Special/Signature Issues » ii

Virginia-Born, World View

James Monroe was born in Viriginia's Westmoreland County on April 28, 1758. The eldest of five children, his father, Spence, farmed and made furniture. Monroe received an excellent education from local tutors (one of his classmates was John Marshall, the future chief justice).

Monroe's father died in 1774, and at age 16 he enrolled at The College of William & Mary. The passions of the American Revolution captivated Monroe as much as his studies and he enthusiastically participated in one of the war's first episodes in this area. He was the youngest of 24 men who seized firearms from the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg. While debates and skirmishes escalated, the college temporarily shut down. Monroe enlisted in the 3rd Virginia Infantry.

By 18 he was the youngest commissioned officer in the Continental Army. In 1776 he saw action in New York at the battles of Harlem and White Plains. Later that year he was on the front lines of the opening attack at the Battle of Trenton where he was severely wounded when a musket ball hit his shoulder.

Cited for "conspicuous bravery," he was promoted to captain. After recovering in Virginia, he fought at Brandywine and Germantown. Throughout his service he forged lasting friendships with such influential figures as Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the Marquis de Lafayette. Monroe also developed an education in real-world experience and forged his political ideas.

Monroe spent the winter of 1777 at Valley Forge and lobbied hard for a field command position. Deeply upset when he couldn't land a commission, he resigned the military and returned to Williamsburg. It was there that he met Thomas Jefferson, then governor. Fifteen years Monroe's senior, Jefferson took the shy, impressionable young man under his wing and advised him to establish a law career as a stepping stone to politics.

What followed was a public-service career that's unmatched in American history, with his crowning achievement serving two terms as president beginning in 1817.

During the first term of Monroe -- an excellent listener and arbiter -- the issue of whether to admit Missouri as either a free or slave state was paramount. A compromise established that slavery could remain there, but Maine would enter the union as a free state. In 1819 the United States took possession of Florida after a successful military campaign by Gen. Andrew Jackson and a treaty with Spain.

Monroe was re-elected in 1820 by the electoral college, one vote short of unanimous (it had voted for George Washington unanimously and wanted to maintain that distinct honor for the first president).

Monroe's second term was marked by the establishment of the American Colonization Society to send freed blacks to the African country of Liberia. Its capital city, Monrovia, was named for the Virginian who, as governor, had been targeted by one of the most ambitious slave-insurrection schemes in American history.

Monroe issued what would be the hallmark of his presidency in December 1823, the Monroe Doctrine. Largely the work of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, it had two major points. First, the Americas were off-limits to European colonization. Second, America will remain a neutral party in wars between European powers. The Monroe Doctrine was initially a concept, not a law. During World War II it was made an official part of American policy. However fluid its interpretation, it remains part of the bedrock of American foreign policy.

  • Back to the cover story.
  • Add a comment