An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Presidents of the United States – James Monroe

Oct 1, 2012 by

James Monroe

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1)      Professor Elder, thank you for agreeing to do this series of interviews to let students all across the United States know a bit more about the men who have led this country for more than 200 years. We are up to the fifth president of the United States, James Monroe. When and where was this President born and when did he serve-(during what time period or event or series of events ?)

James Monroe was the first president to be born after the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar by Great Britain, so it can be stated with absolute certainty that he was born on April 28, 1758. He was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, and was tutored during his early years by his mother. When he turned 11, Monroe was allowed to attend a local school called the Campbelltown Academy. He proved to be an excellent student, and at the age of 16 was admitted to the College of William and Mary. Soon after Monroe started his college career the opening battles of the Revolutionary War took place, and Monroe left William & Mary to enlist in a Virginia regiment.

He served in George Washington’s army, and was wounded at the Battle of Trenton in December of 1776. He left the army to recuperate, and never again saw active duty. In 1780 he began to study law under Thomas Jefferson, and would eventually pass the bar in Virginia. He was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1782, and in November of 1783 was elected to represent Virginia in the US Congress.

After the Constitution was sent out to the states for ratification, Monroe publicly campaigned in favor of the document. He was rewarded for his efforts by being chosen to represent Virginia in the US Senate in 1790. Monroe served as our minister to France during the 1790s, and was elected governor of Virginia in 1799. He was asked by Thomas Jefferson to help negotiate the purchase of the Louisiana Territory, and after accomplishing that goal he was appointed our minister to Great Britain. Leaving that post, Monroe was once again elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. Similarly, he was again elected as governor. He left that position to become Secretary of State under James Madison in 1811. Monroe resigned that position during the War of 1812, but since no one was appointed in his place he continued to serve in that capacity. In 1814 he took on an additional responsibility when he was appointed Secretary of War. After the war was over, he resigned his position as Secretary of War and was once again formally appointed as Secretary of State.

He was serving in that capacity when he was elected president in 1816. He would be re-elected in 1820, receiving every electoral vote save one.

2)      What was he MOST known for?

The Monroe presidency was an eventful one, but the one thing that he is most known for would be his statement on foreign policy in 1823 that has come to be known as the Monroe Doctrine. This was a proclamation stating that European nations should not claim any new territory in the Western Hemisphere, and promising that our nation would not interfere in European matters.

3)      What would you say were his strengths?

He was in many ways our most versatile first citizen. He served as a member of his state legislature, as governor, as senator, as a diplomat, and as a cabinet member. Monroe was also an excellent judge of character. His cabinet members were a remarkably capable group, and gave Monroe valuable advice that helped him make wise decisions. Finally, he was lucky. Many positive things happened during his presidency, quite a few of which he had nothing to do with but got credit for anyway.

4)      What were his relative weaknesses- politically perhaps, personally?

Monroe seems to have been a man with mainly positive attributes. He may have (to a certain extent) simply been at the right place at the right time, but he had to have been a basically capable and decent man to have been given such important responsibilities by so many people.

5)      What would you say was his impact on the United States and possibly the world?

It would seem obvious today that Monroe’s foreign policy statement in 1823 was one of the benchmarks of our diplomacy. As recently as the Cuban Missile Crisis, we used it as a justification for warning the Soviet Union to remove its offensive weapons from our hemisphere. But when we look at the impact of the statement at the time it was issued, it was barely noticed by any nation, including the US. But as years passed and the United States became better able to force Europeans to recognize our growing importance, it started to achieve the importance that it enjoys today.

6)      In terms of his place in history- it seems to be secure- but could you summarize your views as a historian about him?

Monroe was at one time regarded as being one of our foremost presidents. Indeed, his two term presidency was known as “The Era of Good Feelings.” But as time has gone by, many historians have come to believe that Monroe was simply the beneficiary of being in the right place at the right time. The Monroe Doctrine, for example, was not even a creation of Monroe himself. It was actually his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, who came up with the idea. But in defense of Monroe, he deserves credit for recognizing a good idea when it was presented to him.

7)      What would you say were his greatest accomplishments?

Today we would say that the Monroe Doctrine was his crowning achievement. It is important to note, however, that Monroe also presided over the process that led to the Missouri Compromise, and also oversaw the diplomatic efforts that got us Florida at virtually no cost.

8)      Could you provide a summary statement about our fifth President?

Monroe was the last president of the older generation. He wore a powdered wig and knee length britches, and was the last president to never be photographed. He thus represents the end of an era in the American presidency.

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