James Monroe shares a distinction with George Washington as the only presidents to run for office unopposed. The Democratic-Republican Party was so dominant (and Americans were feeling so patriotic) that no one challenged Monroe for reelection. BUT there were some deep, deep divisions bubbling under the surface. Issues that are a footnote in this election made the Civil War inevitable, 40 years later.
The Last Four Years
Things seemed great in America! Justified or not, people were feeling very patriotic after the War of 1812. James Monroe won an easy election in 1816. To celebrate, he went on a Goodwill Tour of the country. The chance to see the president in person was a rare event in early America. In many cities, he was greeted to crowds of thousands (hey, that was a lot at the time!). American spirit was so high, that a Federalist newspaper dubbed the time period as “The Era of Good Feelings.” Pretty high praise, coming from a journalist whose party had been getting bulldozed for the last twenty years. Everybody was on the same side – America’s!
But… that didn’t mean everything was perfect. The Monroe years were also defined by the Panic of 1819, America’s first encounter with the boom/bust economic cycle of Capitalism. From a wide view, the economic downturn was a result of the world markets adjusting back to the norm following the Napoleonic Wars. European production was catching back up to America. On top of that, though, the Second Bank of the United States (re-established by Madison during his late embrace of Federalist policies) fumbled their attempts to prevent the decline. This led to American public to heavily distrust the banking system.
In other news, the continental United States was continuing to take shape. Now that relations were stable with Britain, we were able to sign the Treaty of 1818 (another inventive title from the folks who brought you the War of 1812!). The treaty officially established the 49th parallel as the US-Canada border from (what is now) Minnesota to the Rocky Mountains. We also agreed to share Oregon territory for the next ten years, in the classic American political trend of kicking the can down the line (but more on that later).
Similarly, Spain had been slacking in their governance of their American colonies. The Seminole tribes in Florida took advantage of this and began raiding US towns across the border. In response, General Andrew Jackson (lover of murdering Native Americans) led a successful attack into Spanish Florida, taking Pensacola. Though his actions were not authorized and kind of illegal, he put America in a strong bargaining position with Spain. In 1819, the Adams-Onís Treaty (partly named for Secretary of State, and son of the second president, John Quincy Adams) finally ceded Florida to the US and established a southwest border for the Louisiana Purchase territory.
Although the economy had been a little bumpy lately, most politicians were on the same side. Behind the scenes, though, some divisions were worsening. Northern politicians regretted the 3/5ths Compromise of the founding fathers, which allowed Southern states to count each slave as 3/5ths of an individual in their population. The South had become very dominant in the federal government. With their extra population, white Southerners had oversized representation in Congress and in the electoral college. This certainly had contributed to the Republicans dominance after Jefferson, not to mention the Virginian presidential dynasty. Although a lot of Northerners disliked slavery, what they were really mad about was lack of power.
When Missouri began seeking statehood in 1818, these issues came into full view. Southerners wanted Missouri to join the Union as a slave state, but Northerners saw this as an important opportunity to curtail the South’s influence. The Tallmadge Amendment (named for New York Congressman James Tallmadge) proposed outlawing slavery in the new state. The South pushed back and arguments went on for months.
Since the free and slave states were currently tied in the Senate at 11 states each, the solution to Missouri’s admittance was Maine. Up until this point, Maine had been part of Massachusetts. Mainers (Mainites? Mainaganians?) were angry that the big-city merchants of Massachusetts hadn’t cared about the fighting on their Canadian border during the War of 1812. Finally, they had a chance to break off. This worked for everyone, because Congress was looking for an easy solution to the North/South power struggle. But it would take more than that to get Northerners to ignore the horrible, immoral institution of slavery. A follow-up bill proposed that all remaining territory north of Missouri’s southern border would be free (with the exception of Missouri, of course). The North finally had their deal. Together, these agreements formed the infamous Missouri Compromise, setting up decades of political divisions, and eventually leading to the Civil War.
Not a lot to report here. In national elections, the Federalists were officially done. They didn’t even nominate anyone! And while the Republicans were dominating, that also meant that there wasn’t a lot of party enthusiasm. In fact, the Democratic-Republican Party technically didn’t endorse Monroe. So few people showed up to the party’s nominating caucus, it seemed silly to actually cast votes.
But underneath the “good feelings,” some rivalries were forming. Monroe’s attempt to bring all ideologies under the Republican umbrella gambled that it wouldn’t all fall apart as soon as he left. Many of the future 1824 presidential candidates were close to Monroe, and there was no obvious successor (next week’s post will be much more action-packed!). These included Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Secretary of Treasury William H. Crawford, and Seminole War winner General Andrew Jackson. Without any real identity to the party, the next election was sure to be a free-for-all.
Uhh, check back next time. It’s James Monroe and VP Daniel Tompkins again!
We’ve got some new states to add! Mississippi, Illinois, Alabama, Maine, and Missouri* had joined the Union! One odd fact – you’ll notice Mississippi only cast two votes, even though the minimum votes allotted is three. That’s because one of their electors died before the final votes took place.
*Like Indiana four years earlier, Missouri’s statehood had not been approved when voting took place in 1820. After some debate, their electors were permitted to cast their final votes anyways, provided that they wouldn’t affect the final outcome. Luckily, there was no chance of that!
In a shocking turn of events, James Monroe won! It was a landslide election against nobody. Monroe won 231-1, one vote short of a shutout. Former New Hampshire Senator and Governor William Plumer voted for John Quincy Adams instead. Though many claim that Plumer pulled this prank because he wanted George Washington to remain the only president to win a truly unanimous victory, Plumer openly stated that he was bros with Adams and despised Monroe. So not much of a mystery there.
What Did It Say About America?
James Monroe was known as The Last Cocked Hat, named for the traditional, Revolutionary-times hat style (cocked, as in flipped up, so everyone could see your fancy wigs). He was the last of the founding fathers to be president. His terms were a good summation of the first era in American political history. Things seemed great! But there were worsening divides that were being ignored. Ending slavery would have been an unpopular decision, and they just didn’t want to deal with it. Unfortunately, even by 1820, it was clear that they had waited too long.
Was It The Right Decision?
Well, there was no other option, so yes James Monroe was the right choice! Since I want to fill out this section more, I’ll use this time to say that the Missouri Compromise was obviously the WRONG choice. In addition to appeasing the slaveholders in the South, it essentially created a legally defined line between the North and South. The regional differences were already there, but the coming decades would be dominated by the power struggle that started with the Missouri Compromise.