James Monroe and Napoleon

James Monroe by William James Hubbard

James Monroe by William James Hubbard

When Napoleon Bonaparte lands in New Orleans in Napoleon in America, James Monroe is president of the United States. Imagining how he might have reacted to Napoleon’s request for asylum required looking into what he thought about Napoleon.

A Francophile

James Monroe was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia on April 28, 1758. He fought in the American Revolution, during which he became friends with the Marquis de Lafayette. After the war, Monroe – along with his friend and political ally Thomas Jefferson – criticized the American government’s coolness towards revolutionary France. As a senator, Monroe wrote a series of essays calling on Americans to aid their French republican allies.

Whoever owns the principles of one revolution must cherish those of the other; and the person who draws a distinction between them is either blinded by prejudice, or boldly denies what at the bar of reason he cannot refute. (1)

In 1794, to appease the Jeffersonians in Congress, President George Washington appointed James Monroe as American minister to France. Monroe arrived in Paris just after the end of the Reign of Terror. He tried to assure the French government of American neutrality in the war between France and Britain. He also tried to present the French Revolution in a favourable light to Americans, emphasizing the progress the French were making towards republicanism.

Monroe enrolled his daughter Eliza (born in 1786) in the elite Parisian boarding school run by Madame Campan. There she became a friend of Hortense de Beauharnais, the daughter of Napoleon’s first wife Josephine. Napoleon’s sister Caroline was also a student at the school.

Monroe and his wife Elizabeth helped to obtain the release of Madame de Lafayette from prison. They also purchased considerable French furniture, porcelain and plate, which they brought back to the United States after Monroe’s appointment ended in December 1797.

Monroe returned to France in 1803, when President Jefferson appointed him a special envoy to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans. Monroe and the American minister to France, Robert R. Livingston, succeeded in buying all of the Louisiana Territory.

Conversations with Napoleon

On May 1, 1803, the day after signing the Louisiana Purchase Treaty, Monroe was presented to First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte, who peppered him with questions.

When the Consul came round to me, Mr. Livingston presented me to him, on which the Consul observed that he was glad to see me…. ‘You have been here 15 days?’ I told him I had. ‘You speak French?’ I replied ‘A little.’ ‘You had a good voyage?’ Yes. ‘You came in a frigate?’ No in a merchant vessel charged for the purpose. Col. Mercer was presented; says he ‘He is Secretary of legation?’ No but my friend. He then made enquiries of Mr. Livingston & his secretary how their families were, and then turned to Mr. Livingston & myself & observed that our affairs should be settled.

We dined with him. After dinner when we retired into the saloon, the first Consul came up to me and asked whether the federal city grew much. I told him it did. ‘How many inhabitants has it?’ It is just commencing, there are two cities near it, one above, the other below, on the great river Potomack, which two cities if counted with the federal city would make a respectable town, in itself it contains only two or three thousand inhabitants. ‘Well; Mr. Jefferson, how old is he?’ About sixty. ‘Is he married or single?’ He is not married. ‘Then he is a [boy].’ No he is a widower. ‘Has he children?’ Yes two daughters who are married. ‘Does he reside always at the federal city?’ Generally. ‘Are the public buildings there commodious, those for the Congress and President especially?’ They are. ‘You the Americans did brilliant things in your war with England, you will do the same again.’ We shall, I am persuaded, always behave well when it shall be our lot to be in war. ‘You may probably be in war with them again.’ I replied I did not know, that that was an important question to decide when there would be an occasion for it. (2)

Monroe was presented to Napoleon again on June 24, for the purpose of taking leave of him. Monroe had accepted an appointment as American minister to Great Britain (where Nicholas Biddle served him as a temporary secretary). Napoleon said:

‘You are about going to London?’ I told him I had lately received the orders of the President, in case our affairs here were amicably adjusted, to repair to London – that the resignation of our Minister there, & there being no one charged with our affairs made it necessary that I should go immediately that I was ordered before my departure to call & assure him of the respect & esteem which the President & United States entertained for him & the French nation, & of his earnest desire to preserve peace & friendship with them.

He said that no one wished more than him the preservation of a good understanding &c that the cession he had made was not so much on account of the price given, as motives of policy &c. He wished friendship between the Republics. That he regarded the President as a virtuous enlightened man, a friend of liberty and equality &c. That we must not give our flag to the British. (3)

On December 2, 1804, passing through Paris on his way to Spain, James Monroe (with Elizabeth) attended Napoleon’s coronation at Notre Dame Cathedral. By then differences over the Spanish Floridas had cooled Napoleon’s relationship with the United States. The Monroes’ names were struck from the invitation list. After Monroe protested, two invitations arrived placing them “in the gallery, in a great measure out of sight, and not with those in our grade, the Foreign Ministers.” (4)

Napoleon’s downfall

In 1811, Monroe became Secretary of State under President James Madison. America’s relations with both Britain and France were strained. In the attempt to strangle each other’s trade, the warring Europeans were seizing neutral American ships and their cargoes. In 1809, Monroe had written to Jefferson:

Both [France and England] wish our overthrow or at least that of our free system of government. … From Bonaparte himself I have recd. much kindness & attention of which proofs have been afforded by his notice of me to others since I left the country. For the nation I have high consideration & respect & for many friends there the sincerest regard. But these circumstances will not blind me to the dangers, or make me insensible to what I owe my country. (5)

In 1814, Monroe and Madison were pleased to learn of Napoleon’s abdication.

