13 Facts About Founding Father James Monroe

Today, on the 257th anniversary of James Monroe's birth, here are 13 facts about why this Founding Father was "the man."
James Monroe Photo

James Monroe, portrait by William James Hubbard, circa 1832. (Photo: Images of American Political History [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Of all the founding fathers, James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States, is often overlooked. In honor of the 257th anniversary of his birth on April 28, 1758, we offer some facts that will have you thinking by the end of this list, “Monroe is the man.” And how amusing that this modern term of praise was actually the name of his 1816 presidential campaign song?

1. In 1776 James Monroe left his studies at William & Mary to enlist in the 3rd Virginia Regiment. During the Revolutionary War, he served under General George Washington, fought in several major battles in the northeast, was wounded at the Battle of Trenton—from which he carried shrapnel in his shoulder for the rest of his life—and wintered at Valley Forge, eventually reaching the rank of Colonel in the Virginia service. Monroe did not return to William & Mary, but finished his legal training with then Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson. William & Mary is nonetheless proud to claim James Monroe as an illustrious former student.

James Monroe Photo

A statue of James Monroe at his alma mater William & Mary.

2. Monroe moved to Albemarle County, Virginia to be near his friend and mentor, Thomas Jefferson. His farm Highland actually shared a border with Jefferson’s Monticello. With the addition of their colleague James Madison—whose home in Orange County, Virginia was situated on their way to and from Washington—three of the first five United States presidents hailed from Central Virginia.  

James Monroe House Photo

Ash Lawn-Highland, the home of President James Monroe, in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo: RebelAt at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons)

3. Monroe and his wife, Elizabeth Kortright Monroe, had a particularly close relationship. Their warm family life is illustrated by his wife and two daughters, Eliza and Maria, accompanying Monroe on nearly all his official travel, including diplomatic assignments in France and Great Britain. During their time in France, the couple attended Napoleon I’s Coronation in Notre Dame Cathedral.

Elizabeth Monroe Photo

A portrait of Elizabeth Kortright Monroe by John Vanderlyn. (Photo: John Vanderlyn ref ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

4. Monroe had a strong interest in the American west and its importance to the growing United States. Not widely known is his significant role in the negotiation of the Louisiana Purchase for the Jefferson administration. In 1803, Thomas Jefferson sent him to France to assist Robert Livingston with the negotiation for the port of New Orleans, telling Monroe “All eyes, all hopes, are now fixed on you.” Finding Napoleon strapped for cash and willing to sell the entirety of the Louisiana Territory, Monroe took advantage of a deal that would double the size of the nation.

5. As Envoy to Spain, Monroe took the journey by mule from Paris to Madrid to negotiate with Spain for the Floridas. The negotiations trip was ultimately unsuccessful. Fifteen years later, Monroe was eventually able to oversee the peaceful acquisition of the Florida territory during his first presidential term when he signed the Adams-Onis Treaty in 1819.

6. Monroe’s first presidential term was coined the Era of Good Feelings. During this period of national unity following the War of 1812, the Federalist party collapsed and the country witnessed a transitory one-party government. In 1820, Monroe saw no opposing candidates, and he was re-elected with all but one electoral votes. This was the last time the United States saw a candidate run without serious opposition—Monroe was the only president besides Washington to do so.

7. James Monroe was the first president to travel by way of steamboat. This momentous occasion occurred while on his goodwill tour of the Southern States. (He also took a tour of the Northern States, making him the first president since Washington to travel so widely among the states. Towns across the country greeted him with parades, lavish dinners, and other grand events. The city of Charleston, South Carolina actually barbecued an ox in honor of his visit.

The city of Charleston celebrated James Monroe's visit by barbecuing an ox, as seen in this advertisement.

The city of Charleston celebrated James Monroe's visit by barbecuing an ox, as seen in this advertisement.

8. By the time his two-term presidency ended, Monroe had served his country for 50 years, holding more elected public offices than any president before or after him. He even held two positions in James Madison’s presidential cabinet at the same time (Secretary of State and Secretary of War)—Monroe is the only person in history to have held two cabinet positions at once.

Samuel Morse Photo

Inventor Samuel Morse painted a presidential portrait of James Monroe. (Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

9. One of Monroe’s presidential portraits was painted by Samuel Morse, the inventor of the Morse Code. Morse had an established career as an artist before contributing to the telegraphic invention. He also painted John Adams in the former president’s old age.

10. Monrovia, Liberia is the only foreign capital in the world named after a United States president. Established by the American Colonization Society during the Monroe administration, the colony of Liberia was founded in 1821 as a destination for freed black Americans, most of whom were generations removed from their African ancestors.

11. The foreign policy that bears Monroe’s name—perhaps the most enduring of his legacies—did not become known as “The Monroe Doctrine” until 30 years after its delivery. During Monroe’s annual message to Congress in 1823, he warned Europe (and, consequentially, the rest of the world) to stay out of the Americas for purposes of acquisition, or else the United States would intervene. This message constitutes a firm statement of early U.S. foreign policy.

12. Monroe was recognizably old-fashioned in choosing his attire. He was the last president to dress in the style of the Revolutionary War era, which, by that time, was considered outdated and earned him the nickname “The Last Cocked Hat.” In 1825, at the Monroes' last New Year’s Day reception at the White House, one guest who shook his hand wrote, “He is tall and well formed. His dress plain and in the old style, small clothes, silk hose, knee-buckles, and pumps fastened with buckles. His manner was quiet and dignified…”

James Monroe Photo

James Monroe (standing) presiding over a cabinet meeting in 1823 that led to The Monroe Doctrine. (From left to right) John Quincy Adams, William Harris Crawford, William Wirt, John C. Calhoun, Daniel D. Tompkins, and John McLean. (Photo: The Granger Collection, New York [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

13. Considered the last of the founding fathers, Monroe died coincidentally on July 4th, 1831. Even more eerie, Presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams also died on the same date five years earlier. On the 100th anniversary of his birth, his body was moved from New York City and reinterred at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.   

James Monroe Grave Photo

James Monroe's grave at the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo: Remember (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Sara Bon-Harper is the Executive Director of Ash Lawn-Highland, the home of James Monroe in Albemarle County, Virginia. Visit Ash Lawn-Highland on Facebook and Twitter.