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RG 30/22 - James Monroe (1821-1898)

James MonroeJames Monroe (1821-1898, A.B. 1846, B.D. 1849, A.M. 1850) was born of Quaker parents on July 18, 1821, in Plainfield, Connecticut. He was well-educated in both public and private schools, and began teaching in the public schools at the age of fourteen. The humanitarian values of his parents, who advocated abolition and the importance of non-violence, prompted him to support the cause of temperance and the antislavery movement.

In 1841 he attended a meeting of the Connecticut State Anti-Slavery Society. The meeting, which convinced him to postpone his plans for college, led him to lecture for the American Anti-Slavery Society. Over the next two-and-one-half years he delivered several hundred addresses on the lecture circuit. His antislavery efforts provided him frequent contact with the most prominent eastern abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), Wendell Phillips (1811-1884), Charles Burleigh (1810-1873), Alvan Stewart (1790-1849), William Goodell (1792-1878) and Frederick Douglass (1817?-1895). In fact, Douglass, in his autobiography, recalled that Monroe was one of the few white abolitionists who worked against Northern racism.

Burdened with poor health, Monroe resolved to leave the lecture circuit and attend college. Initially he planned to attend Yale. Antislavery friends intervened, however, and urged him to consider Oberlin College because of its spreading reputation for opposition to slavery. In Massachusetts he met Amasa Walker (1799-1875), professor of Political Economy at Oberlin College, who resided in nearby Brookfield. In encouraging him to attend Oberlin, Walker suggested that Monroe consult Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875) who happened to be visiting in nearby Boston. Finney assured Monroe that Oberlin would provide the proper grounding in the classics and language that he sought.

In the spring of 1844 Monroe arrived at Oberlin and gained standing as a member of the junior class. He served as both an assistant teacher and a tutor, between 1845-48. Monroe earned the A.B. in 1846 and his theology degree in 1849. At the 1846 Commencement Monroe delivered an address entitled, “Moral Heroism.” His speech, a defense of abolitionists, prompted the Cleveland Herald to write that the young graduate was destined to “leave the impress of his own mind and genius upon the age.”

Following his graduation from the theological department in 1849 he held a pastorate at a Congregational church in Sandusky, Ohio. After six months in Sandusky he was offered the position of professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres at Oberlin which he quickly accepted.

At Oberlin Monroe was engaged in fund-raising for the College, and succeeded in raising nearly one third of the $100,000 endowment in 1851. During this early period at Oberlin his political views continued to evolve and develop. He made an important break with his Garrisonian past and became an advocate of the Liberty party. Gradually he embraced the Free-Soil ideology, accepting the more moderate goal of containment of slavery rather than outright abolition. He endorsed the Free-Soil ticket in 1852 before joining the ranks of the newly created Republican party.

As Monroe’s political thinking evolved so did his interest in a more active role in politics. After joining the Free-Soil party, he was approached in 1851 and 1853 to run on the third-party ticket for the state legislature. He declined both times, not yet convinced of the wisdom of an active political role. In 1855, as a Republican, his thinking had changed such that he accepted the new party’s nomination for a seat in the state legislature. Before accepting the Republican nomination Monroe listened to a strong appeal from his future father-in-law Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875) who urged him not to run for fear of compromising his high moral standards.

Despite Finney’s misgivings, Monroe accepted the nomination and won easily, receiving close to 90 percent of the popular vote. He also retained his professorship since the legislature met only briefly at the start of each year when classes were not in session. In 1859 he was elected to the Ohio Senate, and served as president pro-tempore of that body from 1861 to 1862.

During his seven years in the state legislature Monroe developed an impressive record of reform legislation. In 1856 he introduced a bill to strengthen habeas corpus protection for escaped slaves. He helped secure legislation to protect and expand the common school system and was considered one of the leading authorities on educational issues. Monroe also proposed extending suffrage to black males, but was convinced by fellow Republicans not to force a vote on the proposal. His advocacy of black suffrage, however, raised the ire of women suffragists in Oberlin who were disgusted that he was willing to strike “white” and not “male” from qualifications to vote.

Events in the 1850s prompted Monroe to take a more active role in the abolition of slavery. Although he did not take part in the infamous Oberlin Wellington Rescue of 1858, Monroe led the subscription drive for a “rescue fund” and succeeded in raising over $200 while serving as the fund’s treasurer. When the martyred prisoners were returned to Oberlin in 1859 Monroe delivered the keynote address at a rally welcoming the returning heroes.

In December 1859 Monroe journeyed to Virginia in an effort to recover the body of John Copeland, the black Oberlin resident who was executed for his part in John Brown’s failed raid on Harper’s Ferry. Monroe reluctantly agreed to make the dangerous trip after Copeland’s father was prevented from doing so since Virginia law forbade the admission of free blacks. Monroe received a hostile reaction in Virginia and was forced to return to Oberlin without the body which was never recovered.

As the Civil War erupted and emancipation became more probable, Monroe appeared ready for a change in career. Frustrated by his apparent lack of influence in Columbus, despite his reelection in 1861, Monroe was eager to serve in Congress or the Lincoln administration. During the 1860 presidential campaign, Monroe campaigned hard for Lincoln, delivering more than thirty speeches. His effort was rewarded with a huge victory in Oberlin and a Republican majority in Ohio.

