Considered the last “Founding Father” president, James Monroe was born in 1758 into an affluent, slave-owning family in Westmoreland County, Virginia. His parents, Spence and Elizabeth Monroe, had aspirations for their eldest son, sending him to nearby Campbelltown Academy. James’ childhood changed dramatically when both of his parents passed away within two years of each other. Joseph Jones, who became a paternal surrogate for the Monroe children, encouraged James to continue his education by attending the College of William & Mary. Monroe enrolled but later left to enlist in the Continental Army’s Third Virginia Infantry Regiment.
In terms of military, political, administrative, and diplomatic experience, James Monroe was one of the most qualified individuals to ascend to the presidency during the nineteenth century. He fought in the American Revolution and was wounded at the Battle of Trenton; served in the legislative bodies of the Virginia General Assembly and the United States Senate, as well as Governor of Virginia; held diplomatic posts across Europe for different administrations; and served as Secretary of State and Secretary of War (briefly acting in both capacities) during the James Madison administration. He also studied law with Thomas Jefferson—in fact, because of his relationship with Jefferson, Monroe purchased land adjacent to Monticello in Albemarle County, calling it Highland. This plantation was one of several properties that Monroe owned during his lifetime—along with over 200 enslaved people who provided the labor to sustain the family, their guests, and the comforts they enjoyed. Some of these individuals accompanied the Monroes to Washington as well, and later the White House. Click here to learn more about the enslaved households of President James Monroe.
In 1803, President Jefferson entrusted Monroe and Robert Livingston to acquire territory from France and secure access to the Mississippi River and the port of New Orleans. The men exceeded all expectations, acquiring New Orleans and some 827,000 square miles west of the Mississippi for $15 million. The Louisiana Purchase opened up new opportunities for white settlers—often at the expense of Native Americans—and it also created a volatile mix of expansionism and slavery. As the country expanded westward, the issue of permitting slavery in new territories would continue to threaten a fragile Union. The Missouri Compromise of 1820, signed by President Monroe, temporarily defused the situation.
After the War of 1812, the United States experienced the “Era of Good Feelings”—relative political peace, economic growth, and nationalist fervor. President Monroe invigorated this spirit with goodwill tours throughout the country and ensuring that the public buildings at Washington—including the President’s House—were completely restored after they were destroyed by the British. Working with Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Monroe professed American sovereignty from European nations while asserting a national right of influence over the western hemisphere. This idea, later called the “Monroe Doctrine,” shaped the next century of international relations between the United States and the world, influencing American presidents and policymakers who sought to make the country a global power.
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