Atlantic History James Monroe
by
Cassandra Good, Scott Harris
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 December 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0263

Introduction

Remembered primarily as the fifth president of the United States, James Monroe (b. 1758–d. 1831) compiled a more extensive résumé of prior public service than any other occupant of the office to date. Monroe left his studies at the College of William and Mary in 1776 to join the Continental Army, and he saw combat over the next two years (including the Battle of Trenton, in which he was wounded). From the 1780s to 1816, he was a member of the Virginia Council of State, Congress of the Confederation, Virginia House of Delegates, and the US Senate. He also served as American minister to France, Spain, and Great Britain; governor of Virginia (four terms); and US secretary of state and US secretary of war. Monroe’s two terms in the White House (1817–1825) were popularly known as the “Era of Good Feelings.” Although the term derives from two extensive tours he made of the northern and southern regions of the country in 1817 and 1819, it also reflected the national decline of the Federalist Party and the end of his desire to foster a more nonpartisan political environment. Monroe’s lack of success with this approach is evidenced by the factional split that developed in his Democratic-Republican Party and the succeeding rise of Democrats and Whigs as the principal contending political movements. Although political harmony was not a lasting legacy of Monroe’s presidency, it did include such major milestones as the Missouri Compromise (1820), diplomatic recognition of emerging South American republics, and promulgation of what would later be called the “Monroe Doctrine,” which declared the western hemisphere closed to further European colonization (1823). Monroe served briefly as president of the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1829 before declining health compelled his retirement from public life. He died at the New York home of his daughter, Maria Gouverneur, on 4 July 1831. In 1858 his remains were transferred to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.

Biography

A number of biographies have been written on Monroe, but the most thorough and reliable is Ammon 1990. This work supersedes most earlier biographies, although some readers may find Cresson 1946 of interest. Hart 2005 and Unger 2009 are popular with general readers but not of use to scholars. The latest and most innovative scholarship on Monroe’s life is featured in Leibiger 2013 and Poston 2012. For a good starting point on Monroe’s life, particularly with a focus on visual and material culture, Preston 2008 is useful.

  • Ammon, Harry. James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990.

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    An authoritative biography of Monroe, drawing on in-depth research in personal papers (but occasionally making unfounded conclusions). This work should be the starting point for both serious scholars and casual readers.

  • Cresson, William Penn. James Monroe. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1946.

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    Cresson’s biography of Monroe, which was incomplete at his death and finished by others, reflects evolving scholarship related to Monroe between Morgan’s and Ammon’s works. It was the standard biography of Monroe until the publication of Ammon’s book.

  • Hart, Gary. James Monroe. The American Presidents Series. New York: Times, 2005.

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    Hart’s short volume focuses on Monroe’s presidency. He argues that Monroe was the first “national security president” and focuses on Monroe’s diplomatic vision. Hart’s political experience and obvious empathy with his subject make this a readable (if not wholly objective) study.

  • Leibiger, Stuart Eric, ed. A Companion to James Madison and James Monroe. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

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    This thorough volume comprises thirty-two articles by leading scholars. Examines both men’s political careers, philosophies, relationships, and homes. Detailed articles on Monroe help establish the latest historiography on many aspects of his life.

  • Poston, Brook Carl. “James Monroe and Historical Legacy.” PhD diss., Texas Christian University, 2012.

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    Poston’s dissertation asks why Monroe is seldom remembered and explores how Monroe attempted to secure his legacy over the course of his career.

  • Preston, Daniel. James Monroe: An Illustrated History. Missoula, MT: Pictorial Histories, 2008.

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    A brief overview of Monroe’s life and career accompanied by portraits, images of Monroe’s homes, and period artifacts. It is the best single published collection of illustrations pertaining to the subject.

  • Unger, Harlow G. The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2009.

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    Attempts to offer a new and favorable gloss on Monroe and draws heavily on the work of others. It is marred by inaccuracies and should not be cited by scholars.

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