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Judd Gregg: The other Monroe Doctrine

Judd Gregg: The other Monroe Doctrine
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James Monroe was the fifth President of the United States.

He was the last of the early “Virginia” presidents — four of our first five presidents were from Virginia.

Monroe was not at Philadelphia when the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed. He was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention.

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He also fought at the Battle of Trenton, which gave the War of Independence a possibility of success. He was one of the few patriots seriously wounded in that battle, which had very limited casualties due to the success of the surprise attack initiated by George Washington.

He is most remembered for the ‘Monroe Doctrine,’ which essentially said that foreign powers, especially European powers, were no longer welcome in the western hemisphere.

Of course if you are taking a high school history course today, which is dominated by revisionism, this doctrine may not be mentioned. Rather, Monroe would be identified in a passing phrase as one of the early presidents who was a slave owner.

Early American leaders, from Virginia especially, now have their roles in awakening our independence diminished dramatically because they lived in a time when slavery, as abhorrent and unexplainable as it is in our time, was part of their society.

Monroe should also be recognized for something else — his approach to governing, which is definitely relevant to today’s world and the present Washington culture.

When Monroe went into politics after fighting in the Revolutionary War, he did so as a disciple and sometimes confidant of Thomas Jefferson.

President Washington was unique in numerous ways. One of the most significant was his deep opposition to factions, which were the precursor of political parties. He believed that factions undermined effective governance and led to disruption.

He was probably right, but also a bit naive.

The nature of politics is that people gather around ideas that lead to factions, which become political parties.

Monroe was a Jeffersonian republican.

He genuinely despised the Federalist faction led by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.

The differences between these parties turned primarily on their view of the role of the new federal government.

Jefferson’s followers believed in a weaker federal government, and stronger, agrarian-oriented state governments.

Madison, Hamilton and the Federalists believed in an empowered federal government.

The Federalists won out at Philadelphia as the constitution that was accepted tilted more in their direction.

Monroe, it has been observed by his biographers, was a true partisan. If the Federalists were for it, he was against it. He actually opposed ratification of the Constitution.

Things have not changed much, one might observe.

With the partisanship of today, if one side is for something then the other side is against it. The validity of the position seems irrelevant.

But Monroe changed.

This is why his second doctrine, which has never been characterized as such, resonates as importantly today as it did when he pursued it.

When Monroe became president he had done and seen a great deal.

He had, as mentioned, been through the Revolutionary War and been severely wounded. He had worked extensively with Jefferson, so much so that he built his house just down the road from Monticello. He had been the governor of Virginia; served in the United States Senate; and as Secretary of State. As ambassador to France, he was the primary force behind the Louisiana Purchase.

He was a man who had seen many seasons.

This life experience led, one presumes, to this second doctrine.

When he became president, he no longer pursued partisan purity.

In fact, he did just the opposite.

He reached out to the Federalists and absorbed some of their most significant ideas, including many of their international policies and their commitment to a national bank.

He worked with genuine energy across the aisle, so to speak.

This approach on Monroe’s part resulted in one of the most significant and underrated events in our history — the Missouri Compromise.

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The Compromise was authored by Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky but it would not have been possible without the support and, some believe, very active behind the scenes commitment of Monroe.

The Missouri Compromise settled for years the issue of how to handle slavery in America.

It allowed Maine and Missouri to enter the Union — one as a slave state, one as a free state — and set the demarcation of where slavery could be allowed and not allowed as the nation moved westward.

Without this Compromise, it is certain that southern succession would have occurred forty years earlier.

This would likely have led, in turn, to an entirely different result. It is unlikely that the North would have had the ability to win a civil war at the time, or that the national government would have been strong enough to keep the nation together.

We would be a continent of many nations, or at least two. All American history would be different, as would much of world history — including how and when slavery would have ended.

But the nation did not break up in 1820.

The core reason was because Monroe adopted an approach of de facto bipartisanship in his presidency.

This does not mean that there was not partisanship in his time. There was, because that is the way politics works.

But Monroe established that partisanship must be secondary to advancing the core purposes of the nation.

This is Monroe’s second doctrine.

Today, in a political culture that is so dominated by the all-consuming power of social media and the internet, partisanship has been pushed to the extreme. There is no middle in the middle anymore. It is an all-or-nothing world of political confrontation.

Important issues that disturb and disorient our way of life are not resolved because compromise is not tolerated.

It might be time to pause.

Take a breath.

Look to our history and to those who also confronted complex issues of extreme intensity. See how they moved the ball forward to make our nation a better place.

Monroe’s second doctrine might be a good place to alight after such reflection.

We are, after all, one people who come from many different places and ways, just as our national motto reflects.

A little compromise and a lot less partisanship would help us all out.

Judd Gregg (R) is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, and as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee.