On December 2, 1823, U.S. President James Monroe first stated the policy that became known as the Monroe Doctrine during his seventh annual State of the Union Address to Congress. The term “Monroe Doctrine” itself was coined in 1850. It stated that further efforts by European nations to take control of any independent state in North or South America would be viewed as “the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.” At the same time, the doctrine noted that the U.S. would recognize and not interfere with existing European colonies nor meddle in the internal concerns of European countries. The Doctrine was issued at a time when nearly all Latin American colonies of Spain and Portugal had achieved or were at the point of gaining independence from the Portuguese and Spanish Empires.
After the Napoleonic wars (which ended in 1815), almost all of Spain’s and Portugal’s colonies in Latin America revolted and declared independence. Americans welcomed this development as a validation of the spirit of Republicanism. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams suggested delaying formal recognition until Florida was secured. The problem of imperial invasion was intensified by a Russian claim to the Pacific coast down to the fifty-first parallel and simultaneous European pressure to have all of Latin America returned to its colonial status.
Monroe informed Congress in March 1822 that permanent stable governments had been established in the United Provinces of the River Plate (the core of present-day Argentina), Colombia, Chile, and Mexico. Adams, under Monroe’s supervision, wrote the instructions for the ministers (ambassadors) to these new countries. They declared that the policy of the United States was to uphold republican institutions and to seek treaties of commerce on a most-favored-nation basis. The United States would support inter-American congresses dedicated to the development of economic and political institutions fundamentally differing from those prevailing in Europe. The articulation of an “American system” distinct from that of Europe was a basic tenet of Monroe’s policy toward Latin America. Monroe took pride as the United States was the first nation to extend recognition and to set an example to the rest of the world for its support of the “cause of liberty and humanity”.
In his message to Congress on December 2, 1823, President Monroe proclaimed that the Americas should be free from future European colonization and free from European interference in sovereign countries’ affairs. It further stated the United States’ intention to stay neutral in European wars and wars between European powers and their colonies, but to consider new colonies or interference with independent countries in the Americas as hostile acts toward the United States. Although it is Monroe’s most famous contribution to history, the speech was actually written by John Quincy Adams, who designed the doctrine in cooperation with Britain. Monroe and Adams realized that American recognition would not protect the new countries against military intervention to restore Spain’s power.
In October 1823, Richard Rush, the American minister in London, advised that Foreign Secretary George Canning was proposing that the U.S. and Britain jointly declare their opposition to European intervention. Britain, with its powerful navy, also opposed re-conquest of Latin America and suggested that the United States join in proclaiming a “hands off” policy. Galvanized by the British initiative, Monroe consulted with American leaders and then formulated a plan with Adams. Ex-Presidents Jefferson and Madison counseled Monroe to accept the offer, but Adams advised, “It would be more candid … to avow our principles explicitly to Russia and France, than to come in as a cock-boat in the wake of the British man-of-war.” Monroe accepted Adams’ advice. Not only must Latin America be left alone, he warned, but also Russia must not encroach southward on the Pacific coast. “the American continents,” he stated, “by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European Power.
The Monroe Doctrine at the time of its adoption thus pertained more to the Russians in North America than to the former Spanish colonies. The result was a system of American isolationism under the sponsorship of the British navy. The Monroe Doctrine held that the United States considered the Western Hemisphere as no longer a place for European colonization; that any future effort to gain further political control in the hemisphere or to violate the independence of existing states would be treated as an act of hostility; and finally that there existed two different and incompatible political systems in the world. The United States, therefore, promised to refrain from intervention in European affairs and demanded Europe to abstain from interfering with American matters. There were few serious European attempts at intervention.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Monroe’s declaration was seen as a defining moment in the foreign policy of the United States and one of its longest-standing tenets. It would be invoked by many U.S. statesmen and several U.S. presidents, including Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and many others. The intent and impact of the Monroe Doctrine persisted with only minor variations for more than a century. Its stated objective was to free the newly independent colonies of Latin America from European intervention and avoid situations which could make the New World a battleground for the Old World powers, so that the U.S. could exert its own influence undisturbed. The doctrine asserted that the New World and the Old World were to remain distinctly separate spheres of influence, for they were composed of entirely separate and independent nations.
After 1898, Latin American lawyers and intellectuals reinterpreted the Monroe doctrine in terms of multilateralism and non-intervention. In 1933, under President Franklin Roosevelt, the U.S. went along with the new reinterpretation, especially in terms of the Organization of American States.
Scott #810 was released on July 21, 1938, as part of the United States Presidential Series (Scott #803-834 and #839-851) issued between 1938 and 1954, popularly known to collectors as the “Prexies”. This five cent bright blue stamp features a portrait of James Monroe taken from a medal furnished by the U.S. Mint and is perforated 11×10½. A coil stamp perforated 10 vertically using the same design was issued on January 20, 1939 (Scott #845).
James Monroe was born on April 28, 1758, in his parents’ house located in a wooded area of Westmoreland County, Virginia. His father Spence Monroe (1727–1774) was a moderately prosperous planter who also practiced carpentry. His mother Elizabeth Jones (1730–1774) married Spence Monroe in 1752 and they had several children. His paternal great-grandfather Patrick Andrew Monroe emigrated to America from Scotland in the mid-seventeenth century. In 1650, he patented a large tract of land in Washington Parish, Westmoreland County, Virginia. Among James Monroe’s ancestors were French Huguenot immigrants, who came to Virginia in 1700.
First tutored at home by his mother Elizabeth, between the ages of 11 and 16, the young Monroe studied at Campbell Town Academy, a school run by Reverend Archibald Campbell of Washington Parish. There he excelled as a pupil and progressed through Latin and mathematics faster than most boys his age. John Marshall, later Chief Justice of the United States, was among his classmates.
Upon the death of his father in 1774, Monroe inherited his small plantation and slaves, officially joining the ruling class of the planter elite in what had become the slave society of Virginia. Sixteen years old, he began forming a close relationship with his maternal uncle, the influential Judge Joseph Jones, who had been educated at the Inns of Court in London and was the executor of his father’s estate. That same year, Monroe enrolled in the College of William and Mary. At the time, most students were charged with excitement over the prospect of rebellion against King George III.
In early 1776, about a year and a half after his enrollment, Monroe dropped out of college and joined the 3rd Virginia Regiment (established December 28, 1775) in the Continental Army where his background as a college student and the son of a well-known planter enabled him to obtain an officer’s commission. He never returned to earn a degree. In June 1775, after the battles of Lexington and Concord, Monroe, and some other William and Mary students joined 24 older men in raiding the arsenal at the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg. They used the loot of 200 muskets and 300 swords to arm the Williamsburg militia. Although Andrew Jackson served as a courier in a militia unit at age thirteen, Monroe is regarded as the last U.S. President who was a Revolutionary War veteran, since he served as an officer of the Continental Army and took part in combat.
Wounded during the Battle of Trenton on Christmas Day 1776, Monroe was sent home to Virginia to nurse his injuries. The Battle of Trenton would be Monroe’s only battle as he would spend the next three months recuperating from his wound. In John Trumbull’s painting Capture of the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton, Monroe can be seen lying wounded at left center of the painting. In the famous painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware, Monroe is depicted holding the American flag.
After recuperating from his wound, Monroe was appointed as a lieutenant colonel in the Virginia militia, and tasked to recruit and lead a regiment, but the regiment was never raised. He returned to Williamsburg in September 1779 and studied law with George Wythe, and then moved to Richmond to study law with Thomas Jefferson. In 1780 the British invaded Richmond, and as Governor, Jefferson commissioned Monroe as a colonel to command the militia raised in response and act as liaison to the Continental Army in North Carolina.
