[Abridged] Presidential Histories

05.) James Monroe 1817-1825

July 01, 2020 Kenny Ryan
[Abridged] Presidential Histories
05.) James Monroe 1817-1825
[Abridged] Presidential Histories
05.) James Monroe 1817-1825
Jul 01, 2020
Kenny Ryan

James Monroe has been called the Forrest Gump of Founding Fathers - he just keeps showing up everywhere! But that doesn't mean he isn't sharp. Monroe dropped out of college to fight in the revolution, and his life rarely slowed down after that. He'll dine with emperor's, oversee wars, and destroy his political opponents In a globe-trotting career that takes him from nearly being orphaned to the White House.

From his service In Washington's army during the Revolutionary War, to Valley Forge, to his vote against ratifying the Constitution, to his signing of the Louisiana Purchase, to his leadership as Secretary of State and War during the War of 1812, and finally the presidency, we'll follow Monroe as overcomes setbacks and learns from his mistakes to become one of the most influential presidents and Founding Fathers our country ever produced.

1. The Last Founding Father, James Monroe and A Nation’s Call to Greatness - Harlow G Unger
2. James Madison - Richard Brookhiser
3. Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power - Jon Meacham
4. John Quincy Adams - Harlow G Unger
5. The Life of Andrew Jackson - Robert V. Remin
6. Martin Van Buren and the American Political System - Donald B. Cole
7. The Presidents Fact Book - Roger Matuz

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/AbridgedPresidentialHistories)

Show Notes Transcript

James Monroe has been called the Forrest Gump of Founding Fathers - he just keeps showing up everywhere! But that doesn't mean he isn't sharp. Monroe dropped out of college to fight in the revolution, and his life rarely slowed down after that. He'll dine with emperor's, oversee wars, and destroy his political opponents In a globe-trotting career that takes him from nearly being orphaned to the White House.

From his service In Washington's army during the Revolutionary War, to Valley Forge, to his vote against ratifying the Constitution, to his signing of the Louisiana Purchase, to his leadership as Secretary of State and War during the War of 1812, and finally the presidency, we'll follow Monroe as overcomes setbacks and learns from his mistakes to become one of the most influential presidents and Founding Fathers our country ever produced.

1. The Last Founding Father, James Monroe and A Nation’s Call to Greatness - Harlow G Unger
2. James Madison - Richard Brookhiser
3. Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power - Jon Meacham
4. John Quincy Adams - Harlow G Unger
5. The Life of Andrew Jackson - Robert V. Remin
6. Martin Van Buren and the American Political System - Donald B. Cole
7. The Presidents Fact Book - Roger Matuz

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/AbridgedPresidentialHistories)

5.)   James Monroe 1817-1825

When a parent or guardian sends their child off to college, one of their unspoken hopes, probably pretty high on the list, is that their child not get caught up with a bunch of violent revolutionaries bent on overthrowing the government.

In this regard, James Monroe’s uncle was sorely disappointed.

James Monroe, the future fifth president of the United states, was a student at the College of William and Mary when the American revolution broke out and he dropped out of school to fight for independence, which, what did you do with your freshman year?

From that moment, James Monroe’s life rarely slowed down. He is going to be everywhere and meet everyone. Lillian Cunningham of the Presidential podcast series describes Monroe as the Forrest Gump of American Presidents, which is a pretty good image, but don’t think this guy isn’t sharp. He just keeps showing up in American history. He’s there with Washington’s army at Valley Forge, he’s in revolutionary France just after the reign of terror, he goes back to France to meet Napoleon and buy Louisiana, he’s secretary of state and war during  the war of 1812 – he’s everywhere! And that’s before he serves eight years in the white house.

As you can tell, there’s a lot to cover. Let’s jump to it.

James Monroe was born on April 27, 1758, in Virginia – that’s right, he is the fourth of our first five presidents to be born in Virginia, but he’s also the last president who will hail from Virginia for a good long time. So, the year he was born, 1758 was smack dab I the middle of the 7 year’s war, which you may remember from the episode on George Washington. That was the global war between European powers that Washington accidentally started when he ambushed a French captain on a diplomatic mission, that played out in North America as a fight between British colonists and the French and their native American allies. Growing up in the aftermath of this war meant Monroe grew up during a period when the British empire was increasingly trying to figure out how to pay the cost of defending its colonies, which, well, hold that thought for one moment.

Monroe’s childhood would be a rather tragic one. His mother died when he was 14 years old and his father died two years after that. Things could have gotten really bad for Monroe and his siblings right about then, if not for the charity of a kind, wealthy, and, importantly, politically well-connected uncle named Joseph Jones. Trust me, we all wish we had an uncle Jones. Jones took Monroe and his siblings in and used his money and connections to put young Madison on a course to the College of William and Mary, which everybody who was anybody went to school in Virginia. Jones also opened his nephew’s eyes to the world of politics. Jones served in the Virginia House of Burgesses at a time when young men like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were establishing their political careers. Monroe would frequently stop by to watch the debates, and that might have been when he got an interest in politics.

