The second and third presidents of the United States, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, both perished on July 4, 1826. That these two titans of the Founding, who were friends, bitter rivals, and then friends again, fell on the 50th anniversary of the ratification of the Declaration that flowed from Jefferson’s pen, did not escape notice. Adams’ last words, supposedly “Jefferson still lives,” proved to be incorrect – his friend had died earlier that same Independence Day morning. The story of Adams and Jefferson both dying on Independence Day is well-known, but they were not the only former presidents to pass on the Fourth. Exactly five years to the day of the deaths of Adams and Jefferson, the fifth President, James Monroe, passed away on July 4, 1831.
In this post, I will take a look at a couple of contemporaneous pieces on the death of James Monroe on the 55th Independence Day subsequent to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
James Monroe Background
James Monroe was born in Virginia on April 28, 1758. He fought in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War – accompanying Washington in his retreat across the Delaware and being wounded at Trenton. After his military service, Monroe studied law under Thomas Jefferson in the early 1780s. Monroe served as a member of the Confederation Congress from 1783-1786, and he was selected by Virginia to attend the 1787 Constitutional Convention as a Delegate. Monroe ultimately voted against ratification of the Constitution for a number of reasons, including his belief that the president and the members of the senate should be directly elected and also his belief that the Constitution required a bill of rights. Monroe would serve in a number of high offices between the ratification of the Constitution and his eventual election as President:
- Congress of Confederation Representative from Virginia (1783-1786)
- United States Senator from Virginia (November 9, 1790 – May 27, 1794)
- United States Minister to France (August 15, 1794 – December 9, 1796)
- Governor of Virginia (December 28, 1799 – December 1, 1802 and January 16, 1811 – April 2, 1811)
- United States Minister to the United Kingdom (August 17, 1803 – October 7, 1807)
- United States Secretary of State (April 6, 1811 – March 4, 1817)
- United States Secretary of War (September 27, 1814 – March 2, 1815)
Monroe, like Madison before him, went from heading the State Department to the presidency, winning the 1816 election decisively and taking office on March 4, 1817. He was reelected without opposition in 1820, becoming the second (after George Washington) and last man to win a U.S. presidential election uncontested.
While the purpose of this post is not to assess Monroe’s eight years in office, it is worth noting some of the significant events of his presidency. Under Monroe, the United States acquired Florida. Monroe issued the Monroe Doctrine, which decisively set forth U.S. foreign policy in the Americas (the Monroe Doctrine was authored by then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, who we will turn to shortly). Monroe’s presidency can be said to represent both an era of good feelings and the end of an era. The contentious election to succeed Monroe, which differed greatly from his own second term coronation, laid the groundwork for a new party system in American politics. Monroe signed the Missouri Compromise, which ultimately proved to be a very unsuccessful attempt to resolve questions regarding the United States’ policy on slavery.
Contemporaneous Article on the Death of James Monroe
The July 9, 1831 issue of the Richmond Whig and Commercial Journal re-printed a July 5, 1831 article from the New York American (see link courtesy of The Virginia Chronicle – discovered with the Elephind newspaper search engine). The article began as follows:
Again our National Anniversary has been marked by one of those events, which now it may scarcely be permitted to ascribe to chance.
The second and third presidents died on July 4 five years earlier, so too did Monroe. The article continued:
JAMES MONROE, ex-President of the United States, died yesterday, about four o’clock: thus, like Adams and Jefferson, terminating a log and distinguished life, of the birth-day of that Independence, which, in common with them, he was so forward to establish and maintain.
The article then noted Monroe’s relative youth at the outset of the Revolution and his place in its dramatic events and aftermath:
He was not, indeed, like those of his great predecessors, of that immortal Congress, which declared, that ‘these United Colonies were, and of right ought to be, Independent States;’ and who ‘pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor,’ to make good that Declaration; but his youthful blood was shed for, and the subsequent years of a prolonged life have been devoted to, the Nation, which, by that memorable decision, and the valor, wisdom, and fortitude whereby it was maintained, assumed ‘its separate and equal station among the Powers of the earth.’
The passage made special note of the fact that Monroe served in the Continental Army, which distinguished his role during the Revolutionary War from many other Founding Fathers, including Adams and Jefferson. Monroe began the Revolution as a young man, and his presidency sowed the seeds which began the United States’ rise as a regional power.
John Quincy Adams’ Eulogy of James Monroe
John Quincy Adams served as James Monroe’s Secretary of State and succeeded him as president, serving in that capacity from 1825-1829. On August 25, 1831, Adam delivered a lengthy eulogy for Monroe before the Boston City Council. The eulogy was published in a book and ran for 96 pages (see original text). Adams began his long discussion of Monroe’s life and times by placing Monroe in the context of his remarkable life and times. I reprint the passage in its pertinent parts below.
We have already lived since the close of that momentous struggle [for independence] nearly thrice the extent of time, in which it passed through all its stages, and there are yet among the living those whose birth preceded even that of the questions upon which hinged our independent existence as a nation.
Adams continued with the next paragraph to the subject of his eulogy:
Among these was the distinguished person, whose earthly career terminated on the fifty-fifth Anniversary of our National Independence.
Adams’ euology was published in a book containing 96 pages. Thus, rather than re-print it in its entirety, I will re-print a couple of passages that best summarize the sixth president’s sentiments about the fifth.
Such my fellow citizens was James Monroe. Such was the man, who presents the only example of one whose public life, commenced with the War of Independence, and is identified with all the important events of your history from that day forth for a full half century
Adams assigned Monroe the greatest share of individual credit for the growth of the United States from colonies struggling for independence to a vastly larger nation by 1831.
[L]ook at the Map of United North America, as it was at the definitive peace of 1783. Compare it with the map of that same Empire as it is now; limited by the Sabine and the Pacific Ocean, and say, the change, more than of any other man, living or dead, was the work of JAMES MONROE.
Adams then traced Monroe’s career from that of a member of the Confederation Congress to the Chief Magistry of the United States, and gave it a grand historic analogy.
Thus strengthening and consolidating the federative edifice of his country’s Union, till he was entitled to say like Augustus Caesar of his imperial city, that he had found her built of brick and left her constructed of marble.
Adams concluded his eulogy by noting the myriad roles that Monroe had filled aptly in his half-century in public life, expressing the hope that Monroe’s example would inspire posterity:
And should the gloom of the year of Independence ever again overspread the sky, or the metropolis of your empire once more destined to smart under scourge of an invader’s hand, that there never may be found wanting among the children of your country a warrior to bleed, a statesman to counsel, a chief to direct and govern, inspired with all the virtues, and endowed with all the faculties, which have been so singally displayed in the life of JAMES MONROE.
Monroe’s Death Mask
After Monroe passed away on July 4, 1931, John Henri Isaac Browerie, a prominent American artist known for his life masks of eminent Americans (including masks for John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, and Martin Van Buren), took a death mask of James Monroe. I wrote about Monroe’s desk mask in a separate article. You can learn more about Browere’s work generally here.
That three of the first five Presidents, all of whom played important roles in the Revolution and the early American republic, died on July 4 is an extraordinary historical curiosity. Monroe is less prominent in American memory than Washington, the first President followed by Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, but as his obituary noted, and John Quincy Adams relayed, Monroe’s career was singularly unique in terms of scope, with him having continuously held various high offices and stations in all three branches of the Federal government and in his own State subsequent to his service in the Continental Army. The entirety of Monroe’s adult life save for his brief retirement after leaving the White House was devoted to public service, and few could lay claim to having served in significant offices through more significant times than did Monroe.