James Monroe - Monroe as president: the "era of good feelings" begins
In choosing his cabinet Monroe honored established precedent, reappointing his predecessor's secretaries and preserving a geographical balance. Crawford was continued in the Treasury, although he had hoped for a transfer to the State Department as the probable successor to Monroe. Benjamin Crownin-shield, a New Englander with a mercantile background, remained in the Navy Department, and Richard Rush of Pennsylvania continued as attorney general until late in 1817, when he was named minister to Great Britain, a post more to his liking. Rush's replacement was William Wirt, a successful Baltimore lawyer celebrated for his popular biography of Patrick Henry. Having no political ambitions, Wirt continued to busy himself with his private practice, since the attorney generalship was a part-time office.
In an effort to broaden the geographical basis of his administration, Monroe wanted to place a westerner in the War Department. After a series of refusals, including one from Henry Clay, who, as a presidential aspirant, was unwilling to enter the cabinet in a lesser post than that held by Crawford, Monroe selected John C. Calhoun. The South Carolinian had demonstrated a command of military affairs while a member of the House during the war. Intellectually gifted, tall, and handsome, the thirty-five-year-old Calhoun presented an image vastly different from the gloomy one of his later years. He gave the War Department an efficient administration that effected substantial economies.
The major post, that of secretary of state, went to John Quincy Adams, who had been absent from the United States since 1809 on a series of diplomatic appointments that had taken him from St. Petersburg, to Ghent, and then to London. The son of a Federalist president and himself a former Federalist, he had been one of the moderate Federalists who had entered Republican ranks during Jefferson's administration. Monroe chose Adams because of his extensive diplomatic experience, a consideration Monroe felt had been ignored by previous administrations. Monroe also intended to disabuse people of the notion that the incumbent in the Department of State was necessarily the president's hand-picked successor. In this Monroe failed. Within a year Adams had developed a solid core of supporters in Congress and was considered a major candidate for the presidency.
Adams—a cold, pedantic man, ill at ease in large gatherings and unprepossessing in appearance (he was short, plump, and balding)—proved the ablest of the secretaries and intensely loyal to his chief. Adams' passion for work, concern for detail, and ability to draft forceful and logical state papers made him invaluable. He genuinely admired Monroe for his sound judgment, although he was frequently irked by the deliberate processes of the president's mind. Sharing, as they did, a common view of American foreign policy goals, their working relationship was extremely harmonious. While Monroe kept full control over policy decisions, he entrusted Adams with all discussions with foreign diplomats. Because Monroe felt that Jefferson's and Madison's habit of casual discussion with diplomats had been a source of confusion, the president restricted his contact with diplomats to formal and ceremonial occasions. Adams' lengthy political diary provides an intimate view of the workings of the Monroe administration.
The only significant change in the cabinet during Monroe's two terms was in the Navy Department. Crowninshield resigned in 1818 and was replaced by Smith Thompson of New York, who remained until 1823, when he was shunted to the Supreme Court at the request of Senator Martin Van Buren of New York. Van Buren, a rising power in the Republican party, was committed to Crawford and felt it essential to squelch Thompson's ambitions. Thompson was succeeded (probably at Calhoun's suggestion) by former Senator Samuel L. Southard of New Jersey. Personally agreeable, Southard was a close friend of Samuel L. Gouverneur, the New Yorker who married Monroe's younger daughter, Maria Hester.
To signalize the coming era of party harmony and the renewal of national unity, Monroe followed George Washington's example by embarking on a tour of the nation. This he completed in two segments, visiting New England and the Middle Atlantic states in 1817 and making a less extensive tour in the West and South two years later. His purpose was clearly understood. Fittingly, it was in a Federalist newspaper, as the editor welcomed the approaching end of party warfare, that the phrase "Era of Good Feelings" made its appearance. Monroe's northward journey was the occasion of unprecedented demonstrations—troops of militia, parades, banquets, and delegations of citizens who greeted him fulsomely not only as president but as a celebrated hero of the Revolution.
The high point was reached in Boston, where the streets were lined with a crowd estimated at forty thousand. After a public banquet attended by leading Federalists, Monroe made a round of private visits to old opponents of his party. So great was the rush of Federalists to do him homage that, as Abigail Adams shrewdly remarked, it was like an "expiation" for sins. She attributed Monroe's success in winning approval to "his agreeable affability . . . unassuming manners . . . [and] his polite attentions to all orders and ranks."
