True Stories of Our Presidents - Charles Morris

James Monroe



"America for the Americans"

Of all our Presidents of early tithes there is none whose name is more familiar to the newspaper reader of to-day than that of James Monroe. And that is because he was the author of a "doctrine." "The Monroe Doctrine" stands before us in big print at least a dozen times a year. Do I hear any one ask, who was Monroe, and what was his doctrine? I am about to tell you who Monroe was. His doctrine, to put it in plain English, means, "America for the Americans."

When James Monroe was President, the United States was not the great nation it is to-day, and some of the hungry powers of Europe went prowling about like wolves, thinking they might snatch up a bit of America here and there. What President Monroe said to them was, in effect, "Keep off. If you attempt to bite at America you will find a watch-dog here ready to bite back." And ever since that day the United States has been the watch-dog of America, and more than once it has shown its teeth to the hungry wolves of Europe. That is what is meant by the "Monroe Doctrine."

James Monroe had good fighting blood in his veins. He had fought by the side of Washington in the Revolution. He came of sound old Scotch stock, which had come to Virginia a century before he was born. His father was a planter who had a fine estate on Monroe Creek, a stream which emptied into the Potomac River. It was very near where Washington lived and played as a child; though he had long been fighting against the French and Indians when James Monroe first opened his eyes in his father's home, on the 18th of April, 1758.

The boy was not ten years old when the troubles with England began. No doubt he opened his blue eyes with wonder when he heard loud and angry talk about the "Stamp Act" and the "Tea Tax." He must have picked up a good many new ideas about liberty and human rights in his early school-days. When he was sixteen years old he was sent to the famous William and Mary College, where so many Virginians then got their education.

Monroe purchases Louisiana


I am afraid the boy must have been greatly disturbed in his lessons. Likely he learned some Latin and Greek, but he must have picked up a number of things not in the books. There was the Virginia Assembly meeting in the college town and talking plain treason, and no doubt he heard them. There was Patrick Henry thundering out defiance of England in the near town of Richmond. From the north came the echoes of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill. The whole country was like a volcano, spouting fire.

The fighting blood in James Monroe was warmed up by' these events. He was a true American, and, young as he was, it was hard for him to keep at school while his country was at war for freedom. Just after he was eighteen the Declaration of Independence was signed. That was more than the eager young patriot could stand. He flung his books into his desk, said good-bye to his teachers, and rode away at full speed for New York, where he took his place bravely in the ranks of Washington's army.

These were dark days for the young republic. The trained British soldiers were carrying everything before them. Washington's army of volunteers was driven from Long Island and from New York. There were fights and retreats at Harlem Heights and White Plains, in which the boy soldier took part. Then began that miserable march across New Jersey, with the British close upon the heels of the American army.

Young Monroe must have done well in these fights, for he was promoted from a cadet to a lieutenant. But it was amid the cold and snows of that famous Christmas night of 1776, when Washington's ragged army attacked the Hessians at Trenton, that the boy soldier won his spurs. History tells us of his gallant act:

"Perceiving that the enemy were endeavoring to erect a battery to rake the American lines, he advanced at the head of a small detachment, drove the artillery men from the guns, and took possession of the pieces."

The young hero was wounded. A ball hit him in the shoulder. But Washington made him a captain for his daring deed, and that was some salve for his wound.

After that we meet with Monroe as an aide-de-camp on the staff of Lord Stirling. He was a major now, and fought in the battles of Brandywine, Germantown and Monmouth, and spent a freezing and starving winter at Valley Forge with the army. Washington had a high opinion of the young Virginian, born so near his own boyhood playgrounds. He now sent him to Virginia to organize a new regiment, of which he was to be colonel.

This proved unlucky for Monroe. Virginia had no more men to spare. She had sent Washington so many of her sons that she had to keep the few left for home defence. Monroe was disappointed. He could not enlist a regiment, and he had lost his post in the army. He was still only twenty years old when he made up his mind to go back to his books. So he began to study law under Thomas Jefferson, who was then Governor of Virginia.

