Study Guide

James Monroe in Louisiana Purchase Treaty

By Robert R. Livingston, James Monroe, and François de Barbé-Marbois

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James Monroe

When it came to being a mover and shaker in early America, James Monroe had what it takes: a Virginia background, a formal education, Revolutionary War veteran status, slaves, and good pals like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

To get a real good feel for the life and times of America's 5th president, click on over to Shmoop's Monroe montage.

As you can see, this guy had a lot going on.

And even though he probably would've still gone on to presidential fame and a complete lack of fortune without the Louisiana Purchase, we still think the deal was such an important part of his career that we're going to devote this entire section to his involvement in it.

Actually, that's a lie. We're going to spend about half of this section talking about the Louisiana Purchase. But before we get to that, we need to spend a little time talking about Monroe's other experience in France, something we like to call…

The Big Oops

In 1794, President Washington and the U.S. Senate sent James Monroe to Paris as the new American minister to France. At that time, the United States and France were going through a rough patch in their relationship; the previous minister had been a royalist (a big no-no in revolutionary France), and he'd been recalled from that position at the request of the French government.

To complicate matters further, France and England were at war with each other. The United States, which had been trying to remain neutral in the fight betwixt its friends, had found its ships captured and its seamen taken prisoner by the French as a token of their non-appreciation for the lack of support.

James Monroe, who was sympathetic to France's revolutionary plight and had already proven himself a capable politician back in the United States, seemed like the ideal candidate to go to Paris and smooth things over. He would, Washington hoped, somehow fix the whole stealing-ships-and-kidnapping-sailors problem without messing up America's relationship with Britain.

And maybe that all would've worked out just fine...if France hadn't chosen that moment in time to overthrow its new revolutionary government in favor of an even newer one.

If France had been in chaos before, now it was in, like, super chaos. Chaos times 10. Chaos to the infinity power.

With no clear instruction from Washington and with all of his intel coming from questionable sources, Monroe decided to take matters into his own hands and go visit with France's new president of the National Convention.

He was greeted like a hero. Amid cheering and celebrations and all kinds of fanfare, Monroe was received at the National Convention and his gift of an American flag placed proudly beside the French one right there in the building in front of everyone.

We don't know what Monroe had been expecting, but this rah-rah reception was clearly more than he'd been prepared for. Overcome with emotion and republicanism and a sudden deep and profound love for France, he delivered a rousing and emotional speech that had everything to do with the bosom friendship between France and the United States, and nothing to do with detained American ships or the country's desire to remain as neutral as possible with regard to France's nasty business with England.

Like, he didn't even bring up the entire reason he'd been sent to France in the first place.


And let's throw some insult on that injury: poor Monroe, who'd been sent to France to save American ships and help keep the peace, found out after the fact that the United States had passed the Neutrality Act, which further asserted that America would remain neutral in any and all conflicts outside of its borders.

The French were displeased. The British were displeased. And Monroe? Monroe was stuck between a rock and a hard place.

The French didn't trust him anymore. Britain was talking loud about how America was in violation of a treaty they had together. And back home, Monroe's fellow Americans were wondering what in the world the guy thought he was doing.

By 1796, Monroe found himself being packed up and sent back home, all the while getting angry eyes from people in three different countries.

The Big Buy

Monroe managed to redeem himself in many people's eyes over the next few years.

From 1799 to 1802, he served as governor of Virginia. His gubernatorial agenda: silence the slaves, quash the Federalists and their wacko ideas, and do everything possible to support the election of Thomas Jefferson to be the nation's third president.

As far as that last one goes, Monroe was rewarded most handsomely when his No. 1 candidate became America's No. 3 No. 1.

In 1803, President Jefferson had a new mission for Monroe, should he choose to accept it (and he did): he was to go to Paris and offer Napoleon and his entourage a few million for the city of New Orleans, rights to do business on the Mississippi River, and maybe even a Florida or two, depending on the price.

So even though Jefferson already technically had a man in Paris—Chancellor Robert R. Livingston—Monroe made his way to France to get the deal done.

Of course, he and Livingston ended up spending way more than just a few mil, and they also ended up buying a lot more than just New Orleans and some river rights. But the way they saw it, this was one of those "the more you spend, the more you save" situations, and what Napoleon's finance guy was offering—the entire Louisiana Territory—was just too good of a deal to pass up.

That's like going to the bakery for a half-dozen donuts but ending up with, like, 50 donuts for not even twice the price. Donuts, yum.

That's a good buy.

Were the French surprised that the United States had sent this Monroe guy back into town when they'd already spent all this time dealing with Livingston? Yeah, a little bit. But Napoleon was pretty eager to offload the ball and chain that was the Louisiana Territory, so they let it go.

And history was made.

The Opposite of Buyer's Remorse

Monroe's role in the Louisiana Purchase, as well as the rest of his accomplishments, launched him even further into the national spotlight once he got back to the States.

As the American minister to Great Britain, he tried valiantly to find ways to avoid getting into what became the War of 1812. And after the war, he served as new POTUS James Madison's secretary of state and secretary of war.

And as if that wasn't enough, our boy was elected president himself in 1816, where he not only made history with his famed Monroe Doctrine but also became known as the Era of Good Feelings President. It was the Era of Good Feelings mostly because there was only one real political party after the Federalist Party no partisan bickering.

Good feelings indeed, President Monroe. Looks like that whole Louisiana Purchase thing really worked out for you.

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