Grateful American Series
Grateful American Series
Home GA Radio GA TV Our Historic Partners Events Authors & Experts Fascinating Facts

April 2017

April 2017 — Happy Birthday, James Monroe (April 28, 1758), the 5th U.S. President (1817-1825)

It is with great pleasure that we dedicate the April 2017 issue of the Grateful American™ Magazine to the fifth U.S. president — James Monroe, born April 28, 1758.

He won the election of 1816 — the eighth quadrennial presidential election — which stretched over more than a month, from Nov. 1 to Dec. 4, 1816. Monroe’s ascendance to the highest office of the land followed the two-term presidency of Democratic-Republican James Madison. Monroe, who had served as Madison’s Secretary of State, faced very weak opposition from the Federalist Party and won the Electoral College vote 183 to 34.

The previous four years of American politics had been dominated by the effects of the War of 1812.

While the war had not ended in victory, the 1815 peace satisfied the American people, and the Democratic-Republicans received the credit for its conclusion. The Federalists discovered they were discredited by their opposition to the war, and the secessionist rhetoric from New England.

Madison had succeeded in achieving certain measures favored by the Federalists; for example, a national bank and protective tariffs. These successes gave the Federalists few issues to campaign on, which contributed to the overwhelming victory for the Democratic-Republicans. Learn more here.

Scroll down for historic insights on the inauguration of President Monroe by Dr. Cassandra Good, the associate editor of the The Papers of James Monroe at the University of Mary Washington, and author of “Founding Friendships.”

Here’s to bringing American history to life! — David Bruce Smith, founder, and Hope Katz Gibbs, executive producer, /

Why do historians consider James Monroe to be the Forrest Gump of his era?

The associate editor of the The Papers of James Monroe at the University of Mary Washington, and author of “Founding Friendships,” Dr. Cassandra Good, explains.

Grateful American™ Series

Inaugurating the "Era of Good Feelings"

By Dr. Cassandra Good
Associate Editor, The Papers of James Monroe at the University of Mary Washington
Author, “Founding Friendships”

March 4, 1817 — On an unusually warm March afternoon 200 years ago, James Monroe took the oath of office in Washington, DC, as America's fifth president. In a capital city still recovering from having government buildings burned to the ground three years earlier by the British, large crowds thronged the city to celebrate Monroe's inauguration.

Inauguration Day initially was not auspicious: The planning of the ceremony caused a congressional squabble, the oath was taken under a temporary portico outside of a temporary Capitol Building, and nobody could hear Monroe's speech. But the day ended up ushering in a brief era of national unity and good feeling, when Americans formed (in Monroe's words) "one great family with a common interest."

Monroe entered the presidency with more experience in elected or appointed office than any man before — or since. Born on Virginia's Northern Neck in 1758, he had joined the Continental Army to fight in the Revolution as a teenager and been in public service almost continually since.

President James Madison (March 5, 1751 – June 28, 1836) In office: March 4, 1809 – March 4, 1817

As James Madison's Secretary of State, Monroe was seen as the natural successor to his long-time friend. He won election handily in 1816 against Federalist Rufus King, taking 84 percent of the electoral votes. It was a rare moment of near-unity after the bruising partisan bickering of the previous three decades, with the opposition Federalist party largely collapsing and power consolidating under Monroe's Democratic-Republicans.

Monroe planned, in keeping with tradition, a simple inauguration on the established date of March 4. On March 1, he wrote to the Senate, which would host the inauguration, and Chief Justice John Marshall, who would swear him in, of his plans.

He stated he would take the oath at noon in the chamber of the House of Representatives. A committee of senators then planned the specifics, determining where the president, leaders of the House and Senate, Supreme Court justices, heads of departments, and ambassadors would sit. The "fine red chairs" of the Senate Chamber would be carried to the House Chamber for the dignitaries. The audience would comprise senators at the front, behind them members of the House, and other selected invitees. Officers would be appointed to keep the public from entering.

House Speaker Henry Clay of Kentucky (April 12, 1777 – June 29, 1852). He was an American lawyer, planter, statesman, and skilled orator who represented Kentucky in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

When the senators notified the House of Representatives of their plans, however, the representatives revolted. 

House Speaker Henry Clay of Kentucky wrote the Senate committee mid-day on March 3, declaring that the Senate "had not, as a body, a right to regulate the Hall of Representatives or to arrange the furniture thereof, or to introduce other furniture into it, without the concurrence of the House of Representatives."

In recalling the incident years later, Clay explained that he preferred the House Chamber's "plain democratic chairs" to the Senate's fancier red seats. Apparently the two sides could not come to an agreement on room arrangements, and late that evening the Senate committee members concluded that they would hold the ceremony outside.

The committee members sent a note to inform the diplomatic corps, which the ambassadors took to mean there would be no seats or formal role for them.

The next morning was "extremely fine and exhilarating." 

Daniel D. Tompkins (June 21, 1774 – June 11, 1825) was an American politician. He was the fourth governor of New York (1807–17), and the sixth vice president of the United States (1817–25).

The sky was clear and the air still; as one attendee noted, "not an unruly breeze ruffled the plaits of the best handkerchief." Vice President Daniel Tompkins arrived at Monroe’s rented home at 2017 I St (several blocks from the White House), and the men left the house at 11:30 a.m. They were accompanied by a group of citizens on horseback, and they traveled down Pennsylvania Avenue to the temporary Capitol Building.

Dubbed the Old Brick Capitol, the building stood across First Street from the burned Capitol Building (now the site of the Supreme Court); it housed the Senate and House from 1815 to 1819.

Just before noon, Tompkins and Monroe entered the building with James Madison and the Supreme Court justices for Tompkins' swearing-in. He gave a short speech, and then the party moved outdoors for the day's big event.

Outside was a hastily erected portico, with seats for the diplomatic corps on one side and the department heads on the other. The former sat empty, as the ambassadors did not know until afterward that there were in fact reserved seats for them, and chose not to attend. Local military units were there, and so was an audience of ladies and gentlemen.

The crowd was gathered in carriages to watch the ceremony, but its size is hard to determine.

A newspaper account noted that while it "was impossible to compute with any thing like accuracy the number of carriages, horses, and persons present," the editors estimated 5,000 to 8,000. "Such a concourse was never before seen in Washington," they reported. Massachusetts Sen. Harrison Gray Otis' wife, Sally Foster Otis, was less impressed with the crowd. She guessed there were fewer attendees than at Boston's Artillery Election Day (an annual parade and election of officers for the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company), and those at the inauguration "were by no means so well conditioned."

There were certainly enough people that "few if any heard" Monroe give his speech and take the oath of office. Even if Monroe spoke loudly, his voice could not have traveled far. Newspapers published his optimistic and celebratory speech in its entirety.

Monroe marveled that "during a period fraught with difficulties, and marked by very extraordinary events, the United States have flourished beyond example."

The American experiment in self-government was a success, he said, calling it a "happy government" that worked because of the people. "The government has been in the hands of the people," he noted. "To the people, therefore, and to the faithful and able depositaries of their trust is the credit due." He went beyond an assessment of the country's status to offer policy priorities for his administration: strengthening the country's defenses, education, roads, and canals; promoting domestic manufacturing; and furthering national unity.

John Marshall (Sept. 24, 1755 – July 6, 1835) was the fourth Chief Justice of the United States (1801–1835). His court opinions helped lay the basis for U.S. constitutional law, and many say they made the U.S. Supreme Court a coequal branch of government along with the legislative and executive branches. Previously, Marshall had been a leader of the Federalist Party in Virginia and served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1799 to 1800. He was Secretary of State under President John Adams from 1800 to 1801.

After his speech, Monroe took the oath of office from his old schoolmate, Chief Justice John Marshall. 

The conclusion of the oath was announced by an attendant waving a white flag and a single gunshot, followed by salutes from military installations around the city. Mrs. Otis was also unimpressed with the cheer that followed, reporting that "a very feeble acclamation was at length effected by A Comodore who came out with a hurra but it did not amount to a boston cheer."

At some point during or at the conclusion of the ceremony (accounts vary), a large bird flew over the Capitol Building. Many believed it was an eagle and took this as an "auspicious omen." One letter to the editor asked what direction the eagle had flown so as to determine if it was a positive or negative omen. But Mrs. Otis again had a less favorable take: "Sorry am I to say I could make neither more or less than an old Carolina acquaintance a Turkey buzzard."

The ceremony completed, the new president and the attendees began to travel down Pennsylvania Avenue to Monroe's home for a reception.

It seems that more of the crowd may have been waiting along Washington's central thoroughfare than had attended the ceremony; Mrs. Otis described crowds "as far as the Eye could extend with carriages of every description." The sidewalks, too, were filled with people, "men women & children; fiddler fifer & drums."  Many of them followed the procession to 2017 I St, where it took Mrs. Otis almost an hour to reach the front door.

The White House during President Monroe’s administration.

People of all walks of life entered the reception, creating a crowd that one local newspaper called "unusual." The reporter continued, "The buz, the chat, the hurley-burley were pleasing, because hearty and good humored." Mrs. Otis was less charitable, complaining that she and her husband had to get past "all the Scavengers & wash women of the City."

The reception appears only to have been for invited guests, but these everyday citizens "were laying violent hands on the waiters of cake & refreshments that were prepared & intended for the company." Monroe must have been relieved to see the ambassadors at the reception, having been confused by their absence at the inauguration. Perhaps in part to placate the diplomatic corps — and furthermore to antagonize the British — he placed the French ambassador next to him at dinner.

U.S. Capitol, 1814c

Later that night, there was a formal inaugural ball at Davis' Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue and 6th St, NW. This party, too, was "crowded to overflowing." The Washington City Weekly Gazette called it a "brilliant ball" and estimated that 1,000 people attended.

Beyond the ballroom, there were toasts to Monroe around the country. In Massachusetts, John Adams dined at a "festival in honour of mr Monroe" with 200 people. Even hardened Bostonian Federalists had kind feelings towards the new president, Adams told his son; "all Speak of him with Esteem, Respect and even of Affection."

Old Brick Capitol

Monroe channeled this goodwill into an "era of good feelings" and two terms as a popular president. Only three months after his inauguration, Monroe set off on a tour of the northern states to promote national defense and unity. He built a Cabinet that comprised a geographically and ideologically diverse set of men.

The president, Monroe believed, "ought not to be the head of a party, but of the nation itself." He ran unopposed for re-election in 1820 and received all but one electoral vote.

Although this interlude of nonpartisanship quickly came to a close in the race to succeed him, the spectators on that sunny March day in 1817 did not know of the party realignment to come. What they witnessed was unity and optimism for the years to come in the young country.

Dr. Cassandra Good

Dr. Cassandra A. Good serves as the associate editor of The Papers of James Monroe at the University of Mary Washington. She received her PhD in history from the University of Pennsylvania and her bachelor's and master's degrees in American Studies from George Washington University.

Her area of expertise is late 18th/19th century America with particular focus on politics, gender, and cultural history. She also has experience in museums, new media, and public history through her work at the Smithsonian Institution. Her first book, “Founding Friendships”, is available from Oxford University Press.

Learn more about the James Monroe papers at the University of Mary Washington here:

Click here to watch our interview with Dr. Good at James Monroe’s home in Charlottesville, VA, and learn why Monroe is considered the 18th century’s Forrest Gump. 

This month in history

Who popularized the tradition of April Fools’ Day?

April 1, 1700 — English pranksters began popularizing the annual tradition of April Fools' Day by playing practical jokes on each other.

Also called All Fools' Day, this holiday has been celebrated for centuries by different cultures. Some historians speculate that the concept dates to 1582. That is when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian, as called for by the Council of Trent in 1563.

