NEW YORK — While joyful Philadelphians streamed into the streets to celebrate independence, a wave of fear engulfed George Washington’s Continental Army in New York on July 4, 1776. Outnumbered six to one, the Americans watched helplessly as a British armada approached New York with 30,000 of the world’s best-equipped, best-trained troops.
Within days, Redcoats overran Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. With his men in full retreat, Washington needed help desperately. A few days later, 18-year-old Lt. James Monroe broke camp and marched northward with Virginia’s 700-man Culpeper Minutemen, flags on high depicting coiled rattlesnakes hissing, “Don’t Tread on Me.”
Best known today as America’s fifth president and for the “Monroe Doctrine,” James Monroe first won the hearts of his countrymen as a heroic 18-year-old farm boy from Westmoreland County, Va., who left college to fight for American independence with Washington’s army. By the time Monroe arrived, Washington’s men were in full flight. The cocky young Monroe and his Virginians poured into the lines to halt the British vanguard, leaving 20 enemy dead and 36 captured in their first encounter — without a single Virginian lost or injured.
Two days later, however, the main body of British troops overwhelmed the Americans, scattering them in three directions. Washington led a contingent of about 5,000, including Monroe and the Virginians, across the Hudson to New Jersey.
With Redcoats in sight of Philadelphia, Congress fled to Baltimore and all but conceded defeat. Washington knew he needed a quick, dramatic strike against the British to revive American morale and save the Revolution. His cousin William Washington and young James Monroe volunteered to cross the Delaware with a 50-man squad north of Trenton and approach it from the rear. As a blinding Christmas snowstorm cloaked them from sight of Hessian mercenaries who occupied the town, Monroe and Washington reached the heights of Trenton, where two brass cannon pointed at the riverside landing area where Washington’s main force was disembarking.
Washington cited both William Washington and Monroe for conspicuous gallantry and promoted Washington to major and Monroe to captain.
Monroe’s heroism and the victory at Trenton proved critical in winning the war, reviving troop morale, allowing Congress to return to Philadelphia, and inspiring the French government to send military support to ensure American victory. Ten weeks later, when Monroe’s wounds had healed, he hurried back to Washington’s headquarters, won promotion to major and appointment as aide-de-camp to Brig. Gen. William Alexander.
He was at the general’s side about 20 miles south of Philadelphia on the Brandywine River when the British army advanced toward the capital after landing on the northern shore of Chesapeake Bay. As Redcoats closed in from three directions, American soldiers fled in panic. French Maj. Gen. Marquis de Lafayette galloped up to block the retreat, jumping from his horse and encouraging the troops to stand and fight. Inspired by Lafayette’s courage, the Americans halted their retreat, rallied about him, and took the enemy’s charge.
Monroe, meanwhile, positioned his brigade on a rise behind Lafayette to provide covering fire, but the sheer numbers of British troops overwhelmed them all. Lafayette ordered his men to fall back, while Monroe’s brigade provided covering fire. Lafayette fell wounded — almost at Monroe’s feet — but he got up and led his men to safety. Monroe helped his friend to nearby Birmingham Church, where he spent the night tending the young Frenchman’s wounds and forming a friendship that would last all their lives.
Monroe suffered through the bitter winter at Valley Forge, then into his last battle of the Revolution at Monmouth Courthouse in New Jersey, where he captured three enemy soldiers. Before he could find a new command, the Battle at Yorktown ended the war, and Monroe returned to Williamsburg to finish his college education and study law under Thomas Jefferson. After gaining admission to the bar, he won election to the state legislature, then the Continental Congress in New York, where he met and married his beautiful wife Elizabeth. In 1786, he settled in Fredericksburg, Va., and opened a law office.
After practicing law for two years, he began a life of uninterrupted service to his nation, f irst in Virginia’s 1788 constitutional ratification convention, then in the U.S. Senate.In 1794, President Washington appointed Monroe minister to France, where he won the release of Madame de Lafayette and Thomas Paine from French prisons. In 1799, he won election to the first of four terms as Virginia governor, interrupted temporarily in 1803 when President Thomas Jefferson sent him back to France to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans. Monroe returned having purchased the entire Louisiana territory, doubling the nation’s size.
President James Madison interrupted Monroe’s fourth term as Virginia governor by appointing him secretary of state — a post that unexpectedly sent him back into battle. Named acting secretary of war as British troops invaded the Washington area during the War of 1812, Monroe mounted his horse and led an armed scouting party to pinpoint British troop positions. After escorting President Madison to safety, Monroe led militiamen into Baltimore to help thwart the British attack on Fort McHenry that inspired Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Monroe went on to win election as president and, four years later, re-election to a second term without opposition — the only president other than George Washington to do so. Americans called his presidency an Era of Good Feelings. After encouraging the construction of a national network of roads and canals, he opened government lands in the west and enabled tens of thousands of Americans to carve out farms, and harvest furs and pelts, timber, and ore. Never before in history had a sovereign state transferred ownership of so much land, wealth, and political power to so many people not of noble rank.
A hero as a young officer in the war for national independence, President James Monroe won economic independence for millions of Americans. The last of America’s Founding Fathers, Monroe died in 1831 at the age of 73 — on Independence Day, July 4.
• Unger is the author of “The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness” (Da Capo Press). Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.