James Monroe was born April 28, 1758, in Westmoreland County, Virginia to a prosperous family. He attended William and Mary College, but was not there very long when he and some of his fellow students left to join the Continental Army in 1775. He was in the 3rd Virginia Regiment as a Second Lieutenant under Colonel Hugh Mercer.
Monroe saw service at Harlem Heights, White Plains, and Trenton. It was a Trenton where he was wounded. In the fall of 1777, he was commissioned Major and subsequently named Aide-de-camp to William Alexander, Lord Stirling. He went on to fight at Brandywine and Germantown, wintered at Valley Forge and went on to fight at Monmouth in June of 1778. He resigned his commission in November of 1778.
By 1780, he was studying law under the Governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson. His political service began in 1782 when he was elected to the Virginia Assembly and a year later he was a Member of the Congresses of the Confederation until the year 1786. That same year he married Elizabeth Kortwright from New York.
As a youthful politician, James Monroe joined the anti-Federalists in the Virginia Convention which ratified the Constitution, and in 1790, an advocate of Jeffersonian policies, was elected United States Senator. As Minister to France in 1794-1796, he displayed strong sympathies for the French cause; later, with Robert R. Livingston, he helped negotiate the Louisiana Purchase.
His ambition and energy, together with the backing of President Madison, made James Monroe the Republican choice for the Presidency in 1816. With little Federalist opposition, he easily won re-election in 1820.
Monroe made unusually strong Cabinet choices, naming a Southerner, John C. Calhoun, as Secretary of War, and a northerner, John Quincy Adams, as Secretary of State. Only Henry Clay's refusal kept Monroe from adding an outstanding Westerner.
Early in his administration, Monroe undertook a goodwill tour. At Boston, his visit was hailed as the beginning of an "Era of Good Feelings." Unfortunately these "good feelings" did not endure, although Monroe, his popularity undiminished, followed nationalist policies.
Across the facade of nationalism, ugly sectional cracks appeared. A painful economic depression undoubtedly increased the dismay of the people of the Missouri Territory in 1819 when their application for admission to the Union as a slave state failed. An amended bill for gradually eliminating slavery in Missouri precipitated two years of bitter debate in Congress.
The Missouri Compromise bill resolved the struggle, pairing Missouri as a slave state with Maine, a free state, and barring slavery north and west of Missouri forever.
In foreign affairs Monroe proclaimed the fundamental policy that bears his name, responding to the threat that the more conservative governments in Europe might try to aid Spain in winning back her former Latin American colonies. Monroe did not begin formally to recognize the young sister republics until 1822, after ascertaining that Congress would vote appropriations for diplomatic missions. He and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams wished to avoid trouble with Spain until it had ceded the Floridas, as was done in 1821.
Great Britain, with its powerful navy, also opposed reconquest of Latin America and suggested that the United States join in proclaiming "hands off." Ex-Presidents Jefferson and Madison counseled Monroe to accept the offer, but Secretary Adams advised, "It would be more candid ... to avow our principles explicitly to Russia and France, than to come in as a cock-boat in the wake of the British man-of-war."
Monroe accepted Adams's advice. Not only must Latin America be left alone, he warned, but also Russia must not encroach southward on the Pacific coast. ". . . the American continents," he stated, "by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European Power." Some 20 years after Monroe died in 1831, this became known as the Monroe Doctrine.