James Monroe: A Life

James Monroe: A Life

by Tim McGrath


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The extraordinary life of James Monroe: soldier, senator, diplomat, and the last Founding Father to hold the presidency, a man who helped transform thirteen colonies into a vibrant and mighty republic.

“A first-rate account of a remarkable life.” —Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Soul of America

Monroe lived a life defined by revolutions. From the battlefields of the War for Independence, to his ambassadorship in Paris in the days of the guillotine, to his own role in the creation of Congress's partisan divide, he was a man who embodied the restless spirit of the age. He was never one to back down from a fight, whether it be with Alexander Hamilton, with whom he nearly engaged in a duel (prevented, ironically, by Aaron Burr), or George Washington, his hero turned political opponent.
This magnificent new biography vividly recreates the epic sweep of Monroe’s life: his near-death wounding at Trenton and a brutal winter at Valley Forge; his pivotal negotiations with France over the Louisiana Purchase; his deep, complex friendships with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison; his valiant leadership when the British ransacked the nation’s capital and burned down the Executive Mansion; and Monroe’s lifelong struggle to reckon with his own complicity in slavery. Elected the fifth president of the United States in 1816, this fiercest of partisans sought to bridge divisions and sow unity, calming turbulent political seas and inheriting Washington's mantle of placing country above party. Over his two terms, Monroe transformed the nation, strengthening American power both at home and abroad. 

Critically acclaimed author Tim McGrath has consulted an extensive array of primary sources, many rarely seen since Monroe's own time, to conjure up this fascinating portrait of an essential American statesman and president.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451477262
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/05/2020
Pages: 752
Sales rank: 84,837
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 8.80(h) x 2.30(d)

About the Author

Tim McGrath is a two-time winner of the Commodore John Barry Book Award, as well as the author of the critically acclaimed biography John Barry: An American Hero in the Age of Sail, and Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America's Revolution at Sea, recepient of the Samuel Eliot Morison Award for Naval Literature. He lives outside of Philadelphia.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

“A Worthy and Respectable Citizen”

We then rallied and returned to the action.

—James Monroe

Like most land-owning families in colonial Virginia, the Monroes traced their presence in the New World to an Old World adventurer.

In 1314, during the battle of Bannockburn, when a desperate army of Scotsmen thrashed King Edward II’s forces, winning a brief respite of independence from England, a Munro fought against the tyrant Crown.

By the 1640s, Scottish troops found themselves fighting for the English king, Charles I, not against him, over the expulsion of Presbyterians from Parliament by Oliver Cromwell. At the Battle of Preston in 1648, Charles’ forces, Captain Andrew Munro among them, were soundly defeated by Cromwell’s “Roundheads,” ending the efforts of Charles’ cavaliers to keep him on the throne. Charles I lost his head and Munro lost his homeland. He returned to the family homestead, Foulis Castle, before departing for the new world.

The exiled Munro somehow obtained a tract of land in the colony of Virginia and found passage on a ship carrying other Scots across the Atlantic. The colonists of Virginia were the precursors of the “rugged individualists” of American legend. Many, like Munro, were truly exiles; others were sons who sought in the New World the riches that were denied them at home by an older brother’s birthright. Munro’s tract of land was in Westmoreland County along Virginia’s Northern Neck.

By 1660, news of Cromwell’s death and the restoration of the monarchy in the person of Charles II reached Virginia. Andrew, now spelling his name “Monroe,” visited Scotland After convincing some relations to accompany him back to Virginia, Andrew was awarded with another tract of land.

Eleven hundred acres is an empire in the twenty-first century but not so in the eighteenth. The Monroes were well thought of but not well off. The men in the family were farmers, and often required another trade to put enough food on the table and clothe their family. Westmoreland County was also home to families whose surnames would be etched in American history: Washington, Madison, and Lee among them. The Washingtons were actually neighbors, as far as the eighteenth-century goes, as they lived a short three miles away when baby George was born in 1732 (shortly afterwards, they moved to King George’s County).

For Andrew Monroe, son of the first Andrew’s son, William, that line of work came in public service. For years he served as Westmoreland County’s sheriff. He married his cousin’s widow, Christine Taylor Monroe, and they had four children. Their second, Spence, was born in 1727.

When his father died, Spence inherited five hundred acres (his older brother got the other six hundred). Like his forebears, records listed him as a “planter,” but on the lower rungs of the gentry. He frequently worked as a carpenter, a trade he learned as a youth –and he was good at it. When he took on his own apprentice just before his marriage, Spence proudly signed “Cabinet maker” to the contract. Being a “tradesman” was not an impediment to being known as a “gentleman.”

