James Monroe was the son of a Virginia plantation owner. He became an orphan in his mid-teens. Fortunately, he stayed with his uncle who liked James and his siblings. In 1774 Monroe attended William and Mary College in Williamsburg. Monroe and his friends found plenty to do outside the classroom. The Royal Governor had already left town due to the spirit of rebellion among some Virginians in the colony’s capital. Along with a few classmates, Monroe helped to raid the absent governor’s palace. The young men took 200 muskets and 300 swords which they gave to the Virginia militia. In the winter of 1776, Monroe joined the Virginia infantry.
By the time he became president, Monroe’s resume included service as a soldier in the Revolutionary War, U.S. senator, minister to France and England under President Washington, governor of Virginia, and positions as secretary of state and secretary of war under President Madison. He became friends with James Madison and Thomas Jefferson while the U.S. government was being formed. Together, the three of them opposed the policies of John Adams and other Federalists.
Portrait of James Monroe
Though he often receives less attention from scholars than other presidents who came from Virginia, Monroe’s elections and administration were notable for several reasons. In the 1820 election Monroe got all the electoral votes except one. When elected, Monroe was the first president to hold his inauguration outdoors. He was also the first chief executive since Washington to take a national tour of the country. Unlike his friends Jefferson and Madison, Monroe had an outgoing personality that endeared him to the other Americans he met. His cross-country tour was such a success that he travelled several times while in office.
As president, Monroe utilized his agreeable personality to great effect. He had a talent for picking men with great minds to serve in his administration and maintained good relationships with his cabinet members. Despite his opposition to John Adams’ political views, Monroe chose Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams as secretary of state. Monroe’s easy going personality allowed him to get along with almost anyone, so the two men established a good working relationship. Adams encouraged Monroe to make a statement about European influence in the Western Hemisphere.
In his annual message to Congress, Monroe stated “the American continents, 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 powers.” This part of Monroe’s message came to be known as the Monroe Doctrine. The doctrine made it clear that America had a right to protect any nation in the Western Hemisphere against European aggression. As a product of both John Quincy Adams and Monroe’s ideals, the doctrine aptly demonstrated the president’s ability to partner with unlikely people for the good of the country.
Though respected as a great general in the Revolutionary War, Washington was very self-conscious about his lack of education. Unlike the other colonists with whom he served in the Continental Congress, Washington never attended college. In fact, Washington had only an elementary school education. He did, however, attend dancing school at age fifteen. His dancing skills certainly came in handy when he became the first President of the United States and had many parties to attend.
George Washington, 1795 by Gilbert Stuart
Dancing was one of the few parts of formal gatherings that he enjoyed. He hated small talk and did not have a strong public speaking voice. He also didn’t like people to stand too close to him, partly because he felt that his false teeth made his face look swollen. Washington always took great pains to control his faults, particularly his temper. His reputation was so important to him that even as a young man he copied out rules of etiquette such as “sit not when others stand; speak not when you should hold your peace.”
Although some of his successors relished the challenges of the office, Washington was a reluctant president. Despite his personal popularity and the large number of people who turned out to greet him on his journey from Virginia to New York, the idea of being president made Washington cringe. Before he was inaugurated, Washington said he felt like “a culprit who is going to his place of execution.”
As president, Washington invented the presidential cabinet, filling it with men he felt had the best qualifications rather than picking personal friends or allies. He called his cabinet members, which included Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, his “first characters.” Though he was the only president who never lived in the White House, Washington chose the site and the architect for the house. Before he died, Washington toured the nearly completed mansion.
Interesting facts about Meriwether Lewis’ Childhood
• Lewis was named after his mother, whose last name was Meriwether before she married William Lewis.
• A British prisoner of war camp surrounded the Lewis home in Albemarle County, Virginia during the Revolutionary War. Though widowed, Lewis’ mother Lucy knew how to shoot a gun, and she kept British soldiers away from the house.
• Lewis grew up close to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia. Later, the fact that they were neighbors and shared an interest in natural science led Jefferson to make Lewis his personal secretary when he became president.
• Both Lewis’ father and stepfather were officers in the Revolutionary War. After her first husband’s death, Lewis’ mother remarried and the family moved to Georgia. Georgia had even more wooded areas than Virginia. While living in Georgia, Lewis learned to perfect his hunting skills until his mother sent him back to Virginia for school.
• Lewis’ cousin had this to say about Lewis when they went to school together: “He was always remarkable for perseverance…of a martial temper and great steadiness of purpose, self-possession and undaunted courage.” Characteristics like perseverance and courage would later help Lewis when Jefferson sent him and William Clark to explore the Louisiana Purchase.
• Because his father died when Lewis was very young, he had more responsibilities than other boys his age. Though he enjoyed school most of the time, he had to stop his formal education so he could take care of the property he inherited as the oldest son. This meant learning to farm from his uncles, and managing the family slaves. Lewis thought he would always be a farmer or maybe a military officer until Jefferson asked him to be his secretary in the Washington, D.C.
• Lewis was a devoted son who wrote often to his mother whenever they were apart. His writing skills would be important when describing plants and other new things he saw during the Lewis and Clark expedition. His later writings were remarkable because he could make really boring topics interesting.