James Monroe, fifth president of the United States

James Monroe, 1817 – 1825

VP: Daniel D. Thompkins, First Lady: Elizabeth Kortright

James Monroe was the last member of the so-called ‘Virginia Dynasty’ to fulfil the duties of the president of the United States. He was sharp and decisive, and had a diplomatic record matched only by his four predecessors. Although his name would not be the first to spring to mind when assessing the talent of the first five presidents, he nonetheless left a significant print on the office of the president, especially in diplomacy.

James Monroe was born on 28th March 1758 in Virginia, and after a comfortable childhood went to study law at the College of William and Mary. However, Monroe ended his studies prematurely to fight in the Revolutionary War, where he demonstrated his enormous bravery and was badly wounded. After the war, he returned to his studies and worked in the Virginia Assembly and the Congress of Confederations. In 1786, he married the rather, as reports suggest, mundane (especially compared to Dolly Madison) Elizabeth Kortright and soon became a US Senator.

Monroe didn’t really have a chance to shine as a Senator though, as after hearing reports of his fervent attitude towards the French, Washington appointed Monroe as his Minister to France. Monroe then returned to domestic politics after he got bored of diplomacy with the French and became Governor of Virginia in 1799. However, Monroe was once again shipped off to France in 1803, this time at the command of Jefferson, to discuss the terms of the US’s purchase of New Orleans. This is where Monroe really impressed his ‘Virginia Dynasty’ brothers, as he basically debated and settled the Louisiana Purchase – Jefferson sent him for New Orleans and he came back with the whole Louisiana Territory.

After this great success, Monroe was made Minister to Great Britain, where he was able to establish the ties with influential British politicians that would come in very handy during his presidency. He then sat in the Governor’s Mansion of Virginia again, hoping to do more this time, but since Monroe had apparently been cursed with tending to other more urgent duties, he was brought in as Secretary of State during the War of 1812, and then as Secretary of War in 1814.

Although Monroe didn’t really get the chance to prove his worth in domestic politics as much as he might have liked, his triumphs in diplomacy almost guaranteed his victory over the last Federalist candidate, the unimpressive Rufus King, in the 1816 presidential election. Monroe was lucky in his timing for the presidency, as he governed the nation during the “era of good feelings”. He had success utilising the incredible military abilities of General (and future president) Andrew Jackson to fight Native Americans in the West and the South, and he also followed in the footsteps of Jefferson when he bought Florida from the Spanish for just $5 million.

The era of his presidency was so full of “good feelings”, he wasn’t even challenged in the 1820 election. The ease of not fighting an election battle gave Monroe the opportunity to settle the problem of introducing Missouri as a new state, which would have tipped the balance of Slave states to Free states from all square to 12-11. Congress and Monroe were offered a compromise, which included accepting Missouri but also creating the state of Maine in the north, maintaining the Free state to Slave state balance.

It wasn’t until 1823, however, when Monroe made his biggest impact on both the office of the president and the future of US foreign policy: the Monroe Doctrine. Monroe addressed Congress and declared that the US would resist any European colonisation of North and South America from then on. Although his Doctrine relied more on British compliance than his own willing, Monroe nonetheless created a foundation for US foreign policy which still has relevance today.

Monroe followed in the footsteps of his predecessors and settled for just two terms in office. He did not, however, lead the active retirement his predecessors had and instead just potted about in Virginia until he died on 4th July 1831. Monroe was neither the most inspirational leader nor the best, but he kept his pre-teen nation under wraps before the inevitable signs of adolescence started to show and the union really began to shake. As a president he was a strong, final hurrah for his Revolutionary kind.

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States

John Quincy Adams, 1825 – 1829

VP: John C. Calhoun, First Lady: Louise Catherine Johnson

The second Adams was, to a great extent, like his father: intelligent; principled; but better suited for a role in diplomacy or legislation, rather than the presidency. This judgement on Adams’ presidency is not just one shared by historians, but one that was apparent at the time, as many of his colleagues noted that Adams seemed at his happiest when he worked in the House of Representatives after his presidency. Combine this with a dodgy election win in 1824 and an even dodgier campaign when he lost in 1828, and some might conclude that John Quincy Adams should never have become president.

Adams was born in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1768, son of the second US president, John Adams, with whom he also travelled to Europe, spending much of his youth working as his father’s personal secretary in Paris and Amsterdam. When John Quincy returned to the US in 1787, he graduated from Harvard and was soon appointed Minister to the Netherlands, a role he held for only a few years before becoming Minister to Prussia in 1797. In 1801, John Quincy then returned to Massachusetts to serve in the state senate, where he was instantly valued as a great legislator and was soon moving up to the US Senate.

In 1807, while the Federalists remained in their continuous state of turmoil, John Quincy left this party and supported Jefferson’s Embargo Act, much to the disliking of his father. John Quincy was then offered the position of Minister to Russia, a role he relished, impressing James Monroe enough to receive the promotion to Secretary of State during Monroe’s time in the White House.

Then in 1824, John Quincy’s time had arrived and he formally announced his candidacy for the office of president of the United States – unfortunately, so did almost everyone else. Monroe’s presidency marked the end of the ‘Virginia Dynasty’ and the natural succession of particular politicians, which opened up the doors of the Oval office not just to John Quincy, but to House Speaker Henry Clay, Treasury Secretary William Crawford, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun and General Andrew Jackson. The Electoral College was locked and it was therefore up to the House of Representatives to decide who would be president. Although Jackson held a higher ECV, John C. Calhoun, whose own ECV was far too low for consideration anymore, disliked Jackson and threw his support behind John Quincy, which gave him the win.

It was dodgy that this one man, John C. Calhoun, could destroy the most popular candidate’s chance just because he didn’t like him, but even more dubious was that Calhoun was then appointed Secretary of State, which was rapidly becoming a springboard for the presidency, by John Quincy as soon as he took office. Many historians refer to this incident as the ‘Corrupt Bargain’ and suggest John Quincy was paying off Calhoun for his support.

In addition, John Quincy’s time in office didn’t really justify his shady election. He spent most of his time trying to find a balance in tariffs between New England states and Southern states, which not only exhausted him but distracted his attention from his promising Program of National Improvements, which spent money investing in a series of highways and canals to link up transport throughout the US. By the time of the 1828 election, it is believed that John Quincy was somewhat relieved that he lost to his old foe Andrew Jackson. However, this didn’t stop him fighting what was possibly the dirtiest election battle ever to occur in US history, wherein he constantly accused Jackson of murder and bigamy, to which Jackson responded by highlighting John Quincy’s elitist background and alleged gambling addiction.

After John Quincy left office, he continued to pursue an active role in politics and ran for the House in 1831. He spent 17 years in Congress, where he fought for the Bank of the United States and the right for the federal government to free slaves in times of war. In 1848, an elderly John Quincy suffered a stroke and died in the Speaker’s office. John Quincy Adams was the only president to serve in Congress after a presidency, which demonstrates more about his presidency and those of his five predecessors than anything else. It highlights that the role of president wasn’t the grand office we think of today and was just another, albeit very high, position in public service. His presidency marked the end of that White House era since his successor, Andrew Jackson, would change the presidency forever.