Spence was industrious and ambitious, especially in his choice of a wife. In fact, he married up. Elizabeth Jones’ father, James, had emigrated from Wales and quickly established his reputation as a successful attorney and a man of property in King George’s County. The Joneses were comfortably well-off, and Elizabeth had more than her share of suitors. Her family remembered her as “particularly well educated for [a woman of] colonial days.” When James Jones died, he did something remarkable for his time: he divided his estate between his son Joseph, a budding attorney, and his daughter. His generosity increased Spence and Elizabeth’s holdings by 300 acres.

The home Spence and Elizabeth shared after their marriage was anything but lavish. A descendant called it a simple structure “within a stone’s throw of a virgin forest.” The house was two stories, dominated by a great room on the first floor. Open windows and half-doors let any breeze in to fight the summer humidity; chimneys at each end warded off the cold winter winds.

In 1753, Elizabeth gave birth to their first child, a daughter they named Elizabeth, after her mother. Five years passed before the second child and first son, James, named after Elizabeth’s father, was born, on April 28, 1758.

The Monroes already had a cradle from their daughter’s early months, made of wood or wicker; a carpenter like Spence could guarantee a handsome one. Infants were swaddled and in some cases wore as many as three small caps on their heads, not just for warmth but to help close the “soft spot” on the skull. From birth through the toddling years, boys were raised predominantly by their mothers. If the first-born was a boy, that brought pride, but a first-born girl was more of a practical blessing. It gave Elizabeth an extra set of hands and eyes to help with the younger siblings. In 1759 the Monroes welcomed another son whom they named Spence; five years later, a third son, Andrew, was born.

James later described his mother as “a very amiable and respectable woman, possessing the best domestic qualities, a good wife and a good parent.” During their toddler years, Elizabeth adjusted to the chore of minding the boys in addition to her domestic and kitchen duties. When James was about five years old he was “breeched,” meaning that Spence Monroe assumed the main responsibility of raising him. James now followed his father around the property, learning firsthand a farm boy’s tasks regarding livestock, fieldwork, and mending anything not requiring a needle and thread. Young Spence was left behind with his mother and sister. Beset by one malady after another in his early years, he was deemed too frail and unhealthy to be of much physical use, and spared the chores assigned daily to his older siblings.

Spence Monroe was not desperate for hands; over the course of his marriage he acquired at least eight known enslaved people, ranging in ages from an elderly man named “Cuffee” to one “Negro boy Ralph,” and at least one indentured servant. He had likely built two dwellings for his slaves, another outhouse, and a freestanding kitchen to the property. Cattle, horses, sheep, pigs, and geese roamed the grounds.

At day’s end the family had dinner in the living room, where James’ mother kept a “slow wood fire” burning in the large fireplace. Bedtime coincided with darkness, with the exhausted children off to bed: Elizabeth in a room next to her parents, while James and Spence shared a small bedroom upstairs. At dawn the routine began all over again.

Daily life was pleasantly interrupted by visits from family and friends. A particular favorite was Elizabeth’s brother, Joseph Jones. A solidly built, moonfaced man, a surviving portrait gives the impression he was also a happy one. As a youth he was sent to London to study law at the Inns of the Temple. Joseph was now a King’s Attorney with a thriving law practice in Fredericksburg. The same year Elizabeth gave birth to James, Joseph married Mary Taliaferro from Spotsylvania, daughter of a militia colonel.

As James got older, his father rewarded completion of his rudimentary chores by taking him hunting and fishing. The boy took to the outdoors immediately, enthusiastically learning to read a trail, detect tell-tale signs of a change in weather, where to find the different fowl that made the tastiest meal, to lie in wait for the Canada geese during the migrating seasons, and to stand with the sun before him so as not to cast a shadow across a stream when fishing. Most of all, Spence taught James the art, and joy, of silence. As he grew, he became rather successful at bringing home game for dinner. He found a solo hunting or fishing venture in the woods certainly more enjoyable than the onerous chores on the farm.

Eastern Virginia was steeped in tobacco, and Spence Monroe’s farm was no exception. He introduced his firstborn son to the task of tobacco planting at an early age. Seeds were sowed in January. In the spring, the seedlings were transplanted to what were called “hills,” which could number ten thousand per acre. Weeding and topping the plant became a daily chore that even a small boy could do efficiently when properly trained. An adult like Spence could handle 6,000 hills on his own, while a boy might tend half that many. The work was as tedious as it was hard on the body. Young James felt a weariness he had never known before. By early August the full-grown leaves were pulled, sorted, bundled, and placed into hogsheads; large wooden barrels used to transport the crop to market. What leaves were inferior were piled up and torched, “going up in smoke,” as the planters put it.

