“Having long served my country, with integrity and zeal, I … derive much consolation from a review of the past, especially as our success, under all the difficulties to which we have been exposed, furnishes good ground, on which to calculate, on its continuance. I trust that we shall not only continue, to be free and happy, but to present an example, which will be useful to other nations.” (James Monroe, 18 January, 1829)
From the days of his participation as a young man in the revolutionary activities in Williamsburg in 1775 to his final appearance in the civic arena as president of the Virginia constitutional convention in 1829, James Monroe led a life of public service. He was an officer in the Continental army, a member of the Continental Congress, a delegate to the Virginia ratifying convention in 1788, and a member of the United State Senate. He served three terms in the Virginia House of Delegates and was four times elected governor of Virginia. He held two appointments as minister to France, was minister to Great Britain, and special envoy to Spain. Monroe served as secretary of state, secretary of war, and was twice elected to the presidency.
During this long and varied career Monroe participated in some of the foremost events of the era—the American Revolution, the debate on the ratification of the Constitution, the suppression of the Virginia slave conspiracy of 1800, the Louisiana Purchase, the War of 1812, the acquisition of Florida, the expansion of the United States into the west, the recognition of the independence of the new South American republics, and the writing of the Monroe Doctrine. He served as minister to France during the French Revolution, as minister to Great Britain during the tempestuous years of Jefferson’s second administration, and as head of the State Department and the War Department during the War of 1812. An important facet of his presidency was that it occurred at a time of historical transition: his eight-year term marked the closing years of the early republic and witnessed the beginning of the age of Jackson. Among the important events of Monroe’s presidency were the strengthening of the nation’s borders in the wake of the War of 1812, the first major economic depression since the Revolution, the admission of five states to the union (highlighted by the great controversy over Missouri) and the organization of two new federal territories, the debate over U. S. support for the South American revolutionaries, the emergence of the second party system and, of course, the promulgation of what came to be called the Monroe Doctrine.
Monroe’s public career is justifiably the focal point of his life, but his private affairs were equally diverse and interesting. He was a practicing attorney (including a term as Commonwealth attorney at Fredericksburg), owned several farms (most notably Highland in Albemarle County and Oak Hill in Loudoun County), took a deep interest in education (he was elected to fill Thomas Jefferson’s place on the board of visitors of the University of Virginia after Jefferson’s death), and was patriarch to a diverse and extended family that included his children and their families, his brothers and sisters and their families, children of friends, slaves, employees, and other dependents.
Having long served my country, with integrity and zeal, I cherish retirment, and derive much consolation from a review of the past, especially as our success, under all the difficulties to which we have been exposed, furnishes good ground, on which to calculate, on its continuance. I trust that we shall not only continue, to be free and happy, but to present an example, which will be useful to other nations. James Monroe, 18 January 1829.
Additional topical biographical essays are available at the Miller Center of Public Affairs.