James Monroe’s influence with the Founders is often overlooked, likely due to his position as the last of the so-called Virginia dynasty. He was a veteran of the Revolutionary War, during which he was wounded in the shoulder at the Battle of Trenton. He was a delegate to the Continental Congress from Virginia, studied at William and Mary and learned law under the tutelage of Thomas Jefferson. He opposed the Constitution when it was up for ratification, believing it to give too much power to the federal government, and later stretched its defined power by negotiating the Louisiana Purchase under Jefferson.
Although Monroe was raised in the Church of England and attended the services of that faith (as was required by Virginia law of the day) he spoke and wrote little regarding his religious beliefs. It has been said that less is known of Monroe’s religious beliefs than any other president. What is known is that Monroe was initiated into Freemasonry at Williamsburg Lodge #6 in November of 1775.
During the Revolutionary War Monroe served closely with Washington and Lafayette, and at Trenton was wounded so severely in the shoulder that he likely would have bled to death had not the cold helped slow the bleeding. He was cited for his bravery by Washington. That he was closely associated with these two ardent Masons as a young man is interesting, since Monroe left few materials which describe his own thoughts regarding Masonry.
Monroe’s few comments on matters religious indicate that he espoused a belief in deism – he once referred to the “Divine Author” in a speech and the pronounced absence of any references to Christianity in his writings – including in his autobiography – support this conclusion. So does his membership in Freemasonry, which in Williamsburg provided the fraternal club atmosphere which allowed members to discuss their opposition to the policies of the British Parliament in safety.
Masonry often refers to the “Grand Architect” when referring to God, a term not far removed from Monroe’s “Divine Author.” Papers from Monroe’s Lodge and many of his personal papers have vanished over the years, so an accurate appraisal of James Monroe’s commitment to and participation in Masonic activities is difficult. As President he was made an honorary member of Washington Naval Lodge #4. Beyond that the level of influence of Masonry and religion on the fifth president is open to speculation.