James was blessed with parents who could read and write. Literacy levels of the times are sketchy, but statistics for the Chesapeake area were better than most of the colonies; more than sixty percent of white male adults were literate. Reading was taught by both parents, and what skills his father had in Latin or mathematics were passed along by candlelight in the early evening.

Family lore has it that on February 27, 1766, while James was attending to his chores, Spence hastily mounted his horse and rode off to nearby Leedstown. The previous year, as a means to defray the huge expense of the French and Indian War, Parliament had passed the Stamp Act, affixing a stamp, representing a tax to be paid by Americans on all colonial paper goods from wills to playing cards. The ensuing uproar spread from New England to Georgia. Once at Leedstown, Spence Monroe joined over a hundred fellow landowners in adding his name to Burgess Richard Henry Lee’s proclamation that no British goods would be purchased by Westmoreland County citizens until the act was repealed. Lee’s fellow member of the House, the young lawyer Patrick Henry, delivered withering remarks in Williamsburg that more conservative members called treasonous. His rejoinder? “If this be treason, make the most of it.” For a year, British goods languished in stores, taverns, and warehouses. Finally, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in 1766. Enacted to pay for the recent war, it helped start the next one.


James was eleven years old when Spence sent him to the Campbell Academy, located next to the Westmoreland Anglican Church. The school was led by Reverend Archibald Campbell, a tall, slim man with light blue eyes and a thin nose under a wide forehead. The education of Virginia boys was his passion, and his academy had earned a reputation for both its erudite approach to academics and its exclusivity. Applications for entry came from the wealthiest and most influential families, but Reverend Campbell only admitted twenty-five students. Having James accepted into the school was quite an accomplishment for the Monroes.

The academy was several miles from the farm; not far enough to board, but a fair piece of walking for the boy. Well before dawn, James left for school, carrying his books under one arm with his powder horn under the other and his musket slung across his back. The last leg of his daily trek was a well-worn path through the woods known as “Parson’s Lane,” having been trodden for years by earlier Campbell students.

Every day, Campbell bombarded his pupils with Latin, Greek, French, mathematics, history, and the classics. He was a strict disciplinarian. The incessant drilling paid off, as his graduates were later noted “for their solidity of character.” James was shy, but absorbed Campbell’s instructions with the earnest work ethic his father personified. Hard work, be it on the tobacco field or in the classroom had its rewards. James found Campbell “a man of profound learning,” and benefitted from his example.

Among the other students was a boarder from Fauquier County, 100 miles away. John Marshall was three years older than James, and outgoing where James was reticent by nature. The two boys shared a love of outdoor activities when not in the classroom. John often accompanied James back to the Monroe farm, frequently stopping to hunt along the way. A friendship formed that would survive war and political differences for most all their lives.

By 1772 James was mastering his lessons under Campbell’s watchful eye during the school months, then doing a grown man’s share of work on the farm in the summer. Now fourteen, he was wiry and strong; his increased physical capabilities on the farm allowed his father to take on more carpentry jobs. There was joyous anticipation of a new member of the household: his mother was expecting again. James’ sister Elizabeth was now nineteen, more than a good help to her mother through her pregnancy.

What followed was a tragedy as compelling as it was common in those days. After Elizabeth gave birth to a fourth son, Joseph Jones Monroe, she died—it is not known if this occurred during childbirth or sometime later that year. Young Elizabeth was left as mistress of the household and surrogate mother to the baby.

Grief-stricken as James was, his mother’s passing did not change his routine as it did his father’s and sister’s. He still soldiered through the woods to Campbell’s Academy over the next two years. But in 1774, another devastating blow struck. Spence, forty-seven, became ill and died, making sixteen-year-old James head of the family, overseer of the farm, and sole provider for his sister and three brothers, thus cutting off his education. Nothing better showed James how quickly his world had changed than his return from school to find fifty-two unfinished chairs that Spence and his apprentice had yet to complete for his customers.


Once Joseph Jones learned of his brother-in-law’s death he immediately left Fredericksburg, where he was serving as County Judge, and journeyed to Monroe Creek. He had watched James grow from toddler to teenager and was impressed with his nephew’s academic accomplishments. As Jones saw it, for the boy to throw away his bright future to fulfill his family obligations was not only unnecessary but foolish, since Jones possessed both an uncle’s affection and the financial wherewithal to care for all of his sister’s orphans. His generosity allowed the young Monroes to keep their farm. There are no records that indicate whether Jones arranged for anyone to take over management of the land, but there are documents that show he took care of all future scholastic expenses for James. Jones and his wife had no children. His niece and nephews would now be their wards.

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