"He is tall and well formed. His dress plain and in the old style.... His manner was quiet and dignified. From the frank, honest expression of his eye ... I think he well deserves the encomium passed upon him by the great Jefferson, who said, 'Monroe was so honest that if you turned his soul inside out there would not be a spot on it.' " – A Virginia lady upon meeting President Monroe.
Born in Westmoreland County, Virginia on April 25, 1758, James Monroe was the 5th president of the United States.
Monroe’s parents were wealthy farmers who died while he was a sixteen and as a result he became head of the family farm. Within a year he had left the farm and enrolled at the College of William and Mary. Upon hearing of the Battle of Concord, young James and his classmates raided the arsenal at the British Governor's Palace, escaping with 200 muskets and 300 swords, which the students presented to the Virginia militia. Within six months he was a major and fighting next to George Washington in New York. When he turned twenty years old, Governor Thomas Jefferson appointed James the military commissioner of Virginia with a rank of lieutenant colonel.
In 1783, Monroe was elected to the First Continental Congress where he argued forcefully for granting western lands to veterans of the Revolutionary War and for the free navigation of the Mississippi River, even if it meant going to war with Spain. He also initially voted against the ratification of the U.S. Constitution due to its lack of direct election of Senators and a Bill of Rights. He conceded on the Senate issue in order to speed along the passage of the Bill of Rights.
After the new United States government was set up, Monroe was appointed as a Senator for the state of Virginia. While there, he joined his friends James Madison and Thomas Jefferson in creating the Democratic-Republican Party and opposing the Federalists. After Jefferson was elected President, Monroe was sent as a special envoy to France to help negotiate the Louisiana Purchase. Afterwards, he stayed in Europe and became the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain.
When he lost the Democratic-Republican presidential nomination to James Madison in 1808, Monroe privately practiced law and was elected Governor of Virginia. Madison then appointed him Secretary of State and Secretary of War in late 1811. It was in these capacities that he helped to negotiate an end to the War of 1812.
His service in the cabinet had made Monroe an obvious choice for president in 1816. The Federalist Party had been badly damaged by its opposition to the War of 1812, and Monroe easily defeated Senator Rufus King, the Federalist candidate for president, by 183 to 34 in the Electoral College.
Monroe’s first move as president was to visit the New England states, where there had been talk of secession during the war. The people rushed to welcome him and one Boston newspaper dubbed it the “Era of Good Feelings.” Monroe promoted this idea in the hopes that it would eliminate political party rivalries across the nation; unfortunately this was not to be. Monroe also used Andrew Jackson’s invasion of Florida to pressure Spain to cede that territory to the U.S. and to get them to renounce all claims to the Louisiana Purchase territory and Oregon.
Monroe was so popular with the people that he ran unopposed for re-election in 1820.
In quick succession Mexico, Argentina, Chile, and Peru all declared independence from Spain and aroused great sympathy in the United States. When European powers threatened to form an alliance to help Spain regain its lost colonies, Monroe declared that the United States would regard any interference in the internal affairs of American countries as an unfriendly act and that the American continents were closed to further colonization. This stance became known as the Monroe doctrine.
After choosing not to run for a third term, Monroe retired to an estate in Loudoun County, Virginia. He was left so deeply in debt by his years of public service that it looked as though he might lose all of his property. Eventually the government agreed to give him $30,000 in back pay that he was owed, thus keeping him afloat.
James Monroe died on July 4, 1831, at the home of his daughter in New York City.