But then came the revolution.

You know the story by now. Several years of mounting colonial frustration over British taxes and disrespect pushed the colonists to the brink of revolt by 1775, when Monroe was an 18-year-old college student.

And to have been a college student at this time, it must have all been terribly exciting. So Monroe, caught up in the moment, started leading his fellow students through military drills on the lawns of the College of William and Mary. They wanted to be revolutionaries! They were doing these drills, by the way, right in sight of British soldiers, who were probably sitting there thinking, ‘Well, this doesn’t look good.’

In 1775, after word arrived that violent uprising had broken out in Massachusetts, Monroe participated in a raid of the Virginia Royal Governor’s mansion. Royal as in totally loyal to the king. The governor had already fled to Norfolk before the raid reached his mansion, but 200 rifles and 300 swords were seized from the armory, which were about to come in handy.

You see, it wasn’t clear at this point which way Virginia would tip – pro revolution, or pro Great Britain. This is roughly when John Adams was so desperate to win Virginia’s support that he was basically putting anyone who had ever visited Virginia in charge of any congressional committee he could find an opening on to swing the state toward the war effort – This is when he put Thomas Jefferson in charge of writing the declaration of independence, and it’s when he nominated Washington to lead the army. But the British weren’t just standing pat and watching this happen. They were making their own moves to secure Virginia’s loyalty, they just made the wrong moves.

The decisive moment was when the royal governor, who was building his own army of loyalists, decided to bolster that army by offering freedom to any slave who joined his ranks.

There were a whole lot of Virginians who didn’t really care about British taxes on team or stamps up in Boston, but threaten to free their slaves and arm those freed slaves with guns, now that was every Virginian’s worst nightmare.

The revolutionary ranks swelled with furious Virginians until, on Dec. 11, the two sides fought. The governor lost and fled, and then he torched Norfolk on his way out to Britain.

Now, Monroe wasn’t at that battle. But when he learned of the torching of Norfolk, he decided there was no way he was going to sit out the rest of the war at the college of William and Mary. He dropped out of school and joined a Virginia regiment then marched to support Washington up in New York. Because Monroe was 18 and literate, he was made a lieutenant. Monroe’s regiment arrived just as Washington was being driven out of New York and into New Jersey by the British. Monroe’s first skirmish was actually to set up a defensive position at the rear of Washington’s fleeing army, where his Virginians used a blast of musket fire to stop the British pursuit and buy the colonial army time to regroup. 

This was a time of dire straits for the revolution. Washington was down to just 3,000 men and on a losing streak. He was in desperate need of a victory to prove the Americans just might be able to win.

He was about to get one.

Monroe had the good fortune of arriving just in time for the battle of Trenton. The battle of Trenton, you may remember, was when Washington divided his army on Christmas night in 1776 and snuck it across the Delaware river to attack a German Mercenary garrison at Trenton. If you’ve ever seen the famous painting “The Crossing of the Delaware,” go ahead and pretend one of those guys in the background is Monroe. Monroe was in the thick of the action during this battle. He led an attack a mercenary cannon emplacement and captured it just before the Germans were able to open fire. The Americans lost only two men at Trenton and killed or captured nearly 1,000 mercenaries. One of the reasons the Americans suffered so few casualties is that Monroe helped capture that cannon.

Monroe also had the fortune of being shot during the fight. I say fortune, because after he recovered, General Washington visited Monroe’s field hospital and met him after the battle. Monroe’s heroism was recognized and he was soon promoted to Aide de Camp for one of the other revolutionary generals.

And, hey, now he’s met General Washington.

This sets up a period of war service that is hugely influential on Monroe’s future. While serving in the army, Monroe met other up-and-coming military leaders like Alexander Hamilton, who would become Washington’s right-hand man and de-facto head of the federalist party, and the Marquis de Lafayette, a talented young officer from France. At one point, Monroe personally rushed a wounded Lafayette away from a battlefield and stayed by his side until he recovered, leading to a life-long friendship between the two men. This friendship, and his experience fighting the British, cemented Monroe as an avid lover of all things French and hater of all things British – whiiiiich is going to be important.

