In William Bodkin’s fifth post on the presidents of the USA, he reveals a fascinating tale on the Forgotten Founder, James Monroe (in office from 1817 to 1825). And the real reason why he was not unanimously re-elected to the presidency.

William's previous pieces have been on George Washington (link here), John Adams (link here), Thomas Jefferson (link here), and James Madison (link here). 

James Monroe as painted by William James Hubbard in the 1830s.

James Monroe as painted by William James Hubbard in the 1830s.

James Monroe, fifth President of the United States, was the last American Founder to become President and a hero of the Revolutionary War.  At the Battle of Trenton, Monroe, then a Lieutenant, and Captain William Washington, a cousin of George Washington, stormed a Hessian gun battery to prevent what would have been the certain slaughter of advancing American troops.  Captain Washington, Lieutenant Monroe and their men seized the Hessians’ guns as they attempted to reload.  For their efforts, Captain Washington’s hands were badly wounded, and Monroe was struck in the shoulder by a musket ball, which severed an artery.  Monroe’s life was saved by a local patriot doctor who clamped the artery to stop the bleeding.[1]  Monroe’s heroism was such that it is said that in the famous painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, capturing the moment when George Washington led the Continental Army into New Jersey prior to the Battle of Trenton, James Monroe stands next to George Washington, holding the American flag.[2]

Following the revolution, Monroe embarked on a long career in service of the new nation.  He studied law with Thomas Jefferson, and then served as a United States Senator from Virginia, Ambassador to France, Governor of Virginia, Ambassador to England, Secretary of State and Secretary of War during James Madison’s administration, and was then twice elected President.

Despite this heroic and distinguished career, Monroe seems overlooked as a Founder, eclipsed by the long shadows of Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison, his presidential predecessors who created the new nation with their considerable intellects and political skills.  Perhaps this is because Monroe was not considered their equal.  William Plumer, a US Senator from New Hampshire, who went on to serve as Governor of that state, described Monroe as “honest”, but “a man of plain common sense, practical, but not scientific.”[3]

James Monroe is generally remembered for two things: the Monroe Doctrine, which sought to block Europe from further colonizing the Americas; and the fact that he was almost unanimously elected to his second term.  History tells us that Monroe was denied a unanimous second term for the noblest of reasons.  One defiant elector in the Electoral College voted for John Quincy Adams because he believed that George Washington should be the only unanimously elected President of the United States.[4]

Except that is not true, and the real reason is a lot more interesting.  The truth involves William Plumer, who did not think much of Monroe, Daniel Tompkins, a Vice-President frequently too drunk to preside over the Senate, and the greatest orator in American history, Daniel Webster.


Unpacking the real story

Following the War of 1812, post American Revolution political tensions eased into the “Era of Good Feelings.”  The Federalist Party had collapsed following the revelation that during the war, they were plotting to secede from the union,[5] essentially leaving no other national party to challenge the Democratic-Republicans of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.  The country, though, was not united behind Monroe, he just had no organized opposition.  Monroe faced plenty of criticism, including from Thomas Jefferson, who opposed his former law student’s extravagant deficit spending and expansion of the federal government.[6]  But with the Federalist Party unable to put up a national candidate for president, there was no way to protest Monroe’s policies.  At least, not until a plan was hatched by Daniel Webster to protest Monroe by voting against the re-election of Daniel Tompkins to the Vice-Presidency.

Tompkins was widely regarded as a failed Vice-President.  A former Governor of New York, Tompkins was far more interested in his state, even running again for Governor in 1820, just prior to being re-elected Vice-President.  Tompkins was also a chronic alcoholic.[7]  His alcoholism, though, was allegedly tied to a valiant cause.  As New York’s Governor, Tompkins personally financed the participation of the state’s militias in the War of 1812 when the New York State Legislature voted against providing the funding.  After the war, however, the state refused to reimburse him, causing him financial ruin.[8]

