Ranking James Monroe

by Jonathan Hobratsch

Today’s blog responds to James Monroe. In the course of my lifetime Monroe has moved up and down in my personal ranking since there are so many ways to evaluate his impact on both foreign policy and on the slavery issue. My most current analysis is below. 

Check my previous posts to find the rankings of previous presidents. 

James Monroe 5th President (1817-1825)

Score: 73/110 total points (66.3% ideal)


Appointments: 9/10

Monroe’s appointments were rather bipartisan and mostly excellent. His Secretary of State was the former Federalist and New Englander, John Quincy Adams, the son of our second president and arguably our greatest Secretary of State and ambassador. William Crawford, the dominant politician of the non-Virginian Southern states, from Madison’s administration, was kept as Secretary of the Treasury. John C. Calhoun, then a moderate Jeffersonian Republican, was Secretary of War. William Wirt, a Virginian with occasional Federalist tendencies, became Attorney General after Monroe moved Richard Rush, another Republican with Federalist tendencies, to ambassador of Great Britain. Monroe’s first Secretary of the Navy was New England Federalist Benjamin Williams Crowninshield, who had held this position for Madison.

In all, he retained Madison’s later–more competent–cabinet members–all people he would have already known while serving as Madison’s Secretary of State.

Selecting Adams was not an easy choice initially. Henry Clay, not yet 40-years-old, was already the most influential man in Congress. He had expected to become Secretary of State, a position assumed to be the launching pad to the presidency considering Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe had held this position. Northerners criticized the Southern dominance of both the presidency and the Secretary of State. Thus, Monroe appointed John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, a pick Monroe believed would convert more Federalists to his party. Clay, feeling snubbed, would oppose Monroe in Congress.

Monroe was also bipartisan in his judicial appointments. His only Supreme Court appointment, Smith Thompson, who Monroe had appointed as Secretary of the Navy to replace Crowninshield, was sympathetic with Federalists and former-Federalists. Even Monroe’s appointments to lower offices were bipartisan.

Overall, Monroe the radical conservative Republican disappeared shortly after his inauguration, and his eagerness for bipartisanship allowed him to appoint offices by merit. However, despite an excellent crop of cabinet secretaries, Monroe was so inactive as a president, outside of Foreign Affairs, that one could argue that he wasted the talent that he had around him.

Party Leadership: 2/5

As stated, Monroe, before his presidency, had been seen as one of the leaders of the conservative wing of the Republican party, but he moderated just as Jefferson and Madison had, to the bitter disappointment of Old Republican leader John Randolph, who had been Monroe’s chief promoter. This moderation set the tone for his party leadership.

Monroe’s presidency encompasses the period known as the Era of Good Feelings, a time of relative political harmony. Relative, because the single-party state was actually beginning to break into clearer factions with with Randolph attacking Monroe from the right and Clay from the left, but also relative because of increased bipartisanship between Monroe and former and failing Federalists. Monroe probably saw the country returning to an era of partisanless politics, as had been the case during Washington’s first term.

Monroe saw himself as another Washington, and as such, would attempt to be everyone’s president. Yet, like Washington, Monroe would retain his biases, however independent he attempted to be. Washington was a Hamiltonian Federalist even when he claimed not to be, and Monroe was still a strict constitutionalist, no matter how moderate he tried to be.

As the Federalist Party had disintegrated into a regional party, partially because Republicans adopted major Federalist policies, it was less necessary for Monroe to be a strong party leader, since he faced no real opposition. In fact, he faced no opposition at all for reelection, even in the general election. Yet, as his second term was coming to an end, his party had split into several factions, many that might have opposed Monroe had he run for a third term. Monroe made no real effort to steer his party, but rather, allowed it break up and let others mold post-Monroe America.  The party of Jefferson and Madison died with Monroe, despite party name being used with JQ Adams.

Monroe, like Madison, was opposed by intraparty leaders to the left (Henry Clay) and right (John Randolph) of him throughout his presidency.

As the necessity of a party leader was less important in a one-party state, this area will have less importance to Monroe’s score.

Economics and Finance: 7/10

Monroe’s economic policies included measures, which were favored by Federalists and future Whigs. This included continuing the Second Bank of the United States and signing the protective Tariff of 1824, which favored the industrialized North, but was opposed by many in the South.

Monroe inherited Madison’s booming post-war economy, another reason for the term Era of Good Feelings. However, prosperity lasted only two years.

The Panic of 1819 was the first major peacetime financial crisis. It resulted in unusually high unemployment and an increase in foreclosures and bankruptcies. Monroe practically did nothing to stop it, as he believed the Constitution did not allow him to interfere in panics and depressions. The primary causes for the panic were land speculation and inflationary practices by the Second Bank of the United States, which Madison had created, and which Monroe had kept. Jackson would later use this episode as a reason to destroy the national bank. By 1821, the panic had subsided, and the economy prospered once again.

Outside of the two-year recession, the economy was more or less booming. Additionally, he reduced the national debt.

Business and Labor: 2/5

This was not a major area of attention for early presidents. Both business and labor saw the worst economic panic in US history up to that time. Many of these businesses and workers likely did not recover from the two-year panic.

As Monroe presided during the first economic collapse, it is hard to give him a high score in this area, despite relative prosperity for most of his administration.

Social Welfare: 3/5

This was not a major area of concern for early presidents. Monroe was one of our least active president in domestic areas. Traditionally, he opposed social welfare; yet, he not only maintained the early social welfare programs of his predecessors, which were all focused around military veterans, but he also expanded them. He signed the Revolutionary War Pension Act of 1818, which gave military veterans a pensions whether they were disabled or not. By 1818, just about every veteran was over the age of 50. Monroe had been a veteran of the war himself.

Civil Rights and Liberties: 5/10

Monroe’s evolution into a bipartisan, more moderate politician also reached somewhat to the issues of slavery and Native American affairs.

Monroe, a slaveholder, had to deal with the first major slavery issue. Monroe accepted a compromise bill, but he refused to allow any bill that would limit slavery in the new state of Missouri. When Northerners feared the admission of Missouri as a slave state, a deal was struck to admit Maine, still legally part of Massachusetts, to create a new free state in order to balance out the states once again in the US Senate. The Missouri Compromise also established a border prohibiting states above the 36° 30′ parallel from becoming slave states. While compromising, it was also heavily divisive and plant a seed for the Civil War. Former president Thomas Jefferson, terrified by the Compromise, believed it would lead to the destruction of the Union.

Monroe and Congress punted on the slavery issue with the Missouri Compromise. It’s difficult to know whether or not to give Monroe credit for finding a temporary “fix” or to blame him for making slavery arguably the central issue between North and South by signing a document that drew a line across the country. By this point, Monroe would have been privy to the debates against slavery on moral and ethical grounds. He could have made a stand by restricting slavery in Missouri, and as a popular Southerner, he was likely to have been successful in restricting slavery there had he been the type of man to show any presidential assertiveness in domestic affairs. In total, Monroe would see three slave states and two free states enter the Union during his presidency.

The deportation of former slaves was another slavery issue during Monroe’s presidency. Monroe, along with many Southerners and some Northerners, believed that one solution to the slavery issue could be found by deporting some slaves and former slaves to a colony in Africa, which eventually became the Republic of Liberia, a US colony until 1847 when Liberia declared independence. Their capital is named Monrovia, after James Monroe. The president eventually declined to use federal funding for deportation, but the American Colonization Society, of which Monroe was a supporter, worked and funded this mission through African-American volunteers. The end goal for most Southerners, was to keep only those African-Americans that were enslaved, while the goal for most Northerners in the Society was to see the gradual emancipation of slaves. Both sides believed that African-Americans would fare better in Liberia than in the United States. James Madison and Henry Clay were also supporters of this society. Overall the society was both paternalistic and white supremacist.

Monroe attempted to play the moderate even in Native American affairs. He signed the Civilization Fund Act, which was a charity to educate and civilize Indian tribes. This was actually a follow up on a Madison idea. Despite this token gesture of peace and friendship, he was involved in several wars against Indian tribes. However, it should be noted that he refused to evict Native Americans on the Yazoo lands in Georgia, even after they refused government offers to purchase the land.

For Americans that were allowed citizenship and voting rights, Monroe neither improved nor took away from civil rights or liberties.

Domestic Unrest and Criminal Justice: 5/5

Monroe’s presidency saw no significant unrest or major criminal justice issues.

Immigration and Citizenship: 8/10

Monroe made no significant changes to the lenient immigration policies of his predecessors. The last couple years of Madison’s presidency saw the beginning of a surge of European immigrants leaving post-Napoleonic Europe for a country less ravaged by warfare. This continued throughout Monroe’s presidency.

Infrastructure and Domestic Improvements: 4/10

Monroe, like Madison, believed that internal improvements were necessary for modernizing the country, but also like Madison, he thought that it was unconstitutional for the US government to fund infrastructure. Monroe had Henry Clay on one side calling for a major push in federally funded improvements and his former chief promoter John Randolph vehemently opposed to them. Again like Madison, Monroe called for Congress to pass an amendment to allow internal improvements, but Clay’s wing shot down passing such an amendment since it seemed clear to the majority of Congress that the Constitution allows for such necessary and proper improvements.

