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President James Monroe: Enslavement or Exile for African-Americans

As he traveled from the nation's capital to his Virginia farm following the inauguration of his successor John Quincy Adams in March 1825, James Monroe felt a surge of satisfaction. When he would reach his Oak Hill plantation he would have then fulfilled his lifelong dream: the management of a massive slave plantation. Not even the office of the presidency, in Monroe's estimation, matched the satisfaction of his direct engagement with an agriculturally-based slave system. (Unger, 2009, 335)

James Monroe was born April 28, 1758, descended from the Royalist Captain Andrew Monroe, a veteran of the English Civil War, who settled on a 200-acre property along a creek that fed into the Potomac in 1650. Monroe's Creek, the name of the Westmoreland County estate grew to 1,100 acres but was sub-divided over the generations into smaller plots. While a relatively large slave plantation, it was dwarfed by comparison with the Lee family plantation in nearly Stratford that consisted of some 20,000 acres. James Monroe's mother's family was one of the most influential in King George County, and Monroe's uncle Judge James Jones supported the future president in many of his efforts later in life.

At the time of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Monroe was initially in favor of its ratification. However, upon returning home he was persuaded by his uncle, James Jones, and the prominent orator Patrick Henry, to becomne a strident anti-Federalist. Like many other opponents of the Constitution, Monroe cited the lack of a bill of rights in the document as the basis for his opposition (Unger, 78-79)

As governor Monroe was an explicit target of the slave revolt led by Gabriel in 1800. Tipped off, Monroe led the repressive effort that spread across at least five counties and victimized thousands of African-American slaves by assorted cruelties including torture and murder. With the successful black revolt in Santo Domingo in mind, Monroe had the militia set up a defensive ring around Richmond placing heavy guards around munitions and weapons stores. By the 7th of October, 1800 the executions began, 28 took place on that day alone. Crackdowns on the free black population began with a pass system instituted with an order to leave the city by sundown. Monroe described the 1800 revolt "unquestionably the most serious and formidable conspiracy we have ever known of the kind."

While he served as the governor of Virginia Monroe pushed for the transfer of government-owned land to landless white settlers while at the same time exploring the purchase new land in the far west as potential sites where rebellious slaves (or "free" blacks) could be exiled. In mid-June 1801 Monroe requested that Virginia's General Assembly petition President Jefferson to purchase lands in the west to allow "persons obnoxious to the laws or dangerous to the peace of society" to be "removed." The document read that "[T]his resolution was produced by the conspiracy of the slaves. . . . last year and is applicable to that description of persons only..." It maintained that it was a measure motivated by "humanity" in order "to provide an alternate mode of punishment for those . . . doomed to suffer death." During this period nervous slaveholders continued to engage in a vicious repression scourging slave quarters throughout the region.

Monroe's expectation was that the slave revolts would increase in number and severity over time. He reasoned that due to "the contrast in the condition of the free negroes and slaves, the growing sentiment of liberty existing in the minds of the latter, and the inadequacy of existing patrol laws." He complained that the "spirit of revolt has taken a deep hold of the minds of the slaves..." This gave rise to strategies to rid the emerging nation of free blacks leading to the creation of the American Colonization Society and the colony of Liberia. It was a strategy designed to perpetuate slavery by defusing the internal pressures against the system.

Although considered by many to be the "last" Founding Father, James Monroe also played a key role in the Louisiana Purchase, and, in other ways, helped provide new opportunities for white settlement on the North American continent. Shortly before he was born in 1758, an offensive by Indians had pushed the frontier east, back over the mountains, to near Winchester, Virginia where a 9,000-strong British force arrived to bolster the beleaguered colonial troops

President James Monroe

James Monroe, 5th President

1817 to 1825:

Birth: April 28, 1758, Westmoreland County, Virginia

July 4, 1831

Education: College of William and Mary

Religion: Episcopalian

Profession: Planter, Lawyer, Politician

Political Party: Democratic-Republican

Primary Form of Relationship with African Americans: Slaveowner

Secondary Form of Relationship with African-Americans: Pro-slavery Politician

Important Online Works

The Life of James Monroe by George Morgan

led by young George Washington. By the end of his life, the frontier of white settlement had pushed far west.

As a new president Monroe went on national tour that seemed to unite white Americans wherever he went. With the collapse of the old Federalist Party, Monroe stood virtually unopposed for a period, "the era of Good Feelings." (Unger, 270-276) By liquidating the national debt, and expanding the national boundaries, the "Era of Good Feelings" was bolstered by a growing economy characterized by markedly more economic activity and a booming consumer market. In the South, Eli Whitney's cotton gin revived slave-fueled southern agriculture, bolstering slaveholder confidence, feeding into the arrogance and distorted perspective that helped created the conditions for civil war.

The Monroe era witnessed the opening of the initial 130-mile portion of the National Road between Cumberland, Maryland and Wheeling, Virginia--the long-planned dream of George washington and James Monroe. At last, goods could be transported beyond the Appalachian Mountains conveniently spurring commerce and increased settlement westward. The Republicans of the era, led by Jefferson, successfully obstructed this plan for decades as they argued that it was unconstitutional for the federal government to construct roads.


Harlow Giles Unger. The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation's Call to Greatness. Da Capo Press, 2009., Philadelphia.