Despite the noble roots of Tompkins’ problems, Webster resolved to vote against him.  Webster settled on a plan to gather votes for John Quincy Adams, the son of John Adams and then James Monroe’s Secretary of State.  This plan was complicated, however, by the fact that Webster was a presidential elector from the state of Massachusetts.  The head of that Electoral College delegation was John Adams.  Webster, perhaps wisely, chose not to broach the subject with the former president.  Instead, Webster sent an emissary to William Plumer, then mostly retired from political life, but who was serving as the head of New Hampshire’s Electoral College delegation, to enlist him in the plan.[9]


The vote against

Plumer embraced the idea.  He sent a letter to his son, William Plumer, Jr., New Hampshire’s Congressman, asking him to approach John Quincy Adams with the idea.  When the younger Plumer did, however, Adams was appalled.  Adams noted that any vote for him, in any capacity, would be “peculiarly embarrassing”, especially if it came from Massachusetts.  Adams made clear to Plumer he wished Monroe and Tompkins be re-elected unanimously, and that, in any event, there should not be a single vote given to him.  Adams told Plumer that a vote for him would damage his prospects for winning the presidency in 1824.[10]

Plumer sent word to his father immediately, but it did not reach the elder Plumer before he left for Concord, New Hampshire, to cast his electoral vote.  It is not clear where Plumer resolved to vote for John Quincy Adams not for Vice-President, but for President, and to do so as a protest against Monroe himself.[11]  But he did.  In a speech to his fellow electors, the elder Plumer announced his intention to vote for John Quincy Adams for president.  In his remarks, Plumer stated that Monroe had conducted himself improperly as president, echoing Jefferson’s complaints concerning the vast increase of the public debt during the Monroe administration.[12]

How does George Washington fit into this?  It is really not known.  Newspaper accounts of the time accurately recorded Plumer’s dissent.[13]  The first references to Plumer’s vote preserving Washington’s status emerged in the 1870s, when historians assessing the Founding Era noted the parallels between its beginnings, with the unanimous acclamation of George Washington as the indispensable man to the Republic, and its end, with its unanimous acceptance of James Monroe as the man no one opposed.  The theory was first floated around then and it took on a life of its own.[14]  In the absence of clear evidence of how this American legend began, perhaps it was just one of history’s quirks that James Monroe, who nearly sacrificed his life in service to George Washington’s army, was destined to sacrifice part of his historic reputation in service of creating the myth of George Washington, Father of the United States.


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[1] For the full story, see David Hackett Fisher’s “Washington’s Crossing” (Pivotal Moments in American History), Oxford University Press (2004).


[3] William Plumer, Memorandum of Proceedings in the United State Senate, March 16, 1806.

[4] See, Boller, Paul F., Jr. Presidential Campaigns from George Washington to George W. Bush, Oxford University Press (2004), p. 31-32.

[5] See,

[6] Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, December 26, 1820.

[7] Letter of William Plumer, Jr. to William Plumer, his father, on February 1, 1822, describing Tompkins as
“so grossly intemperate as to be totally unfit for business.”


[9] Turner, Lynn W. “The Electoral Vote Against Monroe in 1820—An American Legend”  The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 42(2), (1955), pp. 250-273

[10] Turner, p. 257

[11] Turner, p. 258

[12] Turner, p. 259

[13] Turner, p. 261.

[14] Turner p. 269-270.

In this introduction to history that follows a piece on the American Revolution, Aidan Curran explores the reasons for the War of 1812. And he finds that there are three principal reasons for the war that broke out between Britain and the US.


Never heard of the War of 1812? Well, you are not alone. This war is often called the “Forgotten War,” as it is overshadowed by other conflicts in American history such as the American Revolution and the American Civil War. However, this is a significant event in American history as it was the first time that the United States declared war on another country. And guess who they declared war on? Yes, you guessed it – Britain. Even after the war of independence, it seems the British still wanted to stick their noses into American affairs, by impeding trade and taking men off American ships whom they believed were British.

This article is going to examine the three main causes of this “Second War of Independence,” - trade, impressment (kidnapping), and expansion.

US Frigate Constitution defeats the British Frigate Java in December 1812.

US Frigate Constitution defeats the British Frigate Java in December 1812.

