James Monroe, the fifth president and the last of the great trio of Virginia Republicans who had held the presidency since 1801, was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, on 28 April 1758. His father's family, of Scottish origin, had been settled in the county for a century, but with modest holdings of only six hundred acres the Monroes had never cut a large figure in colonial affairs. When his father, Spence, died in 1774, Monroe, his sister, and two younger brothers were placed under the guardianship of his uncle, Joseph Jones of King George County, one of the most influential leaders during the revolutionary era. Jones, who was then childless, took an active interest in his nephew, and it was with Jones's encouragement that Monroe entered William and Mary College in 1774—the first of his family to attend college, as he later proudly recalled—but his residence there was brief.
Caught up in the enthusiasm for the revolutionary cause, he enlisted in the Third Virginia Regiment in the spring of 1775. Within months the young lieutenant was fighting with Washington at New York. He won fame and promotion to major for his heroism when he and a handful of men put out of action the British cannons blocking Washington's advance at Trenton. As aide-de-camp to General William Alexander, Monroe wintered at Valley Forge and fought at Monmouth. Preferring a field command to the routine of a staff officer, Monroe returned to Virginia in the summer of 1779, in the hope of raising a regiment.
Unable to obtain recruits, Monroe's spirits were at a low ebb when he met Thomas Jefferson, the governor of Virginia. This meeting constituted a turning point in Monroe's life, establishing a close and enduring friendship, cemented by common intellectual interests and political objectives. Jefferson sensed in Monroe not only a warm and generous character but also a powerful determination to be of service to his country no matter what the cost might be. Monroe's close association with one of the most original and best informed minds of the day was a decisive influence in his intellectual development.
In 1782, Monroe entered the House of Burgesses from King George County, where he had begun to practice law. His abilities were immediately recognized by the established leaders in the state and the next year won him membership in the Virginia delegation to the Continental Congress, along with Jefferson. When Jefferson left in July 1784 to take up his post as minister to France, he left for Monroe a collection of books and his French cook, but his most valuable gift was a letter of introduction to James Madison. Jefferson's praise of Monroe to his old friend was unstinted: "The scrupulousness of his honor will make you safe in the most confidential communications. A better man cannot be." Thus was forged the final link in the great collaboration that shaped the future of the early Republic.
In Congress, Monroe moved rapidly to the fore-front of the leaders committed to strengthening the Articles of Confederation. His most constructive work as a delegate was the drafting of the plan of territorial government incorporated in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the blocking of the move to close the Mississippi to American navigation in return for commercial concessions from Spain.
When his term ended in 1786, Monroe was not alone on his homeward trip to Virginia. Beside him in his carriage was his bride of eight months, the former Elizabeth Kortright, daughter of a once wealthy New York merchant. Much admired for her beauty, the elegance of her dress, and the refinement of her polished, if rather formal, manners, she brought to Monroe the happiness of family life so much prized by his generation. In the terms of the age, she conducted herself as an ideal wife should, devoted to her children and never obtruding in political concerns. The Monroes lived for two years in Fredericksburg, where he opened a law office. Then, in 1789, they moved to a plantation he purchased in Albemarle County, thus realizing Monroe's cherished dream of living within a few miles of Jefferson's estate, Monticello. Since the Madisons lived but twenty miles away in Orange County, social visits and political conferences were easily arranged. It was in Virginia that Monroe's two daughters were born—Eliza in 1786 and Maria Hester in 1802.
At home in Virginia, Monroe combined an active county law practice with the management of his plantation and membership in the state legislature. As a member of the Virginia ratifying convention, he opposed the Constitution, objecting to the excessive power granted to the Senate and the president. The law had little appeal for Monroe, and he readily abandoned his practice after his election to the United States Senate in 1790. He continued, nonetheless, to supervise his plantation, which remained the principal source of his income. He always considered farming his profession and politics but an avocation.
