Term in Office: 5th president, 1817-1825
Political Party: Democratic-Republican
Home State: Virginia
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, meet James Monroe. Perhaps Hegel’s most famous idea was that of a thesis and an antithesis merging together to form a new paradigm, a synthesis. This dialectic nicely describes the significance of James Monroe’s presidency. He was able to temper the pragmatism and majesty of the Federalists with the simplicity and republican flavor of the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans. The synthesis that emerged gave us, I am prepared to argue, the beginnings of an American national character.
This lofty placement- for Monroe usually hovers around #15 in most rankings- may be startling. Designating James Monroe as our fourth greatest president probably raises eyebrows to the same levels as George H. W. Bush (#9 in my system), Grover Cleveland (#10), and John Tyler (#17). Yet in my judgment, Monroe’s steady leadership, forward thinking, and ability to unify make him one of our ablest presidents, and certainly our ablest president to have not faced a major, Category-5 crisis in office.
James Monroe came from much the same cloth as Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, the privileged world of Tidewater planters profiting from- with widely varying degrees of regret and reluctance- the institution of chattel slavery. Originally, Monroe was a critic of the Constitution, believing it should allow for the direct election of U.S. senators and include a hefty bill of rights. He mellowed over time, and became instead a committed Jefferson lieutenant, earning berths as a senator, and a Minister to France and to Great Britain. To this day, he is the only president to have served in two separate cabinet offices, as Secretary of State for James Madison’s entire presidency, and briefly double-dipping as Secretary of War in a pinch.
Monroe benefitted from excellent timing. When inaugurated as president in 1817, the fledging nation was engulfed in a spirit national pride after the successful conclusion of the War of 1812 (if your definition of successful is broad enough to mean ‘not disastrous’). There was peace, a certain amount of prosperity (which would be compromised by the Panic of 1819), and only one functioning party left in the U.S. The Federalists’ opposition to the war, their badly planned threat of secession at the Hartford Convention, and their perceived aristocratic pretensions made them dead men walking. In 1816, Monroe faced only token opposition from an also-ran named Rufus King. In 1820, in the midst of a financial panic mind you, he faced no opposition at all. He would have been elected unanimously by the electoral college, except for one recalcitrant elector from New Hampshire who cast his vote for John Quincy Adams.
Speaking of the man, this would be a good time to discuss Monroe’s cabinet, which I believe to be the very best in United States history. Monroe was confident enough in his own abilities, and cognizant enough of what he did not know, to incorporate men of the highest ability to run the nation’s sundry departments. John Quincy Adams is often considered our most accomplished Secretary of State. He appointed the talented but ambitious William Crawford to Treasury, where he could keep an eye on him. John Calhoun, counterintuitively a strong nationalist at this early stage of his carer, took the War Department, while lawyer extraordinaire and future Anti-Mason William Wirt took Attorney General duties. Maybe you care less about the Early Republic than I do, but let me tell you, this is a sterling cabinet with top notch men in each group, expertly balanced by region, in an age where cabinet secretaries sometimes had more unwieldy portfolios than the president himself. Although rarely seeking their advice outright, Monroe respected the authority he delegated to them, and sought public and private unanimity- a microcosm of his larger approach to governing the unwieldy nation in his charge.
The one thing that most people remember about Monroe’s presidency is his eponymous doctrine. As a number of South American countries achieved independence, the question of just ~how~ independent they would be remained on the mind of every head of state. An alliance of Russia, France, Prussia, and Austria devised a plan that would have put Bourbon princelings in charge of these newly independent states. Great Britain objected, and the Monroe administration did as well. The genius of the doctrine lay in avoiding a united front with Britain. Instead, Monroe and Adams maintained that the era of European colonization in the western hemisphere had ended, and further attempts to colonize the Americas would be viewed as a hostile act. It was bluster- directed as much to Britain as to the Bourbons- but it worked. In the long run, the Monroe Doctrine allowed the United States to act more freely from European control, and it could even be viewed as a decision with salutary national security consequences. Eventually, of course, the doctrine would be used to justify a number of imperialist policies, but those were decades away, and Monroe couldn’t have known it.
Monroe had plenty of other accomplishments, though. In attempting to quell an insurrection, General Andrew Jackson exceeded his authority (nobody did this better than Jackson), and went on an incursion into Florida itself, even excuting a couple British subjects along the way. Although mortified and angered by Jackson’s insubordination, Monroe turned lemons into lemonade at the advice of Calhoun. The incident showed, the South Carolinian argued, that Spain was unable to protect Florida even from Jackson’s small band of frontier freebooters, and Spain sold East Florida to the U.S. for a song. In domestic affairs, Monroe’s even-handedness shined through.
