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What Was Bugging James Monroe?

April 2024
1min read

For me, one of the nagging little mysteries in presidential history is why James Monroe spent his post-Presidency incessantly suing the federal government. Scarcely out of the White House, Monroe wheedied thirty-six thousand dollars out of Congress in 1826 in satisfaction of a claim for extra salary and expenses that he insisted were owed him for the two diplomatic missions he had carried out many years earlier, funds he had never previously sought to recover. Almost immediately after the settlement, he was at it again, dredging up additional items he solicited reimbursement for. Once more Congress obliged, granting him thirty thousand dollars in 1831, for which Monroe regarded himself not so much grateful as shortchanged! What was Monroe up to in his time of retirement?

Lucius Wilmerding, who thirty years ago revealed these shenanigans in his superb monograph James Monroe: Public Claimant , offered the opinion that Monroe felt so keenly he had never received sufficient credit for his public service that he became determined to make his aggrievement pay off. If he could not have the gratitude and admiration of his fellow citizens, he would at least wrench from them justice and recompense.

My guess is less sympathetic: Monroe was so pricked and undone by the substantial charges, which he never fully succeeded in downing, that he had misapplied public money while in official posts (even that he had personally profited from his refurbishing of the White House after its torching by the British) that his shame became an incubus in his brain. This President, who gave his name to the country’s first and most enduring “doctrine,” was, by a curious mental inversion, turned into a permanent plaintiff in order to aver to himself and to the nation a Founding Father’s equivalent of “Well, I am not a crook.”

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