James Monroe was the only president, aside from George Washington, to run unopposed for re-election. But that may not be the most surprising fact about the last Founding Father to occupy the White House.
Monroe was born on April 28, 1758, in Virginia, and his public career started from humble roots. He was an eyewitness to many of the events that led to the creation of the United States and the U.S. Constitution.
But you won’t hear Monroe’s name used in the same lofty terms as his friends Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and his former commander, George Washington.
Monroe did leave a lasting impression on America’s destiny because of the Monroe Doctrine, a policy he established to keep other nations out of the Western Hemisphere.
Here are 10 interesting facts about an underrated Founding Father who spent more than four decades at the center of American change.
1. Teenage James Monroe was a hero at the Battle of Trenton. The 18-year-old lieutenant was sent across the Delaware River by Washington to scout, and he nearly died after being shot during the fight in Trenton. Some have said Monroe is the soldier holding the flag in the famous “Washington Crossing the Delaware” painting, but according to Washington Crossing Historic Park, that’s unlikely to have happened in reality.
2. Monroe was a law apprentice for Thomas Jefferson. Monroe studied under the third president, but he wasn’t an outstanding lawyer. Monroe was more interested in politics in his native Virginia and served in the Continental Congress at the age of 25.
3. Monroe initially opposed the Constitution. Monroe wasn’t at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and opposed it at Virginia’s ratification convention, wanting a strong bill of rights. Monroe eventually supported the document.
4. Madison and Monroe had an unusual friendship. James Madison won the fight in Virginia over ratifying the Constitution in 1789 and then ran against Monroe for a seat in the House of Representatives. Madison and Monroe took part in a series of public debates, and Madison narrowly won the election. But the two opponents became fast friends on the campaign trail, much to the chagrin of Madison’s enemy, Patrick Henry.
5. Monroe was not friendly with George Washington. The men had a falling out after Washington sent Monroe, his former lieutenant, to France as an ambassador. Washington eventually fired Monroe after he criticized the Jay Treaty. Monroe also wasn’t fond of Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s close associate.
6. Monroe was a key player in two presidential administrations. Monroe was a minister to France and England for President Thomas Jefferson, and he served as both secretary of state and secretary of war for President James Madison. He held virtually every key public office before becoming president in 1817.
7. Monroe was one of the most dominant presidential candidates ever. Monroe received 68 percent of the vote when he defeated Rufus King in the 1816 election. He ran unopposed in the 1820 race, getting 81 percent of the vote. Only one cranky elector in New Hampshire kept Monroe from a unanimous win in the Electoral College.
8. Monroe had some help writing the Monroe Doctrine. John Quincy Adams was a driving force behind the policy, which President Monroe introduced with his annual message to Congress in 1823. The doctrine stated that Europe needed to stay out of the affairs of new countries and territories in the Western hemisphere; in exchange, the United States would stay out of European affairs.
9. Monroe was able to buy Florida for $5 million. Monroe had started talks with Spain about Florida while he was James Madison’s secretary of state in 1815. After violence in the region and a flurry of diplomacy, Adams helped negotiate a deal for Monroe where the U.S. would pay off damage claims made by Spain during the violence. The U.S. got Florida and promised that it would recognize Spain’s sovereignty over Texas.
10. Monroe died on the Fourth of July, too. Three Founding Fathers who were elected president died on July 4. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Monroe died on July 4, 1831. Monroe was also the last president who was never photographed in his lifetime.
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