Photo of James Monroe

James Monroe was the last of the Virginian Presidents who were 4 out of first 5 presidents. He was also the last President to have fought in the Revolutionary War.

Mostly, we remember Monroe now for the Monroe Doctrine, which asserted that no other power could interfere in the American hemisphere, and for dying on the 4th of July.

But the biggest thing that happened during his tenure as president was the Missouri Compromise.

(Historical and very short background: Missouri wanted to be a slave state, but free states were worried about the expanding influence they had in the Senate and House. The compromise was eventually brokered by admitting Maine as a state and establishing a parallel that would mark as far north as slave states could extend.)

Oddly, my biography of Monroe was supplemented by a City Club of Tacoma speaker shortly after I started: geomorphologist David Montgomery. Tobacco farming is very difficult on the land, and it saps the nutrients out of soil very the quickly. The result was that the crop yields of tobacco were getting worse and profits were down.

To that end, the plantation owners were getting more and more reliant on selling another asset they owned: slaves.

And so the fight for Missouri took place in that framework: a new slave state meant a new market for slave owners. If slavery didn’t expand, the market would dry up, and tobacco wasn’t enough to pay the bills anymore.

Monroe, for his part as President, viewed the matter similarly to Lincoln after him: do whatever’s necessary to maintain the Union. He supported admitting Missouri as a slave state, because he felt that all new states should be able to draft their own constitution in the same manner as the initial 13. But publicly, he did all he could to get any compromise through.

So now I’m through the first five Presidents, plus a couple in the middle, and the last four.

I think I’m going to read about John Quincy Adams next, and I’m going to make sure to read about his whole life, not just his Presidency (as I focused on with Madison and Monroe). Adams had a fascinating life pre-Presidency–son of a founding father, and at 14 he went to Russia as an secretary to an American diplomat, an experience incredible to think about in our own time, let alone the late 1700s. He did a lot in the 20 years after his presidency too.

After Adams, I’ll probably jump to the end of the list again, and pick up with Reagan and then Carter before jumping back to the front of the list with Jackson.