the other cabinet members, approved sending General Andrew Jackson to Georgia to deal with the Seminoles. Jackson received permission to pursue the Seminoles into Florida, but he lacked authority to attack them should they take sanctuary within a Spanish garrison. Contrary to these orders, Jackson invaded Spanish Florida on April 7, 1818 and attacked the Spanish fort at St. Marks. Two British subjects, Alexander Arbuthnot and Robert Ambrister, were captured inside the fort, tried in a court martial for their alleged roles as helping to foment the Seminole attacks on Georgia, and subsequently executed. On May 28, Jackson attacked and seized Pensacola, asserting that the Seminoles were using that port city as a base of operations for attacks on American settlements.
Jackson’s actions greatly complicated the foreign affairs of the Monroe administration. Following lengthy meetings, Monroe and almost all of his cabinet, save for Adams, concluded that Jackson had exceeded his authority and that Pensacola had to be returned to Spain, lest its seizure be regarded as an act of war. As Secretary of War John C. Calhoun asserted, only Congress, and not the executive branch, had the constitutional authority to declare war. In public statements that appeared in the National Intelligencer and in a private letter to Jackson, Monroe made it clear that Jackson had exceeded his orders, though no one faulted his honor or patriotism, and indeed, the Spanish authorities had failed to control the Seminole Indians. Jackson, though, refused to accept any blame for his actions in Florida; instead, he asserted that he had been following orders given to him to end the threat posed by the Seminoles. Monroe wished to avoid humiliating Jackson while also turning the incident to the advantage of the United States. Jackson’s raid had exposed the weak control Spain held over Florida. By returning Pensacola and St. Marks to Spain and not censuring Jackson in a public way, Monroe was able to avoid creating internal rifts between rival political factions while also avoiding war with Spain. Avoiding a public rebuke of Jackson proved difficult because Jackson refused to write to Calhoun about his decision‐making in Florida. The matter finally wound up in Congress after Monroe submitted his annual message to that body in December. Opinion was divided as to whether Jackson should be censured. In the end, the popularity of Monroe and Jackson and the desire of congressmen not to appear critical of those national heroes, led Congress to avoid a public censure of Jackson and the administration. One North Carolina congressman offered a prescient warning regarding Jackson’s actions. “’Permit this to pass unnoticed… and some more designing General may seize it as an apology for more daring acts.’” 9 This did indeed happen in the next century when General Douglas MacArthur started a public dispute with President Harry Truman over military policy in the Korean War. When MacArthur challenged the authority of President Truman and urged the United States to expand the war into China and use nuclear weapons to its tactical advantage, Truman dismissed his general. Monroe did not.
After Jackson’s invasion of Florida, and Monroe’s skillful handling of the resulting controversy, permitted Secretary of State Adams negotiated the American acquisition of Florida with the Spanish ambassador Luis de Onis. Adams and Onis finally agreed on the Transcontinental Treaty of February 22, 1819, in which the United States acquired Florida and a western border on the Pacific coast, while Spain had its claim to Texas upheld. The latter point was one of deep contention, because many Americans, particularly southerners, argued that the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 brought Texas under American control. Adams was able to gain American control as far west as the Sabine River, thus forcing Spain to give up some of the territory it claimed. Removing the last European power from east of the Mississippi River was a gratifying achievement for Monroe’s administration, but it created lasting bitterness among southern nationalists. This bitterness remained until American annexation of Texas in early 1845, a move that led to war with Mexico in 1846 and the rupturing of the Second Party System in the wake of Manifest Destiny. 10
Across the continent, another crisis gripped the Monroe administration and the country, this one involving the explosive topic of slavery and its westward expansion. Missouri—the first territory to be created completely west of the Mississippi River from the Louisiana Purchase—sought statehood. Little appeared amiss with the statehood bill until Representative James Tallmadge added an amendment which would ban further importation of slaves into Missouri and to free the children of slaves already living in the territory at the age of twenty‐five.11 This amendment opened an episode that shook the nation to its core. At the root of the crisis was the question of the expansion of slavery across the Mississippi River, which northern critics asserted made a mockery of the founding ideals regarding liberty that emanated from the American Revolution. Southerners, on the other hand, countered with arguments based on constitutional guarantees that new states enjoy the same rights as the original states and the guarantees to federal rights made to residents of Louisiana in the Treaty of Cession in 1803. The opening debates included statements that the nation would be deluged in the blood of fratricidal warfare. 12
The opening act of this crisis ended when the House of Representatives approved the Tallmadge Amendment, but the Senate rejected it. The Missouri statehood bill thus became the concern of the first session of the Sixteenth Congress, which opened in November 1819. Prior to that event, newspapers across the country weighed in on the Tallmadge Amendment as did public meetings, where citizens drafted resolutions that they sent to their representatives and senators. The Missouri Crisis had become something more than a matter of debate in Congress; it had become a matter of great interest to many Americans around the country. The crisis was more than just a plot by Federalists to win back power and the presidency; rather, it represented a genuine concern for the character of the nation, a point that eluded President Monroe and many southern Republicans. 13
During the debates in the winter of 1820, Speaker of the House Henry Clay and Senator James Barbour of Virginia came up with a strategy to overcome opposition to Missouri statehood. The District of Maine had received the blessing of the Massachusetts legislature to apply for statehood, but this offer expired March 1, 1820. Clay and Barbour decided to link the Maine and Missouri bills in order to pressure northern Republicans to support statehood for both Maine and Missouri. That strategy worked. Both houses of Congress approved the admission of Maine and Missouri, as well as the creation of a line at 36° 30’ that mandated that slavery could not spread north of this line, except for Missouri. 14
The traditional view of Monroe during the Missouri Crisis portrays him as a passive President, one bound by a tradition of executive aloofness, which thus forced Monroe to work behind the scenes to wield influence. As historian Robert Forbes notes, Monroe acted this way out of political necessity. Monroe embraced the nationalist wing of the Republican Party through his support of the Second National Bank and the Supreme Court’s nationalistic decision in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819). Given his tenuous ties to Republican leaders in Richmond like Thomas Ritchie, Monroe could not appear weak in his defense of slavery. Monroe shrewdly used his relationship with his son‐in‐law, George Hay, to his political advantage. Hay communicated a strong anti‐restrictionist stance on the Missouri bill, which appeased Republican leaders in Richmond. Monroe’s sagacity sometimes failed him, as when he believed that Northern Republicans would readily support his preferred party position on the Missouri bill because he saw compromise as being in the national interest. What Monroe failed to understand was that it was Northern Republicans such as James Tallmadge and John Taylor who led the effort to restrict slavery in Missouri. In order to overcome these developing sectional divisions, Monroe supported the restriction of slavery and created a network of supporters to champion these efforts in Congress. In return for their efforts Monroe rewarded them with political appointments. When his strategy became public knowledge in Richmond, Monroe retreated to an anti‐restrictionist stance and asserted that he had acted out of a concern for the preservation of the federal union. To shore up support for this strategy Monroe used loyal southern supporters, such as John C. Calhoun and Thomas Jefferson to spread fears of disunion. Hold‐out Federalists made handy targets for accusations of disunion, as southern Republicans accused them of creating the crisis to win back political power. This argument contained some truth in it, but it also served to obfuscate the genuine antislavery feeling of many northern Republicans and Federalists. 15
Monroe’s handling of the compromise legislation exacerbated sectional divisions within the Republican party. There were growing fissures within the party, largely along sectional lines. Monroe originally planned to veto any compromise legislation, but he perceived the compromise as a mechanism that would permit a lessening of sectional tensions. Moreover, Monroe was concerned about his re‐election later that year. At the same time as Congress was hammering out the compromise, the Virginia Republican party was meeting in Richmond to choose its presidential electors. Monroe wrote a letter to his son‐in‐law George Hay expressing his doubts about the bill and his hesitation as to what his response would be. Hay replied that such an approach would doom Monroe’s chances for re‐election. He advised that Monroe remain silent, because that silence would signify his intention to veto any compromise legislation to the Virginia party leaders. Monroe followed this advice, and later that year he won a nearly unanimous re‐election victory. 16
Another challenge Monroe faced was addressing the effects of the Panic of 1819. This financial panic had its roots in the land speculation following the War of 1812 but came to fruition when the price of cotton plunged by fifty percent on the London market. Southern plantation owners found themselves facing financial ruin when local banks, under pressure from the Second Bank of the United States, demanded immediate repayment of loans made to purchase land and slaves. Monroe had a reasonably good understanding of the causes of this crisis, but there was not much he could do regarding policy. One choice he did possess was to champion the proposed Tariff of 1820, which would have offered a measure of protection from cheap imported European goods for the infant industries of the United States. Monroe failed to do so.
