Returning to the early presidents is a wave fresh air after all the foreign policy messes of the modern period, and James Monroe looks especially good in this light. The fifth president turned the nation away from European affairs to focus on domestic issues, and handled them very well. He presided over what came to be known as the Era of Good Feelings, an era devoid of two-party factionalism and other theaters of strife. It was a much needed kumbaya, after the disastrous War of 1812, and before the ascendance of Jacksonian frontier politics.
There were Federalists in New England who hoped that Monroe would welcome them back into the fold, but Monroe disappointed them. He wasn’t about to alienate his Democratic-Republican supporters by throwing Federalists a lifeline, and in truth they didn’t deserve it. The two-party system is the life and blood of America, but the Federalists were by now bankrupt of decent alternatives; Monroe was wise to let them go extinct.
If there was ever a Golden Rule in American-Bible politics, it was the Monroe Doctrine. And like Jesus’ Golden Rule, it was intuitively sound but easily perverted, over-interpreted, and lent itself to abuse.
Monroe didn’t want to see monarchies set up in the New World. He feared, with justification, that European powers would try to reverse the republican revolutions happening in Latin America, and set up new colonies — whether in Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Peru and/or Argentina. All these nations had won their independence from Spain and were still vulnerable. There was also the problem of Russia’s encroachment in the northwest U.S. On December 2, 1823, Monroe presented what became known as the Monroe Doctrine in his annual message to Congress. The New World and the Old World were to remain distinctly separate spheres of influence. Monroe vowed that the United States
- would not interfere in already existing European colonies
- would not interfere in European affairs
- would forbid European colonization of new areas
- would forbid European recolonization of former colonies
For decades this doctrine was for the most part applied judiciously, until presidents managed to forget the first two parts (about staying out of Europe’s business and quarrels) and focused exclusively on the last two (about keeping Europe out of the western hemisphere). Applied aggressively, that latter half then became perverted into a “morality-driven” foreign interventionist policy stating that the U.S. would intervene in any western hemisphere country that became unstable or unruly for whatever reason. The lead offender of this perversion was Teddy Roosevelt at the dawn of the 20th century; but there were seeds planted before him.
Monroe cannot be held accountable for the later corruption of his doctrine, or at least not to the degree Ivan Eland does. Claiming that Monroe’s foreign policy had “momentous ill effects” that would “manifest decades later”, he fails Monroe as a bad president, assigning him a ludicrously low peace rating of 4 out of 20. If the Monroe Doctrine were flawed in theory, that would be one thing, but it’s not. It lends itself to abuse when taken selectively and exaggerating that selection.
A shrewd compromise
During the negotiations that resulted in the Missouri Compromise (1820), Monroe’s shrewd backstage maneuverings helped the country avoid a sectional crisis. In the end, it was agreed that Maine would be admitted as a free state, and Missouri as a slave state, in return for the South’s willingness to outlaw slavery in western territories above the 36°30′ north latitude line. That line opened present-day Arkansas and Oklahoma to slavery but prohibited it throughout the rest of the Louisiana Territory (land that would eventually be organized into nine states). Monroe signed the bill on 1820, and it settled the slavery question until thirty years later, in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War. Monroe is to be commended for keeping the nation from civil war for a long time.
Other foreign policy
Monroe demilitarized the Great Lakes, the area of which had been ravaged by war. The negotiations had begun in 1816, when he was Secretary of State, and then concluded during the first months of his presidency. The Senate approved the Rush-Bagot Agreement (1818), which limited Great Britain and the U.S. to four ships in the Great Lakes, used primarily for revenue service, and allowed some use of the forts and garrisons around the lakes. Rush-Bagot created a peaceful border between the U.S. and British Canada.
Then there was the Oregon issue (click on the above map). The Treaty of 1818 ironed out fishing rights on the Columbia River, control of the fur trading station at Astoria, and joint control of Oregon. The agreement drew the northern U.S. boundary along the 49th parallel from the Lake of the Woods to the Rocky Mountains. The U.S. and Britain agreed to joint control of the Oregon region for ten years, which allowed access to citizens of both nations.
When the War of 1812 finished (in 1815), the country enjoyed an economic boom under the remaining two years of Madison’s term. This had less to do with anything Madison did, and more with the industriousness of the American people, and the sudden open trade channels to the rest of the world. Monroe, on the other hand, managed to continue the post-war boom with excellent fiscal policies. He fought inflation and lowered the national debt. And when faced with the Panic of 1819 — the country’s first major depression, stemming from the decline of imports and exports and the fall of agricultural prices — his policies steered the country out of the depression and into prosperity again for the rest of his two terms. He is rated the fourth best president in terms of fiscal policy (after Warren Harding, Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses Grant) by economists Vedder & Gallaway. Not just for his foreign policy, but for his economic policy, was this the Era of Good Feelings.
For the Missouri Compromise and the doctrine named after him, Monroe scores high marks, though not perfect. His doctrine is one of those great ideas in terms of original intent that lends itself to abuse. For prosperity his fiscal record speaks for itself. I dock him one point for approving tariffs, and another for not trying to do away with the Second National Bank, as his Jeffersonian beliefs by rights dictated. For liberty I dock him 4 points for his treatment of the Indians. By manifest destiny standards he wasn’t terrible (like Andrew Jackons and Martin Van Buren), but he did adopt the idea of forcing the Natives to move west, and giving them what was supposedly good land but wasn’t, which is what we today call ethnic cleansing. On whole James Monroe was a very good president, who presided in a time of harmony. Today we are long overdue for a Monroe-like kumbaya; I don’t foresee it happening in my lifetime.
Peace — 17/20
Prosperity — 18/20
Liberty — 16/20
TOTAL SCORE = 51/60 = Very Good