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THE family of Monroe is one of the most ancient and honorable among the early settlers of Virginia. It is remarkable that the tide water section of that state has produced four of the first five presidents of the United States; Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, having been born in that part of Virginia, and within a few miles of each other. The same section of country, it may be added, was honored also as the birthplace of the biographer of Washington, who for many years was the ornament of the supreme court of the United States-Chief-Justice Marshall.
The fifth president of the United States, James Monroe, was born on the 2d of April, 1759, in the county of Westmoreland, Virginia. His parents were Spence Monroe and Elizabeth Jones, both members of old and highly respectable families in the ancient dominion. His early youth was passed in the midst of that exciting contest which led to the American revolution; the stamp act being passed in the sixth year of his age. He was thus educated in the detestation of tyranny, and prompted by a patriotism which went beyond his years, he left the college of William and Mary, where he was pursuing collegiate studies, to join the standard of his country, in the 18th year of his age. The declaration of independence had just been issued, and at that disastrous moment when Washington was preparing to defend New York, against the increasing armies of England; when the timid and wavering were sinking from the side of their country's chief, James Monroe arrived at headquarters, with a firm determination to share her fate, whether for good or for evil.*
During the gloomy year of 1776, he shared with the army their defeats and their privations; was present at the disastrous battles of Harlem
* For a part of this sketch we are indebted to the American Annual Register, vol. vi., published in 1832.
heights and White plains; and in the battle of Trenton, while leading the vanguard, he received a wound, the scar of which he carried to his grave. After recovering from his wound, he was promoted for his gallantry, to the rank of a captain of infantry, and returned to active service. During the campaigns of 1777 and 1778, he acted as aid to Lord Stirling, and by accepting this place in the staff of that general, he receded from the line of promotion; but in that capacity he distinguished himself in the actions. of Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth. Becoming desirous to regain his position in the line of the army, he endeavored to raise a regiment of Virginia troops, under the recommendation of General Washington, and the authority of the legislature. In this he failed, owing to the exhausted state of the country. He therefore devoted himself to the study of the law, under the direction of Mr. Jefferson, who was then governor of the state. He occasionally acted as a volunteer in repelling the invasions with which Virginia was afterward visited; and after the fall of Charleston, in 1780, he repaired to the southern army, as a military commissioner, to collect information as to its ability to rescue that portion of the Union from the enemy. This duty was performed to the satisfaction of the governor, by whom he was appointed.
He now commenced his career in the legislative councils of his country, being elected in 1782, by the county of King George, a member of the legislature of Virginia, and by that body shortly after chosen a member of the executive council. He was then only in his twenty-fourth year, but appears to have evinced sufficient tact in legislation to induce the legislature to elect him the following year one of the delegates to represent the state in the continental Congress. He took his seat in that body on the 13th of December, just in time to be present at Annapolis when Washington surrendered his commission into the hands of the authority by whom he had been appointed. From that time until 1786, Mr. Monroe continued to represent his native state in Congress, and became entirely convinced of the inefficiency of that body to govern the country under the articles of confederation. He accordingly sought an extension of its powers, and in 1785 moved to invest Congress with the power of regulating trade. This resolution, together with another in favor of investing it with the power of levying an impost duty of five per cent., were referred to a committee, of which Mr. Monroe was chairman.
A report was made, which combined both the objects, and proposed such alterations in the articles of confederation as were necessary to vest in Congress the powers required. These were among the steps which led to the convention at Annapolis, and consequently to the formation and adoption of the federal constitution. Mr. Monroe was also active and influential in devising a system for disposing of and settling the public lands, and warmly opposed the plan of selling each range of townships separately, before any other should be offered for sale.
On the 24th of December, 1784, Mr. Monroe was appointed, with eight other highly distinguished men of that period, members of a federal court, to decide the long pending controversy between Massachusetts and New York. He accepted of the appointment, but on the 15th of May, 1786, he resigned his commission, and the two states having, during the same year, adjusted the matter by mutual agreement, the court never met.
Mr. Monroe differed from both New York and Massachusetts on the question of relinquishing our right to navigate the Mississippi river, as demanded by Spain and assented to by the northern states. The southern states opposed the relinquishment of this right, and Mr. Monroe took a leading part against any concession to Spain.
While attending the continental Congress, as a member, at New York, Mr. Monroe married Miss Kortright, daughter of Mr. L. Kortright, of that city. This lady had been celebrated in the fashionable circles of London and Paris for her beauty and accomplishments, and in married life she was exemplary, as well as an ornament to the society in which she was called to act during the scenes of her husband's subsequent career.
Toward the conclusion of the year 1786, Mr. Monroe's term of service in Congress expired, and, by the rule then adopted, being ineligible for a second term, he established himself at Fredericksburg, with the view of practising law. He was soon, however, again called from the pursuits of private life, by being elected a member of the legislature, and the following year, 1788, he was chosen a delegate to the state convention, assembled to decide upon the adoption of the federal constitution.
Notwithstanding Mr. Monroe was convinced of the inefficiency of the articles of confederation, and of the necessity of a radical change in the government of the Union, he was not altogether prepared to adopt the federal constitution, as framed by the convention of 1787. He thought that certain amendments ought to be made previous to its adoption, and decidedly advocated that course in the convention. We have already stated, in the memoir of Mr. Madison, that the leading men of Virginia in the state convention, were much divided on the question of the adoption of the constitution. Among those who opposed it in that body, besides Mr. Monroe, were Patrick Henry, George Mason, and William Grayson, while its most powerful advocates were James Madison, John Marshall, Edmund Randolph, and Edmund Pendleton. The convention finally adopted the constitution as it was, by a vote of 89 to 79, Mr. Monroe being among the negatives; certain amendments were at the same time recommended for the adoption of the states, instead of being insisted on previous to the acceptance of the constitution.
The course which Mr. Monroe pursued on this occasion was acceptable to the state of Virginia, as was proved by the election of a majority of anti-federalists to Congress, including the two senators; and on the death of Mr. Grayson, one of the latter, Mr. Monroe was chosen to the