Washington & Monroe: No Love Lost Between the First & Last of the Virginia Dynasty

James Monroe (left) and George Washington (right) drinking rum together in a wax museum tavern.

Except for the one four-year term of New Englander, John Adams, the American Presidency was held by what came to be known as the “Virginia Dynasty,” four Presidents who each, remarkably, were elected to two terms, or eight years each – for a total of thirty-two years.

George Washington, was the first President and the first among them in what was called the “Virginia Dynasty,” lasting from the first day in 1789, of the eight years of his two terms (1789-1797), through the eight years of Jefferson (1801-1809), the eight years of Madison (1809-1817) ending with the last day of the eight years of the two terms of James Monroe (1817-1829).

While it may seem astounding today that one state could produce four nearly-successive Presidents for a full third of a century, it may be less surprising to learn that not all four men – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe all got along fine and dandy as some unified front.

A latter depiction of President George Washington (far left) with his Cabinet, including Secretary of State and future President Thomas Jefferson (far right).

Washington favored a strong national government, Jefferson – and his followers Madison and Monroe – favored states’ rights. Washington tried to keep the U.S. neutral but his Federalist Party favored the English over the French, while Jefferson-Madison-Monroe favored the French over the British.

As Jefferson began to turn away from Washington, as leader of the anti-Federalist Party, however, it proved that Madison maintained a few more common views with Washington. And certainly the first Virginia President fostered a unique mentorship with the youngest and last of the Dynasty, James Monroe.

Born in Westmoreland County, Virginia in 1758, James Monroe was unlike Washington, not born into or inherited the level of great wealth of the first President and from an entirely different generation.

In 1774, while in college, at William and Mary, Monroe was good at getting into trouble, looting about 200 muskets and even more swords from the British Royal Governor’s arsenal, and turned them over to the Virginia militia, which he soon enough joined. As a member of the Continental Army, Monroe fought with bravery in the battles at Brandywine, Harlem Heights, White Plains and Germantown. He was captured by the British at Monmouth.

A detail of the Trumbull canvas with Washington on his horse at right and Monroe dying on the ground at left at the Battle of Trenton.

While leading a charge against cannon-fire, he suffered a severe wound at the Battle of Trenton. Monroe was a real-deal war hero. In fact, he was depicted in John Trumbull’s painting, The Capture of the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton, wounded and lying on the ground, to the left of center of the massive canvas.

Despite their year age difference, as the General of the American colonies during the Revolution from Great Britain, George Washington took note of young Monroe’s bravery, especially after the year old was wounded in 1777, at the Battle of Trenton, and promoted him to Major. On May 30, 1779 George Washington wrote to Archibald Cary about James Monroe: “It is with pleasure I take occasion to express to you the high opinion I have of his worthy. The zeal he discovered by entering the service at an early period the character he supported in his regiment and the manner in which he distinguished himself at Trenton, where he received a wound, induces me to appoint him to a captaincy in one of the additional regiments….He has, in every instance, maintained the reputation of a brace, active and sensible officer…the esteem I have for him and a regard for his merit, conspire to make me earnestly wish to see him provided for in some handsome way.”

Young Monroe.

Despite this high praise and even Monroe’s almost obsequious gratitude some four years later, in an August 15, 1782 letter, at some point it dawned on Monroe that General Washington was making it his personal business to ensure that Monroe was leading troops into battle.

By then, Monroe seemed to have begun hearing the sound of another Virginian’s voice.

He resigned from the Continental Army and Washington got Monroe an appointment in the service of Virginia where he was sent to its southern border, with North Carolina, to provide field reporters on the movement there of the British Army. His superior?

Virginia’s Colonial Governor – Thomas Jefferson.

And, after resuming college, when Monroe wished to begin studying law, who mentored him?

Jefferson again.

A maturing Monroe began heading to the Jefferson camp.

While there was not yet any strict Federalist versus Anti-Federalist party line drawn between the Virginians, one senses that the Writer of the Declaration of Independence was beginning to feel a bit green over the lavish lovefest already being heaped upon Father of His Country. And where go Jefferson, so go Monroe. In one note to his mentor, Monroe seemed not so much to deride Washington as to please Jefferson, with just the slightest jab at The Great One. As the Revolution ended and the peace treaty was signed, Monroe wrote Jefferson on July 27, 1783, that, “I trust that the presence of General Washington will overawe and keep under the demon of party, that the signature of his name to the result of the deliberations will secure its passage through the Union.”