The sudden death of Monroe’s wife Elizabeth Maxwell (1825-1862, Lit. 1846) on February 20, 1862 cast him into a state of depression. Monroe sought a change of scenery and hoped that he could provide more than his $600 salary could do for his four children (Emma Elizabeth, 1848-1939, Lit. 1869, Mary Katherine, 1854-1917, L.B. 1874, Charles Edwin, 1857-1931, A.B. 1877 and William Maxwell, 1858-1932). Monroe learned of the opening in the U.S. consulship in Rio de Janeiro from his friend Richard C. Parsons (b. 1826) of Cleveland who was resigning from the post. Monroe prevailed upon his friendship with Salmon P. Chase (1808-1873) to obtain the consulship. Chase lobbied Secretary of State William Seward (1801-1872) and secured the post for Monroe. Monroe resigned his professorship and his legislative seat and prepared for his new duties.

On December 19, 1862 Monroe bade his children farewell and left for Baltimore where he booked passage on the barque “Crickett” for Rio de Janeiro. He arrived in Rio de Janeiro on February 28, 1863 and quickly established himself in the consulship. In the midst of the American Civil War, his consular responsibilities included providing for the crews of captured ships which were put ashore in Brazil. Confederate cruisers, most notably the Alabama prowled the South Atlantic, preying on shipping. Monroe gathered numerous facts which aided the Department of State in pressing claims for damage in the final adjustment with Great Britain.

At the conclusion of the Civil War Monroe took a leave of absence and returned to Oberlin to be reunited with his children. While on leave he was approached by James Harris Fairchild (1817-1902) and offered the presidency of Oberlin College. Charles Grandison Finney was preparing to step down as Oberlin’s second president and had identified Monroe as a worthy successor. Monroe declined the offer which was ultimately accepted by Fairchild. On November 30, 1865 Monroe married Julia Finney (1837-1930) the daughter of President Finney. On January 15, 1866, after an eventful leave of absence, Monroe set sail for Rio de Janeiro, this time with his new wife and family.

During this second period in Rio de Janeiro Monroe was preoccupied with providing for destitute American emigres, many of whom left the South in search of new opportunities. Although many of the emigres no longer had claims on American citizenship, Monroe nonetheless provided for them and booked return passage on naval vessels. He resigned his post and set sail for New York on September 25, 1869, having served for some months as Charge d’Affaires ad interim.

Upon returning to Oberlin he resumed his political career. In October 1870 he was elected as representative from the 19th Ohio district (reconfigured as the 17th district during his final term) to the U.S. House of Representatives. Monroe was an able if not spectacular Congressman, serving ten years from March 4, 1871 to March 4, 1881 when he declined renomination. During this ten-year period he served on the Committee on Banking and Currency, Committee on Foreign Affairs, Committee on Appropriations, and was chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor. He was a solid backer of Republican policies and a defender of human rights and national economic stability.

His decision not to seek renomination in 1880 was tempered by his hopes of gaining another political post. Monroe had numerous well placed friends in the Republican party, including his long-time friend President James A. Garfield. Garfield had intimated that a post, probably in the diplomatic service, would be forthcoming. When Garfield was felled by an assassin’s bullet on July 2, 1881, Monroe’s appointment prospects faded. An offer of the presidency at Ohio State University likewise failed to materialize.

Monroe’s brother-in-law, Jacob Dolson Cox (1828-1900, A.B. 1851, A.M. 1854), began to promote a new teaching position. Lacking sufficient funds with which to endow a new professorship, Monroe’s friends contributed $30,000 in pledges and endowed a new chair in Political Science and International Law to be held by Monroe. In the fall of 1883 Monroe resumed his teaching career, teaching courses in political economy and modern history.

Monroe continued to teach until the age of 75, retiring in 1896, exactly 50 years after he had graduated. In retirement he was much in demand performing community service and delivering speeches. In 1897 he published a volume of his speeches and addresses in the book Oberlin Thursday Lectures: Addresses and Essays. He also managed to find time to continue leading a large adult Bible class in the First Congregational Church.

On July 7, 1898 James Monroe died at his home in Oberlin. The city mourned the loss of one of its most famous citizens by closing businesses and lowering flags to half mast.

Sources Consulted

Bigglestone, William E., Oberlin: From War To Jubilee, 1866-1883 (Oberlin: Grady Publishing Co., 1983).

Blue, Frederick J., “Oberlin’s James Monroe: Forgotten Abolitionist,” Civil War History, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, 1989.

Brandt, Nat, The Town That Started the Civil War (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1990).

Cheek, William and Aimee Lee Cheek, John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829-65 (Chicago: University ofIllinois Press, 1989).

Cox, Jacob D., Memorial of the Honorable James Monroe (Oberlin: Oberlin College, 1898).

Fairchild, James H., “Retirement of Professor Monroe,” Oberlin Review Vol. XXIII, No. 34, June 24, 1896.

Fletcher, Robert S., A History of Oberlin College (2 vols) (Oberlin: Oberlin College, 1943).

Monroe, James, Oberlin Thursday Lectures: Addresses and Essays (Oberlin: Edward J. Goodrich, 1897).

Phillips, Wilbur H., Oberlin Colony: the Story of a Century (Oberlin: Oberlin Printing Co., 1933).

Schmiel, Eugene, “The Congressional Career of James Monroe of Ohio,” (unpublished essay, Ohio State University, 1967).

Oberlin News, July 8, 1898.

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