In the years that followed Virginia had its share of the war. Arnold and Tarleton and Cornwallis invaded its soil. Lafayette came to defend it from its foes, and Colonel Monroe more than once shut up his law books and hurried to the front. And so it was till Washington at Yorktown scooped up Cornwallis and his men and put an end to the war. Then Monroe opened his books and went at his studies again.

He studied law, but he did not have much chance to practice it. In 1782, when he was only twenty-three, he was elected to the Assembly of Virginia and was made a member of the Governor's Council. The next year he was elected to the Continental Congress. It was then at Annapolis, and he got there in time to see a famous historic scene, when George Washington came before it to resign his commission as commander-in-chief of the army of the Revolution.

Monroe was wide awake to all that went on around him. Like Madison and others, he saw that the old Union was falling to pieces. It had been all right when there was war to hold it together, but when peace came it grew weak and shaky, and he did all he could to bring about the convention that framed the Constitution of the United States.

There was another union that young Monroe was interested in about this time. Living in New York was an Englishman named Kortright, who had been a captain in the British army, but became a good American after the war. Among his children was a beautiful and accomplished daughter named Elizabeth. Monroe met her when the Congress was in session at New York, and straightway fell in love with her. His marriage with her took place in 1786, and this union was a very close and happy one. All the Virginia Presidents seem to have found good and loving wives.

When the Constitution was formed Monroe did not like it. He thought it gave too much power to the central government, and was afraid the President might come to wear a crown and act as a king. He helped Patrick Henry fight against it in the Virginia convention, while Madison fought for it. He was wrong, as he lived to find out.

In 1790 Monroe was sent by Virginia to the Senate of the United States. He belonged to the Anti-Federalist party along with Jefferson and many others. This afterward grew into the Democratic party. He did not like the bold measures of Alexander Hamilton, who took the leading part in organizing the new government. Monroe and Madison and Jefferson and many others feared that Hamilton was trying to put a king over this country. Perhaps they were right; but the people would have had something to say about that king.

In the Senate Monroe opposed many acts of the Government. But for all that President Washington sent him to France in 1795 as United States Minister. The great general had not forgotten his old liking for his young soldier comrade.

Have you ever read the terrible story of the French Revolution—how the mob ruled Paris and France, and the guillotine cut off the heads of thousands, among them the king and the queen? This dreadful knife was still at its bloody work when Monroe reached Paris. Every day blood flowed and heads fell. But the terrible Robespierre was dead and the dark clouds were beginning to break.

It was a sight to see the handsome young American, as he stood before the National Convention, with his frank blue eyes, his fair hair, and his tall and erect figure, looking with the courage of a soldier at that dread tribunal which had dared to condemn a king and queen to death.

But Monroe got a warm welcome, and the flags of the two nations were twined together, to show the close union of the two republics. He looked upon those men, not as murderers, but as the makers of liberty, and he made a speech that was full of admiration for France. It made England very angry and was not liked by the Government at home, and the new minister, who had been guilty of talking too much, was soon called home again.

One fine thing he did. Lafayette, the friend of Washington, was then in prison in Austria. His wife, the Marchioness of Lafayette, was in prison in Paris and might be sent to the guillotine any day. Monroe sent his wife to see her and she had a pathetic interview with the sad prisoner. It is said that she was to have been executed that same afternoon and that the visit of Mrs. Monroe saved her life. She was set at liberty the next day. So much Monroe did for the old comrade by whose side he had fought in the Revolution.

Soon after his return home Monroe was elected Governor of Virginia. This high office he held until 1802, when President Jefferson sent him to France again, this time on a very important mission. The great territory of Louisiana, lying west of the Mississippi River, had just before been given by Spain to France—to please Napoleon, who could have nearly anything he asked for. One part of it the American people wanted, New Orleans and the lower Mississippi. Monroe was sent to try and buy this part of Louisiana from Napoleon.