1. Trade      

In 1803, Britain was locked in a conflict with Napoleon’s France. In order to win this war, Britain had to cut off all supplies to France. This meant interfering with American shipping, and as you can imagine, the Americans were not too happy about this. According to international law, neutral countries could trade with whoever they wished, as long as they traded non-military goods.  Americans felt that their rights as a free nation were being violated, and introduced a number of restrictive trade measures, such as embargoes, in order to preserve the economic health of the United States. This could be called a cold war, as these trade restrictions were made in an effort to avoid full on, bloody war. James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, once exclaimed “What a noble stroke would be an embargo! It would probably do as much good as harm at home, and would force peace on the rest of the world, and perhaps liberty along with it.”

So in December 1807, Congress passed the Embargo, which banned all American ships sailing to foreign ports. In 1808, American exports plummeted by 80%. However, this Embargo Act had little effect on Britain. In all honesty, she couldn’t care less; the British were far more interested and consumed in their battle with the French. In fact, the only people who suffered were the Americans, as the economies of port cities suffered. Exports fell from $108 million in 1807 to $22 million in 1808, and imports fell from $138 million to less than $57 million. To say the Embargo Act backfired would be an understatement - it was an absolute disaster! The Non-Intercourse Act was introduced instead, which banned trade only with Britain and France, who were still locked in combat. To win this war, Britain saw it as necessary to “kidnap” sailors from American ships in order to increase manpower, which brings us on to the next cause of the War of 1812.


2. Impressment

If there was one thing in particulr that annoyed the Americans, it was impressment. This was when the British would board American ships, and take sailors they believed to be British citizens. Granted, many were, but many had also become naturalised Americans. Between 1793 and 1812, the British impressed more than 15,000 US sailors in an effort to boost fleet numbers in their war with France.

The process of impressment started back in 1664, as the Royal Navy organised gangs to roam the countryside, forcing British subjects to join. By the 18th century, these gangs were boarding neutral merchant ships to kidnap men to serve in the navy.

Americans regarded the practice of impressment as a violation of a person’s liberty, as stated in the Declaration of Independence. So when the British started boarding American ships and taking men, this was obviously going to cause considerable tensions.

Why were so many British men working on American ships? Simply put, American ships offered better pay and working conditions. It is estimated that 35 to 40 per cent of US naval crews were made up of British seamen in the nineteenth century, often deserters of the Royal Navy. Many of these had become naturalised Americans, but in British eyes, no subject could ever renounce their citizenship. The Americans conceded the right of the British to impress their own subjects from American ships. However, when legally naturalised Americans were taken, this was a cause of huge irritation. And when US-born people were impressed, this caused even greater tension. Between 1803 and 1812, at least 5,000 sailors were snatched from American ships and forced to serve in the Royal Navy, and it is estimated that three out of every four were Americans.

The most controversial case of impressment occurred in Virginia on June 22, 1807. A British warship called the HMS Leopard opened fire on an American ship called the USS Chesapeake. The British boarded the ship, looking for deserters from the Royal Navy. They found and impressed four men, but only one was an actual British citizen. The incident outraged the American public, with President Thomas Jefferson remarking: “Never since the Battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation as at present, and even that did not produce such unanimity.” War was looming ever closer…


3. Expansion

American expansionism can also be cited as a cause of the War of 1812, as the country tried to extend its influence to the north-west, in places such as Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan. As the Americans tried to expand, they faced fierce resistance from Native Americans, who wanted to keep their land from the colonists, reform their habits, and establish a confederacy on American soil.

But what has this got to do with the British? Well, the British began to give support to the Native Americans by providing arms and supplies. They saw the Native American Nations as being valuable allies, while also hoping that a Native American buffer state would be formed, which would halt American growth and expansion, and ensure that Canada remained a British possession. In the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, the defeated Native Americans left behind rifles of British manufacture on the battlefield. This confirmed to the Americans that the British were up to no good, and along with trade interference and impressment, it seemed that the only option was to go to war, and that’s exactly what they did.  On June 1, 1812, President James Maddison gave a speech to the US Congress, in which he described American grievances against the British. The war officially began on June 18, as President Maddison signed the measure into law. This was the first time America had ever declared war on another country.


