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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

November 30, 2016: James MonroeStudying: Expanding America

[On December 4th, 2016, James Monroe was elected the fifth president of the United States. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five histories and contexts linked to Monroe’s life and presidency.]
On three ways Monroe’s public service reflects a globally and geographically expanding nation.
Thanks in large part to Hamilton, some of the key questions and debates from America’s long-forgotten first decade as a post-Constitution political entity (the 1790s) have become more familiar: the battles between the Hamilton and Jefferson factions, the questions of federal power and potency, the visions of what the new nation would truly become and be. But to my mind, at least as central to 1790s America were a pair of international entanglements: the conflicts with North African states and pirates that led to the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli; and the undeclared war with France that culminated in the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts. Distinct and complex as each of these conflicts was, taken together they reflect a new nation that was expanding its commercial, military, and diplomatic presence around the globe. And in his position as George Washington’s Ambassador to France during the particularly tense and touchy period prior to the Alien and Sedition Acts (and amidst France’s own ongoing and controversial Revolution), James Monroe both illustrates those globalizing trends and played a key role in shaping the official response to them.
Although he returned to Virginia during the Adams administration, beginning his terms as the state’s Governor in 1799, Monroe remained linked to both the national Democrat-Republican party and France, and through those connections was sent by President Thomas Jefferson back to France in January 1803 to help Ambassador Robert Livingston negotiate the Louisana Purchase. Nearly two decades later, during his own first term as president, Monroe and his administration (led by John Quincy Adams, Monroe’s successor as president) signed the 1819 Adams-Onís Treaty with Spain, purchasing Spanish Florida and integrating it into the United States. Taken together, the purchase and treaty hugely increased the total area of the United States, reflecting a nation that was rapidly expanding from its origins as a small collection of eastern colonies into a continental presence. Yet the 1819 treaty likewise stipulated that the U.S. would not pursue any interests in what was (at that time) Spanish Texas, illustrating the continued territorial and international complexities that would accompany this continental expansion. Those issues and histories were vital to early 19th century America, and James Monroe was closely linked to many of them.
Just as vital to Early Republic America, of course, was the issue of slavery, and there too (in addition to his personal connections to slavery, about which I wrote yesterday) Monroe reflected and extended the relationship between a globalizing nation and this dark historical reality. Monroe was an early member of the American Colonization Society, the organization founded in 1816 (the same year as his presidential election) to promote the “resettlement” of freed slaves to Africa. As president, Monroe helped secure $100,000 in Federal money to support colonization, funds that allowed the group to purchase the land that would eventually become the new nation of Liberia (with a capital, Monrovia, named after Monroe). As I detailed in yesterday’s post, Monroe was no abolitionist (although he did, late in life, describe slavery as a “blight” on the nation), and the colonization efforts were driven at least as much by racism as by opposition to slavery or (least consistently) concern for African American communities and lives. Yet in any case, they represented one more way in which America was expanding its influence and connections around the globe, and one more such expansion to which James Monroe was closely linked.
Next MonroeStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Monroe histories or contexts you’d highlight?

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