12 James Monroe

This is a post in My Presidential Rankings series, linked here: Presidential Rankings

James Monroe was the last of the founding fathers Presidents and the last of the Virginia dynasty. Monroe’s term in office was known as the “Era of Good Feelings”, as the opposition Federalist party had collapsed, leading to one party rule. Monroe wanted to create a big tent, all encompassing single party system, but that was impracticable. Eventually differences would form between the factions splitting any “big tent” party apart. The era of good feelings was shattered by the hotly contested election of 1824, in which four candidates vied for the presidency. John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay formed what would become the Whig party, and Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren formed the opposition Democratic Party.

The most important piece of legislation passed during Monroe’s term was the Missouri Compromise. In 1819 a bill to allow Missouri to draft a constitution as a step to statehood came before the House of Representatives. In these proceedings James Tallmadge, a congressman from New York, offered the Tallmadge Amendment. The amendment would have banned the introduction of new slaves into Missouri, and required that all children of slaves be freed on their 25th birthday. The bill passed the House with the amendment, but was rejected in the Senate. The debate raged on for a year until Maine applied for statehood. Speaker of the House Henry Clay maintained that if Maine were given statehood, then Missouri should be given statehood. From this came the idea that states should be admitted in pairs, one free and one slave. A compromise bill was passed where Missouri was able to enter the Union as a slave state, with Maine entering as a free state, preserving the 50-50 slave state/free state balance in the Senate. The bill further prohibited slavery in the Louisiana territory north of 36°30′ north except in Missouri. The Missouri Compromise settled the slavery question until it was reopened by the Mexican-American War. Some people, including Thomas Jefferson, disagreed with the compromise because he felt the better way was through diffusion, which would have allowed for eventual emancipation by spreading slavery to thin. The Missouri Compromise also split the country along sectional lines, which could be seen as a cause of the Civil War.

In 1824 the Supreme Court decision in the case Gibbons v Ogden ruled that the commerce clause gave the federal government authority over interstate commerce. This ruling also settled the question of whether or not internal improvements were constitutional. This led to three important laws passed under Monroe regarding internal improvements. The first was the General Survey Act, which allowed the President to have surveys made for roads and canals of national or military importance. Monroe decided to have the army corps of engineers do the job. The second act was an appropriation to improve navigation of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers by removing sandbars and other obstructions. Monroe assigned the army corps of engineers to this task as well. The third bill was an extension of the Cumberland Road from Wheeling West Virginia to Zanesville Ohio.

Monroe was faced with the Panic of 1819 not long after assuming office. This panic had its roots in the government allowing the charter of the First Bank of the United States of America to lapse. Without a central bank, several private banks filled the void. These banks flooded the market with easy credit and an expansive monetary policy, which led to excessive land speculation. Once the Second Bank of the United States of America was chartered, it reigned in the easy money policies to put the country back on a sound currency. This restriction of the money supply and credit helped cause to the panic of 1819, which was a necessary correction of the market. A second major factor in the panic was the eruption of Mount Tambora, which led to the “year without a summer”, which led to food shortages in Europe. American farmers stepped in to fill the void, but once European farms recovered, it threw the American agricultural sector into a recession. This was further exasperated when Britain started importing cotton from India, which caused a massive drop in the value of cotton. In the face of the recession, Monroe economized and made sure that the government remained fiscally solvent. Monroe asked for an increase in the tariff in reaction to the panic, but Congress didn’t pass a new law until the Tariff of 1824, which raised rates above the previous Tariff of 1816. The tariff was passed to protect industry from foreign competition, chiefly Great Britain. During Monroe’s term in office the total national debt was reduced from $123.5 million to $83.8 million, a 32% decrease.

For years Spanish controlled Florida was a haven for pirates and runaway slaves. The Seminole Indians were also leading raids into the United States. In order to put an end to the raids, Monroe sent General Andrew Jackson to the border of Florida in 1818. Jackson interpreted his orders as liberally as possible, and invaded Florida, disposed the governor and hung two British citizens he accused of inciting the Seminoles. The incident showed both Monroe and the Spanish that Spain lacked control of the area, and that the United States could take it at anytime. The incident led to the Adams-Onis treaty. Under this treaty the United States gained Florida and Spain relinquished all claims to the Louisiana territory and Oregon Territory. In return the United States relinquished claims to Texas and assumed $5 million in debts that Spain owed to American citizens. The treaty further set the boundaries between the United States and Spain’s American colonies.

