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Posts Tagged ‘President James Monroe’

“For Eliza Hamilton, the collapse of her world was total, overwhelming, and remorseless.  Within three years, she had had to cope with four close deaths:  her eldest son, her sister Peggy, her mother, and her husband, not to mention the mental breakdown of her eldest daughter.”

So begins the epilogue to Ron Chernow’s sweeping and masterful biography of Alexander Hamilton.  The first five years of the 19th century were hard for the wife of our nation’s first Treasury Secretary.  But her life was far from over, and the strength she displayed after the sudden death of Alexander more than matched that of her first forty-seven years.

She worked hard to preserve her husband’s legacy, particularly as the Federalist party faded from prominence and then disappeared altogether in the 1820s.  She gathered his notes and questioned his contemporaries extensively in an effort to keep his achievements alive.  When no one stepped forward to write a biography, she tapped her son John Church Hamilton to perform the arduous task.

She possessed a deep well of forgiveness for her husband’s disastrous affair with Maria Reynolds, but much less so for James Monroe, whom she blamed for leaking the story.  Thirty years after the fact, the former President paid her a visit, hoping that time had taken away the sting of her hurts.  Her cool response was, “Mr. Monroe, if you have come to tell me that you repent, that you are sorry, very sorry, for the misrepresentations and the slanders and the stories you circulated against my dear husband, if you have come to say this, I understand it.  But otherwise, no lapse of time, no nearness to the grave, makes any difference.”

But this devoutly religious widow did more than protect Alexander’s legacy.  She spent much time serving orphans and widows herself, cofounding (in 1806) the first private orphanage in New York, where for many years she was one of its directors.  She worked tirelessly to keep the orphanage funded and keep the financial records straight (a talent she may have learned from Alexander?).

Much of this good work was done while she had little means of support herself.  Alexander had died with a sizeable debt, which flew in the face of Anti-federalist accusations that he “stole from the government coffers” and had secret British-funded bank accounts.  In fact, as a veteran of the Revolution, Alexander Hamilton had refused not only the pension to which he was entitled as an officer, but also the parcels of land promised to officers.  He did this because, as a member of Congress, he wanted no one to accuse him of bias when he addressed the issue of veterans’ compensation.  Following his death, Eliza had received these allocations from President Madison as back payments.

She finally left the Grange and settled with her now-widowed daughter in Washington, D.C.  At 91, she still remained lucid and full of life.  She worked with Dolley Madison to raise money for construction of the Washington Monument, and enjoyed the company of many who stopped at her parlor to marvel at one of the last remaining witnesses to the American Revolution.

She kept her wits until the end, along with her strong faith and her love and devotion to Alexander.  And on November 9, 1854, this 97-year old wonder entered her eternal rest, as the nation her husband worked so hard to bring together catapulted itself toward fracture and destruction.

Eliza was laid to rest next to Alexander, who had departed more than a half century before.

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton

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Let’s pick up where we left off the other day with President Madison’s return to (what was left of) Washington, D.C.  The next day (the 28th of August if you’re following the chronology), the Commander-in-Chief got his first look at the devastation.  He described the White House as “in ashes, not an inch but its cracked and blackened walls remained.”  The Capitol was in a similar condition.  “Those beautiful pillars in that Representatives Hall were cracked and broken, the roof, that noble dome, painted and carved with such beauty and skill, lay in ashes in the cellars beneath the smouldering ruins…”

Madison spent the day encouraging the troops and the citizens, telling them to put off despair and gloom.  There was even an impromptu parade of sorts when Dolley returned to town in a borrowed carriage.

Such was not the welcome for War Secretary John Armstrong.  His handling of the city’s defense had been abyssmal.  He had insisted that the British would be targeting Baltimore, which he (correctly) felt was a far more important military target.  But the President (and others) believed that D.C. was the symbolic target the British would seek.  Even when the British came ashore just 35 miles from the capital, still Armstrong insisted that they would make for Baltimore.

For weeks, Armstrong did almost nothing to provide for the capitol’s defense.  In his biography of Madison, Ralph Ketcham writes that “The Secretary of War argued with state militia officers and attended to every detail except the defense of Washington…”

But the issues with Armstrong ran deeper.  In a year filled with bad military news, the War Secretary’s actions were worse still.  Ketcham summarizes it as the “accumulating evidence of Armstrong’s deceit, insubordination, and incompetence.”  He continues, “In May 1814, when Madison was at Montpelier, Armstrong had kept news from the President and had written inaccurate and unauthorized dispatches to insure the retirement of General Harrison, and, aat the same time, make it seem that Madison had tried to block the promotion of Andrew Jackson.”  He had usurped the President’s authority numerous times on military matters, displayed terrible communication skills, and generally poor leadership.

