Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Stroudsburg, Monroe County
Namesake of Monroe County, James Monroe served as President of the United States from 1817 to 1825.
James Monroe, born April 28, 1758, was the fifth President of the United States and the last of the Virginia Dynasty. His revolutionary sentiments inspired his years with the military and his many government positions.During his two terms of presidency, known as the “Era of Good Feelings”, Monroe established an enduring foreign affairs policy that would be later named the Monroe Doctrine. After his two terms of office, he continued public service through a variety of lesser positions. Monroe is the namesake for Monroe County in Pennsylvania, due to his popularity with the American people.
The fifth president of the United States of America, James Monroe, was the last of the revolutionaries to take office and the man responsible for establishing the United States’ independence from European policy and influence. Monroe was born on April 28, 1758 in Westmoreland County, Virginia. His parents, Spence Monroe and Elizabeth Jones, lived comfortably on a 600-acre plantation with their four children. Spence Monroe, an active patriot, refused the use of English goods until the repeal of the Stamp Act. At the age of sixteen and after the death of his father, Monroe attended the College of William and Mary, where his revolutionary feelings dominated his time at school. With a group of 24 men, he stole 200 muskets and 300 swords from the arsenal at the British Governor’s Palace and delivered them to the militia in the Virginia colonial capital of Williamsburg. Frustrated with the monotony of college life and charged with patriotism, he left William and Mary after two years to join the Third Virginia Regiment of the Continental Army.
Like George Washington, Monroe was a military man before becoming a politician. Monroe fought as a soldier in battles in New York, before getting seriously wounded at the Battle of Trenton in 1777. He was promoted later that year to Major and then became an aide for a year to William Alexander, or Lord Stirling, an American with rights to Scottish earldom that had been denied him by the House of Lords. Washington applauded Monroe’s service in a letter to an associate in Virginia: “I take occasion to express to you the high opinion I have of his worth. He has, in every instance, maintained the reputation of a brave, active, and sensible office.” Because of his experience and such lofty praise, Monroe was appointed lieutenant-colonel. He rarely received field orders after 1778 and so by 1782 Monroe’s military career was over.
After leaving the Army, Monroe moved back to Virginia where he studied law with Thomas Jefferson, a lifelong friend and mentor. Monroe’s political career began almost immediately with his election to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1782 and his membership in the Confederation Congress under the Articles of Confederation until 1786. Also in 1786, Monroe married Elizabeth Kortwright. She was a wealthy merchant’s daughter and ten years younger than Monroe. The two were very close and rarely spent more than a few weeks apart. After marriage, Monroe began practicing law in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Three years later, the couple moved to Albemarle County to be near Jefferson’s estate, Monticello. Monroe’s two daughters, Eliza and Maria Hester, were born at the estate.
In 1790, Monroe ran for the Senate after narrowly missing an interim appointment available the year before. Senate members like Jefferson and George Mason encouraged Monroe to run and he won the seat easily. Once elected, he collaborated with James Madison to build the Republican Party (also known as the Democratic-Republican Party) to combat Federalist policies. George Washington appointed Monroe as minister of France in 1794 to please those who condemned the administration’s neutral stance in regards to revolutionary France. But, many considered Monroe’s work in France to be that of a Republican Party spokesman rather than a United States representative. He was recalled by Washington in 1796 despite his efforts to defend his work.
Monroe then returned to Virginia once more to practice law from 1799 to 1802 and was elected Governor of Virginia. As Governor, Monroe checked the threat posed by Gabriel’s Rebellion, a slave uprising, and took an interest in colonizing the West with free blacks. His ideas later gave rise to the American Colonization Society. Once he was president, Monroe aided the American Colonization Society in purchasing land for the establishment of a colony in Liberia, West Africa. Emancipated slaves and captured Africans colonized the land until Liberia claimed independence in 1847. The Society named the settlement Monrovia in honor of his aid.
Under Jefferson’s first administration, Monroe was sent to France with Robert R. Livingston to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase. His success in this endeavor made him a national figure. Because of his achievement in foreign affairs, Monroe served as the minister to Great Britain from 1803 to 1807. In 1808, Monroe nearly became President, as many dissenters of the Federalist Party nominated him to run as the Republican candidate. The efforts were in vain because Monroe did not campaign and received very little support. Even though Monroe failed to secure the nomination, another Republican, James Madison, won the presidency. He appointed Monroe as Secretary of State in an effort to calm political hostility. In 1814, Monroe became the first person to hold two cabinet positions: Secretary of State and Secretary of War. William Eustis, the previous Secretary of War was removed for incompetence. Monroe held was the acting Secretary of War from October 1814 to February 1815 until Madison found a replacement. Monroe remained Secretary of State until the day he became president.
Monroe was no longer alone in his desire to change the dynamics between parties and he won the presidency in 1816 after Madison’s second term. He was the last president of the Virginia Dynasty and his election year marked an important Republican victory over the Federalist Party. Monroe held the Presidency for two terms and was very well-liked and popular with the American people and political leaders alike. Thomas Jefferson said, “Monroe is so honest that if you turned his soul inside out there would not be a spot on it.” In the election for his second term, he ran uncontested.