After a couple of years serving in the continental army, including earning a merit badge for surviving the brutal winter at Valley Forge, Monroe was sent back to Virginia with a captain’s rank to find new recruits. But recruiting at this time meant personally offering signing bonuses and Monroe had no money – and when I say he had no money, I mean he really didn’t have any money. In his excitement about joining the revolution, he’d followed George Washington’s example by swearing off a salary. I guess it never occurred to him that George Washington was already rich and owned a plantation while Monroe didn’t own squat – so when it came to recruiting, he was entirely unsuccessful. Frustrated, hundreds of miles from the fighting, and at the urging of Uncle Jones, Monroe reluctantly returned to his studies at William and Mary in 1780. Going back to college wasn’t all bad though. He made a great impression on one of his law professors, the current governor of Virginia, and future president, Thomas Jefferson. 


So that’s a pretty exciting revolutionary career. Monroe was there for one of the most important battles, Trenton, he was there for the most legendary winter, Valley Forge, and he met Washington, Hamilton, Lafayette, and Jefferson. As the war ended and he finally graduated college, Monroe was emerging as a veteran who checked all the right boxes and had all the right friends for a career in politics.

Here’s where I should mention that Monroe also checked all the right boxes for a woman named Elizabeth Jane Kortright, and the pair married in 1786. 

The first interesting moment of Monroe’s post-war political came in 1788 when, at the age of 30, he was elected to serve as a delegate to Virginia’s ratification convention – this is the convention that was deciding if Virginia was going to vote yay or nay on the new-fangled constitution that Alexander Hamilton and fellow Virginian and future president James Madison were selling to the country. Madison was, by the way, another delegate at this convention.

By the time the Virginia delegates gathered, eight states had already voted in favor of ratification. Now, someone had decided that the rules were that when 9 states voted to ratify, the new constitution would go into effect. So Virginia had the potential to be the state that put it over the top. The debate over whether to ratify raged back and forth for nearly a month – would the new constitution surrender freedoms Virginians had so recently won? Or would it bring increased strength and prosperity to all the colonies – hopefully Virginia most of all? – Ultimately, Monroe voted against ratification because he feared the constitution had no safeguards for if, god-forbid, political parties became a thing and one faction controlled the congress and the presidency, which…. Yeah that can kind of be a problem – but Monroe lost this vote. The convention ratified the constitution and just as they were celebrating being the state to push the constitution over that nine-state threshold, a messenger arrived saying, sorry guys, New Hampshire beat you to it six days ago. Shucks.

Voting against the constitution set Monroe up for an on-again, off-again political rivalry with James Madison. Aside from whether to ratify the constitution, two men agreed on pretty much all the big issues. The main thing they would consistently disagree on is which of them should be the person in power advancing those issues, starting with a race for Congress.

As everyone left the ratification convention and began looking for things to do next, a powerful opponent of Madison and the Constitution convinced Monroe to run for Congress in Madison’s district – setting Madison and Monroe up for a fight.

This would, however, be a very friendly fight. The two rode around the district together, arrived at events together, gave their respective speeches one after the other, and left together. When James Madison won, Monroe felt no hard feelings. It probably helped that Monroe was 8 years younger than Madison, so he could always tell himself he had plenty of time to catch up. Which he shortly did, Monroe was elected as one of Virginia’s two representatives in the Senate two years later. No hard feelings.


Ok, let’s zoom out and skip forward a bit real quick.

In 1793, the French executed their king and declared war on Britain, Spain and Holland, kickstarting the French revolutionary wars that every American president for the next 20 years is going to struggle to stay out of. As Washington looked at an angry France and an angry Britain, and as he tried to figure out how to keep both sides happy and not at war with the United States, he decided the best course of action was to assign someone who genuinely loved Britain as ambassador to Britain, and someone who genuinely loved France as ambassador to France.

How about that wounded soldier he’d met at Trenton 17 years ago?

That’s right, it’s time for James Monroe to go to France!

This is actually the first of two stints Monroe would serve as a diplomat in France. Both would be memorable. Both would start promisingly. And both would end in disappointment.

Monroe’s first trip landed him in France right after a period of the French revolution known as the Reign of Terror. Which. Well. It wasn’t a good time. One of the more radical governments of the French revolution – and depending how you count, there were at least half a dozen – imprisoned half a million French men, women and children as political prisoners and murdered 17,000, many with the guillotine. 25,000 more were killed by violent mobs. There were even reports that the French, in their desire to kill more people more quickly, loaded political prisoners onto boats and intentionally sank as a form of mass murder. The terror ended when the National Convention, which governed the country, realized, my god, nobody is safe, we could be next, and they turned on the man orchestrating the terror, Robespierre, and sent him to the Guillotine. Monroe and his family arrived days later.