Monroe resumed studying law under Jefferson, and continued until 1783. Monroe was not particularly interested in legal theory or practice, but chose to take it up because he thought that it offered “the most immediate rewards” and could ease his path to wealth, social standing, and political influence. After passing the bar, he practiced law in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
James Monroe married Elizabeth Kortright (1768–1830), daughter of Laurence Kortright and Hannah Aspinwall Kortright, on February 16, 1786, in New York City. He had met her while serving with the Continental Congress, which then met in New York, the temporary capital of the new nation. After a brief honeymoon on Long Island, New York, the Monroes returned to New York City to live with her father until Congress adjourned.
Monroe sold his small inherited Virginia plantation in 1783 to enter law and politics. Monroe later fulfilled his youthful dream of becoming the owner of a large plantation and wielding great political power, but his plantation was never profitable. Although he owned much more land and slaves and speculated in property, he was rarely on-site to oversee the operations. Overseers treated the slaves harshly to force production, but the plantations barely broke even. Monroe incurred debts by his lavish and expensive lifestyle and often sold property (including slaves) to pay them off.
Monroe was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1782. He was elected to Congress in November 1783 and served in Annapolis until Congress left for Trenton in June 1784. He had served a total of three years when he finally retired from that office by the rule of rotation. By that time, the government was meeting in the temporary capital of New York City.
In Virginia, the struggle in 1788 over the ratification of the proposed Constitution involved more than a simple clash between federalists and anti-federalists. Virginians held a full spectrum of opinions about the merits of the proposed change in national government. George Washington and James Madison were leading supporters; Patrick Henry and George Mason were leading opponents. Those who held the middle ground in the ideological struggle became the central figures. Led by Monroe and Edmund Pendleton, these “federalists who are for amendments,” criticized the absence of a bill of rights and worried about surrendering taxation powers to the central government. Virginia ratified the Constitution in June 1788, largely because Monroe, Pendleton and followers suspended their reservations and vowed to press for changes after the new government had been established.
Virginia narrowly ratified the Constitution. Monroe ran for a House seat in the First Congress but was defeated by Madison. In 1790 he was elected by the Virginia legislature as United States Senator. He soon joined the “Democratic-Republican” faction led by Jefferson and Madison, and by 1791 was the party leader in the Senate.
Monroe resigned his Senate seat after being appointed Minister to France in 1794. As ambassador, Monroe secured the release of Thomas Paine in revolutionary France after his arrest for opposition to the execution of Louis XVI. The government insisted that Paine be deported to the United States. Monroe arranged to free all the Americans held in French prisons. He also gained the freedom of Adrienne de La Fayette and issued her and her family American passports (they had been granted citizenship by the U.S. government for contributions during the Revolution.) She used that for travel to her husband, imprisoned in Olmutz.
A strong friend of the French Revolution, Monroe tried to assure France that George Washington’s policy of strict neutrality did not favor Britain. But American policy had come to favor Britain, and Monroe was stunned by the United States’ signing of the Jay Treaty in London. With France and Britain at war, the Jay Treaty alarmed and angered the French. Washington had differences with Monroe and discharged him as Minister to France, claiming his “inefficiency, disruptive maneuvers, and failure to safeguard the interests of his country.”
Monroe had long been concerned about foreign influence on the presidency. He was alarmed by the Spanish diplomat Don Diego de Gardoqui, who in 1785 tried to convince Congress to allow Spain to close the Mississippi River to American traffic for 30 years. Spain controlled much of the Mississippi since taking over former French territory, including the important port of New Orleans. Monroe thought that Spain could have endangered the U.S. retention of its Southwest and caused the dominance of the Northeast. Monroe believed in both a strong presidency and the system of checks and balances.
In the 1790s he fretted over an aging George Washington being too much influenced by close advisers such as Alexander Hamilton, whom Monroe thought too close to Britain. He was humiliated by Washington’s criticism for his support of revolutionary France as minister to the nation.
Out of office, Monroe returned to practicing law in Virginia until elected governor there as a Democratic-Republican, his first term serving from 1799 to 1802. He was reelected Virginia’s governor in 1811. He called out the state militia to suppress Gabriel’s Rebellion. Gabriel and 26 other enslaved people who participated were all hanged for treason. Monroe thought that foreign and Federalist elements had created the Quasi War of 1798–1800 and were behind efforts to prevent the election of Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800. As governor he considered using the Virginia militia to force the outcome in favor of Jefferson. Federalists were likewise suspicious of Monroe, some seeing him as at best a French dupe and at worst a traitor.