His presidency was marked as the “Era of Good Feelings,” an expression coined by a Federalist newspaper, because he was the first president to enter the White House with the country in a time of peace. A victory in the War of 1812 and a booming economy allowed Monroe to use his presidency to focus on domestic issues. He was considered a president concerned with helping people of all stations in life, and he proved that through his national tour. In order to increase the “Good Feelings” felt in the United States, Monroe went on a tour of the country, emulating the route taken by George Washington during his presidency. Monroe’s biographer, Harry Ammon, described Monroe’s reception in cities around the United States: “Monroe had a rare ability of putting men at ease by his courtesy, his lack of condescension, his frankness…his essential goodness and kindness of heart.” His tour of the country built support for his administration and almost completely closed political divides. There was very little Party conflict since Monroe’s presidency marked the fall of the Federalists.
Despite the appearance of nationalism, the reality was that the United States had difficult times ahead. The “Era of Good Feelings” came to a halt in 1819. Unemployment skyrocketed, leading to foreclosures and bankruptcies from 1819 to 1821, a period known as the Panic of 1819. Monroe felt that the economy would naturally right itself, but many disagreed and criticized him for his laissez-faire approach. Also in 1819, Monroe faced the Missouri Crisis. Monroe clearly stated that Missouri could only become a state if it abolished slavery within its territory. Slave owners felt under attack by Monroe’s order. Southern states were afraid that the admission of Missouri as a free state, disturbing the balance of free versus slave states, would threaten their slave-driven economy. Monroe’s order was ineffective, so in order to preserve the union, he approved the Missouri Compromise in 1820; admitting Maine as a free-state and Missouri as a state with no restriction. Slavery was then banned in all states north and west of Missouri.
Monroe is known mostly for his success in foreign affairs. In negotiations with Spain he hoped to acquire the state of Florida and to outline the precise boundaries of Louisiana. With Madison’s guidance, the Adams-Onis Treaty established good relations with Spain. The Adams-Onis Treaty ceded Florida to the United States while Spain defined the boundaries for Louisiana, and claimed all land west of it. But more significant was the Monroe Doctrine, as it was named twenty years after Monroe’s death. Still used in foreign affairs today, Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, drafted a policy regarding any further development or colonization of the rest of the Americas, including Latin America. The document contained three main concepts: separate spheres of influence for the Americas and Europe, non-colonization, and non-intervention. Monroe stated in his seventh annual message to Congress in 1823, “And to the defence of our own, which has been achieved by the loss of so much blood and treasure, and matured by the wisdom of their most enlightened citizens, and under which we have enjoyed unexampled felicity, this whole nation is devoted.” While Europe initially paid little attention to Monroe’s words, the Monroe Doctrine became a tenet of American philosophy, permanently changing Europe’s role in the Americas.
Following the precedent set by Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, Monroe chose to serve only two terms. John Quincy Adams, Monroe’s Secretary of State, was inaugurated in 1825. Monroe was relieved to retire to his estate in Oak Hill, Virginia. His wife Elizabeth was very ill and he wanted to return to overseeing the farm, reading, and spending time with family and friends. Unfortunately he also had a large financial debt to clear since political positions did not pay large salaries at the time. He spent the following years pressuring the government for reimbursements from the presidency, and his debts were eventually paid off.
Monroe avoided political positions during the initial years of his retirement before accepting a position on the Board of Regents at the University of Virginia, the university founded by Thomas Jefferson. Also, in 1829 he became the president of the Virginia Constitutional Convention where he fought the battle of freehold suffrage, which expanded suffrage to those with the future rights to land. The Virginia Constitutional Convention was considered the “last meeting of giants of the Revolutionary generation.” He quit both positions once his health began to severely decline.
His wife, Elizabeth, died in 1830, causing Monroe to relocate to New York City to live with his daughter until his death on July 4, 1831. He was first laid to rest in New York City before being moved to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, VA in 1858.
Monroe has been immortalized in multiple ways, like in the naming of Monroe County, Pennsylvania. It is unknown how it was suggested to name the county after Monroe, since he never even visited it. Monroe County, formed from parts of other counties in Pennsylvania, was nearly named Jackson, Fulton or Evergreen before Monroe was selected. The name was passed by the favor of a large majority in 1836, shortly after Monroe’s death. It is clear that his dedication to public service and his popularity were factors that secured his place in Pennsylvanian and American history alike.
Ammon, Harry. James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity. New York: McGraw Hill, 1971.
Cresson, W.P. James Monroe. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1946.
Koehler, LeRoy J., Robert Brown & Arlington W. Williams The Founding of Monroe County, addresses delivered before the Monroe County Historical Society meeting to commemorate the centennial of the organization of the County. 16 Jan. 1936. Penn State University Digital Library Collections. <>http://collection1.libraries.psu.edu/u?/digitalbks2,19511>.
Hart, Gary. James Monroe. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2005.