Archive for September 24th, 2020


#5. Monroe, James

Linda Lou Burton posting from Little Rock, Arkansas – James Monroe (April 28, 1758 – July 4, 1831) was the fifth president of the United States (1817 to 1825) and the last president of the “Virginia dynasty.” He was also the last US president to wear a powdered wig tied in a queue, a tricorn hat, and knee-breeches. He was the last president to have never been photographed, though he does appear in some famous paintings you’ve seen. You probably didn’t realize you were looking at him, but James Monroe was in the scene of revolutionary action, and getting the country settled down action, working hard, doing his part. He saw what had to be done, and he did it. Yes, he was with George from the beginning, and we know how feisty George was – like getting bullet holes in his hat, and coat. But James got a bullet in his SHOULDER, and kept on fighting. Would James come to your party? Possibly, if you let him bring his gun. This guy grabbed up a few cannons from the Governor’s House in Williamsburg once, although technically that wasn’t a party; it was more an attack. But let’s get back to those portraits.

Where is Monroe?

The Emanuel Leutze portrait of Washington Crossing the Delaware in 1776 wasn’t done until 1851, and is acknowledged to be mostly inaccurate, though quite inspiring. George Washington is in fine form, on a cold and stormy night. But who is holding onto the flag? That is meant to be James Monroe, did you know? In reality, that flag didn’t exist yet, and James Monroe wasn’t on the same boat as George Washington – he had come across hours earlier. But it’s a good story. John Trumbull’s Capture of the Hessians at Trenton is an even better story, I think. Karma on its best behavior! The time of the event portrayed is a few hours after the landing; Monroe’s regiment is sneaking through the snowy countryside when spotted by some dogs, who did what dogs do, and awakened their master, John Riker. He thought they were British, and began shouting at them; when he learned they were Americans he volunteered to join them immediately. “I am a doctor and I may be able to help,” he said. Early in the battle while charging Hessian cannons, Monroe was shot down. A musket ball pierced his chest, lodged in his shoulder, and severed an artery. Dr Riker clamped the artery and stopped the bleeding; James Monroe got up and continued fighting. And eventually became our fifth president, ha! In the portrait, James is the one on the ground holding onto his shoulder, as you might guess. And do the math – he was only 18 years old!


In The Beginning

When I look over all the things James Monroe did, I see a man who believed it was his job to take action when action was called for. Yes, he was born into the “Virginia Planter” way of life, but it was vastly different for him than it was for Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. They inherited vast estates, with thousands of acres of Virginia land and hundreds of slaves, and began their extensive educations at an early age. Even Adams, who only wound up with an 8-acre farm in Massachusetts, had a father who INSISTED that he attend school – “You shall comply with my desires,” he was told, after a bout of truancy. It wasn’t like that for James Monroe. His father, Spence Monroe, was a moderately prosperous planter, and a carpenter; his mother Elizabeth Jones died when James was 14; his father died when he was 16. Although James began attending the only school in the county at age 11, it was just for a few weeks a year – he was needed to work on the farm. When his parents died he inherited property from them, but withdrew from school to help care for his younger brothers. James was second born of five children – Elizabeth, then James, Spence, Andrew, and Joseph. His childless maternal uncle, Joseph Jones, became a surrogate father; he enrolled James in the College of William & Mary and introduced him to George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson. But it was 1774, and opposition to the British government was getting hotter and hotter. James dropped out of school and joined the fight. The Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg was one of the first hits (cannons, remember?) He served in the Continental Army (under George Washington), studied law (under Thomas Jefferson), and there was no stopping him from there.

Other Government Positions:

  • Member of Continental Congress, 1783-86
  • United States Senator, 1790-94
  • Minister to France, 1794-96
  • Governor of Virginia, 1799-1802
  • Minister to France and England, 1803-07
  • Secretary of State, 1811-17 (under Madison)
  • Secretary of War, 1814-15 (under Madison)
  • Fifth President of the United States, 1817-1825

Note that he was Secretary of State AND Secretary of War at the same time in Madison’s cabinet; after that little fiasco in 1814 when Washington DC was set on fire by the British, Madison fired Secretary of War John Armstrong and turned to Monroe for help; Monroe asked Congress to draft an army of 100,000 men and to increase compensation for soldiers. His wartime leadership established him as Madison’s heir apparent, and he easily defeated Federalist Party candidate Rufus King in the 1816 presidential election. – 183 electoral votes to Rufus King’s 34.

James Monroe’s presidency was a time of establishing order and bringing things into alignment; he ignored old party lines in making appointments; he made two long national tours to build national trust. Five new states were admitted to the Union — Mississippi 1817, Illinois 1818, Alabama 1819, Maine 1820, Missouri 1821. The 49th Parallel was established as the border with Canada; the Missouri Compromise forbade slavery above 36 degrees 30 minutes latitude; Spain ceded Florida to the United States. The General Survey Act authorized surveys of routes for roads and canals “necessary for the transportation of public mail.” On December 23, 1823, in his annual message to Congress, he stated, among many other things regarding neutrality in world affairs, that European countries should no longer consider the Western Hemisphere open to new colonization. “Listen to me!” he said to the world. Those declarations are known today as the Monroe Doctrine. He won the 1820 election ALMOST unanimously – 1 vote was cast for John Quincy Adams.

The Family Man

James got married while serving in the Continental Congress in New York – he met pretty Elizabeth Kortright (1768-1830) at the theater. Their wedding took place on February 16, 1786 – she was 18; he was 28. Her father was a wealthy trader; they lived with him until Congress adjourned; then they moved to Virginia and bought an estate in Charlottesville known as Ash Lawn. They had three children: Eliza was born in 1786 and educated in Paris during the time James was Ambassador to France; James Spence was born in 1799, but only lived sixteen months; Maria was born in 1804. She was the first “president’s child” to marry in the White House! Oh yes – the White House was reconstructed by 1817; the Monroes brought many of their own furnishings when they moved in as everything had been lost in the 1814 fire. Elizabeth’s health was delicate so the daughters had to help with entertaining; Elizabeth and Eliza leaned to a more exclusive and formal French style, nothing like the Dolley Madison era. Not much is known about the nature of the relationship between James and Elizabeth; all private correspondence was burned before their deaths.

When his presidency ended on March 4, 1825, James and Elizabeth lived at Oak Hill in Aldie, Virginia, until her death at age 62 in 1830. James moved to New York then, to live with daughter Maria and her husband; he died at age 73 of heart failure and tuberculosis – on July 4, 1831. Make note: he was the THIRD president to die on July 4 – such an unusual connection between three of our Founding Fathers.


I began with “lasts” about James Monroe; here are a few “firsts.” He was the first president to ride on a steamboat. He was the first president to have been a US Senator. His 1817 inauguration was the first to be held outside. He was the first president to win all but ONE electoral votes. Sure, Washington got ALL electoral votes once, but All-But-One is pretty darn good as there were lots more people voting and getting the hang of it!

Just as he was not “center stage” in the portraits mentioned earlier, James Monroe sometimes suffers from comparison to the other members of the Virginia Dynasty. He may not be as beloved as George Washington, or the Renaissance man that Thomas Jefferson was. But he was a great advocate of nationalism and reached out to all regions of the country. He had the ability to look at issues from all sides, encouraging debate. In foreign policy he put the nation on an independent course.

I see him as a man who tried to make a difference, and did.