As a senator, Monroe worked closely with Madison, then in the House, in combating the Hamiltonian fiscal program. He aided Jefferson and Madison in laying the groundwork of opposition to Washington's policies, which culminated in the formation of the Republican party. In 1794, President Washington appointed Monroe to succeed Federalist Gouverneur Morris as minister to France in the hope that the selection of a Republican would improve relations strained by France's conviction that the Washington administration was pro-British. The ratification of Jay's Treaty in 1795 confirmed the French government in its belief that Washington was hostile to the revolutionary movement and rendered ineffective Monroe's efforts at reconciliation. Irritated by Monroe's open enthusiasm for the revolutionary regime, Washington abruptly recalled him in 1796. Monroe responded with a lengthy pamphlet attacking the administration. His View of the Conduct of the Executive in Foreign Affairs . . . (Philadelphia, 1798) was approved by fellow Republicans and won him the governorship of Virginia in 1799.
Just before leaving for France in 1794, Monroe had purchased a more extensive estate adjacent to Monticello. Selling his earlier holdings, he now made his home on his new plantation of twenty-five hundred acres, which he named Highlands (now known as Ashlawn). Until his election as president, he and his family lived in a simple frame house at Highlands.
As Virginia's governor from 1799 to 1802, Monroe improved the administrative organization of the state government, providing stronger leadership than his predecessors. He was the first governor to use the annual message to outline matters needing legislative action. His effective handling of the abortive slave uprising known as Gabriel's Rebellion was highly praised.
Monroe's third term as governor had no sooner ended than Jefferson, in January 1803, appointed him as special envoy to France to negotiate the purchase of a site on the lower Mississippi as a port of deposit. The abrupt suspension of the right of deposit by the Spanish authorities made the mission an urgent one. Accompanied by his wife and daughters, Monroe reached Paris on 12 April 1803, to be coolly greeted by the resident minister, Robert R. Livingston, who had just learned after months of importuning that Napoleon was willing to sell all Louisiana. Faced by the fact that it was all or nothing, Livingston and Monroe ignored the limitations of their instructions and signed an agreement. Monroe rightly assumed that his friendship with President Jefferson and Secretary of State Madison would ensure the acceptance of the treaty.
After completing his mission to France, Monroe was named minister to Great Britain, where he remained until 1807 except for a foray to Madrid in a vain effort to purchase Florida. His main objectives in England were to secure recognition of American principles of neutral rights and a cessation of impressment. Not until 1806, when Charles James Fox became foreign secretary after twenty years in opposition, did Monroe see any hope of a modification of long-standing British policy. He at once began negotiations but had to postpone them, pending the arrival of special envoy William Pinkney.
Fox's illness and death a few months after Pinkney's arrival so weakened the cabinet that major policy changes could not be undertaken. Nonetheless, Monroe and Pinkney concluded an agreement that modified British commercial restrictions but contained no provision on impressment. The best they could obtain from the British commissioners was a note appended to the treaty promising that the "strictest care" would be taken "to preserve the citizens of the United States from any molestation or injury." In accepting this informal statement, Monroe assured Madison that it meant the end of impressment. Although the British, he said, would never abandon a basic principle, they would alter policy through admiralty orders.
Monroe was truly shocked when Jefferson rejected the treaty without submitting it to the Senate. Having been absent so long, Monroe did not realize that the administration regarded impressment as the central issue. Madison, expecting Monroe to return much earlier, had failed to make the point clear in his instructions. The treaty had the misfortune to arrive in Washington at the same time as the news of the British orders-in-council of January 1807, which banned neutral trade with the Continent.
When Monroe returned home in 1807, he was warmly received by Jefferson and Madison but disappointed at their failure to seek his advice on foreign affairs. During the next few years his relations with Madison, whom he blamed for the rejection of the treaty, were strained. No longer did the Madisons stop at Highlands on their regular visits to Monticello. It was through Jefferson's good offices that the friendship was restored, for, as Jefferson told Monroe, if he were to lose the friendship of either he would regard it as the "greatest of calamities which could assail my future peace of mind."