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April 28, 2004 JMMF Commemorates 246th Birthday



The James Monroe Foundation commemorated James Monroe's 246th birthday today with an annual wreath laying ceremony at his final resting place in Richmond's Hollywood Cemetary.

Governor Warner continued the tradition of naming April 28th "Monroe Day" in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Foundation began this tradition in 1987, asking every Governor since to make the same proclamation.

MG M.P. Wiedemer, Director of the Defense Commissary Agency at Fort Lee offered the following remarks into the record:

“Good morning! Today, we commemorate the birth of President James Monroe, our nation’s fifth President, who was born 246 years ago this day in Westmoreland County, Virginia.

As the Director for the Defense Commissary Agency, Headquartered at Fort Lee, Virginia, it is my distinct honor to represent the President and the people of the United States in tribute to this remarkable man, who spent over 40 years in the service of his state and his country.

As you know, Mr. Monroe was an outstanding citizen and soldier, a great statesman, and an exceptional patriot who dedicated his life to building our nation.

Since not everyone here is familiar with the details of his remarkable life, I’m going to spend just a few moments recalling some of those details.

He was not born into wealth, but was one of five children of a modest farming family.

At 16, he left home to attend the College of William and Mary.

Within a year, the American Revolution began, and he soon left college to enlist in the Continental Army. He became a lieutenant in the Third Virginia Regiment. He served with distinction for four years.

He fought in the battles of Harlem Heights, White Plains, Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth. He was one of the men who crossed the Delaware with George Washington to surprise the enemy and achieve a “must-win” victory at Trenton, where he was wounded in action; and he was one of six thousand men who suffered from weather and privation at the crucible of Valley Forge.

In 1780, he was discharged from the Army after attaining the rank of Major. He studied law and served as an assistant to Governor Thomas Jefferson, who became his friend and advisor.

In 1782, at the age of 24, he was elected to the Virginia Legislature, and a year later he represented Virginia in the Continental Congress.

He married Elizabeth Kortright in 1786. The couple had two daughters, from whom some of you are directly descended: Maria Hester and Eliza. They also had a son, James, who unfortunately he died in childhood.

Mr. Monroe briefly practiced law in Fredericksburg, but public service again beckoned him. He sat on the town council and then, once again, was elected to Virginia’s legislature.

He opposed the ratification of the United States Constitution, fearing it would make the federal government too powerful. When the Constitution was adopted he became a key proponent for a Bill of Rights. He moved to Albemarle County, to his home at Ash Lawn, but he was soon chosen by the Virginia Legislature to represent his native state in the newly formed U. S. Senate.

Subsequently he became our ambassador to France and to Great Britain. Upon his return he was elected Governor of Virginia, and served again in the Virginia Legislature.

During James Madison’s Presidency, Mr. Monroe served as the Nation’s Secretary of State, and for two years he simultaneously was Secretary of War. During the War of 1812 he took this latter position very seriously; he went into combat, trying to defend the city of Washington from an advancing British force, at the Battle of Bladensburg.

Following the war, he served his nation for eight years as President, and proved to be one of the most popular Presidents in history. In fact, his time as President is still known to historians as “The Era of Good Feelings.” In fact, I understand that the theme of this year’s Monroe Foundation scholarship is “The Election of 1820 - Era of Good Feeling.” While he was President, there was no opposition party.

He was President at a key point in our history: It was a transitional period in which the nation's democratic institutions and capitalist economy were taking form. National identity and patriotism, fueled by tales of stirring victories in the War of 1812, were growing.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the westward movement. There were emerging sectional differences between north and south, but under his leadership the nation was united in its purpose. It expanded westward, aided immeasurably by government road and canal construction projects. These were built to facilitate westward migration and to keep the nation united politically and economically. They were considered a national priority.

President Monroe also purchased Florida from Spain, thereby extending our nation’s borders into the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.

It was during his Presidency that people moving to the frontier began to think of themselves not as so much as Virginians or Pennsylvanians, but principally as Americans.

