James Monroe was perhaps the most qualified citizen ever to serve as president of the United States. Born in 1758 in Westmoreland County, Virginia, Monroe attended the College of William and Mary before enlisting in the Continental Army at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. He served valiantly as an officer under General George Washington, notably at the Battle of Trenton where he was wounded.
After the war ended, Monroe entered state and national politics, serving as a member of the Continental Congress and later delegate to the Congress of the Confederation. Monroe generally favored anti-Federalist sentiments, rejecting the idea of a strong, centralized national government. Monroe and his fellow Virginians Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and George Mason feared that a powerful government would trample on the rights of individuals and the states. He unsuccessfully opposed ratification of the Constitution, but later ran for the United States Senate and was elected to represent Virginia in 1790.
President George Washington filled his cabinet with supremely talented men who represented all regions and political allegiances, selecting Monroe to serve as Minister to France in 1794. After returning to the United States in 1796, Monroe became Governor of Virginia. President Thomas Jefferson, who entered office in 1801, highly respected Monroe’s diplomatic talents and sent him to Paris to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. This treaty between the United States and France doubled the size of the United States and created new economic markets and opportunities for many Americans. Monroe then served as Minister to the United Kingdom in 1803-1807.
Monroe’s military, political, and diplomatic experiences led President James Madison to appoint him Secretary of State in 1811. He also briefly served as Secretary of War in 1814-1815, making him the first cabinet member to hold two positions simultaneously. As the War of 1812 drew to a close, Federalists and others who had opposed the conflict experienced a severe political decline. Determined to maintain their grasp on the presidency, Republicans put forward the strongest candidate possible for president: James Monroe. Monroe won the 1816 election handily, and four years later he won reelection nearly unanimously.
Often referred to as the “Era of Good Feelings,” President Monroe’s administration enjoyed relative political peace. His goodwill tours throughout the country coalesced nationalist sentiments and reinforced attitudes regarding America’s rising status in the world. This idea, embodied by Monroe himself, came to fruition in the rebuilding of the national capital, namely the President’s House which the British had burned in 1814. President Monroe returned the home to its former glory. He furnished the Executive Mansion with his own possessions as well as French furniture and objects; he also added the South Portico in 1824. The restoration of this national landmark symbolized a commitment to future generations that America would overcome adversity with ingenuity. In foreign affairs, Monroe also struck a nationalistic tone, working with Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to annex Florida and ward off British and Russian influence in North America. The Monroe Doctrine, as it was later called, impacted American foreign relations for the next century. While James Monroe passed away in 1831, his policies set the United States on course to become one of the world’s great powers.
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