To sum it all up

The fundamental cause of the War of 1812 between America and Britain is pretty straightforward – both sides could not agree on what was theirs. The British believed that no person could renounce their citizenship, while Americans recognised legally naturalised citizens. This led to a disagreement over impressment, and who exactly was British and American. Sometimes, the British did not even care, and took whoever they wanted off ships, including Americans. This angered the Americans, as their freedom was being violated. On trade, Americans believed that as a neutral country, they should be able to exchange goods with whoever they wanted. Again, there was dispute over this, as the British disagreed. Finally, greed was also a major cause of war, as America wanted to expand its territory, but Britain did not want this, in fear of losing Canada.

America and Britain were like two children in a sweet shop, stealing each other’s sweets and arguing over which sweets were theirs, while also looking to expand their number of sweets! If only they had learned to get along…


You can find out more from Aidan Curran on his site here or his Twitter feed here.


Finally, read more about an adventure from the War of 1812 in issue 4 of History is Now magazine here.


  • Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty!
  • John Garraty, Short History of the American Nation
  • Maldwyn Jones, The Limits of Liberty
  • Bradford Perkins.  Embargo: Alternative to War 
  • John P. Foley, The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia.
  • Samuel Eliot Morison, A Concise History of the American Republic

The story of how a JFK-backed, CIA-led operation to topple Cuban Communist leader Fidel Castro unfolded. And how a decision by JFK changed everything.

The new issue of History is Now magazine is out now. And the cover story is a daring tale of intrigue in a country that had just been rocked by a revolution.

To find out more, take up a free trial of the magazine for up to 2 months and download your free copy of our interactive digital magazine for the iPad and iPhone today!

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And here is what our editor has to say about the new issue…

Issue four of History is Now magazine has arrived. Since we left you in January, we have continued to refine the layout of the magazine, as well as writing some great history articles!

This month we have two pieces on how Cuba and America dramatically fell out following the Cuban Revolution. Firstly, we look at the fascinating real story of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. This invasion took place in 1961 and sought to topple Cuban Communist dictator Fidel Castro from power. But with US President John F. Kennedy wavering in his support for the Cuban dissidents, this task became much harder. Our second article considers Castro’s rise to power and argues that Castro was not a committed Communist when he visited Eisenhower’s America in 1959. Even so, the US would go on to try and assassinate Castro a number of times. These articles are complemented by our podcast on the Cuban Missile Crisis, an event that very nearly destroyed our world.

Then there is the story of David Porter and the USS Essex during the War of 1812, a tale of adventure, some success against the British, and much more. An equally intriguing article looks at the life of Sidney Reilly. Reilly was a Russian-born British spy who successfully changed the course of oil exploration in the Middle East in the early 20th century, and more significantly, almost changed the course of Russian and world history. Following, we finish our story of the Imjin War and look at Yi Sun-shin’s epic victories when faced against a Japanese fleet of epic proportions. This is a true story of success and tragedy – like many of the most captivating events in history are. Our final article takes a light-hearted look at food in the 19th century. What food did the average person normally eat? How did the upper-class dine? And what constituted good manners for a lady? You’re about to find out!

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George Levrier-Jones

In this article, Cindy Vallar tells the tale of the legendary early 19th century pirate, Jean Laffite, a man who played a major role in fighting for America against Britain.


Jean Laffite first appeared in New Orleans in 1803, but where was he born?

Marseilles, Bordeaux, St. Domingue? No one knows, because he told different stories to different people. He was the son of aristocrats guillotined during the French Revolution. He fled the slave revolts on the island of Haiti. Yet his instinctive familiarity with the marshes and bayous from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico and his ability to converse in French, Spanish, English, or Italian suggest that he grew up in the region where he plied his trade.