Despite this blood-soaked backdrop, Monroe’s first trip to France got off to a good start. In the confusion after Robespierre’s sudden fall - or, you know, murder - the government was too unorganized to arrange for anyone to receive the latest American diplomat, so Monroe cut to the chase and personally addressed the entire National Convention, which was kind of a more powerful version of America’s Congress, and he was met with wild applause. Monroe quickly negotiated a commercial treaty and the release of some American sailors who had been captured by the French Navy, under one of those previous governments.

So Monroe’s time in France is off to a successful start. He’s negotiating treaties, the French are loving him, and, oh yeah, Monroe and his wife helped free a bunch of political prisoners, including the Marquis de Lafayette’s wife. But, in revolutionary France, things can turn on a dime. Remember how George Washington had sent a pro-British diplomat to Britain at the same time he sent Monroe to France? Well, in late 1795, Washington’s diplomat to Britain negotiated a commercial treaty with the British that banned French privateers – aka, pirates – from resupplying in American ports. Which annoyed the French, because they had a treaty with the United States that said their privateers totally could resupply in American ports. Awkward. And then food riots in Paris toppled yet another French government and a new government came to power called the Directory that didn’t much like all those treaties Monroe had negotiated. The directory used the treaty that had been signed with Britain as an excuse to end the trade treaty Monroe had negotiated and then ordered the French navy to begin attacking American merchant ships sailing for Britain and capturing their crew and cargo. Monroe unfairly became the fall guy for this abrupt shift in French policy and was recalled from France in 1796.

So, that all ended pretty fast, and Monroe was understandably a bit deflated. But don’t worry, after laying low and focusing on his finances for a bit – because, remember, he never had much money other than what Uncle Jones gave him – he rebounded politically and become governor of Virginia before returning to France to help purchase Louisiana during the Jefferson administration in 1803. 

This second trip to France came at the request of president Thomas Jefferson and his secretary of state James Madison. Jefferson and Madison had just learned that Napoleon was interested in selling the Louisiana territory and both wanted someone they trusted on the scene to finalize the deal. So they turned to their fellow Virginian, Monroe.

Monroe’s time in France again got off to a good start when he met the newly-crowned emperor Napoleon – so this is like the third French government Monroe’s personally dealt with in less than a decade – and the two signed the treaty that gave the Louisiana territory to the United States. You can bet this will be at the top of Monroe’s resume when he starts considering runs for president.

Fresh off the success of the Louisiana purchase, Monroe went to England to renegotiate the treaty between the U.S. and Britain that had so infuriated the French during Monroe’s last visit. 

As Monroe renegotiated this treaty, one of his top demands was that the British end the impressment of American sailors – this was a British practice of kidnapping sailors from American vessels and forcing them to serve in the royal navy. The renegotiation of this treaty is when Monroe’s second visit to Europe began to go off the rails. Despite his best efforts, the treaty he secured did nothing about impressment. It only renewed trade with England. Back in the United States, Jefferson was so disappointed in the treaty that he never even sent it to the senate for consideration. The negotiation with England had been a failure.

Monroe then hopped back to France in 1806, where he hoped to tidy up some loose ends from the Louisiana purchase. Originally, the French had said some of Florida had been included in the deal. But the Spanish, who still controlled Florida, said nuh-uh, no it didn’t. And now the French were say nuh-uh, too, which was annoying. But it was nothing compared to what came next. In 1806, the Napoleonic wars had reached a point where France basically controlled all of continental Europe and only England on its island stood against Napoleon. But the French couldn’t invade England, because of that big royal navy, so both sides decided to blockade each other and attack any American ship headed for their rivals’ shores. 

This had two big impacts on Monroe. First: any romantic notions he’d once had that France and America were bffs because they’d both had revolutions were dismissed. From now on, he’d believe in the real politik approach of George Washington, where you look after your own interests first.

Second: France’s attacks on American shipping and the failure of Monroe’s treaty with the British resulted in Monroe being recalled from his ambassadorship in disgrace in 1807.

To be fair to President Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison, they kind of tried to make Monroe still feel valued when he got home. He was invited to Washington, treated respectfully, wined and dined, just … nobody offered him any jobs. He understood the message loud and clear. We like you, but you’re politically dead to us.

The thing is, Monroe did not want to be politically dead. He’d been there, done that after his first trip to France and had spent 6 years rebuilding his reputation. He didn’t want to do all that again. So, when Jefferson announced he wouldn’t seek reelection in 1808 and James Madison announced he’d run to replace him, a frustrated Monroe announced he’d run for president too. This pissed Madison off quite a bit. Now, this is still an era when people still didn’t campaign for themselves, so Monroe was never on the stump saying mean things about Madison, or vice versa, but this wasn’t the friendly rivalry of their early days when they were riding around Virginia together on horseback from campaign stop to campaign stop. This was the presidency they were after, and when Madison won the presidency – actually, Monroe ended up being a bit of a non-factor – Madison decided he didn’t have any room in his cabinet for someone who had run against him.

