The former senator and presidential candidate offers a provocative new assessment of the first "national security president"
James Monroe is remembered today primarily for two things: for being the last of the "Virginia Dynasty"--following George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison--and for issuing the Monroe Doctrine, his statement of principles in 1823 that the western hemisphere was to be considered closed to European intervention. But Gary Hart sees Monroe as a president ahead of his time, whose priorities and accomplishments in establishing America's "national security" have a great deal in common with chief executives of our own time.
Unlike his predecessors Jefferson and Madison, Monroe was at his core a military man. He joined the Continental Army at the age of seventeen and served with distinction in many pivotal battles. (He is prominently featured at Washington's side in the iconic painting Washington Crossing the Delaware.) And throughout his career as a senator, governor, ambassador, secretary of state, secretary of war, and president, he never lost sight of the fact that without secure borders and friendly relations with neighbors, the American people could never be truly safe in their independence. As president he embarked on an ambitious series of treaties, annexations, and military confrontations that would secure America's homeland against foreign attack for nearly two hundred years. Hart details the accomplishments and priorities of this forward-looking president, whose security concerns clearly echo those we face in our time.
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October 01, 2005
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Excerpt from James Monroe by Gary Hart
The Portrait of a Patriot
The tall, rough-hewn eighteen-year-old, quick to join his William and Mary classmates in insurrection against the king, was a product of Westmoreland County, what was called the Northern Neck of Virginia. Born on April 28, 1758, James Monroe was the son of Spence Monroe, who signed himself both carpenter and gentleman, and the former Elizabeth Jones, daughter of the architect James Jones. In 1766, when James was eight, Spence Monroe joined Northern Neck farmers in signing a pledge against the consumption of English imports until repeal of the hated Stamp Act, marking him a "patriot." James's uncle, Joseph Jones, was a judge and member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, serving on its committees that drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Virginia Constitution, and a member of the Continental Congress. Judge Jones claimed a "confidential" friendship with George Washington and close relations with both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and he was to be the formative early political influence on James Monroe's life, his patron, and a constant adviser on matters ranging from personal finance to high political ambition.
One biographer has written that Monroe, as an adult, "resembled his uncle in many ways--reflective, never rushing to conclusions but forming opinions deliberately. The same tact, warmth, and patience in human relations, so pronounced in the judge's character, wereequally apparent in the nephew."1 Later in life, when it came to confrontation with Alexander Hamilton, Edmund Randolph, less directly John Adams, and even George Washington himself, Monroe's tact and patience would be sorely tested and frayed.
Young Monroe was accompanied on his long, woods-lined walks to Parson Campbell's school, Campbelltown Academy, by his neighbor and friend John Marshall, the future chief justice of the United States. With their schoolbooks in mathematics and Latin, both boys carried frontier rifles. Marshall, slightly older, would also join Monroe at William and Mary in 1774 and from there into the Continental army. Just three months after the Revolutionary Virginia Convention passed its own "declaration of independence" on May 15, 1776, Lieutenant Monroe, with the Third Virginia Regiment, marched out of Williamsburg northward to join the Continentals under Washington at New York. Three years later, when Monroe headed back to Virginia seeking recruits for another regiment, he left with the letter from Washington describing his combat service in considerable detail and recommending him as "a brave, active, and sensible officer" and expressing "the high opinion I have of his worth."
Despite his plan, conveyed to Jefferson in the fall of 1781 at the conclusion of five years' military service, to travel to Europe to study, Monroe was elected to the Virginia Assembly from neighboring King George County the following year. During this period, Jefferson began his lifelong role as mentor to Monroe. "Jefferson, as he was to do on many subsequent occasions, exerted a decisive influence on Monroe's life," writes Monroe's biographer Harry Ammon. "At this time, Monroe, who was floundering about and had no idea what to do with himself, badly needed advice and encouragement. The Governor [Jefferson] provided exactly the right tonic, administered with tact, understanding, and a very real concern about the young man's fate."2 With his friend Marshall, Monroe was soon elected to Virginia's eight-member Executive Council, "rather young for a Councillor," according to one observer. He continued on the political fast track by being elected to the fourth ConfederationCongress in June 1783 and two subsequent congresses thereafter. Rembrandt Peale's famous painting of Washington resigning his commission before the Congress in Annapolis on July 27, 1783, following the signing of a treaty of peace with England, has both Monroe and Madison foremost wearing cocked hats. Monroe, still only twenty-five, dined regularly with Jefferson before the senior figure left for France, as the American minister in Paris.
Among political leaders during this period, Monroe was on the forefront of those who viewed things nationally, rather than merely as citizens of individual states. Early on, he demonstrated the national security prism through which he was to view great events with these words regarding the many issues facing the new nation: "There are before us some questions of the utmost consequence that can arise in the councils of any nation," among them, "whether we are to have regular or standing troops to protect our frontiers, or leave them unguarded; whether we will expose ourselves to the inconveniences, which may perhaps be the loss of the country westward, from the impossibility of preventing the adventurers [pioneers] from settling where they please; the intrusion of the settlers on the European powers who border us, a cause of discontent and perhaps war."3
Here we see, presciently, Monroe's very early anticipation of matters that would dominate his own presidency decades later, the frictions caused by the new nation's natural expansion against and eventually onto the territory claimed by European powers and perhaps even the role of those powers in the entire American hemisphere. And, significantly, Monroe anticipated matters in terms ("discontent and perhaps war") of a military officer. "From the beginning," writes his biographer W. P. Cresson, "James Monroe, a former militia man, who had served beneath the Rattlesnake Flag with the pioneers, was by instinct and sympathy a 'Man of the Western Waters.' From the frontiersmen he was to draw much of his political strength and, in return, was to serve them with all the ability and energy at his command."4