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James Monroe as Secretary of State

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

James Monroe was a president who was deeply influenced by his Secretary of State. But before that, he actually was a Secretary of State. In this lesson, we'll explore Monroe's experiences in this office, and see how he shaped American history before his presidency.

James Monroe

James Monroe was the fifth American president, holding that office from 1817-1825. What's interesting about his presidency is that most of the truly significant things to happen during it were actually the work of his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams. Even the famous Monroe Doctrine, which redefined American foreign relations, was drafted by Adams. It seems somewhat ironic that Monroe should be so defined by his own Secretary of State, when he himself had been a very successful Secretary of State just years before.

James Monroe
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From 1811 to 1817, James Monroe served as Secretary of State for president James Madison. In this position, Monroe effectively and gracefully wielded great power, and was responsible for some of the greatest moments of Madison's presidency. In one way or another, the office of the Secretary of State was always defining the career of James Monroe.

Monroe and the War of 1812

In 1811, President Madison got rid of his Secretary of State (who people saw as being ineffective), and replaced him with James Monroe. This was a good choice. Monroe was a well-respected and practiced diplomat, and the nation needed a good diplomat right about then.

At the time, the USA was getting caught in the middle of a war between France and Great Britain. Both sides had started the practice of seizing American merchant ships as parts of their own war efforts, and refused to respect America's right to remain neutral in their conflict. The United States tried to force the warring nations to stop harassing American ships by ceasing trade with them, but it didn't work. To Monroe and others, it was clear: Europe did not respect the United States.

American cartoon with Columbia (personification of the USA) lecturing France and Britain on her right to nuetrality
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Monroe and the other members of Madison's cabinet agreed that the USA needed to make a show of strength. They tried to reopen trade with Britain and France, on the condition that both respected American neutrality. France saw an opportunity to turn American opinion in their favor and accepted the terms. Britain rejected them. Monroe worked with both President Madison and Congress to pass the declaration of war. The War of 1812 against Britain had begun.

British cartoon with an insane Madison standing between Napoleon and the Devil, soon to be attacked by the British lion
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Monroe was a military veteran, having served in the American Revolution under George Washington, and wanted to be actively involved. However, political opponents prevented Madison from giving Monroe too much power during the first part of the war. Monroe tried to advise the new Secretary of War, John Armstrong, but the two did not get along. For the first two years of the war, Armstrong continued to insist that the threat of a British attack on the United States was minimal. Monroe, on the other hand, frequently rode out with the cavalry to watch for signs of British movement, which he finally saw in July of 1814. Within a month, the British had marched all the way into Washington D.C. and burned it to the ground. Armstrong was blamed for the disaster.

Brokering Peace

As a result of Armstrong's failures, Monroe was appointed as Secretary of War in 1814. However, he was still deeply involved with the duties of Secretary of State as well. It was Monroe who drafted the first plans for negotiating peace with the British, and he carefully instructed the American ambassadors on how to handle peace talks. In 1815, the Treaty of Ghent was signed, ending the war between Great Britain and the United States. The treaty basically stated that everything would go back to normal; both sides would abandon all territory they claimed during the war and they'd restore their pre-war relationship.

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