Actors Morgan Wallace and Montagu Loe depicted Monroe and Jefferson as schemers against Alexander Hamilton (George Arliss) in the film Hamilton (1931). (ArlissArchives.com)

As the first President, George Washington chose Thomas Jefferson as his Secretary of State in 1789 and appointed James Monroe to be the U.S. Minister to France in 1794. He strove to keep himself above the two camps around him, the pro-British Federalists, like his Vice President John Adams and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, and the pro-French anti-Federalists, like Jefferson. Had Washington known what Monroe had said about him to Jefferson, perhaps neither would have gotten their jobs. It wasn’t that Father George was quite gaga, but that his age made his vulnerable to untrustworthy rats like Hamilton: “More is to be apprehended, if he takes part in public councils again, as he advances in age, from the designs of those around him than from any disposition of his own.”

Ticked off at Monroe, President Washington ordered him home.

Monroe didn’t do well as the representative of George Washington’s new nation.

Ticked off at Washington, Monroe attacked him in a so-called “pamphlet” – 500 pages long.

He was given the impossible task of making clear to the French that the U.S. was not favoring England because of the Jay Treaty, which Great Britain signed with its former colonies – even though Monroe was not permitted by Washington to share details of the treaty with France.

Despite being personally beloved and trusted in France, Monroe was viewed as not having the political backing of the Administration. In France, that was seen as a weakness of George Washington and his party for failing to entrust Monroe with the power of which was worthy. In the U.S., Federalists saw it as a weakness of Monroe attempting to please the French rather than remain loyal to the U.S.

Monroe, being human, sided with the French view.

Washington sent a note overseas to Monroe which basically said – you’re fired.

Monroe returned home steaming mad in 1797. A year later he went public with his 500-page rant, taking Washington to task in his defensive pamphlet, A View of the Conduct of the Executive in the Foreign Affairs of the United States. To add insult to injury, Monroe had it printed in Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin Bache, a famously nasty critic of Federalists, in general, and G.W., in particular. It was at this time that Monroe referred to the aging first President simply as “Insane.”

That did it. George Washington sliced up the man he’d once heralded as an American Revolutionary War hero – adding just the right touch of 17th century conspiracy theory to keep the tinfoil tricornered hat crowd hopping: “If Mr. Monroe should ever fill the chair of government he may (and it is presumed he would be well enough disposed) let the French Minister frame his speeches…. There is an abundant evidence of his being mere tool in the hands of the French government.”

Was Washington bluffing – or was he truly wounded by Monroe?

Five months after his legendary role was over, George Washington seemed to have a touch of the Ex-President Blues, feeling forgotten by the young man he’d once mentored – then rejected. On August 29, 1797, Washington wrote that “Colonel Monroe passed through Alexandria last week but did not Honor me by a call. If what he has promised the public does him no more credit, than what he has given to it in his last exhibition, his friends must be apprehensive of a recoil.” Whether Washington was truly wounded, or just setting his own record straight for the ages, that Great Wise One never let on either way.

Still for a man said to rarely display his temper or hold grudges, Monroe seemed to have gotten under his skin. Two years later, Father George was still feeling forlorn. On December 13, 1799, just days before he died, as his aide Tobias Lear read to him of some political proceedings in Virginia and some “observations respecting Mr. Monroe, he [Washington] appeared very much affected and spoke with some degree of asperity on the subject, which I endeavored to moderate.”

Back in their revolutionary days of glory and guts, when the General and the Lad had been thick, the young Monroe even crossed the Delaware with Washington.

Even though it wasn’t quite that Washington and that crossing.

In fact, Monroe had taken a earlier, back route across the river to surround the British with a relative of General Washington with the rank and name of Colonel William Washington.

No matter. With that blithe disregard to absolute accuracy that defines so much American mythology, at least Monroe and Washington are forever immortalized in one of the most legendary of inaccurate paintings, by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze.

Who do you think that is holding the flag next to the great General as he crossed the Delaware?

In the famous painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, George Washington stands while James Monroe holds the flag.


Categories: George Washington, History, James Monroe, Politics, Presidents, Presidents on Presidents, The Washingtons, Thomas Jefferson

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2 replies »

  1. I puzzled over yesterday’s post and find cause for further puzzle in the description of the Trumbull painting:
    “. . . Washington on his horse at right and Monroe dying on the ground . . .”

    • Well, hit the publish instead of the save button at 5 something in the morning….and actually that is the correct caption….’dying”’but ultimately saved! That’s him with the severe cannon wound to his shoulder….so we have been told by the artist a very long time ago.

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