So Monroe again went home to Virginia to refocus and rebuild. But don’t worry. He won’t be there for long.

So that’s the story of Monroe’s two trips to France. Both started promisingly and both ended frustratingly, and both times I can’t help but feel for Monroe. He really strikes me as a competent diplomat, but sometimes you’re dealt hands you simply can’t win.

Anyway, after failing in his half-hearted presidential run of 1808, a 50-year-old Monroe found himself back in political exile in Virginia. He made a bit of money, got reelected governor, and probably would have remained in exile down there if events hadn’t forced Madison’s hand – it’s just about time for the war of 1812.

Ok, so, have you noticed how France and Britain keep attacking American shipping? Well, in 1811 they were at it again, and they were stealing tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of goods from American merchants at sea. Madison had tried to get them to stop through something called the non-intercourse act, which basically said we won’t trade with you until you stop attacking our ships, but the policy failed. France and Britain continued attacking American ships and the American economy crashed into a depression from the lack of foreign trade. 

This failure in foreign policy led Madison to sack his first secretary of state and basically beg Monroe to take the job. After sufficient groveling – and one history I read really made it sound like Monroe rubbed Madison’s nose in it – Monroe joined the administration and threw himself into the role of Secretary of State. He soon convinced the French to not just end their attacks, but to also return a bunch of the stuff they’d stolen, which, good start. He also prevailed upon the British government to end its attacks and the matter was soon debated in London, where the British government actually agreed to stop attacking American merchant ships. But there was a problem. By the time the British government agreed on this, it was too late, the frustrated Americans had declared war on Britain four days earlier. I’m not sure the Americans even knew about the debate in London because, well, back then it took a long time to cross the Atlantic.

The War of 1812 has arrived.

On the eve of war, Monroe had actually been an advocate for the conflict. I’m not sure he expected his diplomats to find the success they did in London. Once the war began – because, obviously declaring war on Britain voided London’s obligation to play nice – Monroe’s job as secretary of state called on him to bring the war to a favorable conclusion through negotiation. Monroe dispatched his first peace envoys to England almost as soon as the conflict began. But with the British winning pretty much all the early battles, they weren’t in much of a mood to negotiate.

As the war dragged on, things turned from bad to worse for the Americans. Then, in 1814, three big things happened. 

First, the British finally agreed to talk peace and Monroe sent a delegation led by future president John Quincy Adams and future 5-time presidential candidate and 5-time loser Henry Clay to negotiate peace in the Belgium city of Ghent.

That introduction doesn’t do Clay justice, by the way, but don’t worry. We are going to see a LOT MORE from Henry Clay in the coming episodes.

The second big thing that happened in 1814 was an armada carrying British veterans of the Napoleonic wars invaded the Chesapeake Bay and burned the capital building and president’s mansion in Washington D.C.

Which, not good.

The third big that happened in 1814 is that President Madison, possibly sitting behind a desk in a burned down presidential mansion, realized his secretary of war was totally incompetent and finally fired the guy and promoted James Monroe to fill his shoes.

For the next five months, Monroe was both secretary of state and secretary of war. Basically, the whole war and the hope for peace was riding on his shoulders. 

Monroe acted quickly in his new role as secretary of War and dispatched a Tennessee militia general named Andrew Jackson to defend New Orleans from British attack, then ordered regional militia to reinforce him there. Jackson managed to not just defeat the British, but win one of the most overwhelming victories in American history. At about the same time that was happening down south, Monroe’s peace delegates in Europe succeeded in negotiating the treaty of Ghent, which ended the war without any loss of American territory. 

After that, Monroe took a well-earned vacation. Let’s be honest, that’s a really damn good job. Organizing military and diplomatic victory? Way to go. 

As the election of 1816 approached, there was no doubt in anybody’s mind that Monroe was going to be the next president of the United States. Looking back now, the best you can say of the War of 1812 was it ended in a draw. But back then, Americans were convinced that James Monroe had won the war and secured the peace, and he easily defeated federalist candidate Rufus King 183 – 34 in the electoral college

And so, on March 4, 1817, 60-year-old James Monroe, the man who had fought at Trenton, served at Valley Forge, signed the Louisiana purchase, and saved the country from the War of 1812, was sworn in as the fifth president of the United states of America. He reported to the burnt out shell of the nation’s capital in Washington D.C. and got to work.

Ok, so what did the United States and the world look like when Madison became president?

Well, for practically the first time since Washington’s inauguration, Europe was at peace. The Napoleonic wars that had wracked the continent and vexed Monroe’s predecessors were over. And the end of war meant the resumption of trade. It was about to be boom time for American merchants and farmers as European markets opened up. The economy is going to get so hot that it will actually create an economic bubble that pops and cause a short-lived recession, but generally the economy will be in good shape during Monroe’s presidency, so don’t worry about it.

