President James Monroe Inspected Michigan Territory
(There is an ongoing historical debate over whether President James Monroe actually visited Frenchtown (Monroe) during his tour of Michigan Territory in August 1817. Keep reading over the months for more on this topic!)
President James Monroe and his entourage traveled up and down the Detroit River and on Ecorse Creek during his inspection tour of Michigan Territory in August 1817. He was the first United States President to visit Michigan Territory and Downriver.In 1817, many Easterners had mixed views of Michigan Territory. Some focused on and took advantage of its frontier, land, mineral, and maritime opportunities while others considered it an unexplored swamp. They included present day Downriver as part of the territory-wide swamp, considering the lack of many good roads to move soldiers and goods through the marshes and woods of Downriver good reason for their “swampy” label.
President James Monroe Embarked on a Good Will Tour
Five short years before President Monroe’s visit, Detroit and the Great Lakes had been one of the major battlefields in the War of 1812 and the scene of two crushing defeats. The British captured the fort on Mackinac Island on July 17, 1812, and General William Hull surrendered the garrison at Detroit to the British on August 16, 1812. Although the Americans recaptured Detroit in September 1813, the British occupied the Mackinac Island through the rest of the War, giving them strategic advantage enough to control Michigan Territory. America finally regained Detroit and Mackinac under the terms of the Treaty of Ghent in 1814.
Three years after America signed the Treaty of Ghent, and before he moved into the White House which was still being repaired after the British torched it during the War of 1812, newly elected President James Monroe began the first of three national tours that he would take during his two administrations. The President gave official reasons for his tour, a custom that America’s first President George Washington had started. His reasons included inspecting defense fortifications and harbors, reviewing troops, and confirming that the Rush-Bagot Pact with Britain to limit naval arms on the Great Lakes had been implemented.
The President’s unspoken but just as powerful agenda involved reaching out to Americans across the country and drawing them in with his warm, engaging personality. He wanted to make sure that the optimistic mood of the country endured and Americans continued to build a strong country.
President Monroe did not take his cabinet members with him on his tour. Instead, he chose General Joseph G. Swift, Chief Engineer of the Army, to accompany him as his chief adviser. General Swift, the first graduate of West Point, had gained a sterling reputation by protecting New York during the War of 1812, and that reputation and his extensive social connections made him a valuable companion.
President Monroe’s Northeast and Northwest Itinerary
On June 1, 1817, President James Monroe began his three month Grand Tour of the Northeast and the Northwest. He gave his first address at Baltimore, Maryland, on June 2, 1817, and in his message he said that he intended “to secure defense against external foes, and to seek the promotion of internal harmony.”
President Monroe visited the main cities along the Atlantic Seaboard as far as Portland, Maine, and from there he traveled through New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York. In Buffalo, New York, he boarded and early steamboat and voyaged down Lake Erie and the Detroit River to Detroit, the westernmost point of his trip.
The President spent five days in Detroit and Detroiters held parties, receptions, and balls in his honor. The President also visited Monroe, Michigan, which its citizens had recently named for him. The excitement and good feelings of his visit and the accounts that dignitaries and observers wrote about his visit helped erase the negative “interminable swamp” image that Easterners held of Michigan.
After his Michigan visit President Monroe turned southeast and traveled back to Washington D.C. by way of Zanesville, Ohio, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Fredericktown, Maryland. His trip took fifteen weeks and allowed him to meet more people than any other President of his time. He had such a positive impact on Americans that the Boston Columbian Centinel dubbed the eight years of his presidency “the Era of Good Feelings.”
President James Monroe Sailed Downriver and Inspected the Fort at Detroit
On Saturday, August 9, 1817, a committee of citizens from Buffalo, at the outlet of Lake Erie, made their way to Black Rock and met President James Monroe and his party and escorted them to Landon’s Tavern. The President returned the warm greetings of the citizens, and dined at the tavern. Then that afternoon he boarded the United States schooner Porcupine, Lieutenant Commander Champlin and Commodore Dexter, and the Porcupine headed for Detroit.
After spending three days crossing Lake Erie, President Monroe and his companions floated past the mouth of the Detroit River. The Detroit Gazette of Tuesday, August 12, 1817, reported that United States President James Monroe and his party had reached the mouth of the Detroit River and transferred from the schooners to barges at the suggestion of the Marshall Major Thomas Rowland and his assistants, Colonel Henry L. Hunt and Colonel Richard Smyth. The barges carried the party consisting of Lewis Cass, the Governor of Michigan Territory; Major General Alexander Macomb; Major General Jacob Jennings Brown; Marshal John T. Mason; Joseph Jones Monroe, private secretary to the President; several officers of the Army and Navy and their assistants, and President James Monroe. The barges floated down the Detroit River to the River Ecorse, nine miles below Detroit and then to Spring Wells.
