James Monroe (1758–1831) was born to a plantation family in Westmoreland County, Virginia. He studied at the College of William and Mary. In 1775 he enlisted in the Third Virginia Infantry and fought under General George Washington’s command during the Revolutionary War. Following the war, he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, then the U.S. Senate, and then as governor of Virginia.
Monroe served on several diplomatic missions that addressed the most critical threats facing his generation. President George Washington appointed him minister to France in 1794, but tensions over the Jay Treaty between the United States and Great Britain strained diplomatic relations and he was recalled in 1796. Monroe returned to France in 1803, to assist with the Louisiana Purchase negotiations, which doubled the size of the United States. He then went on to London, where he served as minister to Britain from 1803 until 1807, a period complicated by disputes over U.S. neutrality rights during the long war between Britain and France. Not only was each warring nation attacking U.S. shipping, but the British were seizing sailors off U.S. ships and forcing them to serve in the British Navy, a practice called impressment. Monroe tried to negotiate a halt to the practice, but failed. During this time he also traveled to Spain, hoping to gain recognition of West Florida as a U.S. possession as part of the Louisiana Purchase, but was unsuccessful.
Appointed secretary of state by President James Madison, Monroe became convinced that war against Great Britain was necessary. Congress passed a declaration of war on June 17, 1812. Although the United States did win some naval battles, the war—known as the War of 1812—went badly, and when the secretary of war resigned, President Madison asked Monroe to also take on the post as acting secretary. In August 1814 British troops marched into Washington and burned government buildings in the city. Meanwhile peace talks were under way in Ghent, Belgium, and a treaty that restored the status quo was signed in December of that year. The news had not yet arrived, however, when in January 1815 General Andrew Jackson defeated the British in New Orleans. The great victory launched a period of national pride.
In 1816, Monroe was elected president, ushering in what was known as the Era of Good Feelings. Federalist opposition to the war proved such an embarrassment that the party faded away, and when Monroe ran for president again in 1820 he ran unopposed. His administration was notable for foreign policy successes, including the acquisition of Florida in 1819 and the issuance of the Monroe Doctrine, crafted by his influential secretary of state, John Quincy Adams. In his annual address to Congress in December 1823, Monroe warned the imperial powers of Europe not to interfere in the Western Hemisphere, where former colonies of Spain had just won independence. In turn, Monroe stated that the United States would not interfere in wars between the nations of Europe. This Monroe Doctrine guided U.S. foreign policy for a century.