Colleagues and Friends
Jefferson introduced his former law student James Monroe to Madison by letter in 1784, explaining that Monroe “wishes a correspondence with you; and I suppose his situation will render him an useful one to you. The scrupulousness of his honor will make you safe in the most confidential communications. A better man cannot be.” Madison was then in Richmond as a member of the Virginia Assembly, and Monroe was in Congress in Philadelphia, where he could keep Madison informed on national politics.
Younger than Madison by seven years, Monroe was an ambitious man of action who shared Madison’s republican values without being a political theorist himself. Monroe was occasionally Madison’s rival, yet became one of Madison’s most valuable cabinet members. Madison recalled in 1829, “Perhaps there never was another instance of two men brought so often, and so directly at points, who retained their cordiality towards each other unimpaired through the whole.”
Despite this personal friendship, Monroe become suspicious of Madison when he was not nominated to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Madison expected Monroe to support the Constitution, but Monroe objected to ratifying it without amendments. This was the primary issue of the 1789 Congressional campaign pitting Madison and Monroe against each other. Madison recalled their debates: “We used to meet in days of considerable excitement, and address the people on our respective sides; but there never was an atom of ill will between us.” Madison won the election. When Monroe became a Senator in 1789, the two worked well together. Madison nominated Monroe for governor of Virginia in 1799 , a position Monroe held until 1802.
During the Jefferson presidency, Secretary of State Madison selected Monroe for special diplomatic assignments. In 1803, Monroe traveled to France to assist American minister Robert R. Livingston’s effort to secure navigation rights on the Mississippi River. When Napoleon unexpectedly decided to dispose of land in America, Madison, Monroe, and Livingston negotiated the Louisiana Purchase. In Spain in 1804, Monroe aided Charles Pinckney’s negotiations over eastern Florida. Monroe went to England where he and William Pinckney negotiated the Monroe-Pinckney Treaty of 1806. Because it did not resolve the problem of British impressment of American sailors, Jefferson did not present the treaty for Senate ratification. Monroe took this decision as a personal insult and suspected Madison’s involvement.
Monroe made an unsuccessful bid for president in 1808, supported by the “Old Republican” faction hostile to Jefferson and Madison. After Monroe was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1810, he reconciled with President Madison, stating, “Mr. Madison is a republican, and so am I. As long as he acts in consistence with the interests of his country, I will go along with him.” Jefferson assured Madison, “There appears to be the most perfect reconciliation & cordiality towards yourself.”
Madison selected Monroe as his Secretary of State in 1811, a post which Monroe held through the rest of the Madison administration. During Mr. Madison’s War, Monroe also served temporarily as Secretary of War after the resignations of William Eustis and John Armstrong. When Madison was severely ill in 1813, Monroe served as intermediary, relaying information about Madison’s condition and shielding him from direct confrontations with opponents. As the British approached Washington in 1814, Monroe drew on his previous military experience, scouting troop movements, and unsuccessfully attempting to improve the deployment of American forces prior to the Battle of Bladensburg.
With Madison’s approval, Monroe won the 1816 presidential election, and often consulted with Madison on decisions. In their retirements, following Jefferson’s urging, both Madison and Monroe served on the Board of Visitors of Jefferson’s University of Virginia.
Madison and Monroe’s friendship encompassed more than politics. They speculated in land in western New York together. They took turns badgering a wine merchant who had delayed for more than a year in fulfilling their joint order. In 1795, the newly-married Madison asked Monroe to purchase household goods for him when Monroe was in France, including curtains, carpets, china, and other items “which you may know to be acceptable to a young House-keeper.” When Monroe returned to France in 1803, Madison purchased a number of Monroe’s household items and assisted Monroe in settling his stateside affairs.
Monroe died on July 4, 1831. A mutual friend wrote to Madison, “During his illness he often mentioned you to me, and expressed not only his most affectionate regard, respect, and esteem for you, which it gave him pleasure to say had never for forty years been for one moment interrupted, but his great regret that he should leave this world without having the happiness of once more beholding you, his oldest and most valued friend.”
Madison replied, “[H]ow highly I rated the comprehensiveness & character of his mind; the purity & nobleness of his principles; the importance of his patriotic services; and the many private virtues of which his whole life was a study.”
"A close friendship, continued thro' so long a period and such diversified scenes, had grown into an affection very imperfectly expressed by that term; and I value accordingly the manifestation in [Monroe's] last hours that the reciprocity never abated."
-James Madison to Tench Ringgold, July 12, 1831
James Monroe: Madison's Proxy Shopper
In 1795, the newly married James Madison requested of James Monroe, U.S. Minister to France, that he acquire "many articles of furniture at second hand, [that] may be had in Paris, which cannot be had here of equal quality, but at a forbidding price." Among other furnishings, Monroe sent Madison a lit à la polonaise, or a polonaise bed, with corresponding bed curtains.