Likewise, Monroe had a talented Secretary of the Treasury in William Crawford, but Crawford often had an agenda geared toward his own political advancement. One episode speaks volumes about Crawford. He advised Monroe in 1818 that the government appeared to be on healthy financial footing, yet Crawford later revealed that the government was actually in arrears by roughly three million dollars, which forced Congress to raise taxes, take out a loan, or cut the national government’s budget. Crawford appeared to be using this crisis to attack one of his rivals in the 1824 election, John C. Calhoun, by supporting efforts to attack waste in government spending through his advocacy of military retrenchment. Moreover, there were accusations of widespread corruption within the Monroe administration, most notably in the War Department. These accusations involved the construction of Fortress Monroe in Virginia and the Yellowstone Expedition, a boondoggle in which Richard Mentor Johnson and his brother’s firm overcharged the federal government for supplies. 17
But it was not just William Crawford whose quest for higher office created problems for Monroe. Smith Thompson, Monroe’s Secretary of the Navy, also had presidential ambitions. Thompson served as Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court after a lengthy career on the bench, but he remained quite involved in partisan politics. The opportunity to serve as Secretary of the Navy, and to enjoy Washington society, proved irresistible to Thompson. After the death of Justice Brockholst Livingston, another New Yorker, a spot on the United States Supreme Court became available. Monroe offered it to Thompson, who then hesitated before ultimately accepting it. Thompson resisted taking the position because he hoped to be the presidential candidate from New York in 1824. He even enlisted the help of Martin Van Buren, who was then a member of Congress, by offering the position on the Supreme Court to Van Buren, asserting that such a move had Monroe’s blessing, which it did not. What wound up happening was an exchange of letters that proved embarrassing to Thompson and which ended his friendship with Van Buren. Moreover, Thompson had lied about the President’s offer of a spot on the Supreme Court. 18
Maintaining the focus on the United States Supreme Court is important, because Chief Justice John Marshall was placing his nationalist imprint on American jurisprudence. In a series of cases, Marshall and the other justices rendered decisions that greatly strengthened the powers of the national government at the expense of the states. One of the most important of those cases was McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), in which a unanimous Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of the Second Bank of the United States and declared unconstitutional a Maryland law that imposed a tax on the Baltimore branch of the national bank. This decision echoed the use of implied powers that Alexander Hamilton articulated in his defense of the First National Bank in 1791. Monroe supported the Court’s decision because of his belief in the Bank’s necessity, as events of the War of 1812 suggested to many that national governments needed national banks in time of emergency. This decision attracted considerable opposition, especially from Spencer Roane, the Chief Justice of the Virginia Court of Appeals. 19
In Cohens v. Virginia (1821), Marshall asserted that the Supreme Court had appellate rights to decide cases where a federal question was at issue. Much like the decision in McCulloch v. Maryland, the decision in Cohens v. Virginia addressed questions of national supremacy when federal and state law conflicted. The final major case of Monroe’s presidency was Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), a case involving the commerce clause of the United States Constitution and the regulatory powers of the federal and state governments. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Thomas Gibbons, who had secured a license under the federal Coasting License Act of 1793. This decision broadly defined commerce and granted Congress the power to regulate commerce into states. The significance of this decision was that it asserted that national power under the 1793 federal act superseded state power in the regulation of commerce. During the Transportation Revolution of the first half of the nineteenth century this decision proved important in giving the national government broad regulatory power to aid the development of transportation improvements. These decisions of the Marshall Court reflected the nationalism of the Era of Good Feelings as well as the acknowledgment of the role of the Supreme Court as the best arbiter of the Constitution. Finally, as R. Kent Newmyer notes, the “absence of a well‐defined party organization also left a vacuum that invited judicial activism.” 20
One of the major accomplishments of Monroe’s second term was the issuance of the Monroe Doctrine on December 2, 1823 in response to concerns about the intentions of the Holy Alliance toward the newly independent Latin American republics. Monroe and his cabinet feared that the reactionary monarchical powers of Europe sought to reverse the course of history and reinstate Spain as the colonial master of Latin America. Preventing re‐colonization of Latin America and keeping alien political systems, namely monarchy, out of the Western hemisphere became important ideological goals of the Monroe administration. Monroe and his cabinet also feared the intentions of European powers toward American neighbors, such as French interest in Mexico and British interest in Cuba. Jay Sexton notes the grave perils imagined by Monroe and his advisers that awaited the nation. “Increased taxation, a standing army, the centralization of political power – all of these and more would be required to counter such a threat.” 21
The initial draft of the Monroe Doctrine, written by Monroe and Secretary of War Calhoun, posited an activist role for the American government which included a strong critique of French intervention in Spain and recognition of Greek rebels in their bid for independence from the Ottoman Empire. Secretary of State Adams advocated a hemispheric approach, one that separated Europe from the Western Hemisphere and thus reduced the chance for war with the Holy Alliance. The document delivered to Congress on December 2 asserted the themes of anti‐colonialism and non‐intervention, including a warning to European powers to stay out of the affairs of the Western Hemisphere and a ban on the creation of new colonies, though European powers could maintain their existing colonies. In addition, the United States asserted it would stay out of European affairs. Moreover, there was implicit support for expansionism, particularly regarding Texas and Cuba, with those two territories expected to wish to join the United States in the future. 22
This implicit support for expansionism manifested itself later in the century with the annexation of Texas in 1845, efforts to acquire Cuba through armed invasion by Narciso Lopez, and the rise to hemispheric dominance by the United States after the Spanish‐American War of 1898. The first two examples reflected a desire to acquire new land for the expansion of slavery, moves which led to the tragic consequences of the Mexican‐American War, the sectional crisis of 1846–1861, and the Civil War of 1861–1865. The last example of hemispheric dominance appeared in the form of policies such as the Platt Amendment, which dictated Cuba’s foreign policy to the new nation, and the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which asserted that the United States would act as a hemispheric policeman to keep European powers from meddling in the internal affairs of Latin American nations. This policy would embitter hemispheric relations into the 1930s, when President Franklin Roosevelt introduced his Good Neighbor policy to reduce those tensions.
