James Monroe Presidential Review

24 Mar

Let’s look at presidential nicknames shall we?  Washington is the Father of our Country, Adams is the Colossus of Independance, Jefferson is the Man of the People, and Madison is the Father of the Constitution.  Sounds like I made a super-hero team for Democracy.  Well, every super hero team has its member that’s a little bit…less.  You know, like Ant-Man or Aquaman or Invisible Girl.  Well, here we have James Monroe–The Last Cocked Hat.

Monroe was totally pushing is Founding Father cred at the time, insisting to dress in an out of style 18th century get-up long after the rest of the world had moved on.  Was he a founding father?  My answer is not completely.  He was a soldier in the Revolutionary War, and yes he was involved in the Constitution ratification process, but he wasn’t at the convention.  In fact his greatest connection to founding fatherhood was that he was an aide for George Washington for a short time in the Revolutionary War, and studied law under Thomas Jefferson.    However every president up to Monroe was directly involved in making this country, so Monroe emphasized his tenuous credibility as much as possible.  Thus the out-of-fashion garb–and I do mean out of fashion–he dressed more like Washington than Washington himself.

That being said, Monroe is one of the few presidents who was much more popular at his time than his place in history would suggest.    One reason outside of the Monroe Doctrine you usually get blank stares when is name is mentioned is very little happened when he was president.  The country was doing well economically, there were no wars, outside of slavery (which we’ll get to) there were no divisive social issues that ended up being historically relevant–he was the perfect status quo president–things were going well and he was not about to screw that up.

Also, his successes pale a little after the giants before him.  Yes, his administration bought Florida, but after the bargain-basement success of the Louisiana Purchase, Florida is a little anti-climactic.    The famous Monroe Doctrine, which set foreign policy for nearly a century dictated that America would remain neutral in European politics except for in the case of the western hemisphere where the United States would resist any further attempts to colonize or undermine any independent country.  It’s a wonderful set of policies that really clarified the United States’s position in the world.  No longer would we have to get in the middle of inter-European conflicts like between Britain and France.  However, this policy was mostly constructed by John Quincy Adams.

Then we get to the Seminole War.  At the time, Florida was mostly a backwater with a large Native American population and also was a place where many runaway slaves ended up.  Spanish settlers were few, and the United States really wanted that land.   Truth be told it was a dirty war with military operations done under the table, exaggerated accounts of the Spanish supplying arms for the Native Americans and runaway slaves.  That’s the other thing that makes this war a little skeezy–the Spanish (at this time) had a much more progressive view of race-relations than the United States, and there was even a fort completely managed by runaway slaves.   Jackson had popular support to invade Florida to destroy this fort which he saw as being an intentional effort by the Spanish to destabilize America..whatever.   After a series of burn and raid missions from both sides, the Spanish agreed to sell Florida just to get rid of a big giant headache for them.

Ok, now for slavery.  We have the Missouri Compromise, which like all compromises, pleased nobody.  Missouri wanted to be admitted to the Union as a slave state, however that would  tip the balances for Congress by having one more slave state than free state.  Also, many in government wanted to end slavery as an institution slowly–starting by not allowing new slave states at all.  At the same time many others thought that states should be able to decide on their own whether they want to allow slavery or not–that’s how the current states got there after all.  Monroe (who was a slave owner) was in the second camp and seriously thought that Congress should not have the power to determine what is and is not legal in individual states.  This sounds like he’s waffling, but he was a very consistent anti-Federalist, so it does fit with is political worldview, however it might have been convenient for his situation.   In the end Missouri was admitted as a slave state with the addition of Maine as a free state, and slavery would be only allowed in new territories below a certain longitudinal line.  It doesn’t matter, because when the next bunch of states came in a decade later, the whole issue would be revisited again.    Monroe signed the law despite his misgivings because it was politically expedient and he wanted the issue behind him in an election year.

On a side-note, Monroe was a huge proponent for African Colonization by former American slaves.  He saw this as the answer for slavery.  In fact he was largely responsible for founding Liberia.    On one hand, it shows that Monroe did want an alternative to the slavery issue, on the other hand it’s not a very practical answer.  Yes, they sent only willing people to Liberia, but for all the slaves in the country, it’s not like they all wanted to go to Africa–in fact many had family lines that stretched as far back as the founding fathers.   Also, compared to emancipation, this seems like a particularly expensive answer to a problem–I mean, he’s proposing to send about a million people across the world with early 19th century resources.    In any case the plan didn’t ultimately work for that very reason.

So in the end President Monroe gets an A for the Monroe Doctrine, an F for the Seminole War.   His views on slavery I don’t even know what grade to give him because his plan is kind of crazy, and he mostly side-stepped the issue domestically.  With the Monroe Doctrine though he did guide American international relations and makes me end up tipping him on the side of good rather than not.

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