Monroe had every reason to feel that his tour had succeeded in its objectives. By 1819 every New England state but one was in the hands of the Republicans. The presidential election of 1820, in which he received all but one of the electoral votes, seemed another proof that party conflict had ceased to be a factor in national political life.
The president and his family did not move into the executive mansion until September 1817, for not until then were the renovations after the fire completed. It was at this time that the mansion, covered with white paint to conceal the scars of fire, became widely known as the White House. At first the Monroes used their own furniture, awaiting the arrival from France of draperies, china, furniture, wall coverings, marble mantelpieces, and ormolu clocks (ordered without nudes). During their residences in France, Monroe and his wife had acquired a preference for French styles not only in furnishings but in social usages.
The presidential family consisted of Mrs. Monroe; Eliza and her husband, George Hay; and the president's youngest brother, Joseph, who acted as a private secretary. Until he returned to New York in 1820 after marrying Maria Hester, Monroe's youngest daughter, Samuel L. Gouverneur was a frequent resident and occasional secretary to the president. Since funds were not provided for staffing the White House, Monroe employed his own servants. With the Monroes a note of formality reminiscent of the Washington years reappeared. At official dinner parties, strict precedence, much to the pleasure of the diplomats, replaced Jefferson's pell-mell. Dinners were served in the formal French manner, with the dishes handed around by the servants. It took official and social Washington some time to recover from Mrs. Monroe's announcement that she, unlike Dolley Madison, would neither return nor make calls. She would, however, be at home in the mornings to receive callers. During Monroe's second term his wife was frequently ill, and so her duties as hostess were filled by her daughter Eliza.
Monroe continued the custom of biweekly evening receptions (known as drawing rooms), which had been abandoned by Jefferson but resumed by the Madisons. The doors were open to all citizens properly dressed. The president received guests standing in the Oval Room. His wife and Eliza, whose stylish dresses were the envy of every Washington lady, were seated beside him. As the guests walked about the rooms, servants passed trays of refreshments and music was usually provided by the marine band. Apart from these occasions, the president and his family led a very private life. When his daughter Maria Hester was married in the White House, only members of the family were present. The president, again following Washington's usage, did not accept invitations from the diplomatic corps, members of the cabinet, or members of Congress.
During the sessions there might be as many as twenty at dinner, for every caller was usually invited to dine. On these all-male occasions Mrs. Monroe was not present. Since the president's salary of $25,000 without any supplements was inadequate to cover the cost of entertaining, Monroe's indebtedness, already large, increased rapidly.
During the war years Monroe had been able to make infrequent visits to Albemarle. He preferred to stay at Oak Hill, a property he had acquired many years earlier, only thirty miles from the capital. Although the plantation was not as large as Highlands, he regarded the Oak Hill estate as more fertile and potentially more productive; consequently, after his election to the presidency, he decided to make it his principal residence and constructed a handsome porticoed mansion.
In response to the disappearance of political parties, Monroe developed new methods of executive leadership. Every president since Washington had relied upon party loyalty to ensure congressional approval of administration measures. Bereft of party support, Monroe turned to the members of his cabinet as a source of power. Three of the secretaries—Adams, Crawford, and Calhoun—as aspirants to the presidency had substantial followings in Congress. Of the leading hopefuls only Henry Clay had elected to remain outside the administration. It was not until Monroe's second term that Andrew Jackson's strength as a candidate was evident. As John Quincy Adams' diary makes abundantly clear, Monroe's frequent cabinet meetings were not held to secure advice but to hammer out a consensus. It is noteworthy that Monroe was able to win congressional approval for every measure that had the support of the cabinet. He never consulted the secretaries when he knew agreement was impossible.
To a greater extent than his predecessors, Monroe used his annual messages to outline concerns needing legislative attention rather than merely as a general report on the main events of the past years. Personal contact with congressmen played an important role, and here Monroe's openness and personal warmth were effective. Every day during the sessions of Congress there was a constant stream of visitors to the White House; no appointments were needed, the president received all, and, as was expected, he usually invited his callers to dinner.