by Scott Harris, Executive Director, UMW Museums
April (in the Northern Hemisphere) is a month of rising temperatures, frequent rain showers, and the steady emergence of new plant and animal life. It is also National Volunteer Month in the United States, proclaimed in 1991 by President George H. W. Bush as part of his “Thousand Points of Light” campaign to promote community voluntarism. April’s traditional association with new life, and its contemporary ties to public service, figure prominently and repeatedly in the story of James Monroe.
April 28, 1758. James Monroe was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia to Spence and Elizabeth Jones Monroe. Until his death on July 4, 1831, he pursued a life of public service—Revolutionary War soldier; local, state, and federal legislator; governor; diplomat; cabinet officer; and president.
April 1778. Monroe and the rest of the Continental Army were encamped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. It was here that Major James Monroe, aide-de-camp to General William Alexander (Lord Sterling), signed a furlough on February 23 for a soldier—the earliest known document bearing his signature (now in the collection of the James Monroe Museum).
April 4, 1782. Monroe was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates from King George County, Virginia, an office he held for less than two months before being appointed to the Commonwealth’s Council of State. He subsequently lost another House of Delegates canvass in April 1786, but was elected in April 1787 to represent Spotsylvania County.
April 1790. Monroe was unsuccessful in seeking to be one of Virginia’s first two United States Senators under the Constitution but was elected in November of that year to fill the unexpired term of William Grayson (coincidentally, Monroe’s cousin).
April 9, 1797. After a three-year appointment as U.S. minister to France that was marked by the drama of the French revolution and bitter political differences with the administration of George Washington, James Monroe and his family set sail for home from Bordeaux France.
April 1802. Maria Hester Monroe (later Gouverneur) was born in Richmond, Virginia to James and Elizabeth Monroe on a day not recorded. Her father was serving the third of what would be four terms as governor of the Commonwealth. Maria was the couple’s second daughter and third child; her sister Eliza was born in 1786 and brother James Spence died in 1800.
April 1803. On the 8th of the month the Monroe family arrived at Le Havre, France for the start of James Monroe’s second overseas diplomatic posting as minister extraordinary to France and Spain. They arrived in Paris on April 12, and on April 18 Monroe was appointed minister to Great Britain. In addition to considerable travel on diplomatic missions, the Monroes attended the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte as French emperor on December 2, 1804.
April 30, 1803. Capping perhaps the busiest April of his career (certainly in diplomacy), Monroe signed the Louisiana Purchase Treaty with France with fellow American minister Robert Livingston and French treasurer François Barbé-Marbois. The treaty, which greatly expanded the territory of the United States, was commemorated in a bas-relief created for the 1903 World’s Fair (the Louisiana Purchase Exposition) by sculptor Karl Bitter. The artist’s plaster model of the sculpture is exhibited in the James Monroe Museum.
April 1808. James Monroe and his longtime political ally and friend James Madison contended for the Democratic-Republican Party’s nomination for president of the United States. A rupture in their relationship had resulted from rejection by President Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of State Madison of a treaty with Great Britain negotiated in 1806 by Monroe and William Pinckney. Monroe’s candidacy was encouraged by “old guard” Republicans led by Patrick Henry to undermine Madison, who nonetheless won both the nomination and the subsequent election.
April 1810. Monroe was again elected to the House of Delegates, representing Albemarle County—his last legislative office.
April 2, 1811. Less than three months into his fourth term as Virginia’s governor, Monroe was appointed U.S. secretary of state by President Madison. He resigned the governorship on April 3 and assumed his new office on April 6.
April 1817. During the first year of his presidential term, Monroe was appointed to the board of visitors of the University of Virginia. On October 6, 1817, he and James Madison presided at the laying of the university’s cornerstone. The site was formerly one of Monroe’s farms.
April 20, 1817. The Rush-Bagot Treaty was signed between the United States and Great Britain, removing most of the respective nations’ naval vessels from the Great Lakes. This accord originated from informal talks between the British minister to the United States, Sir Charles Bagot, and James Monroe late in the latter’s tenure as secretary of state. Acting secretary of state Richard Rush signed the final document.
April-May 1818. In the second year of Monroe’s first presidential term, General Andrew Jackson led a U.S. army into West Florida, at that time a possession of Spain. Jackson’s orders were to eliminate perceived threats to American territory by pirates, Indians, and Blacks who had escaped enslavement. The mission was carried out in what became known as the First Seminole War. The general appeared to exceed his orders by occupying Pensacola and executing two British citizens he accused of making war on the United States. Jackson later claimed that his actions in Florida were authorized by Monroe, though definitive evidence has never been produced. This controversy, and earlier disagreements between Jackson and Monroe regarding the defense of New Orleans during the War of 1812, caused political friction between the two men later.
April-July 1819. Seeking to replicate the success of his tour of northern states in 1817 (during which the catchphrase of his administration, the “Era of Good Feelings,” was coined), Monroe began a similar three-month progress through southern states in April 1819.
April 17, 1824. In one of the last significant diplomatic accomplishments of Monroe’s presidency, the Russo-American Treaty of 1824 (also known as the Convention of 1824) was signed in St. Petersburg, Russia. The treaty transferred Russian claims to the Pacific Northwest coast of North America south of parallel 54° 40’ (including what is today all or some of the U.S. states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming) to the United States. Diplomatic conflict between Great Britain and the United States over this territory continued until the two nations signed the Oregon Treaty in 1846.
April 11, 1831. Still mourning the death of his beloved wife Elizabeth on September 23, 1830, James Monroe spent his final days at the New York home of his daughter Maria and her husband Samuel Gouverneur. Suffering from tuberculosis, Monroe wrote a final letter to his longtime friend James Madison on April 11, 1831. He stated that he was too ill to attend a meeting of the University of Virginia’s board of visitors, and lamented the necessity of selling his Oak Hill estate in Loudoun County. He then came, in the last April he would ever see, to a tragic realization:
My ill state of health continuing, consisting of a cough which annoys by night & day with considerable expectoration, considering my advanc’d years, although my lungs are not affected, render the restoration of my health very uncertain, or indeed any favorable change in it . . . I deeply regret that there is no prospect of our ever meeting again, since so long we have been connected, & in the most friendly intercourse, in publick & private life, that a final separation is among the most distressing incidents that could occur.”
James Monroe died on July 4, 1831 in the home of his daughter and son-in-law. He had come far, literally and figuratively, since his birth 73 years before in the first April of his life.
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