A depiction of Jean Laffite

A depiction of Jean Laffite

In 1803 New Orleans became part of the United States, but it was settled by the French, sold to the Spanish, and then returned to the French before Napoleon sold the territory to Thomas Jefferson. In spite of these changes, the city retained its French customs and language. Americans, including the new governor – William C. C. Claiborne – were not welcomed, partly because they considered the citizens of New Orleans to be lazy and lawless. They were aghast at the Creoles’ toleration of smuggling, which hindered merchant trade. Things came to a head between Claiborne and Laffite in 1813 when the governor issued a $500 reward for the privateer’s arrest. Within a week of the posting of those notices, new wanted posters appeared, offering $1,000 to anyone who delivered Governor Claiborne to Barataria. They were signed, Jean Laffite.

Barataria lies on the Gulf of Mexico, about 100 miles south of New Orleans. It was home to buccaneers and fishermen, but Jean Laffite organized them into a company of privateers and smugglers. He built a house, cottages, warehouses, barracoons (stockades that held slaves awaiting auction), a cafe, gambling den, and brothel. His men numbered one thousand, came from many countries, and included navigators, gunners, carpenters, cooks, sail makers, and riggers. He devised laws to protect the men and their women from lawless rampages. Retribution was swift: cast adrift for molesting a woman, hanged for murdering a Baratarian. He prized the American Constitution, believing in its freedoms. He prohibited his men from attacking American ships, naming death the penalty for violation of this rule. His ships sailed under letters of marque from Cartagena, a republic of Colombia fighting for its independence from Spain. (A letter of marque allowed privateers to legally plunder ships of the country at war with the country who issued the letter of marque. Pirates attacked any ship without this legal document.) They plundered cargoes of Spanish and English ships for slaves, silks, spices, jewels, furniture, household goods, art, food, and medicines.


Laffite and war with Britain

Two years after the United States declared war on Britain in 1812, a boat was lowered from HMS Sophia and sailed into Barataria under a white flag. Aboard were two British officers, Captain Lockyer and Captain McWilliams. They sought Laffite’s help in infiltrating the bayous and capturing New Orleans. They offered him land, gold, and a commission in the Royal Navy. Laffite told them he would give them his answer in two weeks, but once the officers returned to their ship, he forwarded the letters to Governor Claiborne. The governor believed in the authenticity of the letters and sought to postpone a planned naval assault on the smuggling enclave, but the majority of his council voted to carry out the attack as planned. While Jean waited for the governor’s response, more ships appeared off Barataria. Since they flew the American flag, the Bartarians greeted them with enthusiasm, but the Americans destroyed Laffite’s fleet and stronghold, then captured fifty of the smugglers, including Dominique Youx.

In spite of this, Laffite sought out Andrew Jackson, the Tennessee soldier who came to protect New Orleans. Although initially against any offer from the “hellish banditti,” Jackson reassessed his decision after Laffite offered him two things he desperately needed: 7,500 flints with powder and 1,000 fighting men. Although the Battle of New Orleans was fought after the treaty to end the war was signed (but not ratified), there was little doubt the British would have captured New Orleans had Laffite and his men not fought under Jackson. The two batteries manned by Baratarians cut large swathes in the enemy rank. British casualties were enormous, but Jackson lost only thirteen men. President Madison pardoned Laffite and his men for their bravery.

For the next two years, Laffite tried through legal means to regain his property and ships confiscated when the Americans attacked Barataria, but he was forced to purchase them at the auction block. New Orleanians became less accepting of smugglers plying their trade. They wondered why a hero would violate the law. Jean felt betrayed and, in 1817, he sailed from New Orleans and established a new colony on Galveston Island. The colony prospered, but Laffite failed to prevent the influx of fugitives who defied his laws. In 1821 the American Navy delivered an ultimatum: leave or be blown to bits. Under cover of darkness, Laffite slipped away after setting fire to his stronghold.

Therein lies the final mystery of Jean Laffite. What happened to him? Did he die of fever in the Yucatan? Was he killed fighting pirates while at sea? Did he retire and raise a family, then die a quiet death in Illinois? No one knows. In death Jean Laffite continued to be what he’d been all his life – a legendary enigma.


By Cindy Vallar

This article is provided by Cindy from Pirates and Privateers. Click here to see more great pirate-related articles from Cindy.


Now, why not take a look at a former image of the week from New Orleans? Click here.