Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the fifth in a series of 44 stories exploring past presidents’ attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.
When James Monroe took office in 1817, the country was experiencing an unprecedented sense of euphoria.
Monroe, the fifth president of the United States and the last of the founding fathers to hold the office, inherited a nation suddenly freed from foreign powers and ready to focus on domestic issues. Elected two years after the War of 1812 ended, Monroe immediately began pushing for the acquisition of Indian lands.
“Monroe took office after the British and French were defeated and serious Indian resistance was removed,” said Dan Preston, editor of The Papers of James Monroe, an editorial project at the University of Mary Washington. “America started looking more internally and there was really this euphoria about progress, this unspoken feeling that they could get on with things.”
Born in Virginia in 1758, Monroe was 18 when he enlisted in the Continental Army and served as an officer during the Revolutionary War. After being severely wounded in combat, he pursued a career in law. A member of the Democratic-Republican Party, Monroe served as ambassador to France and governor of Virginia, then secretary of state during the War of 1812. He was elected as president in 1816.
The American landscape changed drastically during Monroe’s two terms as president, from 1817 to 1825, Preston said. Five states were admitted to the Union, territories were organized, canals filled with water, steamboats churned on rivers and roads cut through western frontiers. Monroe also oversaw 40 treaties with Indian nations—23 of which involved land acquisition—and the formation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Indian policy during Monroe’s presidency was largely dictated by lingering fears among the white settlers about security on the northern and southern borders, Preston said. That fear was most pronounced in the South where the Seminole, allied with the Spanish, continued to wage war on the United States.
During his first months in office, Monroe sent Gen. Andrew Jackson to the South on a successful campaign against the Seminole, which included the recapture of black slaves living among the tribes. Monroe also pushed for the “voluntary” removal of the Cherokee from Georgia, promising them land in Arkansas if they cooperated.
In the north, Monroe contended with the Seneca of western New York, the largest nation within the Iroquois Confederacy. Monroe pushed for the Seneca—who lived on 11 reservations—to consolidate into one, clearing the way for construction of the Erie Canal.
The Seneca successfully resisted, and Chief Red Jacket, wearing a silver peace medal given to him by George Washington, protested. “We had thought that all the promises made by one president were handed down to the next,” he said. “Now the tree of friendship is decaying; its limbs are fast falling off, and you are at fault.”
Chief Red Jacket spoke out against Monroe's plan to consolidate the Seneca reservations.
Although Monroe expressed concern for the Indians, he believed their best chance at survival was “amalgamation,” Preston said. With his “absolute belief in the superiority of the political, social and economic system of the United States,” Monroe saw little value in Native lifestyles.
During his first message to Congress, in December 1817, Monroe recommended that federal Indian policy include provisions for “their improvement in the arts of civilized life,” thus loosening their hold on land.
“The earth was given to mankind to support the greatest number of which it is capable,” Monroe said. “No tribe or people have a right to withhold from the wants of others more than is necessary for their own support and comfort.”
In the following years, treaties poured into Washington and were sent in batches to the Senate, where they were almost always unanimously approved, Francis Paul Prucha wrote in his 1994 book, “American Indian Treaties.”
Some were peace-making treaties or “treaties of friendship,” Preston said. Others called for the cessation of land and relocation of eastern tribes to territories west of the Mississippi River.
“The treaties vary,” Preston said. “We had white Americans on one side, pushing for immediate removal. On the other side, we had tribes. Some were willing to relocate west of the Mississippi while others wanted to stay put. And in the middle, Monroe is resisting forcible action and insisting removal has to be voluntary.”
A solution came in 1819 when Congress approved $10,000 yearly for Indian Education through the Indian Civilization Act. The act, designed to provide “against the further decline and final extinction of the Indian tribes,” granted the president authority to “employ capable persons of good moral character” to teach Indian children.
The act led to the formation of 52 schools during the next 11 years, administered by the federal government or Christian missions. The goal was to civilize the Indians by teaching them “in the mode of agriculture suited to their situation,” as well as reading, writing and arithmetic.
By the end of his first term, facing continued pressure from Georgia to remove the Cherokee, Monroe was less optimistic. During his second inaugural address, in 1821, he admitted that the government had failed in treating tribes as independent nations “without their having any substantial pretensions to that rank.” That distinction has “flattered their pride, retarded their improvement and in many instances paved the way to their destruction,” he said.
When he left office four years later, Monroe had reluctantly embraced forced removal. In a special message to Congress in January 1825, he recommended all Indians east of the Mississippi be relocated to settlements in the west.
“Experience has clearly demonstrated that, in their present state, it is impossible to incorporate them in such masses, in any form whatever, into our system,” he said. “Their degradation and extermination will be inevitable.”
Monroe left office in 1825 and was succeeded by John Quincy Adams. He died in 1831 at the age of 73.