The citizens of Washington blamed Armstrong for its sacking and numerous officers and enlisted men refused to serve with the War Secretary any longer.  His departure was imminent, and the President made it official on August 29, 1814, when he forced John Armstrong’s retirement, essentially firing him.

Our nation’s fourth President would replace him with our nation’s eventual fifth President – James Monroe.

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Happy Independence Day!!

Back in 2008, we took this day to reflect on the lives of Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  It seems so completely appropriate that both these Founders, so intertwined with the founding of this great nation, died as the last surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence on this day in 1826…the country’s 50th anniversary.

John Adams’ words on that last day (and maybe the last words he spoke before his death) were, “It is a great day.  It is a good day.” 

But as we know, Adams and Jefferson weren’t the only Presidents to call this day their last.  There is another.  And in fact, he’s also a Founding Father.  The last Founding Father.  The last President to live and serve his not-yet-formed country during her first, and greatest, hour of need.  I speak of President James Monroe.

The fifth President died on July 4, 1831.  Like Jefferson before him, he died essentially broke.  Early 19th-century politicians didn’t earn anything like their 21st-century counterparts, and Monroe’s long public service had left him with a lot of debt.  Eventually, he would be forced to sell most of his property and belongings to clear his financial name.

And James Monroe died broken.  Less than two years before, his wife (and lifelong partner) Elizabeth had died.  In his grief, Monroe became irrational to the point of refusing to leave her burial vault, saying he would wait there to die and rejoin his wife.  When he returned home, he burned all the correspondance he had with her.  Letters, papers, diaries…everything.  So unlike John Adams and his wife Abigail, an incredible treasure trove of early-American documentation went up in fireplace smoke.

But Monroe, like the four Presidents before him, laid the foundation for all who would follow.  In his new biography of Monroe, Harlow Giles Unger closes his book writing, “Across the nation, Americans in every town and city mourned the man who had fought for liberty in the Revolution, opened the West, and expanded the nation’s boundaries ‘from sea to shining sea.’  He had led his people into an era of unprecendented prosperity and ‘good feelings’…”

John Quincy Adams, the former President turned Congressman, offered up the following:  “…look at the map of United North America, as it was . . . in 1783.  Compare it with the map of that same Empire as it is now. . . .  The change, more than of any other man, living or dead, was the work of James Monroe.”

Adams, Jefferson, and Monroe.  While it’s true that all three died on this day, we should celebrate their lives as foundational to all the good things this nation has become.  They were not perfect men, nor do we necessarily agree with everything they wrote or said or did.  But these men, and Monroe in particular, loved their country as much as the hundreds of thousands of men who have died on battlefields (both here and abroad) defending the freedoms these men brought to America.

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On the last day of April in 1803, the United States pretty much doubled in size as Robert Livingston and future-President James Monroe put pen to paper in Paris and completed the purchase of the Louisiana Territory.  The acquisition, the largest single territorial expansion in the history of the country, was the culmination of several years of work and intense debate.

Originally, then-President Thomas Jefferson had asked the French about purchasing just New Orleans.  The French leader, expansionist-minded Napoleon Bonaparte, had been formulating designs on an empire in North America for some time.  But the failure of his brother-in-law’s attempt to take Saint-Dominique (modern-day Haiti) caused him to rethink his plans.  In addition, the idea of unloading the territory to the United States had merit because it would create yet another potential rival to Britain…and Napoleon was all in favor of that.

So rather than simply selling a city, he sold a bunch of wilderness.  The United States got a vast new territory with tons of opportunity.  President Jefferson, though highly concerned about the Constitutionality of the purchase and faced with a lot of opposition in Congress, ended up with an Midwest-sized feather in his cap, bought for pennies an acre.  France got an infusion of cash, an elimination of debts it owed the U.S., and smaller house-keeping bills.

And on March 10, 1804 (almost a year after the official documents were signed),  the Louisiana Territory was formally transferred to the United States at a ceremony held in St. Louis, through which the Lewis and Clark Expedition had passed just six months prior.

Recommended Reading:  Undaunted Courage:  Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West – Ambrose at his best.  An absolute must-read.

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