Those who were slow to get the news — or failed to recognize that the start of the new year had moved to Jan. 1 — continued to celebrate it during the last week of March through April 1 and became the butt of jokes and hoaxes.

Read more…

History Matters

New poll shows most Americans can’t name a single Supreme Court justice

April 2017 — In conjunction with Sunshine Week and timed for the opening of confirmation hearings for Neil Gorsuch, President Trump's pick for the Supreme Court, C-SPAN asked polling company Penn Schoen Berland (PSB) to learn more about the public's interest in the third branch of government. The results: Fifty-seven percent of those polled weren't able to name any, or gave an incorrect name. Click here to review the survey. And click here to study the poll results.

Read more…

Words of Wisdom

“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

— John Adams (Oct. 30, 1735 – July 4, 1826) was an American lawyer, author, statesman, and diplomat. He served as the second president of the United States (1797–1801) and the first vice president (1789–97).

Read more…

Book Club

“Of Arms and Artists,” by Paul Staiti

Reviewed by Alex Nyerges, Director, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

September 1781 — Loyalists broke into the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia and slashed the Charles Willson Peale portrait of George Washington. It was an act of desperation and frustration by Colonists still loyal to King George III who sensed the unthinkable was near — an American victory in the battle for independence. A month later, Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at Yorktown and the war was all but over.

The attack on the portrait of the Revolution's heroic leader provides a dramatic beginning to Paul Staiti's gripping book on the five most important artists whose work provides us the visual legacy of the men and events that shaped this young country.

In the succinct and well-written chapters, Staiti weaves a fascinating tale that begins with the Peale portrait, commissioned in 1779 by the Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council, that Colony's governing body, and ends with the bivouacking of the Eighth Massachusetts Regiment in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol beneath John Trumbull's four massive paintings telling the story of the American Revolution.

Read more…

In The News

Jane Kamensky Wins Historical Society Book Prize

March 14, 2017 — In today's issue of The New York Times, reporter Jennifer Schuessler writes:

Jane Kamensky, a professor at Harvard University, will take on the unofficial title "American historian laureate" in April when the New-York Historical Society presents her with its annual book prize in American history, for "A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley."

The book, published by W. W. Norton, used Copley — who is celebrated for his portraits of Paul Revere and other Revolutionary War-era patriots, despite the fact that he was a loyalist who spent the war years in London — as a window onto the complexities of Revolution-era America. Virginia DeJohn Anderson, writing in The New York Times Book Review in December, praised the book's vivid depiction of a man who "remained conflicted to the end."

The prize, which was recently renamed in honor of the philanthropists Barbara and David Zalaznick, carries a $50,000 cash award and an engraved medal, as well the unofficial laureate title. (The historical society is a private organization.) Past winners include Eric Foner, Drew Gilpin Faust, Gordon S. Wood and Jill Lepore.

Read more…

How are you a Grateful American?

Tom Fleming, historian, novelist, author, "The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers"

"I am a grateful American because I have a sense of history. I acquired the beginnings of this invaluable spiritual gift very early. I realized my grandparents, David and Mary Fleming, could not read or write. They had been born in awful poverty in Ireland. They came here hoping for a better life, and instilled the same desire in their four children. My father was a war hero in World War I and afterward a successful local politician. He taught me one of the crucial things about being grateful — you give back. I saw him help hundreds of people find jobs in the Great Depression. He made sure they had decent food to eat on Thanksgiving and Christmas. He was a caring man. As I grew older, I realized this tradition of caring was an essential part of my American heritage. I will never forget the day I first read George Washington's wonderful words, ‘To see this country happy is so much the wish of my soul, nothing else can compare to it this side of Elysium.' This desire to widen the circle of happiness to include everyone has made America a great and enduring country. It has also made me deeply grateful for this heritage."

Read more…

This Month's Events

© 2020 David Bruce Smith PublicationsInkandescent Public Relations

Opt out of our mailings here.