James Monroe, our fifth President, was the last of the generation of Founding Fathers. A strict constructionist of the Constitution, he was a leading opponent of the faction led by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and John Adams who, in Monroe’s articulate view, wanted to impose the despotism of an all-powerful Federal government on the United States. Few leaders of his time participated in such a variety of world-changing events — and he was at every scene writing perceptive accounts of what he saw, or arguing closely defined points of history or law.
Monroe left behind a legacy of thousands of carefully crafted letters and memoranda, most of them directed to famous world leaders and thinkers of his time. Does anyone today have correspondents on the level of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, John Taylor of Caroline, Patrick Henry, Edmund Pandolph, George Clinton, Thomas Paine, the Marquis de Lafayette, Andrew Jackson, and John C. Calhoun, just to name a few? And his letters are equal to the caliber of those who are addressed — full of substance, clear intelligence, and economical prose. They also have the immediacy of modern journalism, and the importance of an eyewitness to history.
Unfortunately, it has been more than a century since any substantial collection of Monroe’s political and diplomatic writings has been published. This 906-page volume — the ninth in the Club’s own Conservative Leadership Series — remedies that situation. Among its contents:
- Monroe’s letter to Jefferson of November 1, 1784, detailing his journey to Niagara Falls, his narrow escape from an Indian massacre, and his detailed observations of the St. Lawrence River
- Monroe’s letter of July 12, 1788 to Jefferson giving his first-person account of the historic Virginia Convention of 1788, which provided the key ratifying vote for the U.S. Constitution
- The full text of “Observations on the Federal Government,” Monroe’s analysis of the Constitution prepared for the Virginia Convention. It is a significant document giving insight to the original intent of the Founding Fathers, and expresses the conservative philosophy of government and States’ Rights that guided Monroe throughout his political career
- Monroe’s letter of August 15, 1794 as Minister to Paris giving a direct account of the fall of Robespierre, written only days after the event
- Monroe’s journals of April-May, 1803 giving a day-by-day account of his negotiations in Paris for the Louisiana Purchase, including his dinner with Napoleon
- Monroe’s memorandum of August 27, 1814 as Secretary of State, detailing his re-entry into Washington with President Madison after the burning of the city by the British, and his immediate deputization as Secretary of War
- President Monroe’s correspondence of October 17, 1823 with Jefferson and Madison laying out the rationale for what came to be known as “The Principles of 1823,” or the Monroe Doctrine, and his subsequent Message to Congress of December 2, 1823
- The full text of his famous Veto Message on Public Roads demonstrating that the expenditure of Federal funds for highways is unconstitutional — a full-fledged exposition of Constitutional principles
- The full text of Monroe’s one theoretical work, The People, the Sovereigns, written in his retirement. Surveying the political systems of the nations of antiquity based on his wide reading, Monroe demonstrates that liberty cannot survive if the sovereignty of the nation is held by a king, an aristocratic government, or a legislature. He argues that freedom can be preserved only if sovereignty resides with the people — but warns that they will lose their freedom unless the power is divided among legislative, judicial and executive bodies
“These materials,” writes volume editor James Lucier in his Introduction, “retain an immediacy of observation that was characteristic of Monroe’s mind, and demonstrate a sure power of organization that holds even the modern reader to a high degree of intimacy. Monroe wasted little effort on the literary flourishes that characterize so much eighteenth and early nineteenth century prose. Instead he wrote with a direct simplicity that belies the rigorous structure of thought that supports his prose. His writing is a camera that transmits to us images of history as it unfolded. But it is also writing that constantly advocates uniform political principles of liberty, the division of powers, and the sovereignty of the people.”