The American Presidents Series
The Portrait of a Patriot
The tall, rough-hewn eighteen-year-old, quick to join his William and Mary classmates in insurrection against the king, was a product of Westmoreland County, what was called the Northern Neck of Virginia. Born on April 28, 1758, James Monroe was the son of Spence Monroe, who signed himself both carpenter and gentleman, and the former Elizabeth Jones, daughter of the architect James Jones. In 1766, when James was eight, Spence Monroe joined Northern Neck farmers in signing a pledge against the consumption of English imports until repeal of the hated Stamp Act, marking him a "patriot." James's uncle, Joseph Jones, was a judge and member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, serving on its committees that drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Virginia Constitution, and a member of the Continental Congress. Judge Jones claimed a "confidential" friendship with George Washington and close relations with both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and he was to be the formative early political influence on James Monroe's life, his patron, and a constant adviser on matters ranging from personal finance to high political ambition.
One biographer has written that Monroe, as an adult, "resembled his uncle in many ways -- reflective, never rushing to conclusions but forming opinions deliberately. The same tact, warmth, and patience in human relations, so pronounced in the judge's character, were equally apparent in the nephew." Later in life, when it came to confrontation with Alexander Hamilton, Edmund Randolph, less directly John Adams, and even George Washington himself, Monroe's tact and patience would be sorely tested and frayed.
Young Monroe was accompanied on his long, woods-lined walks to Parson Campbell's school, Campbelltown Academy, by his neighbor and friend John Marshall, the future chief justice of the United States. With their schoolbooks in mathematics and Latin, both boys carried frontier rifles. Marshall, slightly older, would also join Monroe at William and Mary in 1774 and from there into the Continental army. Just three months after the Revolutionary Virginia Convention passed its own "declaration of independence" on May 15, 1776, Lieutenant Monroe, with the Third Virginia Regiment, marched out of Williamsburg northward to join the Continentals under Washington at New York. Three years later, when Monroe headed back to Virginia seeking recruits for another regiment, he left with the letter from Washington describing his combat service in considerable detail and recommending him as "a brave, active, and sensible officer" and expressing "the high opinion I have of his worth."
Despite his plan, conveyed to Jefferson in the fall of 1781 at the conclusion of five years' military service, to travel to Europe to study, Monroe was elected to the Virginia Assembly from neighboring King George County the following year. During this period, Jefferson began his lifelong role as mentor to Monroe. "Jefferson, as he was to do on many subsequent occasions, exerted a decisive influence on Monroe's life," writes Monroe's biographer Harry Ammon. "At this time, Monroe, who was floundering about and had no idea what to do with himself, badly needed advice and encouragement. The Governor [Jefferson] provided exactly the right tonic, administered with tact, understanding, and a very real concern about the young man's fate. With his friend Marshall, Monroe was soon elected to Virginia's eight-member Executive Council, "rather young for a Councillor," according to one observer. He continued on the political fast track by being elected to the fourth Confederation Congress in June 1783 and two subsequent congresses thereafter. Rembrandt Peale's famous painting of Washington resigning his commission before the Congress in Annapolis on July 27,1783, following the signing of a treaty of peace with England, has both Monroe and Madison foremost wearing cocked hats. Monroe, still only twenty-five, dined regularly with Jefferson before the senior figure left for France, as the American minister in Paris.
Among political leaders during this period, Monroe was on the forefront of those who viewed things nationally, rather than merely as citizens of individual states. Early on, he demonstrated the national security prism through which he was to view great events with these words regarding the many issues facing the new nation: "There are before us some questions of the utmost consequence that can arise in the councils of any nation," among them, "whether we are to have regular or standing troops to protect our frontiers, or leave them unguarded; whether we will expose ourselves to the inconveniences, which may perhaps be the loss of the country westward, from the impossibility of preventing the adventurers [pioneers] from settling where they please; the intrusion of the settlers on the
European powers who border us, a cause of discontent and perhaps war."