President Jefferson sent Monroe to France to assist Robert R. Livingston in negotiating the Louisiana Purchase. Monroe was then appointed Minister to the Court of St. James’s in London from 1803 to 1807. In 1806 he negotiated a treaty with Great Britain, known as the Monroe–Pinkney Treaty. It would have extended the Jay Treaty of 1794 which had expired after ten years. Jefferson had fought the Jay Treaty intensely in 1794–95 because he felt it would allow the British to subvert American republicanism. The treaty had produced ten years of peace and highly lucrative trade for American merchants, but Jefferson was still hostile. When Monroe and the British signed a renewal in December 1806, Jefferson decided not to even submit it to the Senate for ratification. After the failure of the treaty, Monroe returned to the United States in 1807. Monroe was deeply hurt by the administration’s repudiation of the treaty, and Monroe fell out with Secretary of State James Madison.
Monroe returned to the Virginia House of Burgesses and was elected to another term as governor in 1811, but served only four months. In April 1811, Madison appointed Monroe as Secretary of State in hopes of shoring up the support of the more radical factions of the Democratic-Republicans.
Monroe had little to do with the War of 1812, as President Madison and the War Hawks in Congress were dominant. The war went very badly, and when the British burned the U.S. Capitol and the White House on August 24, 1814, Madison removed John Armstrong as Secretary of War and turned to Monroe for help, appointing him Secretary of War on September 27. Monroe resigned as Secretary of State on October 1, but no successor was ever appointed and thus from October 1, 1814 to February 28, 1815, Monroe effectively held both Cabinet posts. Monroe formulated plans for an offensive invasion of Canada to win the war, but a peace treaty was ratified in February 1815, before any armies moved north. Monroe therefore resigned as Secretary of War on March 15, 1815 and was formally reappointed Secretary of State. Monroe stayed on at State until March 4, 1817, when he began his term as the new President of the United States.
The collapse of the Federalists left Monroe with no organized opposition at the end of his first term, and he ran for reelection unopposed, the only president other than Washington to do so. A single elector from New Hampshire cast a vote for John Quincy Adams, preventing a unanimous vote in the Electoral College.
When his presidency ended on March 4, 1825, James Monroe resided at Monroe Hill, what is now included in the grounds of the University of Virginia. He had operated the family farm from 1788 to 1817, but sold it in the first year of his presidency to the new college. He served on the college’s Board of Visitors under Jefferson and under the second rector James Madison, both former presidents, almost until his death.
Monroe had racked up many debts during his years of public life. He sold off his Highland Plantation (now called Ash Lawn-Highland). It is now owned by his alma mater, the College of William and Mary, which has opened it to the public as a historic site. Throughout his life, he was not financially solvent, and his wife’s poor health made matters worse.
He and his wife lived in Oak Hill, Virginia, until Elizabeth’s death on September 23, 1830. In August 1825, the Monroes had received the Marquis de Lafayette and President John Quincy Adams as guests there.
Upon Elizabeth’s death in 1830, Monroe moved to New York City to live with his daughter Maria Hester Monroe Gouverneur who had married Samuel L. Gouverneur in the White House. Monroe’s health began to slowly fail by the end of the 1820s and John Quincy Adams visited him there in April 1831. Adams found him alert and eager to discuss the situation in Europe, but in ill health. Adams cut the visit short when he thought he was tiring Monroe.
Monroe died there from heart failure and tuberculosis on July 4, 1831, thus becoming the third president to have died on Independence Day, July 4. His death came 55 years after the U.S. Declaration of Independence was proclaimed and 5 years after the death of two other Founding Fathers who became Presidents: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Monroe was originally buried in New York at the Gouverneur family’s vault in the New York City Marble Cemetery. Twenty-seven years later, in 1858, the body was re-interred to the President’s Circle at the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. The James Monroe Tomb is a U.S. National Historic Landmark.