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Why Was President James Monroe the 18th-Century Forrest Gump? Historian Cassandra Good Explains

January 1, 2016

MonroeThe last president who is considered a Founding Father is James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States (1817-1825).

His image is depicted in many famous paintings from the Revolutionary War era — including the iconic image by German American artist Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze of George Washington crossing the Delaware.

Born in Westmoreland County, VA, Monroe was wounded in the Battle of Trenton, taking a musket ball in the shoulder. He served under Washington — and in fact is the only other president who was a soldier in the Revolutionary War.

We visited one of Monroe’s homes, Ash Lawn-Highland, in Albemarle County, VA, where we interviewed historian Cassandra Good, associate editor of the Papers of James Monroe at the University of Mary Washington.

Good explains how the former governor of Virginia rose to national prominence as a diplomat in France and eventually became president. We also learn more about the man who:

  • Studied law under Thomas Jefferson — Monroe’s lifelong friend, mentor, and political ally,
  • Served as a delegate in the Continental Congress, and
  • Changed the direction of America’s foreign policy.

Scroll down for our Q&A with Good to find out why President Monroe was the Forrest Gump of the 18th century. — Hope Katz Gibbs, executive producer, and David Bruce Smith, founder of the Grateful American™ Foundation, dedicated to restoring enthusiasm in American history for kids, and adults!

CassandraGoodHope Katz Gibbs: Ash Lawn-Highland, one of Monroe’s homes, is just a stone’s throw from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. We’ll talk in a bit about the lifelong friendship these two men shared, but first, tell us why President James Monroe was important.

Cassandra Good: James Monroe was the consummate public servant; his service included an extensive diplomatic career, serving in France, England, and Spain.

We joke that he’s like Forrest Gump, because he comes up everywhere. He was part of the American Revolution, the Continental Congress, and the Louisiana Purchase; he served as secretary of state and secretary of war during the War of 1812; and he helped shepherd the Missouri Compromise through Congress and hold together the Union during his presidency. He was the last Founding Fathers to become president.

Because of his long and varied career, learning about Monroe gives us insight into who we are as Americans and how we came to be.

David Bruce Smith: What was Monroe’s role in the American Revolution?

Cassandra Good: Monroe left the College of William & Mary at age 17 to join the army as a lieutenant. He fought with Washington’s army at Monmouth and Trenton, which is how he ended up in the boat with Washington in Emanuel Leutze’s painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” That’s Monroe, holding the flag.

He was injured at Trenton and spent the winter at Valley Forge at age 19, where he socialized with high-ranking people, including the Marquis de Lafayette and John Marshall, the future chief justice of the United States.

During the Revolutionary War, Monroe served in a staff post working under Lord Stirling, but he really wanted to be back out on the battlefield. Though he got the authority to raise troops in Virginia in late 1778, he was never able to gather enough men to return to an active command.

David Bruce Smith: What were the hallmarks of Monroe’s presidency?

Cassandra Good: Monroe’s inauguration began what a newspaper columnist at the time dubbed the “Era of Good Feelings.” The Federalist party was fading and Monroe was a symbol of national unity, bringing the country together after the divisive War of 1812. But those good feelings didn’t last long, and fights over slavery threatened to split the Union. Monroe worked behind the scenes to secure passage in 1920 of the Missouri Compromise, which regulated slavery in the Western territories.

Monroe is best known, though, for his foreign policy. After more than 15 years of working with the Spanish, he finally was able to obtain Florida for the United States in 1819 with the Adams/Onis Treaty, which also confirmed American claims to the Pacific Coast. And of course there is the famous Monroe Doctrine, which was a portion of his 1823 annual address (akin to what is now the president’s State of the Union address). The Monroe Doctrine established a much stronger role for the United States in the world, declaring that if European powers interfered anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, it would be seen as an attack on America.

Hope Katz Gibbs: Now let’s get a little more personal. What kind of person was James Monroe?

Cassandra Good: Monroe was a well-liked, sincere person who got along with people from both parties. He was very close with his family, and unlike many other politicians of his time, he took his family with him wherever he was appointed. He was known as competent leader with good judgment.

David Bruce Smith: How did the public view Monroe as president?

Cassandra Good: Monroe traveled the country in a set of tours when he became president, and for most Americans, it was the first time they saw the president in person. It was those tours that generated the “good feelings” that became the name for the era. Even though his presidency took place long after the American Revolution, people respected him for his service in that war. He was so popular that he ran unopposed for re-election.

Hope Katz Gibbs: What was happening in the country when he was president?

Cassandra Good: Monroe was president during a time of great change; there was financial volatility, growth in manufacturing, and expanding forms of communications and transportation. Monroe, for example, was the first sitting president to ride on a steamboat. The very size of the country expanded — five new states were admitted during his presidency.

The expansion led to problems, however. Removal of native peoples, which was devastating, accelerated. The newly emptied land meant more space for plantations worked by slaves in the South and Southwest. This led to serious conflicts between the North and South, for which the Missouri Compromise was a sort of Band-Aid that lasted three decades. There were other divisions, too: The first party system of Federalists and Republicans had collapsed, and one-party rule didn’t last long. New factions were developing, and the partisan fights often played out in Monroe’s cabinet.

David Bruce Smith: How was Monroe’s presidency a transitional moment for America?

Cassandra Good: So much was changing in this period — in Americans’ everyday lives — what they did for a living, where they lived, how they communicated — and in American politics. As I mentioned, the first party system ended and the second one began to take shape, redrawing political affiliations. The country grew larger — in size and in international stature. The United States had finally settled its major disputes with European powers when it settled with the Spanish in 1819, allowing more time for the government to focus on domestic affairs. The very role of the president also changed, in part because of Monroe’s tours and in part because of expanding forms of communications; the president was becoming more of a public figure.

Hope Katz Gibbs: What were Monroe’s relationships with the other founders?

Cassandra Good: Monroe was close friends and allies with James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Like the two of them, he did not get along with Alexander Hamilton — in fact, he almost got into a duel with him in the 1790s. Monroe also knew George Washington well from serving with him in the Revolutionary War, but the two later fell out when Washington recalled him from his diplomatic mission in France. Monroe was able to stay friends with Washington’s successor, John Adams, and his son, John Quincy Adams, who served as secretary of state under Monroe.

David Bruce Smith: What was Monroe’s party affiliation?

Cassandra Good: Democratic-Republican, allied with Jefferson and Madison, and he often favored ideas like a weaker central government and more power in the states; and an economy based on farming. However, Monroe also argued for positions closer to Federalists and as president, was a centrist — he wanted a strong military and did in fact strengthen the federal government.

Hope Katz Gibbs: Tell us more about his relationship with George Washington.

Cassandra Good: Monroe served under Washington in the American Revolution and came to know and respect him.  When Washington became president, he sent Monroe to France as America’s ambassador. But some members of Washington’s cabinet — particularly Hamilton — thought Monroe was too cozy with the French, and Washington removed Monroe from office. Monroe came home and wrote a lengthy pamphlet defending himself and attacking the Washington administration, titled “A View on the Conduct of the Executive.” The book angered Washington, and there’s a story — which is untrue — that reading this book hastened Washington’s death. It is true, though, that Monroe and Washington never reconciled.

Hope Katz Gibbs: Let’s talk a little about some of Monroe’s biggest accomplishments. For example, what was the significance of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823?

Cassandra Good: The Monroe Doctrine stated that further efforts by European nations to colonize land or interfere with states in North or South America would be viewed as acts of aggression, requiring US intervention. Up until this point, the United States had been rather isolationist; the Monroe Doctrine changed this stance by staking out a larger role in the hemisphere. It also set the tone for US foreign policy for rest of the century and, in some ways, still influences foreign policy today.

David Bruce Smith: As Hope noted earlier, we’re talking with you in Monroe’s house in Albemarle County, but he had other homes. Where did Monroe live?

Cassandra Good: He was born in an area of Westmoreland County, VA, known as the Northern Neck. After going to college in Williamsburg at William & Mary, he moved to Fredericksburg, VA, where he had a house and a law office. During the 1790s, he had a small home on the campus of the University of Virginia at what is now called Monroe Hill. While governor, he lived in the Virginia state capital, Richmond, and later rented homes in Paris and London while serving as an ambassador in those cities.

In 1793, he purchased the farm at Ash Lawn-Highland at Jefferson’s urging, though he was away as ambassador or in Washington, DC, for much of the time. While serving as secretary of state under President James Madison, he rented a large townhouse, still standing, on I Street in Washington, DC. After the War of 1812 when he lived in the White House as president, he saw that it was renovated and refurnished. He also built a house in Loudoun County called Oak Hill. The largest of his homes, Oak Hill is now a private residence

David Bruce Smith: Tell us about Monroe’s family.

Cassandra Good: Monroe was born into an affluent planter family in Virginia’s Northern Neck in 1758. His father died when he was 16, and he became very close to his uncle. In 1786, Monroe married a woman named Elizabeth Kortright, who was from a wealthy New York family. They had two daughters, Eliza in 1786 and Maria in 1802, and he later became close to their husbands and with his grandchildren. Monroe was certainly the most successful one of his family, and throughout his life he supported various siblings, nieces, and nephews who had financial troubles.

Hope Katz Gibbs: What sources exist about this interesting man, who many people don’t really know much about? As the associate editor of the Papers of James Monroe at the University of Mary Washington, what kind of sources do you have access to about Monroe’s life?

Cassandra Good: We have cataloged around 40,000 letters to and from Monroe, which sounds like a lot, but actually is limited because this trove includes very few personal letters. Many of his personal letters were destroyed, probably at his request, after his death; thus far only two of his wife’s letters to him have been found. If he kept detailed records of his farm the way that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington did, those records have not survived. What has survived doesn’t include much about his political philosophy.

Hope Katz Gibbs: Thank you, Cassie, for telling us about this interesting historic figure. It is a pleasure to learn more about our fifth president, James Monroe.

For more information, read more about the papers of James Monroe and visit the Ash Lawn-Highland website.

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