He got to Paris just at the right time. Napoleon wanted money to fight England with. He was afraid that, when war broke out again, as it soon would, the British fleets and armies would rob him of his Mississippi lands. He had better sell them for money now than lose them for nothing soon. So when Monroe and Livingston, the American Minister at Paris, offered $2,500,000 for the island of New Orleans, word came back from Napoleon that they could have the whole vast territory of Louisiana for $15,000,000.

This offer almost took their breaths away. They had no authority to buy the great tract. But they could not wait to send to America to ask permission. That would take weeks or months, and Napoleon might change his mind. So they took the law in their own hands and closed the bargain then and there.

That was one of the great things in Monroe's life. The President and Congress were glad enough to make the bargain good; and one of the great events of 1903 and 1904 is the grand "Louisiana Purchase Exposition," held at St. Louis in memory of this splendid act of wisdom.

Monroe stayed in Europe till 1808 on political business with England and Spain, and came home much disappointed, because he could do nothing satisfactory with those two countries. A treaty he made with England the Senate would not accept, because it said nothing about taking seamen from our ships.

Honors awaited him at home. In 1811 he was again elected Governor of Virginia. Soon after that President Madison chose him for Secretary of State. Then the war with England broke out and he had his hands more than full. The President trusted everything to him, and he had more to do with carrying on that war than Madison had. After the capture of Washington by the British he became Secretary of war, also. He was just the man for the place, for the Government needed spirit just then.

The Government had no money and no credit. Monroe came to its aid, and pledged his fortune to help it in its need. He took hold of the war with a strong hand and proposed to make the army a hundred thousand strong. When England sent her great fleet and army to capture New Orleans, Monroe sent ringing orders to the southwest. He was now the soldier again, not the politician.

"Hasten your militia to New Orleans," he wrote. "Do not wait for this Government to arm them; put all the arms you have into their hands; let every man bring his rifle with him; we shall see you paid."

That was the kind of talk to inspire Jackson. The riflemen of the west rushed under "Old Hickory "to the cotton-bale ramparts, and New Orleans was saved.

Monroe served as Secretary of State till March 4, 1817, when he gave up the office to take that of President of the United States. He had been elected by the Democratic party, with one hundred and eighty-three electoral votes against thirty-four for his opponent.

For eight years he was President, and they were the quietest in American politics any President has ever known. There were no party disputes, and it was called the "era of good feeling." When he was re-elected in 1820 there was no opposition. He was the only American President, except Washington, who had this wonderful fortune. Only one electoral vote was cast against him, and that was by an eccentric member from Pennsylvania, who said that nobody but Washington should go in with a unanimous vote.

Soon after his first election Monroe made a great tour of the country. He wore the old uniform and cocked hat of the Revolution, and the people, especially the old soldiers, went wild over him. He went as far northwest as Detroit, and that was thought a great journey in those days of stage-coach travel.

The great events of Monroe's term were the purchase of Florida from Spain, the Missouri Compromise, and the Monroe Doctrine. This celebrated "Doctrine "was given in the message to Congress of December, 1823. The nations of Europe were talking of helping Spain to get back her American colonies, which had just become free. They expected to pay themselves by keeping part of those colonies. But when Monroe told them, with a fine show of politeness, that if they tried to meddle in America they would have the United States to deal with, they backed down. Since that time the Monroe Doctrine has stood like a wall of defence between America and Europe.

In 1825 Monroe went home to live in his beautiful mansion at Oak Hill, in Loudoun County, Virginia. This house, we are told, was planned for him by Jefferson, who also gave him the nails to build it with. It was a handsome brick building, with a wide portico and great columns. Around it was a grove of splendid oak trees.

His life here was happy and restful, kindly and sincere. There was plenty to occupy him. He had a large correspondence, was a Regent of the University of Virginia, and President of the Virginia Constitutional Convention. But sorrow and trouble came to him. His wife, who was still a handsome and charming woman, died in 1830, throwing him into the deepest grief. His fortune became so reduced that he was in danger of losing his home at Oak Hill. His wife's death had left this home so sad and lonely that he went to live with one of his daughters in New York. Here he died on the Fourth of July, 1831, the third of our Presidents to die on Independence Day.