Although much of the credit belongs to Clay, Monroe supported the Missouri Compromise which threatened to upset the delicate sectional balance. As a result, as every schoolchild knows, slavery was banned north of the 33’30 line (and blessed south of it) within territories seeking to become states. Unlike the more disastrous 1850 Compromise, this was a difficult agreement but ultimately achieved a certain measure of goodwill. It didn’t expand slavery as such, but it did provide a workable arrangement by which slave states and free states could be kept in relative balance as the frontier moved westwards and states like Wisconsin or Alabama applied for statehood.
This is sometimes called the Era of Good Feelings, which is something of an exaggeration but isn’t untrue. Monroe borrowed from the Federalists a desire to spur the United States’ economic development, and thus rejected more extreme Jeffersonian opposition to banks, internal improvements, and the like. Yet he kept much of the Jeffersonian simplicity and economy of government as well. Monroe brought back some Federalist institutions, such as the national tours that Washington and Adams embarked upon to allow Americans to see the president who might not otherwise. But like Jefferson and Madison, he avoided some of the quasi-monarchial institutions of the 1790s like aristocratic levees and delivering State of the Union addresses to Congress personally. (Every president from Jefferson on sent a clerk to read it until Woodrow Wilson.) As a result of this middle way, Monroe had strikingly few enemies in an age of petty rivalries and code duello, allowing him to frame not a Federalist or Jeffersonian policy, and betray not a north or south, or coastal vs. frontier rivalry, but a common American identity at a time when it was most needed. To be sure, this plan had its drawbacks as well. While he didn’t have many opponents, neither did he have many ardent loyalists in Congress, and without party solidarity, internal divisions would soon rent the Democratic-Republicans. In the 1824 election, four different Democratic-Republicans ran against one another- including two of Monroe’s own cabinet- and while John Quincy emerged bruised but victorious from the scuffle, the Era of Good Feelings didn’t outlast Monroe’s own presidency.
From all of this, we can take these individual policies and accomplishments and construct a larger picture. Through the careful use of internal improvements, a foreign policy that allowed for greater American, and indeed, West-hemisphere independence, and by avoiding taking sides unnecessary, Monroe helped to foster a stronger national character. We may take American nationhood for granted today, but keep in mind that in those days, few Americans traveled far beyond their homes, and provincialism reigned. Many privileged their state identity over their national identity. Monroe’s conspicuous public tours, his refusal to be a flunky for the South or any other region, and his aversion of partisan rancor all contributed to a stronger and more cohesive American self-understanding in the early stages of the age of nationalism, as the young nation was also developing its own literary, musical, and cultural milieus. When we look at why the concept of union was so important fifty years after he took office, Monroe helped to foster that very sense of union- the idea of the United States as a cogent nation, and not the loose, scattershot confederation of states it had often been in the early republic.
Such a world could not last for long, however, and in more than one ways, Monroe was the end of a dying breed, or “The Last of the Cocked Hats” as one early biography put it. He was the last true Founding Father to serve as president, as well as the last real veteran of the Revolutionary War. (Yes, I know Jackson was involved too, but he was a mere stripling at the time, and did little more than sass British officers and get himself captured.) He was the last plantation owner to be elected president without at least some pretense toward populism or Log Cabin-and-Hard-Cider imagery. (John Tyler fit that genteel mold as well, but he was, if you will remember from my piece on him, both an accidental president and a walking anachronism even in the 1840s.) And he was the last president who could credibly maintain the visage of non-partisanship.
Although James Monroe was probably the dimmest bulb of our first six presidents, perhaps he demonstrates that while genius is nice, it isn’t always a prerequisite for presidential greatness. You may have figured out by now that Washington, Lincoln, and FDR are my top three presidents (although I won’t tell you what order yet.) As much as I value intellect, it is worth noting that of my top five presidents, three never attended university for a single day, and the other two- FDR and Monroe- were cases of ‘second class intellect, first class temperament.’ In a way, his studied, unrelenting blandness and the lack of any good anecdotes about him ended up as crucial integrants to his success. As a more or less unhate-able figure, he ushered many Americans out of regionalism and into a greater national consciousness. So many of our greatest presidents are considered great by how they handled crises- sometimes avoidable crises that were partly of their own making. Monroe looked ahead, and especially through the Doctrine that bears his name and the Compromise of 1820, tried to prevent potential disasters before they happened. That is pretty rare- both then and now. While many great presidents had great crisis management skills, perhaps we should elevate Monroe to the higher echelons for singular crisis aversion.