James Monroe served as president during a significant transitional period in American history, from the immediate postwar years to the contested election of 1824, which set the stage for the rise of Jacksonian democracy. In many ways Monroe’s presidency served as a bridge from the First Party System to the Second Party System. Political participation hit a low point in the uncontested election of 1820, only to revive in 1840, when roughly eighty percent of the electorate voted. Monroe’s presidency also saw the rapid westward expansion of the nation after the War of 1812, including the westward expansion of slavery across the Mississippi River, and the growth of a transportation infrastructure that included roads, steamboats, and canals. Finally, there was a legal revolution in which the Supreme Court significantly enlarged the powers of the national government. In foreign policy, the Monroe administration made agreements with Great Britain that demilitarized the Great Lakes, established a firm northern national boundary with British Canada, led to the peaceful enjoyment of Oregon and the acquisition of Florida, and finally, articulated a policy that promised non‐intervention in European affairs in return for European non‐intervention in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere. All of these actions had significant impacts at the time and in later years. One can only wonder what may have happened in later decades if the Monroe administration had secured control of Oregon or Texas, but alas, those events did not become actualities.
1. The major biography of Monroe remains Harry Ammon, James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity (New York: McGraw‐Hill, 1971). A good modern study of his presidency is Noble E. Cunningham, Jr., The Presidency of James Monroe (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996). Two major studies of the “Era of Good Feelings” include the classic statement by George Dangerfield, The Era of Good Feelings (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co, 1952; reprinted Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Inc., 1989), and Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).
2. Ammon, James Monroe, pp. 367–368; Cunningham, Presidency of James Monroe, pp. 27–29.
3. Cunningham, Presidency of James Monroe, pp. 29–30.
8. Ammon, James Monroe, PP. 409–448; Howe, What Hath God Wrought, pp. 107–111. The United States eventually recognized the Latin American republics in June 1822, after ratification of the Transcontinental Treaty by the Spanish government, which will be discussed below.
9. Cunningham, Presidency of James Monroe, pp. 55–69. Quotation appears on p. 67.
10. Ibid., pp. 68–69; Ammon, James Monroe, pp. 426–448.
11. Cunningham, Presidency of James Monroe, pp. 87–88, Dangerfield, Era of Good Feelings, p. 199.
12. Dangerfield, Era of Good Feelings, 199–245, remains a solid overview of the Missouri Crisis and is a good place to start for a reader new to this topic.
14. Robert Pierce Forbes, The Missouri Compromise and Its Aftermath (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), pp. 33–120, offers an insightful analysis of the Missouri Crisis and replaces Glover Moore, The Missouri Controversy, 1819–1821 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1953) as the standard discussion of this important topic. Another excellent source to consult is Matthew Mason, Slavery and Politics in the Early Republic (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006). Forbes and Mason offer more balanced treatments of the Missouri Crisis than does Moore’s Progressive‐school interpretation.
15. Forbes, Missouri Compromise and Its Aftermath, pp. 63–71, 89–95.
16. Dangerfield, Era of Good Feelings, pp. 229–230.
17. Andrew H. Browning, The Panic of 1819: The First Great Depression (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2019, pp. 294–305.
18. G. Edward White, The Marshall Court and Cultural Change, 1815–1835, abridged edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 307–318, offers a splendid biographical sketch of Thompson and the affair with Van Buren.
19. Ammon, James Monroe, p. 467; R. Kent Newmyer, The Supreme Court under Marshall and Taney (Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 19680, pp. 40–47.
20. Newmyer, Supreme Court under Marshall and Taney, pp. 47–55. Quotation appears on p. 53; White, The Marshall Court and Cultural Change, pp. 568–584.
21. Jay Sexton, The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth‐Century America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011), pp. 53–62. Quotation appears on p. 57.