The Making of a Revolutionary
What were you doing between the ages of 16 and 18?
In that brief period of his life, from 1774 to 1776, James Monroe lost his father, making him and his younger siblings orphans; inherited the family farm and responsibility for his siblings; began his studies at the College of William and Mary; helped raid the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg to seize weapons held there for the Patriot cause; left college to become a lieutenant in the Third Virginia Infantry Regiment; fought in the battles of Harlem Heights and White Plains; and was wounded in the Battle of Trenton!
As if that wasn’t enough, in the following two years he was promoted to captain and major; served as aide-de-camp to General William Alexander (Lord Stirling), fought at the battles of Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth; and spent the winter of 1778 with the Continental Army at Valley Forge.
As president in 1817 Monroe reflected upon the American Revolution’s profound influence on his life:
“Though young at the commencement of our revolution, I took part in it, and its principles have invariably guided me since. Nothing can be more deeply fixed in the judgment and heart of anyone than are the principles of our free system of government in mine.”
James Monroe did more for our fledgling democracy in four years than most of us do in a lifetime. Yet, this still wasn’t enough for him. He went on to hold more positions in government than any other president in our history. His first elected office in 1782 was as a member of the House of Delegates in Virginia, where he served for only a brief time before he was appointed to the executive council, which served in an advisory role for the governor. Following his time on the council he was elected to the Continental Congress, where he witnessed George Washington’s resignation of his commission as commander of the Continental Army. Monroe served as a member of the Fredericksburg Common Council; the Virginia ratifying convention for the U.S. Constitution; and as a United States Senator. He was U.S. Minister to France (twice), Great Britain, and Spain; Governor of Virginia (four terms); U.S. Secretary of State and (for a time simultaneously) Secretary of War; and fifth President of the United States from 1817-1825. James Monroe concluded his long public service career of more than 50 years as President of Virginia’s Constitutional Convention in 1829.
Photo: The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, December 26, 1776 by John Trumbull. Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery.