Leaving the College of William and Mary in 1776 to fight in the American Revolution, he served in several campaigns and was wounded (Dec., 1776) at the battle of Trenton. He later studied law (1780-83) under Thomas Jefferson, and the friendship that sprang up between them was the foundation for Monroe's political career.
Monroe was elected to the Virginia legislature in 1782 and served (1783-86) in the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation. He was not a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and in his own state he supported Patrick Henry in opposing the Constitution, which seemed to him to create a government so centralized that it encroached on states' rights.
Under the new government, he served (1790-94) in the U.S. Senate, where he proved himself an outstanding lieutenant of Jefferson and a vigorous opponent of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Federalists. Appointed (1794) minister to France in the hope that his Francophile sympathies would smooth the ruffled relations between the two nations, he did nothing to lessen French resentment over Jay's Treaty, and he was recalled in 1796.
Governor of Virginia from 1799 to 1802, he was sent (1802) by President Jefferson to France as a special envoy. There he assisted Robert R. Livingston (1746-1813; see Livingston, family) during negotiations (1803) for the Louisiana Purchase. The next year, in Spain, he aided Charles Pinckney in the unsuccessful negotiations with the Spanish government. A later mission, to England, was even more disastrous. Monroe and William Pinkney struggled to arrive at a commercial treaty to end the disputes between Great Britain and the United States over shipping, but they could get no concessions, and Jefferson did not even submit the treaty they drafted (1806) to the Senate for approval.
In 1808, Monroe made a bid for the presidential nomination. He thus alienated James Madison, but the estrangement did not last long, and Monroe, after serving again as governor of Virginia, was Madison's Secretary of State (1811-17). For a time he was also Secretary of War (1814-15), after the dismissal of John Armstrong.
In 1816 Monroe obtained the presidential nomination and was easily elected. During his first administration, serious differences over the question of slavery in the territories were accommodated by the Missouri Compromise, which Monroe signed despite his sympathy for the South in this matter. In foreign affairs a number of settlements were reached. The Rush-Bagot agreement with Great Britain (1817) provided for mutual limitation of armaments on the Great Lakes, and the U.S.-Canadian boundary question was also settled. U.S. possession of the Floridas was confirmed by Andrew Jackson's campaigns and a treaty with Spain (1819).
In the 1820 election, despite economic depression, Monroe lost only one vote in the electoral college that reelected him. Late in 1823, he issued what came to be known as the Monroe Doctrine, one of the most important principles of U.S. foreign policy. Although this declaration was as much the work of Monroe's Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, as of the President himself, the initiative for presenting it in the annual message to Congress was Monroe's. The experiment of the American Colonization Society in settling Liberia was undertaken with Monroe's blessing, and Monrovia was named for him.
At the end of his term Monroe retired to his estate, Oak Hill, near Leesburg, Va. In 1829 he presided over the Virginia constitutional convention and supported the conservatives on suffrage and slavery. He died during a visit to New York City.
Monroe's writings were edited by S. M. Hamilton (7 vol., 1898-1903, repr. 1969). See his autobiography (ed. with introd. by S. G. Brown, 1959); biographies by G. Morgan (1921, repr. 1969), A. Styron (1945), and W. P. Cresson (1946, repr. 1971); studies by L. Wilmerding (1960) and H. Ammon (1971).
James Monroe, oil sketch by E.O. Sully, 1836, after a contemporary portrait by Thomas Sully; in elipsis
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James Monroe (April 28, 1758 – July 4, 1831) was the fifth President of the United States (1817–1825). His administration was marked by the acquisition of Florida (1819); the Missouri Compromise (1820), in which Missouri was declared a slave state; the admission of Maine in 1820 as a free state; and the profession of the Monroe Doctrine (1823), declaring U.S. opposition to European interference in the Americas, as well as breaking all ties with France remaining from the War of 1812.
Monroe was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1782 and served in the Continental Congress from 1783 to 1786. As a youthful politician, he joined the anti-Federalists in the Virginia Convention which ratified the Constitution, and in 1790, was elected United States Senator.
After his term in the Senate, Monroe was appointed Minister to France from 1794 to 1796. His appointment there was made difficult as he had strong sympathies for the French Revolution, but dutifully maintained President Washington's strict policy of neutrality between Britain and France.
Under the first Jefferson administration, Monroe was dispatched to France to assist Robert R. Livingston to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase. Monroe was then appointed Minister to the Court of St. James (Britain) from 1803 to 1807. In 1806 he negotiated a treaty with Britain to replace the Jay Treaty of 1794, but Jefferson rejected it as unsatisfactory, as the treaty contained no ban on the British practice of impressment of American sailors. As a result, the two nations moved closer toward the War of 1812.