Monroe opted not to stop any ongoing internal improvements, but he vetoed new internal improvements passed by Congress with a few exceptions.

Despite misgivings, he allowed construction of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, after the state-funded Erie Canal proved so successful for New York’s commerce and for national shipping in general. In Monroe’s final year of his presidency the Supreme Court confirmed that the government had the power to fund internal improvements because of the Commerce Clause. The Supreme Court’s opinion was good enough for Monroe, as he signed the final two internal improvement bills placed on his desk, both dealing with surveying for future improvement projects.

Overall, Monroe seemed to be perplexed on internal improvements, showing extremely passive leadership. He does get some credit for not opposing these projects following the Supreme Court decision Gibbons v. Ogden.

Energy, Resources, and Environment: 0/0

This area was basically ignored by early presidents, such as Monroe. Thus, it will not be counted towards his score.

Misc. Domestic: 3/5

Like Jefferson and Madison, Monroe’s presidency dealt with westward expansion. Monroe signed the Land Act of 1820, which made land purchases extremely affordable for anyone who was adventurous enough to move west, at the expense of the American Indian population whose land was occasionally confiscated. The Land Act, while decreasing the cost of land in the west, was more restrictive since banned the use of credit and banned installment payments. Land had to be purchased in full and up front. This was a reaction to the Panic of 1819, which had left many farmers too poor to pay for land that was being paid for on credit or in installments. In short, only the financially stable had the luxury of moving west.

Monroe also allowed the government to pay for the Yellowstone Expedition to the relatively unknown West as a sort of follow up to Lewis & Clark, but like movie sequels, this second expedition received less attention and was less fruitful.

Lastly, Monroe did nothing to increase democracy as Jefferson had aimed to do with the selling of cheap property, and as Jackson would encourage through Jacksonian Democracy (Ranking Andrew Jackson will elaborate on this). The popular vote still did not exist in several states.

Foreign Diplomacy: 9/10

Monroe, despite his innate dislike of the British that was developed during the American Revolution, was able to improve damaged relations with the British through the Treaty of 1818 and the Rush-Bagot Treaty. This first treaty set the boundary between Canada and the United States in the west. The United Kingdom ceded a much larger chunk of land than the US did, with America losing a sliver of land north of present day Montana, but gaining what would be a good portion of present day North Dakota, Minnesota and a bit of South Dakota. In addition, it regulated commerce between the countries, established fishing rights and set the rule for joint control of Oregon Country for ten years. The Rush-Bagot Treaty was a mutual disarmament treaty in all the lakes that touched the Canadian-US border. These treaties also expanded trade between the countries, with US cotton becoming a major commodity for the British. While beneficial for American trade, this latter result probably emboldened Southerners in their defense of slavery and “King Cotton.”

Relations with Spain had already been damaged when Monroe took office. The US had annexed part of Spanish Florida and made covert and overt efforts to take the rest of Florida. Under Monroe, Spanish affairs had initially gotten worse with the outbreak of the Seminole War, which involved General Andrew Jackson invading Spanish Florida in order to get to Seminoles crossing back over into Spanish territory. Fortunately, Monroe was able to have John Quincy Adams either mollify or intimidate the Spanish (interpretation varies) into negotiate a treaty to purchase Florida from Spain. By now, the Spanish government saw that they had little control over the peninsula and little resources on hand to defend or retaliate to US-Spanish affairs in Florida and so they accepted the Adams-Onis Treaty. This treaty also established the boundaries between the United States and Spanish Territory west of Louisiana from Texas to California.

Monroe also opened relations with the Russians. The Russians had just acquired Alaska, laid claim to much of the West Coast, and refused to open any of these new Russian ports to foreign ships. Again, the diplomatic response was mostly the work of John Quincy Adams, who not only compelled Russia to shrink the land that they claimed on the West Coast, but also opened these ports to US ships with the Russo-American Treaty. In exchange, America recognized the claims of Russia. The next year, a Russian Treaty with Great Britain would shrink Russia’s borders further, creating the current shape of Alaska.

While these diplomatic maneuvers are impressive, the most well-known foreign policy action was the Monroe Doctrine, mostly created by Sec. Adams. It declared that the US would maintain neutrality in European wars, but that it would defend any of the recently independent countries and any future independent countries in the Western Hemisphere from any European attempts at takeover. The doctrine was made with mostly the Russians and Spanish in mind, and was created with cooperation of the British, who sponsored the enforcement of the doctrine with their navy. This doctrine made the US the nominal master of the Western Hemisphere, even though they probably would not have had the fleet or personnel to prevent any takeover of a South American country. Except for a few incidents, the doctrine has kept Europe from interfering; although the US has since broken its promise not to interfere with European affairs.

Overall, the diplomatic success of the administration can be attributed to not only Sec. Adams’s ability as a diplomat, but also Monroe’s willingness to delegate to a man whose powers of diplomacy were greater than his own. Monroe, a man with significant diplomatic experience, could have taken more control over this area he had wanted. Monroe should also be credited for being flexible with the British, despite his lifelong hatred of the British.

Peace, Defense, and Warfare: 7/10

The most notable war of the Monroe administration was the First Seminole War. Creek refugees from General Jackson’s Creek War during the previous administration had joined Seminoles in Spanish Florida after their land was taken from them, which helped increase the already anti-American resentment among the Florida Seminoles. Just as Monroe was about to take office, American terrorists had crossed over into Spanish Florida and attacked villagers and stolen cattle. The Seminole retaliated by crossing into Georgia, stealing cattle and killing a woman and her two children.

Once Monroe was in office, a group of Seminoles attacked a supply boat, which was sailing up a river in Florida, which connected Georgia to the Gulf of Mexico. Nearly all of the 40 to 50 people on the boat were killed.  General Andrew Jackson, who had recently invaded Spanish Florida unilaterally, was ordered to go back in with about 3,000 men plus 1,400 allied Creek. He then burned Tallahassee, Florida, then an “Indian town”, to the ground, followed by subsequent burnings that destroyed hundreds of Seminole homes. After destroying what he believed to be all of the Seminole villages, and killing at least 40 tribesmen, Jackson returned to Georgia.

Jackson’s military excursion proved popular to the general public, but worried the administration. Monroe could not control Jackson’s action, since Jackson was routinely impulsive and removing the popular Jackson would have been political sabotage. Therefore, rather than censuring him, Monroe defended Jackson’s actions against critics. In addition to wars against Seminole and Creek tribes, the military under Monroe was at war with the Arikara tribe in present day South Dakota. This war was brief, but it set the stage for later “Indian wars” in this region, including those with the Sioux.

Other than these wars against both “civilized” and “uncivilized” tribes, Monroe was able to avoid getting into any major wars. Despite this, he wanted to increase the military in peacetime, which was a change in platform from previous Republican administrations. However, he relented when Congress requested to cut the defense budget by half. Coastal defenses were increased during his administration, however.

Scandal and Corruption: 4/5

Monroe was able to avoid any major scandals or corruption in his administration. He was bipartisan enough to avoid cronyism, but he didn’t crack down on any inherent corruption in the system.

One example of potential corruption stands out; although, it is possible that this was only a coincidence. During the War of 1812, when Monroe was handling both the State and War Departments for Madison, Monroe accepted a loan for $5,000 (almost $100,000 in US dollars) from fur merchant John Jacob Astor, who was arguably the richest man in America.  A few years later, Astor would write President Monroe requesting that Monroe repeal a recent ban on foreign merchants in the fur trade. Monroe, potentially remembering the loan, agreed to remove this ban, which allowed Astor to continue his domination of the fur trade. Astor had near complete control of the fur trade by 1830.

Intangibles: 5/10

Monroe, just as Jefferson had done with his introduction of the handshake, took a further step in humanizing the office of the presidency—he delivered his inauguration outdoors, away from fellow politicians, and directed his words to the people.

Monroe was also the first president of Scots-Irish descent–all previous presidents had been of English descent. The Scots-Irish, along with Germans, made up the largest immigration groups of preceding generations.

Monroe left office after having served two terms. His second term was nearly unanimous (a token vote was handed to John Quincy Adams). Had he run for a third term, he would have likely faced strong competition from a nation demanding modernization. Additionally, the younger crop of politician were extremely ambitious. The fracturing of Monroe’s one party state can be seen in the next election, as four major independent candidates vied for the election in one of the most confusing elections in US history.

I give Monroe a mediocre grade for his intangibles since his relative lack of activity brought little influence on future presidents or on the country, outside of what has already been mentioned in this blog. Monroe was somehow both extremely popular in his time and extremely antiquated in his time. In short, he was a period piece likely to lay in the dustbin of history a few hundred years from now as he is greatly overshadowed by his contemporaries Jefferson and Jackson.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Anonymous says:

    Well done. Though we sense the gathering storm that led to the Civil War.


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