I had always respected Monroe and considered him a top 10 President, but my appreciation for his presidency rose exponentially while researching and writing The Middle Generation. Like with Eisenhower, I learned that because Monroe presided over peace and prosperity (nicknamed the Era of Good Feelings) people assume that he faced less challenges than most Presidents and his reign was uneventful. That was not the case.
Monroe’s era was in the aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat. Spanish America was fighting for its independence from her colonial master. Most Americans supported their southern brethren, including Speaker of the House Henry Clay, but Secretary of State John Quincy Adams (the co-owner of this ranking placement) convinced Monroe that recognizing the rebels risked war with Spain and the Holy Alliance.
Instead, they took advantage of the Spanish Empire’s collapse to establish the US as the dominant power in North America. Adams spent 1818 and early 1819 negotiating with Luis de Onís y González-Vara, Spain’s minister, pushing Spain to cede Florida and Spain’s claims to the Pacific Northwest. Negotiations stalemated until General Jackson captured Florida. The story behind the Onis-Adams Treaty and Jackson’s invasion is fascinating, but I portrayed it in all of its complexity in The Middle Generation and feel that I can’t do it justice here. The important point is that Monroe and Adams succeeded and the US touched the Pacific Ocean for the first time.
Monroe’s second term contained a major crisis that’s been forgotten by history. The Holy Alliance, formed of Prussia, Austria, and Russia, sought to enforce peace and stability in Europe after the Napoleonic Wars and they saw South American independence as likely to provoke a catastrophe similar to the French Revolution, which had followed American independence. The Alliance refused to recognize the South American republics and said they would invade and reimpose Spanish rule. This was likely a bluff intended to scare the US into making a joint statement with Britain opposing the Alliance’s intentions. Adams feared this would tell the world that the US could not defend the Western Hemisphere on its own, crippling its rise. The result was a diplomatic and political chess match which culminated in the climax of Monroe’s presidency and a certain statement that bears his name.
I rank Monroe as the 4th best foreign policy President because I think he and Adams elevated us from a minor power to a medium power in the world and contributed to the Western Hemisphere gaining independence from European colonialism. That is an underrated achievement that deserves its place in history.