Biographies of the Secretaries of State: James Monroe (1758–1831)


James Monroe was appointed by President James Madison as Secretary of State on April 2, 1811. Monroe assumed duty on April 6, 1811, and served until March 3, 1817, with a brief period from October 1, 1814, to February 28, 1815, as ad interim Secretary of State. Monroe had a prestigious military career before embarking upon a distinguished career in public service.

James Monroe, Seventh Secretary of State

Rise to Prominence

Monroe was born to a plantation family in Westmoreland County, Virginia. He began attending Campbell Academy when he was eleven years old and entered the College of William and Mary at sixteen. In 1775 he enlisted in the Third Virginia Infantry and then fought under George Washington’s command during the Revolutionary War. Monroe was wounded during the Battle of Trenton, and eventually reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

Following the war, he returned to the College of William & Mary to study law at the suggestion of Thomas Jefferson. Monroe’s election to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1782 began a long series of public appointments. Among many other positions including Secretary of State, Monroe served as a member of the Congress of the Confederation from 1783 until 1786, a U.S. Senator from 1790 until 1794, Governor of Virginia from 1799 until 1802 and in 1811, and U.S. President from 1817 until 1824.

Influence on American Diplomacy

Monroe conducted numerous diplomatic missions addressing the most critical international threats facing his generation. President George Washington appointed Monroe Minister to France in 1794. Jay’s Treaty frustrated Monroe’s efforts to retain cordial relations with the French Government and he was recalled in 1796.

Monroe returned to France in 1803 on a successful mission to assist Robert Livingston with the Louisiana Purchase negotiations. Monroe also served as Minister to Britain from 1803 until 1807, a period complicated by disputes over U.S. neutrality rights. In 1805 Monroe traveled to Spain, intending to win recognition of the U.S. possession of West Florida. The United States claimed the territory as part of the Louisiana Purchase, but Monroe could not gain the consent of the Spanish Government.

Monroe joined with Special Commissioner William Pinkney in 1806 in the effort to halt British impressment of U.S. sailors and to secure neutral trading rights. The proposed Monroe-Pinkney Treaty, however, failed to address impressments, and President Jefferson therefore declined to forward the treaty to the Senate.

While serving as Secretary of State in 1811, Monroe became convinced that a declaration of war against Great Britain was the best option to change offensive British policies. Along with Madison, Monroe encouraged Congress to issue a war declaration, which came on June 17, 1812. Monroe skillfully managed the expansion of the U.S. military occupation of Florida and served as acting Secretary of War during the War of 1812.

Although there would be no clear victor, the United States emerged from the war with enhanced international prestige. As President, Monroe’s main diplomatic challenges stemmed from the recession of the Spanish Empire in the Americas and Russian Tsar Alexander’s hopes to populate the Oregon Coast. Monroe responded effectively. In 1819 he skillfully managed the total Acquisition of Florida.

Along with his influential Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Monroe issued the Monroe Doctrine, which forewarned the imperial European powers against interfering in the affairs of the newly independent Latin American states or potential U.S. territories in the Western hemisphere. Adhering to the intellectual underpinnings of the doctrine, Monroe granted diplomatic recognition to newly-independent Latin American republics.