President James Monroe and his "Doctrine" on the cover of Time Magazine showing him about to sign the document with the banner heading THe Monroe Doctrine and Communist Cuba

James Monroe, “The Last Cocked Hat”

If you’re in Charlottesville, Virginia this April 28th, you can join President James Monroe at his birthday party. He’ll be there. No matter that it’s his 259th birthday; Monroe will celebrate with cake and questions after he shares some stories from his life. He was inaugurated president 200 years ago but doesn’t look his age. Maybe it’s the makeup. Actually, of course, it’ll be re-enactor Dennis Bigelow pretending to answer questions as president. By now people should be used to presidents pretending to answer questions.

The party will be at Highland, Monroe’s plantation home next to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.  He also owned a law office in nearby Fredericksburg, which is now the Monroe Museum and another place for partying with Mr. Monroe on his special day, although no one will be re-enacting any of his slaves.

James was born on 28 April 1758 to Spence Monroe, grandson of Patrick Monroe of Scotland and Elizabeth Jones. Identifying her ancestors is difficult but Jones is enough for the Welsh Society of Fredericksburg to throw its own annual party with the band Moch Pryderi in September at the Museum.

Monroe was born to the planter class and studied at the College of William and Mary. He dropped out in 1776 to join the 3rd Virginia Regiment and fought at the Battle of Trenton. He wintered over at Valley Forge in 1778 and resigned the regular army to join his state militia as a lieutenant colonel in 1779, but spent more time studying law with his mentor Thomas Jefferson, then governor of Virginia.

He moved from his state House of Delegates to join the US Confederation Congress after the Revolution in 1783 and, while serving in session in New York, he met Elizabeth Kortright, daughter of a local merchant. They married in 1786 and honeymooned on Long Island. He helped Virginia ratify the Constitution and was then selected as the first US senator from his home state in 1790. President George Washington, his old commander, appointed him Minister to France in 1794, not entirely successfully.

Monroe went back home and spent two years as governor in Richmond, and then went back to France at President Jefferson’s request, assisting in negotiating the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which turned “French-owned” Indian territory into American land for settlement.  No one asked the Indians. He moved up to Ambassador to Britain until 1807. Then there was more law practice and another election as governor but President James Madison tapped him as Secretary of State. The presidency was next.

Monroe was first elected in 1816 with a huge popular vote and matters went so well, his presidency was known as “The Era of Good Feelings,” discounting, of course, the Panic of 1819 recession and the contentious 1820 Missouri Compromise on slave versus free states. He was re-elected almost unanimously by the Electoral College later in 1820. He favored sending free blacks back to Africa to the new country of Liberia with its new capital – Monrovia – although he kept his own slaves in the family.

In late 1823 he announced the “Monroe Doctrine” or a warning to Europeans to keep out of newly independent states in the Americas, a defining moment in American foreign policy. He was the last of the Founding Fathers (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison) to become president.

He retired to several prominent positions in Virginia until his wife Elizabeth died in 1830. He then moved in with his daughter Maria Hester in what is now Soho, New York. In 1831, following in the tradition of Adams and Jefferson, Monroe died on the Fourth of July and was buried at New York City Marble Cemetery, still on Second Street between First and Second Avenues in what is now the East Village. In 1858 his body was moved to the “President’s Circle” in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.

Monroe was conservative in one other way. He was the last president to wear a wig, a tricorn hat, and knee breeches in the past style of the Revolution, earning him the nickname of “The Last Cocked Hat.”