It is utterly repugnant to the interests of the United States that France should acquire the preponderance over the powers of the continent to which the emperor of France evidently aspired. … The danger to which we have alluded…is now at an end. Another object, connected with the future fortune of France claims attention. To what precise limits she ought to be reduced is a question in which we take no part. We will express our wish only that she may not be reduced (an event we deem altogether improbable) below the condition of a great nation. (6)

When news of Napoleon’s return to France from Elba reached Washington, Monroe was so alarmed at “the overweaning ambition & gigantic usurpations of Bonaparte” that he urged Madison to delay reductions in the army and call a special session of Congress. (7) Madison thought such action premature. Monroe was relieved when Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. He had not expected Napoleon’s removal would be so easy. Both Monroe and Madison prudently ignored Joseph Bonaparte’s presence in the United States after 1815.

James Monroe as president

In March 1817, James Monroe took up office as the fifth president of the United States. He put together a capable cabinet, including John Quincy Adams as Secretary of State and John C. Calhoun as War Minister. Monroe was not a distinguished speaker and relied heavily on personal contact to exert influence. Though he never enjoyed anything like Jefferson’s popularity, he was widely respected. Attorney General William Wirt wrote of Monroe:

His countenance, when grave, has rather the expression of sternness and irascibility; a smile, however (and a smile is not unusual with him in a social circle) lights it up to very high advantage, and gives it a most impressive and engaging air of suavity and benevolence. … He is a man of soft, polite, and even assiduous attentions…. Nature has given him a mind neither rapid nor rich; and therefore, he cannot shine on a subject which is entirely new to him.  But to compensate him for this, he is endued with a spirit of restless emulation, a judgement strong and clear, and a habit of application which no difficulties can shake, no labours can tire. (8)

Monroe regarded the European monarchies as hostile to the American republic. He believed the United States should do whatever it could to make European governments regard it as a nation of consequence. Monroe set out to strengthen America’s defences, the weaknesses of which had been revealed in the War of 1812. He had no qualms about hiring Napoleonic General Simon Bernard to improve the country’s fortifications. Monroe defined American boundaries vis-à-vis Britain and Spain, acquiring territory from the latter. Though officially neutral on the question, Monroe was in favour of the revolutions in Spain’s American colonies and never doubted that the Latin Americans would win their freedom. He took steps to suppress piracy and the slave trade. In 1823, he enunciated what became known as the Monroe Doctrine (you’ll see how that unfolds in the sequel to Napoleon in America).

Monroe’s affinity for France was evident in his refurbishment of the White House, to which British troops had set fire in 1814. He ordered furniture, carpets and decorations from France, including Empire chairs adorned with gold eagles (the symbol of Napoleon), handsome mantelpieces and Empire clocks. James Fenimore Cooper described a dinner at the Monroe White House in 1825.

The conversation was commonplace, and a little sombre. … The dinner was served in the French style, a little Americanized.  The dishes were handed round, though some of the guests, appearing to prefer their own customs, very coolly helped themselves to what they found at hand.  Of the attendants there were a good many. They were neatly dressed, out of livery, and sufficient. To conclude, the whole entertainment might have passed for a better sort of European dinner party, at which the guests were too numerous for general, or very agreeable discourse, and some of them too new to be entirely at their ease. (9)

James Monroe retired from the presidency in March 1825. He was succeeded by John Quincy Adams. On July 4, 1831, Monroe died from heart failure and tuberculosis in New York, where he was living with his daughter Maria. He was 73 years old. Originally buried in the New York City Marble Cemetery, his body was re-interred to the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia in 1858. For more about the life and presidency of James Monroe, see the websites of the Miller Center and the James Monroe Museum.

You might also enjoy:

The Humour of President James Monroe

When the Great Plains Indians Met President Monroe

John Quincy Adams and Napoleon

John C. Calhoun: War Hawk

Simon Bernard, Napoleon’s General in the US Army

Canada and the Louisiana Purchase

The Presidential Election of 1824

Lafayette’s Visit to America in 1824-25

A Skeleton City: Washington DC in the 1820s

  1. Monroe writing as “Aratus” in Dunlap’s American Daily Advertiser, November 9, 1791.
  2. Stanislaus Murray Hamilton, ed., The Writings of James Monroe, Vol. IV, 1803-1806 (New York, 1900), pp. 15-16.
  3. Ibid., pp. 39-40.
  4. Harlow G. Unger, The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness (Philadelphia, 2009), p. 180.
  5. Stanislaus Murray Hamilton, ed., The Writings of James Monroe, Vol. V, 1807-1816 (New York, 1901), pp. 98-99.
  6. Barent Gardenier, ed., The Examiner, Vol. II (New York, May 28, 1814), p. 20.
  7. The Writings of James Monroe, Vol. V, p. 330.
  8. “Character of James Monroe,” The Theophilanthropist, No. 4 (New York, April 1810), pp. 138-139.
  9. James Fenimore Cooper, Notions of the Americans, Vol. II (Philadelphia, 1833), p. 55.

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From Bonaparte himself I have recd. much kindness & attention of which proofs have been afforded by his notice of me to others since I left the country.... But these circumstances will not blind me to the dangers, or make me insensible to what I owe my country.

James Monroe