Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Political Professionalism of James Monroe

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Political Professionalism of James Monroe

Article excerpt

James Monroe was a more effective chief executive than a number of his more illustrious predecessors, particularly John Adams and James Madison, both of whom are widely viewed as having made major contributions to the nation's founding period, but as having been weak chief executives. Monroe brought a pragmatic approach to politics and an unpretentious capacity for hard work to his presidency. In that, and in not being a college graduate, he resembled the twentieth-century president Harry S. Truman. Monroe also was like Truman in adhering to the prevailing notion of executive leadership. However, in Monroe's time, it was held that a president should at least give the impression of deferring to Congress (Ketcham 1987), and Truman served in a period that celebrated strong presidents who sought to place a personal stamp on public policy.

In this article, as in The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to George W. Bush (Greenstein 2004), I review the personal development and political career of my protagonist and assess his strengths and weaknesses as chief executive in terms of his strengths and weaknesses in the realms of public communication, organizational capacity, political skill, policy vision, cognitive style, and emotional intelligence. These qualities prove to be as instructive for the analysis of an early president as they are for assessing modern chief executives.

Formative Years

Monroe was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, to Spence and Elizabeth Monroe on April 28, 1758. Like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, Monroe came from a slaveholding plantation family. Unlike them, his parents were not in Virginia's upper stratum. However, he had a prosperous uncle who made it possible for him to attend a leading preparatory academy. Monroe entered the College of William and Mary in 1774, but he became absorbed in the American Revolution and left in February 1776 to serve as a lieutenant in a Virginia regiment.

In December of that year, Monroe took part in the Battle of Trenton, receiving a near-fatal wound while leading an advance party that silenced a battery of cannons threatening Washington's advance. He was promoted to captain in recognition of his heroism and saw further combat in the Battles of Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth. Monroe returned to Virginia to form a new regiment in 1778, but that proved not to be feasible. Making the best of his situation, he read law under Thomas Jefferson and became the older man's friend and disciple. Jefferson introduced Monroe to James Madison, with whom he formed a more tenuous bond.

Early Political Service

Monroe's long political career began with his election to the Virginia legislature in 1782. The following year, he was named to the Congress of the Confederation, the successor body to the Continental Congress. He served for three years, taking a particular interest in the development of the area between the Allegheny Mountains and the Mississippi River.

In 1790, the Virginia legislature appointed Monroe to the U.S. Senate. He became that body's leading Republican, joining with his House counterpart, James Madison, in opposition to Alexander Hamilton's financial program. In 1794, President Washington named Monroe minister to France. In assigning a prominent Republican to the post, Washington sought to address French concerns that the United States was siding against France in its war with Great Britain. Shortly after arriving in Paris, Monroe gave a speech to a French governmental body in which he spoke of the parallels between the American and French revolutions, declaring that the two nations were united in their respect for "the equal and unalienable rights of men" (Ammon 1990, 119). Washington came to believe that Monroe had been excessively outspoken in support of revolutionary France and recalled him. When he returned to the United States, Monroe published a lengthy treatise defending his actions in France (Monroe 1797). …

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