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James Monroe Papers, 1772-1836

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Introduction: The James Monroe Papers, 1772-1836

Introduction: The James Monroe Papers, 1772-1836


James Monroe (1758-1831), born and educated in Virginia, wasa soldier, a statesman, and the fifth president of the United States. Heattended the College of William and Mary but left at age eighteen to join theVirginia regiment of the Continental Army as a lieutenant. Although he waswounded at the Battle of Trenton, he went on to become an aide to the Earl ofSterling with the rank of major. In 1780 he returned to Virginia, where hestudied law under Governor Thomas Jefferson until 1783. The two men remainedclose friends until Jeffersons death in 1826.


Monroes political life began with his election to theVirginia legislature in 1782. In the following year he was elected to theCongress of the Confederation, the national governing body created under theArticles of Confederation. When his term expired he returned to the Virginialegislature. In 1788 he was elected to the state convention to ratify theConstitution, which he opposed because he feared that it gave too much power tothe federal government.


Monroe lost when he ran against James Madison for electionto the First Congress. However, when a vacancy arose in the Senate in 1790,Monroe was chosen to fill it. Critical of Washingtons administration, heopposed a number of presidential appointments as well as the establishment ofthe Bank of the United States. He left the Senate in 1794 to serve as ministerto France, assigned the task of quieting French suspicions about Americantreaty negotiations with Great Britain. In the end he pleased neither theFrench government nor the American administration and, upon his return,published A View of the Conduct of the Executive, in the Foreign Affairs ofthe United States.


A term of governor of Virginia from 1799 until December 1802briefly interrupted Monroes diplomatic career. Early in 1803, President ThomasJefferson sent him to France and then to Spain to negotiate the LouisianaPurchase and to determine the exact boundaries of Florida. The negotiationswith Spain were particularly vexing. Equally difficult, however, was Monroesnext assignment in 1805 in London, where he was sent to straighten out thematter of seizure of neutral American vessels and the impressments of Americanseamen by Great Britain.


After his return, Monroe allowed himself to be put forwardas a presidential candidate in the election of 1808, supported by several moreradical members of the Republican Party, but he lost badly to Federalist JamesMadison. In 1809, Jefferson convinced Madison to offer Monroe the governorshipof upper Louisiana, which Monroe refused. In 1810, he returned to the Virginialegislature and in January 1811 became governor for a second time. Then, inMarch 1811, Madison, in need of political allies in Virginia, appointed Monroesecretary of state.


Among the difficulties that Monroe faced in his new positionwere solving the problems posed by American neutrality regarding European warsand ironing out relations with Great Britain. In the latter, Monroe failed, andin June 1812 war was declared. Although the Orders in Council, which restrictedneutral trade with Europe and allowed stopping and searching American vesselson the high seas, were eventually withdrawn, Monroe continued to justify thewar on the grounds of impressments. However, he was willing to accept Russianmediation when it was offered and supported the Treaty of Ghent which ended thewar. After serving as both secretary of state and secretary of war from August1814 to March 1817 and with several dramatic military victories to his credit(including those at Plattsburg and New Orleans), Monroe was in line for thepresidency.


Monroe won the 1816 election by a narrow margin. Among thedomestic issues confronting the administration during his two terms were thequestions of internal improvements and of slavery. Although Monroe vetoed abill calling for federal funding and oversight of improvements on theCumberland Road, he issued a statement arguing that the federal governmentshould have limited power to raise money for public works that would affect thecommon defense and the general welfare. Monroes administration also presidedover the famous Missouri compromise of 1820. Although Monroe had southernsympathies, he did not enter into the bitter congressional debate about theMissouri bill until it came to him for signature. He would have vetoed any billthat subjected Missouri to admission under restriction; the bill he signedadmitted Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state. Slavery was to beexcluded from Louisiana Purchase lands north of latitude 3630.


In 1820, Monroe was reelected with all but one electoralvote. It was during his annual message to Congress on December 2, 1823, that hepresented the first version of what would later become known as the MonroeDoctrine: that American continents were not to be considered as subjects forfuture colonization by any European powers. His declaration was prompted byRussian claims to all land that extended 100 miles into the Pacific above the51st parallel and also by claims by France and Spain, which, in the face ofSouth American and Latin American rebellions, were attempting to reassert theirpower in the Western Hemisphere. Although the Monroe Doctrine was invokedinfrequently in the decades immediately following its articulation, it becameone of the most powerful and functional statements of American foreign policy.


After leaving the presidency, Monroe returned to Virginiaand was elected to the states constitutional convention in 1829, becoming itspresiding officer. In the spring of 1830, after his wifes death, he moved toNew York City to live with his daughter and her husband. He died there on July4, 1831.


Scope and Content


The James Monroe Papers consist of two series, Correspondence(1772-1836) and Writings (1785-1831). The Correspondence islargely political, focusing on constitutional issues; Monroes tenure asminister plenipotentiary to France; Virginia politics; treaty negotiations withGreat Britain, France and Spain; and also domestic issues including slave tradeand the spread of slavery in the United States, internal improvements, and theBank of the United States. Also discussed are foreign policy and war issuesconcurrent with Monroes duties as secretary of state and secretary of warduring the War of 1812 and as president of the United States. Correspondentsinclude John Quincy Adams, John Jacob Astor, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson,James Madison, Timothy Pickering, and Fulwar Skipwith.


The Writings contain manuscripts of Monroesautobiography and also of The People, The Sovereign, SomeObservations on the Constitution; and A View of the Conduct of theExecutive. Also included are notes, drafts of speeches and articles onforeign and domestic policy, draft of treaties with Great Britain and Spain, arough draft of a proposed Bill of Rights, and copies of Monroes cipher and theJefferson-Monroe cipher.