Monroe returned to the Virginia House of Delegates and was elected to another term as governor of Virginia in 1811, but he resigned a few months into the term. He then served as Secretary of State from 1811 to 1814. When he was appointed to the post of Secretary of War in 1814, he stayed on as the Secretary of State ad interim. At the war's end in 1815, he was again commissioned as the permanent Secretary of State, and left his position as Secretary of War. Thus from October 1, 1814 to February 28, 1815, Monroe effectively held both cabinet posts. Monroe stayed on as Secretary of State until the end of the James Madison Presidency, and the following day Monroe began his term as the new President of the United States.
During his presidency, Congress demanded high subsidies for internal improvements, such as for the Cumberland Road. Monroe vetoed the Cumberland Road Bill, which provided for yearly improvements to the road, because he believed it to be "unconstitutional" for the government to pass such a bill.
These "good feelings" endured until 1824, when John Quincy Adams was elected President by the House of Representatives in what Andrew Jackson alleged was a "corrupt bargain." Monroe's popularity, however, was undiminished. Monroe followed nationalist policies. Across the commitment to nationalism, sectional cracks appeared. The Panic of 1819 caused a painful economic depression. The application for statehood by the Missouri Territory, in 1819, as a slave state failed. An amended bill for gradually eliminating slavery in Missouri precipitated two years of bitter debate in Congress. The Missouri Compromise bill resolved the struggle, pairing Missouri as a slave state with Maine, a free state, and barring slavery north and west of Missouri forever. [decades later, the Missouri Compromise was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court].
Monroe began to formally recognize the young sister republics (the former Spanish colonies) in 1822. He and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams had wished to avoid trouble with Spain until it had ceded the Floridas to the U.S., which was done in 1821.
Monroe is probably best known for the Monroe Doctrine, which he delivered in his message to Congress on December 2, 1823. In it, he proclaimed the Americas should be free from future European colonization and free from European interference in sovereign countries' affairs. It further stated the United States' intention to stay neutral in European wars and wars between European powers and their colonies, but to consider any new colonies or interference with independent countries in the Americas as hostile acts toward the United States.
Britain, with its powerful navy, also opposed re-conquest of Latin America and suggested that the United States join in proclaiming "hands off." Ex-Presidents Jefferson and Madison counseled Monroe to accept the offer, but Secretary Adams advised, "It would be more candid ... to avow our principles explicitly to Russia and France, than to come in as a cock-boat in the wake of the British man-of-war." Monroe accepted Adams' advice. Not only must Latin America be left alone, he warned, but also Russia must not encroach southward on the Pacific coast. "... the American continents," he stated, "by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European Power." Some 20 years after Monroe died in 1831 this became known as the Monroe Doctrine.
When his presidency was over on March 4, 1825, James Monroe lived at Monroe Hill on the grounds of the University of Virginia. This university's modern campus was Monroe's family farm from 1788 to 1817, but he had sold it in the first year of his presidency to the new college. He served on the college's Board of Visitors under Jefferson and then under the second rector and another former President James Madison, until his death.
Monroe had racked up many debts during his years of public life. As a result, he was forced to sell off his Highland Plantation (now called Ash Lawn-Highland; it is owned by his alma mater, the College of William and Mary, which has opened it to the public). Throughout his life, he was not financially solvent, and his wife's poor health made matters worse. For these reasons, he and his wife lived in Oak Hill, Virginia, until Elizabeth's death on September 23, 1830.
Monroe was raised in a family that belonged to the Church of England when it was the state church in Virginia, and as an adult frequently attended Episcopalian churches, though there is no record he ever took communion. He has been classified by some historians as a Deist, and he did use deistic language to refer to God. Jefferson had been attacked as an atheist and infidel for his deistic views, but never Monroe. Unlike Jefferson, Monroe was not anticlerical. [Holmes 2003]
"It is only when the people become ignorant and corrupt, when they degenerate into a populace, that they are incapable of exercising their sovereignty. Usurpation is then an easy attainment, and an usurper soon found. The people themselves become the willing instruments of their own debasement and ruin."
"The best form of government is that which is most likely to prevent the greatest sum of evil."
"Never did a government commence under auspices so favorable, nor ever was success so complete. If we look to the history of other nations, ancient or modern, we find no example of a growth so rapid, so gigantic, of a people so prosperous and happy."
"In this great nation there is but one order, that of the people, whose power, by a peculiarly happy improvement of the representative principle, is transferred from them, without impairing in the slightest degree their sovereignty, to bodies of their own creation, and to persons elected by themselves, in the full extent necessary for the purposes of free, enlightened, and efficient government."