In the fall of ’16, Americans elected a presidential candidate with a well-deserved reputation for partisanship. Once inaugurated, he surprised his countrymen by seeking to end party politics and usher in a time of unity among Americans rarely seen in our history.
Obviously, we’re not talking about 2016.
No, this was in 1816, and that president was James Monroe. He and President Trump share little in common. Where Trump graduated from military school at 18 and compared it to actually being in the military, Monroe at the same age was a lieutenant in the Continental Army and almost bled to death from a musket wound at Trenton. Both were well-educated: Trump at Fordham and Wharton, and Monroe at William and Mary, later studying law under a fellow named Jefferson. While the presidency is Trump’s first position in government, it was Monroe’s last, after serving as state representative; governor; congressman; senator; ambassador to France, Spain, and Great Britain; and secretary of both state and war (both at once during part of the War of 1812).
Unlike the thrice-married Trump, Monroe was married but once, to a woman whose death after 44 years of marriage broke his heart and possibly precipitated his own demise. A lifetime of public service helped make Monroe a pauper (a pitfall Trump will probably avoid). And while Trump made his reputation as a real estate tycoon, Monroe, land-poor all his life, did have a hand in a couple of realty deals: Florida and the Louisiana Purchase.
Throughout his political career, Monroe was more of a Jeffersonian Republican than, well, Jefferson. In Congress he argued for a new Constitution, only to vote against it for its lack of a Bill of Rights. Like Trump, he was thin-skinned; intentional and unintended slights at the hands of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison enraged Monroe, who almost fought a duel with Hamilton over an insult. In contrast to Trump, Monroe possessed a forgiving nature, saving many a friendship.
The big difference between the two? Once elected president, Monroe abandoned his partisan ways. In his first inaugural address, he declared Americans to be “one great family with a common interest,” and proceeded to prove it. Like his successors Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and George H. W. Bush, Monroe had faced death up close as a junior officer; like them, he shaped his military policies on improving America’s defenses, unwilling to frivolously risk the lives of soldiers and sailors.
Monroe’s cabinet is considered one of the finest in our history. William Crawford (Treasury), Benjamin Crowninshield (Navy), and William Wirt (attorney general) are not household names, but they were well-qualified and successful. John Calhoun, years from becoming slavery’s mouthpiece, brought organizational skills and bold ideas to the War Department. Lastly, the working relationship Monroe had with his secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, is rivaled only by the team of Truman and George Marshall. The culmination of their efforts is the doctrine they forged at the end of Monroe’s second term that bears his name.
His extensive tours of the United States — a first for a president — were instrumental in elevating the mood of postwar America. Easily recognizable in his outdated knee breeches and buckled shoes, he was rapturously received by his countrymen, who never dreamed they would meet a president. He also used these visits as opportunities to mend political fences. The tours contributed greatly to Monroe’s first term being known as the “Era of Good Feelings,” and increased his determination to improve the country’s roadways and canals with federal funds — an early infrastructure policy.
His presidency wasn’t all halcyon days of yore. The Panic of 1819 created a near collapse of the American economy. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 ended talk of dissolving the Union, but began kicking the issue of slavery down the long road toward Fort Sumter. Monroe’s dealings with Native Americans were more humane than Andrew Jackson’s, but he did believe that “their independence as communities should cease” if the tribes were to survive while Americans grabbed their homelands.
Monroe declared to his fellow whites that “the God who made us made the black people” who “ought not to be treated with barbarity.” The man who, as Virginia’s governor, systematically suppressed one slave rebellion, would as president order the U.S. Navy across the seas to capture slave ships and return the inhumanly treated Africans aboard to their home shores. When in England, he championed William Wilberforce’s efforts to outlaw slavery throughout Great Britain, and later worked with the American Colonization Society for a solution at home. In the end, though, Monroe was another in a line of Virginia presidents who railed against slavery while buying and selling slaves and never freeing them.
In 1831, Monroe became the last president to die on the Fourth of July. His leadership both shaped and reflected his times. It remains to be seen if the current president will be judged to reflect ours. Perhaps someday Trump will try uniting the country as Monroe and other presidents attempted, but that looks unlikely. If not, oh well: Hindsight is 2020.
Tim McGrath is the author of “Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America’s Revolution at Sea.” firstname.lastname@example.org