James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States, was born this day in 1758 in Westmoreland County, Virginia, the same county where George Washington was born. Some who knew the tall, dignified Monroe said that he reminded them of Washington. Thomas Jefferson reportedly declared, “Monroe was so honest that if you turned his soul inside out there would not be a spot on it.”
The son of a planter, Monroe attended the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg but abandoned his studies to fight in the Revolutionary War. He was with Washington’s army on Christmas night 1776 when it crossed the Delaware River to attack the Hessians at Trenton, New Jersey. As he led a charge against enemy cannon, a musket ball ripped into his shoulder, nearly killing him. When his wounds had healed, he went back to fighting for independence.
After the war, he studied law under Thomas Jefferson and embarked on a remarkable career. He served in the Virginia Assembly, the Continental Congress, the U.S. Senate, and twice as governor of Virginia. President Washington sent him to Paris as U.S. minister to France. Under President Jefferson, he helped negotiate the Louisiana Purchase and served as U.S. minister to Britain. President Madison thought so highly of Monroe that he appointed him to serve simultaneously as secretary of state and secretary of war.
Americans rewarded his tireless efforts with two terms in the White House, from 1817 to 1825. Today we most remember President Monroe for his 1823 declaration that the Western Hemisphere was off-limits to colonization by European powers. The United States would not try to seize colonial possessions, Monroe said, but it would also not permit any European nation to establish new colonies in the Americas. The Monroe Doctrine has been a pillar of American foreign policy ever since.