The return of international trade wasn’t the only big change for the domestic front. While the war of 1812 may have been a draw between the Americans and the British, it was a huge loss for the Native American tribes who lived in the modern Midwest. Those tribes had sided with the British during the war and the Americans had effectively driven them off their lands during the fighting, which meant a huge amount of great farm land that had once been Indian territory was now available for settlement. 

In short, after a career that had frequently been frustrated by being dealt losing hands, Monroe was entering the presidency with a hand full of aces. Monroe would not waste this opportunity.

Monroe’s presidency is going to be known for three things: First, The Era of good feelings, when he utterly destroys the Federalist party. Second, the acquisition of Florida, where we’ll spend more time with that Andrew Jackson guy; and third, the Monroe Doctrine, a declaration of foreign policy that’s still cited to this day.

First up, the era of good feelings.

Backing up a bit, you may remember from Madison’s episode that, during the war of 1812, radical anti-war federalists in the north held a convention where they discussed seceding from the union, a threat that might have been put to the test if the war hadn’t ended just as emotions were getting hot. This threat convinced Monroe that the Federalists were disloyal to the union and had to be destroyed. And he had a plan to do it – First, he would coopt popular and sensible federalist policies; second, he would embark on a national goodwill tour; and third, he would deprive the federalists of any federal offices.

Let’s start with the first – the cooption of popular and sensible federalist policies.

This actually started before Monroe became president. In the final year of the Madison administration, Monroe and other prominent Jeffersonian republicans came to the opinion that they’d damn nearly lost the War of 1812 and maybe a weak federal government wasn’t the best idea after all. The government needed a small professional army because militia were kind of totally unreliable, it needed national roads and forts, so the army could quickly mobilize and defend the borders, and it needed revenue to support the army, roads, and forts. To get that revenue, Monroe successfully encouraged Madison to recharter the national bank – which was crazy. This had been like one of the biggest issues that separated Jeffersonian Republicans from Federalists and now leading Republicans were taking the Federalist position. Monroe also convinced Madison to raise revenue through higher tariffs – another federalist position that republicans had spent decades fighting. 

But remember, this isn’t just about raising money for Monroe, it’s also about destroying the federalists. Do you know who benefits from higher tariffs and a national bank? Northern industry, who, traditionally, had been federalists. Many of those merchants and budding industrialists up north switched their support to the Republican party when the Republican party gave them the thing they cared most about – a bank and a tariff.

So that’s the first thing Monroe did to kill the federalists. The second thing he did was go on a national good will tour. This might not sound like a big deal because, today, we see our presidents all the time. They’re in the news, they’re on social media, and they’re constantly holding rallies all over the country. Well, why do they do that? Because Monroe showed them it’s a good idea. Back in 1817, presidents didn’t travel. Nobody had really left the white house to see the country since George Washington. So when Monroe went on a tour, visiting towns and cities big and small, people showed up in droves to see him and they loved the attention. Hey, look, this president actually cares enough to visit and see how we’re doing. What a guy! The trips to the south soothed the feelings of holdouts who were unhappy about the national bank or tariff, and the trip to the north bought a lot of good will from former federalists who were getting onboard with this new National Republican bandwagon.

The third big thing Monroe did to kill the federalists was to refuse to appoint federalists to any government jobs. If you wanted to work for the federal government during the Monroe administration, you’d better damn well be a Jeffersonian Republican. This had the effect of suffocating the Federalist party. Talented young politicians saw the wisdom of switching parties if they wanted to get ahead, or a have a career at all – including the son of the last Federalist president, John Quincy Adams, who became a Jeffersonian Republican and served as Monroe’s very capable Secretary of State. Monroe didn’t actively fire Federalists from the government, but he was president for 8 years and those were 8 years where any retirements were replaced with good Jeffersonian Republicans, so it had an impact.

By the time the election of 1820 rolled around, the Federalist party was dead. And I mean dead. Monroe ran unopposed for reelection and won a second term 231-to-1 in the electoral college. The only reason it wasn’t unanimous is one elector wanted George Washington to go down in history as the only unanimously elected president, so he voted for John Quincy Adams instead – and John Quincy Adams hadn’t even run. A newspaper called this era of one-party rule “The era of good feelings.” 

