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Many presidents have, in one form or another, made the claim of being "a uniter, not a divider". But one of the Presidents who best exemplified this phrase was probably James Monroe. He became President following the end of the War of 1812, a war that the nation was unprepared for, and a war which did not enjoy universal support throughout the nation. A rift developed between the New England states and the southern states. Citizens of the former had no desire to go to war with the British because of the injurious effect that the war had on their local industry due to the loss of trade. But citizens from the other states were more anxious to go to war. When the war ended with better results in some parts of the nation than in others, divisions existed. It was up to James Monroe to heal these divisions. He did so to such an extent that much of his presidency was characterized by what was called the "Era of Good Feelings".


As president, James Monroe wanted to harmonize the diverse factions within the country and to create a common national outlook, rather than one based on regional or party interests. He did so in a surprising way at first. He declined to appoint a federalist to his cabinet, despite being urged to do so as a means of keeping the peace. He did not want to continue a climate of "us vs. them" and felt that appointing a Federalist would only serve to continue competing factions. Echoing a sentiment first expressed by George Washington, he said that all political parties were by their very nature, incompatible with free government. He believed that the business of governing was best conducted by disinterested statesmen, acting exclusively in the national interest – not on behalf of sectional interests or personal ambition. His policy had precedent in the arguments put forth by Washington in his farewell address in 1796 and his warnings against political "factions."

In his public statements, Monroe was careful to avoid comments that could be perceived as politically partisan. He never attacked the Federalist party, in fact he never even mentioned them at all. In his private encounters with Federalists, he was described as always being "courteous and civil".

Perhaps the most magnanimous thing he did was to embark on two country-wide good-will tours, the first in 1817 and the second in 1819. Most importantly, he went into the heart of what for a Virginian Republican was enemy country: New England. He traveled to the Federalist stronghold of Boston, Massachusetts, and he was warmly received, in large measure because his remarks were non-partisan, with a goal of unifying the nation. It was on this trip that the phrase "Era of Good Feelings" was coined by a local Federalist journal.

On the tour Monroe, a Revolutionary War veteran himself, donned a Revolutionary War officer's uniform. Despite this no longer being the style, he tied his long powdered hair in a queue. Contemporary accounts of Monroe's appearances on the tour praise him for his "agreeable" impression, his charm, his dignity and for his "unusual ability to put men at their ease by his courtesy, lack of condescension, his frankness, and what his contemporaries looked upon as the essential goodness and kindness of heart which he always radiated" (in the words of his biographer Harry Ammon).

Monroe's visit to Boston elicited strong feelings of nationalist pride and expressions of reconciliation. New England Federalists were quick to demonstrate their loyalty. Monroe was welcomed with banquets, parades and receptions. Monroe later wrote that many of the New England Federalists appeared anxious "to get back into the great family of the union." Monroe understood the cathartic value in allowing Federalists the opportunity "by solemn public demonstrations to reaffirm their loyalty to the government and their acceptance of Republican control." Monroe was diligent about avoiding any remarks or expressions that might chasten, criticize or humiliate his hosts. He presented himself as the nation's head of state, and not as the leader of a triumphant political party.

The strategy not only had value in healing the nation's wounds, it was also a wise political strategy. In the years that followed, all New England states other than Massachusetts were in Republican Party hands. In 1820 Monroe was re-elected almost unanimously. He received every vote in the electoral college except for one, that by an elector who believed that the honor of unanimous electoral victory belonged to Washington alone. The only political downside to the strategy was that instead of the Republicans running against the Federalists in 1824, the candidates for the presidency came out of split factions within the party itself.

Monroe deserves credit for healing a divided nation and for displaying benevolence to his defeated political enemies, and most importantly for his good example in putting his role as head of state first, ahead of his role as leader of a political party.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 12th, 2018 05:15 pm (UTC)
that uniform and all that courtesy
he did learn from Washington didn't he
Jul. 16th, 2018 04:21 pm (UTC)
I agree. The guy was a class act all around.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


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