Wanting to foster better relations with Great Britain, Monroe entered into two treaties with that country. The first was the Rush-Bagot Treaty, which limited armaments on the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain. The second was the Treaty of 1818, which fixed the border of the United States and Canada at the 49th parallel from the Lake of the woods to the Rocky Mountain. It also set up a ten year joint occupation of the Oregon Country.

The achievement that had the longest lasting impact of Monroe’s administration was the Monroe doctrine. In March of 1822, Monroe recognized the governments of Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Peru and Argentina, all of which had won Independence from Spain. Britain also had a strong interest in seeing Spain’s colonial demise, due to the trade restrictions of mercantilism. British foreign secretary George Channing proposed that the United States and Great Britain make a joint statement warning against future intervention in Latin America. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams vigorously opposed cooperation with Britain and pushed for a unilateral decree. While Monroe thought that Spain was unlikely to retake its colonies, he didn’t want another European power to step in. On December 2nd 1823, Monroe announced the doctrine in his annual message to congress. The doctrine laid out multiple principals

  1. The United States would not accept recolonization of former colonies.
  2. The United States wouldn’t interfere in any existing colonies
  3. The United States would stay out of European affairs
  4. That the Americas weren’t open to new colonization. 

The Monroe Doctrine is a major foundation of American foreign policy that has, unfortunately, been misused by certain presidents over the years. This started with Grover Cleveland when he interposed himself in a border dispute between Venezuela and British Guiana in 1895. Britain wasn’t try to create a new colony, or take over Venezuela, they were trying to settle a border dispute, but Cleveland asserted that the Monroe Doctrine gave the United States an interest in any matter within the hemisphere. This perversion of the Monroe Doctrine later led to Theodore Roosevelt adding his corollary to it, which stated that the United States could intervene in Western Hemisphere nations if it perceived a possible threat from Europe. The doctrine was not meant to be used preemptively or an all encompassing grant of preeminence over the whole of the western hemisphere.

The American Colonization Society was formed to deal with the issue of the number of free blacks within the United States. Both abolitionist and slaveholders joined the society for differing reasons. Slaveholders feared that free blacks might help in inciting a slave revolt. Abolitionists favored the society hoping that it would lead to emancipation. In 1818 Representatives from the society set out for West Africa to find a suitable place for resettlement. Freed slaves, as well as Africans removed from slave ships were settled in the area they found, which became the modern country of Liberia. The resettlement of freed blacks and former slaves in Liberia was done so with their consent on a voluntary basis. As president, Monroe provided funds for resettlement, and the capital of Liberia was named Monrovia in his honor. Though Liberia was meant to be set up as an American colony, Liberia declared its independence in 1847.

Monroe built up coastal defenses as well as adding several ships of the line and frigates to the Navy. Congress ordered military cutbacks under Monroe, and these were handled expertly by Secretary of War John Calhoun. Calhoun crafted a military structure that was heavy on officers with the idea that if war came, the military would have the officers that it needed and would only need to recruit easily trainable privates to fill the ranks. These actions, combined with the treaties with Britain and Spain, make a good case that Monroe was the first national security president.

The first veterans pension law, passed in 1776, granted half pay to veterans that were disabled in the service and were unable to earn a living. In 1817, in his annual message to congress, Monroe asked to further expand the pension laws to include more than just disabled veterans. The Revolutionary War Pension Act of 1818 gave pensions to all Revolutionary War veterans, whether they were disabled or not. The act provided $20 a month for officers and $8 a month for enlisted men. The law was targeted to help veterans that were facing financial difficulties.

Monroe’s served during an era between two storms: After the War of 1812 and the Barbary Pirate Wars, but before the turbulent “Age of Jackson” when sectional strife was heating up. The “Era of Good Feelings” was shattered with the election of 1824 and the return of political parties. None the less, Monroe served admirably during this calm between the storms.

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