But a lack of federalists to campaign against didn’t really mean an era of political peace and harmony had spread across the land. Without anyone to fight against, the Jeffersonian Republican’s gradually began to splinter and fight each other. In Congress, politicians began organizing around regional issues, like slavery. This threatened to get out of hand when Missouri applied for statehood in 1820 and southerner’s wanted it admitted as a slave state and northerner’s as a free state. The two sides became so dug in that there was talk of the nation splitting in two until Kentucky Congressman Henry Clay – the same Henry Clay who helped negotiate the treaty of Ghent – negotiated a compromise. The compromise said Missouri would admitted as a slave state, Maine as a free state, and slavery was forbidden in roughly the northern half of the Louisiana territory, but allowed to expand in the southern half. This, by the way, is the first of several grand compromises Clay will have a hand in negotiating over the 30 years. 

Monroe mostly stayed out of this Congressional brouhaha, but it’s worth knowing it happened. Slavery is going to become an increasing point of tension from here on out.

The cracks in the Jeffersonian Republican Party extended to Monroe’s cabinet, too. Monroe had sworn off running for a third term, so all his cabinet members were now competing to replace him when he left. They weren’t playing for the same team anymore. The secretary of the treasury, a man named Crawford, got in such a fight with Monroe one day that he brandished his cane at Monroe and Monroe pulled a pair of red-hot tongs from the fireplace to defend himself. The two nearly came to blows right there in the white house before Crawford came to his senses, left and never returned.  

So, that’s the Era of Good Feelings. Does it feel harmonious? Naw? Yeah. It was a brief period of one-party rule brought on by the total destruction of the federalist party, but it was also a period that ended in the fracturing of the Jeffersonian-Republican party. Already, a young New York politician and future president named Martin Van Buren was pining for the good old days of two-party rule and building a new political party of his own. In time, he’d ally with Andrew Jackson and disillusioned Jeffersonian Republicans to create the Democratic Party that still exists today.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself.

The next big happening of the Monroe Presidency is the acquisition of Florida, which is going to feature that Andrew Jackson guy I keep mentioning. 

So, for a couple decades now, escaped slaves and refugee Native Americans from Georgia and the American south had been running off to Florida where they’d formed a new tribe called the Seminole. The word Seminole itself means “runaway.” This growing tribe of Seminole would sometimes raid out of Spanish Florida into the United States and then retreat back into the Florida swamps.

The raids were a nuisance. But in the eyes of Monroe, they were also an opportunity.

Monroe had wanted to bring Florida into the United States ever since he thought he’d acquired it in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, only to be told later that, no, Florida still belonged to Spain. I get the impression he was a little embarrassed by this confusion and always wanted to set the record straight and acquire Florida. And now that he was president, he was determined to do so, but there was a problem. Spain was in no mood to sell Florida, and Congress was in no mood to declare war to take it. So how was Monroe going to get it?

The answer, Monroe decided, was Andrew Jackson, and those Seminole Indians.

Monroe sent Jackson, who had a reputation for being a bit of a hot-head, to the Florida border with a small army and orders to stop the Seminole raiders … and he left it open-ended how Jackson should do that. Jackson quickly found that every time he tried to fight the Seminole, they fled to Spanish Florida. So he wrote Monroe and secretary of war John C. Calhoun, who we’ll hear more about in future episodes, and asked, “Can I invade?”

And Monroe and Calhoun took great care to make sure they never wrote back.

After a few months, Jackson got so sick of waiting for approval that he said to hell with it and invaded Florida without it – which is probably exactly what Monroe wanted him to do. Jackson easily defeated the Spanish forces that opposed him and, before you knew it, Spanish Florida became occupied Florida.

Congress was not happy with this, because hey, declaring war is their job. But Monroe hadn’t ordered Jackson to invade, so, he he he, all the heat was on Jackson – well played.

The Spanish were not happy with this either, but they were also dealing with revolts and revolutions all over their empire. Venezuela and Argentina were in open rebellion right now. They couldn’t spare any troops to fight the United States for Florida. So Secretary of State John Quincy Adams arranged a treaty by which Spain surrendered Florida and its claim in the Oregon Territory to the United States, and the United states paid $5 million dollars and surrendered its claim to North Texas – an area may or may not have been included in the Louisiana purchase. Nobody could agree.

So that’s how the United States acquired Florida. Monroe basically manipulated Jackson into capturing it for him so he could get what he wanted without getting his hands dirty. Oh, and those Seminole raiders? Jackson never did manage to defeat them. They’d continue to be a thorn in the American side until 1858, three years before the outbreak of the Civil War.

But then again, stopping the Seminole never really was the point here. Acquiring Florida was. And that was mission accomplished.

So what about that third accomplishment of the Monroe presidency, the Monroe doctrine?

The Monroe Doctrine was a foreign policy declaration made toward the tail end of Monroe’s administration, during his 7th annual address to Congress in 1823. In it, he laid out four simple ideas. 

1.) The United States would not interfere in the wars or internal affairs of Europe. 

2.) The United States would recognize, and not interfere in, Europe’s American colonies.

3.) The Western Hemisphere was closed to future colonization.

4.) Any attempt by a European power to colonize or dominate any nation in the western hemisphere would be viewed as a hostile attack on the United States.

In short, Monroe said to Europe, hey Europe, listen up. We won’t mess in your affairs over there, but you aren’t allowed to mess anyone’s affairs over here. You can keep what you’ve got if you can hold it, but once you’re out, you’re out.

Europe probably didn’t think much of this little declaration, but Americans loved it. And its significance only grew with time. President John Tyler would cite it when he annexed Texas in 1844. President James Polk would do the same when he pursued Oregon and the American Southwest in the 1840s. Andrew Johnson cited it when France invaded Mexico it the 1860s, and so on and so forth right up to today. 

And it was great policy. For anyone who likes strategy games, Monroe was basically signing America up for the turtle strategy. 80 years of focusing on internal improvements and skirmishes with weaker neighbors while avoiding risky entanglements with the powers of Europe. This long-term strategy would set America up to become a super power in the 21st century. 

So, those were the three big accomplishments of the Monroe presidency: The Era of Good Feelings, the capture of Florida, and the Monroe Doctrine.

Monroe retired from the presidency in good spirits in 1825. He was 67 years old.

So how had America, and the world, changed during the eight years of the Monroe administration? Quite a lot! In addition to acquiring Florida, Monroe had Secretary of State John Quincy Adams settle a dispute about the border between British Canada and the United States west of the Great Lakes. The British wanted a border 150 miles south of where it is today, but they didn’t get it, which is why I now live in American Seattle, and not Canadian Seattle. Monroe also saw five new states join the union during his presidency – Mississippi in 1817, Illinois in 1818, Alabama in 1819, Maine in 1820 and Missouri in 1821. The country weathered it’s first home-grown financial panic in 1819, but otherwise enjoyed remarkable internal growth. A boom of canal and toll road construction connected cities in a way they never had been before, and the country’s first free public schools began sprouting across the northeast. I don’t have any cool inventions to report, but Antarctica was discovered in 1820 and an American named John Davis claimed to be the first person to set foot on it when he hopped off his ship to hunt for seals. Internationally, almost all of South America and Mexico won independence from Portugal or Spain, so, hey, we have a bunch of new neighbors. And Frankenstein was published in 1818.

Monroe lived another seven years after retiring from the presidency, but it wasn’t an easy seven years. He was $75,000 in debt when he retired and there weren’t any funds to keep presidents out of the poor-house then, so he was forced to sell most of his property and move in with his daughter in New York. That’s where Monroe was on July 4, 1831, when he died of old age at the age of 73. It was the 55th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and Monroe joined Adams and Jefferson to become the third former president to die on that date.

So, that’s the life and administration of President James Monroe. And there’s a lot there! But if you were to remember only three things, I would suggest these: First, Monroe dropped out of college to fight in the revolutionary war; Second: He destroyed the Federalists by coopting their best policies and governed over an era of one-party rule known as the “Era of good feelings.” And Third: Monroe came up with the policy that became known as the Monroe Doctrine, which basically said the United States wouldn’t meddle in Europe, but Europe damn well better not meddle in the Americas. It was a policy that would give the United States room to grow and breath for the better part of 80 years.

As for what lessons can we learn from Monroe, I think the No. 1 lesson Monroe teaches us is don’t be afraid to change your mind or your policy if there’s a better way to go about things. This might sound like a ‘yeah, duh’ idea, but how many American politicians do we see locked in on the same dumb ideas as evidence mounts that the old idea isn’t working, something else works better, let’s try that. When Monroe adopted the traditionally Federalists positions of supporting a national bank, tariffs, and a standing army, he destroyed their party and won the most lop-sided reelection this side of George Washington, and set the country up for an era of growth and prosperity.

So, I challenge you to challenge yourself, be like James Monroe. Take a minute to question the politics you believe in. Play a thought game where you argue an issue from the other side and presume for a moment that the other side is right. Does it change your mind? Maybe not. But if more of us considered the other side of major issues, maybe we’d take a step closer to an actual “era of good feelings” and away from the games of “who can yell louder” that play out on cable TV.

Thank you for joining today’s episode of Abridged Presidential Histories.

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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps.

The primary biography for today’s episode was The Last Founding Father, James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness – by Harlow G. Unger.

In our next episode, we’ll look at the life and presidency of John Quincy Adams – the son of former president John Adams who was one of the nation’s greatest international diplomats, a failed president, and a man who found renewed purpose after the presidency as Congress’s loudest voice battling the evils of slavery.

That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.