When he was re-elected to the Presidency in 1820, he received all but one electoral vote. The one man who did not vote for him did so only because of a deep personal conviction that George Washington should remain the only unanimously-elected President in our history

Mr. Monroe received a great deal of respect as the last President who had served in the armed forces during the revolution.

Like many people of his time, recognizing that slavery was a divisive issue, he personally supported the colonization of freed slaves outside the boundaries of the United States. Publicly he supported and enforced a law of 1819 that provided for the return to Africa of slaves that had been illegally seized and brought to the United States. Privately he supported the work of the American Colonization Society, which had acquired land in Africa, named it Liberia, and resettled freed slaves there. In honor of Monroe's support, the capital was named Monrovia in 1824.

After his second term, he briefly retired to Oak Hill in Loudon County, Virginia, before moving to New York with his daughter Maria Hester Gouverneur. He died there in 1831.

Obviously, he was a fine statesman and diplomat, but of all his accomplishments, four stand out in my mind as being extraordinarily significant:

First, the famous Doctrine named for him was a bold endeavor to keep Spain and France from re-conquering the fledgling democracies of Central and South America, and to keep Russia from expanding its influence from Alaska into the Oregon territory. It was nothing less than the first global strategy for this nation’s future.

It demonstrates how the United States, as early as 1823 – saw itself as the guardian of the western hemisphere, as well as the champion of democracies the world over.

The Monroe Doctrine is, of course, still an integral part of American foreign policy.

Second was his role in the Louisiana Purchase, 201 years ago. By securing this territory, the United States was committed to becoming one of the great nations of the world – an “Empire for Democracy,” with plenty of land for its expanding population. This land was populated largely by hard working farmers, much like Monroe's own father. It would eventually become the breadbasket of America.

Third, he died on July 4, 1831, the fifty-fifth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Two other Presidents died on our nation’s birthday - John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who both died five years previously, on the Declaration’s 50th anniversary. All three men had been in declining health, and all three, in a remarkable display of love for their nation and its principles, literally willed themselves to live until the 4th of July.

Fourth, he died amidst personal financial difficulties. It’s easy to wave the flag and pronounce ourselves to be patriots. How much more important is it that we truly serve our country through hard work and dedication? Mr. Monroe’s forty years of public service are a true inspiration to us all, doubly so since he was never fully paid for much of that service. He personally paid for most of his official travel, thereby incurring financial hardship late in life. But he never declined service to this nation.

Today, our nation is concerned with issues very similar to those faced by Mr. Monroe: how to assure the safety of our homes and citizens, while not infringing upon their rights, and simultaneously promoting democracy overseas against a myriad of potential foes.

Even the very size of today’s armed forces would be an issue familiar to him. In his first inaugural address, he stressed that “Our land and naval forces should be moderate, but adequate to do the necessary purposes” of protecting the country…words that modern politicians frequently echo.

I’m sure Mr. Monroe would be glad to know that his country is still blessed and sustained by people who remind me of him:

brave soldiers, sailors, and airmen;

the families back home that sustain them;

thousands of dedicated local, state and federal government employees and elected officials;

and ordinary people, like Monroe’s parents, who make the country what it is through hard work, commitment to American ideals, and passing those ideals and love of country on to their children.

This is an election year, and once again we are showing that the “Era of Good Feelings” was definitely an exception in American History! No, we Americans seldom agree with each other. But, as Mr. Monroe knew, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s a sign that our democracy is healthy!

This year, while you listen to speeches and debates covering many issues, remember that James Monroe did not always see eye-to-eye with Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other national leaders. But as Americans, we support everyone’s right to speak their mind, and we’re united in our desire to defend and uphold the things that are dear to all of us! As Mr. Monroe knew, those things that unite us are far stronger than our differences. Our enemies ignore that to their peril.

Thank you for coming today, to pay tribute to this outstanding Virginian, one of America’s truly exemplary citizens, soldiers, statesmen, and presidents.”