Here we see, presciently, Monroe's very early anticipation of matters that would dominate his own presidency decades later, the frictions caused by the new nation's natural expansion against and eventually onto the territory claimed by European powers and perhaps even the role of those powers in the entire American hemisphere. And, significantly, Monroe anticipated matters in terms ("discontent and perhaps war") of a military officer. "From the beginning," writes his biographer W.P. Cresson, "James Monroe, a former militia man, who had served beneath the Rattlesnake Flag with the pioneers, was by instinct and sympathy a 'Man of the Western Waters.' From the frontiersmen he was to draw much of his political strength and, in return, was to serve them with all the ability and energy at his command.
Monroe's view was, at least in part, influenced by his uncle Judge Jones, who was an early exponent of the cession of frontier lands to the federal government for the purpose of creating new states. Other proponents of this plan included Washington, Jefferson, George Mason, and others of the "new states" persuasion. For himself and others, Washington advocated reward of the frontier lands to poorly compensated Continental army veterans, a movement soon to be led by the newly formed Society of the Cincinnati. Monroe's commitment to this cause is demonstrated by his trip in the fall of 1784 through the territories west of New York and southward through the Ohio Territory, where he reported, "It is possible I may lose my scalp from the temper of the Indians, but if either a little fighting or a great deal of running will save it I shall escape safe." In this, he later wrote Jefferson, he was not being entirely frivolous, for three members of his expeditions were in fact killed by angry Indians.
Monroe's interests in questions of western expansion were to preoccupy him throughout his public life. Following this early trip, he argued in the Confederation Congress for rigorous steps to garrison the former British posts on the western frontier with American troops, and he took up the emerging cause of American rights to navigate the Mississippi River. As Cresson notes:
In the struggle for this greater empire, which now forms the might and glory of the Republic, no statesman of his time played a more significant part than James Monroe. As the champion in Congress of the still-undefined rights of the United States to the lands ceded by the Treaty of 1783 and to the free navigation of the Mississippi, he performed a service for which credit has too often been denied him. When Jefferson left for France, it was Monroe who took his place as the champion of the "Men of the Western Waters." His authority in these matters was recognized by his contemporaries and they elected him to the chairmanship of the two important committees chiefly concerned with western interests.
In these matters Monroe quickly found himself at odds with John Jay, who had just been named the Confederation Congress's minister for foreign affairs. Jay was willing to sacrifice westward expansion by pioneers and frontiersmen in favor of transatlantic trading relationships with Great Britain and France on behalf of eastern commercial interests.
Jay was a New Yorker and on the side of New England and the eastern states. Their economic future was tied to the transatlantic and West Indies trade. As the dominant southern power, Virginia, together with North Carolina, claimed land west to the Mississippi and northwestward to include the Northwest Territory (today's Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin). Jefferson, who proposed ceding these claims to the national government for westward expansion, left to serve as minister to France in 1785, and Monroe took up this cause. In 1787 he succeeded in creating a territorial government through passage of the Northwest Ordinance. Jay, speaking for the eastern commercial interests, saw westward expansion and the opening of western waterways, particularly the Mississippi River and the port of New Orleans, as competition for New England. In negotiating with Spanish envoy Don Diego de Enrique Gardoqui, Jay, against his instructions, implicitly traded western interests in opening the Mississippi for expanded trade between New England and Spain.
In a letter to Patrick Henry, then governor of Virginia, on August 12, 1786, the outraged Monroe described Jay's dishonesty and manipulations: "This is one of the most extraordinary transactions I have ever known, a minister negotiating expressly for the purpose of defeating the object of his instructions, and by a long train of intrigue & management seducing the representative of the states to concur in it." He went on to summarize Jay's true intentions as "a dismemberment of the States east of the Hudson from the Union & the erection of them into a separate govt." Thus the Monroe-Jay feud, to surface mightily with the Jay Treaty in 1794, was born.