The following are the prepared remarks of James B. Murray, Jr., Chairman of the Monroe Commission, for the College of William & Mary’s 2015 Charter Day ceremony.
Thank you President Reveley. It is a great honor to return to this stage, on this day – the most inspiring day on the College calendar.Let me tell you a story. It is 1814, a young nation is struggling to survive, still reeling from a brutal war with an imperialist power. Now it is under siege again; in Congress, tempers flare. Many doubt whether this experiment in democracy will survive.
On the northern frontier, generals surrender, the enemy advances. The Secretary of State urges for a defense perimeter around the capital. The Secretary of War vacillates; he is a weak, self-important man. The enemy’s war fleet drops anchor; troops make land. The Secretary of War yet again ignores urgent defensive advice and then disregards orders from the President. The enemy advances; the situation is dire.
Into this unfolding disaster steps the civilian Secretary of State who, despite no military rank, rounds up a troop of cavalry, mounts the lead horse, and sets off in the direction of the enemy – out to gather intelligence about the pending attack. He is brave and his reports are accurate but it’s too late, troops scatter in retreat and citizens flee in panic.The capital building, the President’s home, all government offices are burned to the ground before the enemy marches away. The President holds a cabinet meeting amid the smoldering ruins. He listens; his advisors recommend surrender. Exhausted by hundreds of miles in the saddle for days on end, the Secretary of State has heard enough. He speaks with clarity and courage: “If anyone moves toward the enemy, they will be met with the bayonet.”Moved by the fierceness of his determination, President Madison adjourns the meeting. The government and citizens rally. The nation lives another day. The Secretary of State remounts his horse, rushing north to help defend Baltimore.
Within a week, President Madison, realizing that the salvation of the country might depend on this man, names the Secretary of State his new Secretary of War, making it the only time in U.S. history that one man has held both positions simultaneously. [I wonder: Might America be better off today if, from time to time over the past several decades, Bob Gates had done the same?]
Our re-inspired army performs just well enough to win the Battle of Baltimore; the enemy general is killed and the British withdraw. A stalemate takes place and three months later The War of 1812 is ended. The fragile young nation is saved.Who was this striking hero? James Monroe, William and Mary Class of 1776.Here at the College we pay obeisance to Monroe’s legacy. We have Monroe Hall, the Monroe Scholars and even today’s James Monroe prize. But what really do we know about this man? And outside of Williamsburg, who recalls the achievements of this last of America’s Founding Fathers? The Monroe Doctrine? Maybe. Much else? Doubtful.We all revere the history of The College. We feel the pride of it in our bones. Yet our appreciation for the roots of that pride is often no more than episodic. Yes, we remember Jefferson, three fires at the Wren Building, and maybe the ringing of the bell at the end of the Civil War. But too often, we overlook the greater glory of having educated one of this nation’s greatest presidents.At age 19, while many classmates slept comfortably in their Williamsburg beds, James Monroe was freezing at Valley Forge. A volunteer lieutenant, he advanced across the icy Delaware a day ahead of General Washington; he suffered life-threatening wounds at the Battle of Trenton; and was eventually promoted to Colonel.
James Monroe went on from the Continental Army to serve in the Virginia House of Delegates and then to the Virginia State Senate. The Senate then sent him to represent Virginia at the Continental Congress. Stop here and you have a remarkable career of public service. But then, at age 32, Monroe was elected to the U.S. Senate, followed by U.S. Minister to France, Governor of Virginia for the first of four eventual terms, and Envoy Extraordinaire to Paris. From Paris, to Madrid and London as U.S. Minister to Spain and to Great Britain, followed by Secretary of State and finally – as we now know – to Secretary of War.
In 1816, at age 58, James Monroe was elected to the first of two terms as the fifth President of the United States.
So why is it that today Monroe is not more widely recognized among the handful of truly great American Presidents?Perhaps because Monroe was the only Founding Father from humble origins; he was not a wealthy aristocratic planter or landed gentry, like the four founders who preceded him. He was from modest roots. The first in his family to attend college, he was raised in a wooden, four room, Westmoreland County farmhouse; and he always considered himself a farmer.
Perhaps his youth counted against him. Monroe was 17, a sophomore at William and Mary, when the Declaration of Independence was signed. He was 52 years younger than Franklin, 26 years junior to Washington, 23 years behind John Adams, 15 behind Jefferson, and 6 behind Madison. Was he too young?
Perhaps Monroe lacked the flair that makes a celebrity. While Washington and Lafayette commanded attention from horseback, Monroe was a foot soldier. He didn’t discover electricity or design iconic buildings. Unlike his friends Patrick Henry and James Madison, he never learned to speak so the rafters rung. Unlike Jefferson and Madison, he was a stilted writer with poor penmanship who left behind few soaring documents.
Yet by the time Monroe was 60, he had done as much as any of these men to organize, secure, and preserve the Republic. In today’s terms, he would be known as an operational CEO, the Eric Schmidt to Google’s Sergi Brin. So while Monroe may not be called a creator of this nation, he should be credited with being a builder of this nation. A “nation-builder”. For example, Jefferson conceived of a smaller Louisiana Purchase but it was James Monroe who closed the grand deal with Napoleon. Henry Clay ram-roded the Missouri Compromise in Congress, but it was Monroe’s threatened Presidential veto that forced the parties to the table.
There is much to tell: the Northwest Ordinance, Native Americans defended, interstate transportation and more. But we should acknowledge that James Monroe did not act alone to build a nation. Like all great leaders he directed and inspired a long list of statesmen, diplomats, and politicians who helped to implement his vision. And, like all of the Founding Fathers, Monroe too had feet of clay.
While opposed to slavery, his opposition remained largely a matter of principle only. He was recalled from his first ministry in France. He was an advocate of education for women, but never connected values to action. And, perhaps most surprising, Monroe led opposition to the final version of the U.S. Constitution. He wanted more, including a Bill of Rights. In fairness, his opposition may have ultimately advanced that cause; but still, Monroe was on the losing side of ratification.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see shortcomings. But, over the arc of a 50-year career of public service, there is so much more that outweighs them, so much which made this man essential to our Republic’s survival.
To understand the impact of Monroe’s long career as a nation builder, we need only ask: What if?
What if Monroe had hesitated, rigidly obeyed his orders, and failed to seize the chance to buy Louisiana? What if he had botched the opportunity to get Florida from Spain? Or to establish the boundary with Mexico? The border with Canada? Or, before all that, what if Monroe had not led the fight in Congress against the New England merchants who were conniving to surrender trading rights on the Mississippi so that they could sell more codfish to Spain? What if?Well, the people of Orlando and Phoenix might be speaking only Spanish today. The people of Alabama might be buying their football tickets with French francs. The mayor of Seattle might be pledging allegiance to Queen Elizabeth, and they might be singing the Marseille in Memphis. In short, the United States might have been no more than a medium sized, 13-precinct country appended to the eastern edge of a multi-nation continent. Instead of a vast nation of striving entrepreneurs, might we have been a little nation of millworkers, shopkeepers, and serfs?
What if, in the midst of war, Monroe had not taken the bold (and probably illegal) gamble of borrowing $5 million on his own signature? Or, if he had not the courage to challenge his own party and support a national bank? Would the reeling nation have survived a default on our national debt? Or, would we, today, be paying British taxes on our tea?
Finally, what if President Monroe had not used the power of the presidency to promote the Missouri Compromise? Would our thirty-year-old nation have survived another two generations until Lincoln could lead millions to war to preserve it? Or, might some form of confederate flag be standing there? (At the corner of the stage.)These may seem exaggerations. But, occasionally we need reminding that so much we take for granted about our nation today, was far from assured during those early years. It took a nation-building president to assure this nation.All of Monroe’s nation-building accomplishments and many more can be traced to his skill for compromise, his gift for finding common cause. It was no coincidence that Monroe’s presidency launched America’s “Era of Good Feeling”.Where did Monroe develop the wisdom to seek common cause; the bravery to lead men on the battlefield; and the courage to: negotiate with emperors, debate with Henry and Hamilton, confront all of imperialist Europe with the Monroe Doctrine? Where did he learn? Well, it began right here, where he met demanding professors, borrowed books on government and philosophy from Thomas Jefferson, and first met the legal scholar George Wythe. William and Mary helped make a leader of this young farmer.Monroe’s biographer, Harry Ammon writes that Monroe was “reflective, never rushing to conclusions but forming [them] deliberately”; he displayed “tact, warmth, and patience in human relations”. He was a pragmatist, not a dreamer. These are, of course, the attributes of an educated man. The attributes that, even today, we at William and Mary hope to instill in those who come here – like Monroe – thirsty to learn about the world and to make a difference in the conduct of human affairs.So now that we know more about the story of James Monroe, how might we work together to further his legacy as a nation builder? There is much work to be done. The President and the Rector Stottlemyer have some inspired ideas. In fact, the Rector has begun by appointing his predecessor, Rector Emeritus Jeff Trammell, to head a working group on a new Monroe revival. And, there is more to come.
But we may ask, why now? Why is it important – today – that we revive the memory and lessons of one of our greatest? Well, let us think together about our national political situation. In recent years we have seen little that we can call “success” – nationally or internationally. Nationally we flounder. Around the globe, we live in a time: when diplomacy can be driven by passions; when facts can be casually manipulated to pander to populist prejudice; when culture can be used as an excuse to disdain economics or even medical science; and when tribalism, corruption or religious hysteria can readily dictate national policy.
This world begs the question: Where are our leaders? Are there no Monroes – those who put nation ahead of self? We should also ask: Where have we the people been? For the tragedy of the last two decades has also been about a failure of citizenship.
The truth is that without statesman-like leaders such as Monroe and active citizens like the William and Mary graduates of the Revolutionary era, we will seek in vain for the recovery of national greatness. So now, more than at any time since World War II, America needs Monroe to remind us; to remind us what leadership looks like.
Our task of reviving Monroe’s legacy includes investing in our westward outpost – perhaps not well known to many of you. Monroe’s home site near Charlottesville is the only presidential site in America owned by a university.
James Monroe’s farm, “Highland” is important because it stands as a testament to the bonds of friendship and collaboration among Monroe and his fellow Virginia legends, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Throughout their lives, Jefferson, Madison, and their younger protégé – Monroe, sought each other’s company. When Congress first met in Philadelphia they shared rooms in the same boarding house. Each understood well the strength of the other. Each knew that being just a day’s horseback ride away would allow them invaluable opportunities to continue learning, collaborating, and gaining encouragement from each other.
Today, Highland’s physical proximity to Monticello and Montpelier and to Jefferson’s other university, offers great promise for the future mission of the College. As we speak, William and Mary plays a vital role in a collaboration that is reviving that classic relationship between Monroe, Madison, and Jefferson. This new enterprise is called The Presidential Precinct.
The Presidential Precinct is a collaboration that joins these three presidential sites and two great universities into a powerful partnership. We provide a physical and virtual place where young leaders from around the world can come to study what these men – particularly Monroe – accomplished; a place to study nation-building.
The Presidential Precinct is putting William and Mary and our property at Highland on the world stage. Through the virtual power of the web and the physical power of convening great minds – as Monroe, Madison, and Jefferson once convened – the Precinct is becoming known, around the world, as the place that young leaders gather. They come to learn about democracy, civil society, the rule of law and the civic and economic institutions that will help make struggling nations successful – successful in a shrinking, interconnected world.William and Mary’s future lies not just in its residential programs here in Williamsburg. Not just with the traditional “sage on a stage” lecturing to children of privilege from Fairfax County. William and Mary’s future lies in taking our place in the global marketplace of ideas, with an international audience. Here at the College and through the Presidential Precinct, we and Monroe have much to teach the world about building successful nations – about “nation-building”.In 1798, Monroe wrote to Saint George Tucker about his alma mater. These are his words: William and Mary “reared the youth who had firmness and virtue sufficient to stem the current which threatened our liberties. If I were to compose an oration, and deliver it to a public festival, it would be in favor of our alma mater and the noble effort her offspring has lately made in defense of the holy cause of mankind.”
Today, 217 years after Monroe wrote those words, William and Mary must forge its place in this globalized, interconnected world where the threat to liberty is great, immeasurably dispersed, and instantaneous. We must send forth our graduates, using James Monroe as our model, to – in his words – “defend the holy cause of mankind”.
These remarks, as well as a video of Murray’s speech, were originally published on the College of William & Mary’s website Friday, Feb. 6.