Both Detroit and Michigan Territory sent their best citizens to greet the President of the United States. Solomon Sibley, as the chairman of the welcoming committee, welcomed President Monroe to Michigan Territory. The Detroit Gazette story said that at ten o’clock in the morning, a large number of citizens in carriages, on horseback and on foot were gathered at Spring Wells, three miles below town. The citizens greeted the Presidential party and Major General Alexander Macomb and the other officials escorted everyone to Detroit. President Monroe took a seat in the carriage of Governor Cass and the procession moved on to Detroit where a salute from the fort welcomed him and his fellow travelers and the procession moved on to the governor’s house.
All of the barges and boats in the Detroit River were draped with festive decorations. At eight o’clock that evening, a fireworks presentation welcomed President Monroe and the spectators. Lieutenant J. Howard of the U.S. Ordnance Department produced a highly brilliant and delightful fireworks show.
Speeches and a Sword
The next day Wednesday, August 13, 1817, Detroit city fathers called upon President Monroe and Major Charles Larned read him a speech of welcome. He enjoyed several days of speeches and touring military installations. President Monroe expressed optimism about the future of Michigan Territory and that its future would be built on a foundation of territorial and state sovereignty and strong national government when he said:
“…Your establishment was, of necessity, originally colonial, but on a new principle. A parental hand cherishes you in your infancy; your commencement is founded in rights, not of a personal nature only, but of incipient sovereignty, never to be shaken. The national government promotes your growth, and in so doing, from the peculiar felicity of our system, promotes the growth and strength of the nation. At a period, and on conditions just and reasonable, you will become a member of the union, with all the rights of the original states. In the interim, the legislative body, composed of the representatives of a free people, your brethren, will always be ready to extend a just and proper remedy to any inconvenience to which you may be exposed…”
On Thursday, August 14, 1817, President Monroe inspected the fort at Detroit which General Hull had surrendered to the British and the United States Army later recaptured. Since he was stationed at Detroit, General Macomb led the Army troops in a grand military review. Then President Monroe mounted on an Arabian horse and General Lewis Cass, governor of Michigan Territory and Major General Jacob Jennings Brown and their assistants passed in review down the line.
Michigan Territory Governor Lewis Cass had served as a brigadier general during the War of 1812 and President James Madison had appointed him Governor of Michigan Territory in October 1813. Cass held the Michigan Governor office until 1831 and he went on to serve as an American ambassador and a United States senator from Michigan. He became nationally famous as a leading spokesman for the Doctrine of Popular Sovereignty, the idea that citizens should choose the slavery status of their state.
New York Governor DeWitt Clinton and the New York Legislature had selected Governor Cass to review the troops and then present General Macomb with a sword commemorating his brilliant defense of the town of Plattsburg during the War of 1812. Governor Cass presented the sword with a resounding speech.
Detroiters and President James Monroe Have a Ball
That evening Detroiters gave President Monroe a presidential ball held at Benjamin Woodworth’s residence at the corner of Randolph and Woodbridge Streets. A skilled carpenter, Woodworth had migrated to Detroit in 1807 with his friend William Hull. He built the first bank in Detroit and the first capital building. He also built his own house and eventually he enlarged it to become the Woodworth Hotel, located at a wharf on the Detroit River. After another expansion in 1818, the Woodworth Hotel became the Steamboat Hotel.
The Woodworths lavishly decorated their premises and they welcomed President Monroe and all of the principal ladies and gentlemen of Detroit and Michigan Territory and officers of the several corps.
President Monroe Left Downriver with a Speech
The Detroit Gazette of Friday, August 22, 1817, stated that President James Monroe had spent five days in Detroit and Detroiters and Michigan Territory citizens were impressed at his genuine friendliness and simplicity of manners. He rode out of the city as far as Lake Sinclair and on Sunday he attended divine services at the Protestant Church.
President Monroe wrote a letter to A. Edwards, Esq., Chairman of the Board of Trustees, City of Detroit to report that he had inspected the garrison, harbor, and all the public works at Detroit. He wrote that he had visited and examined all the forts and military deports and reviewed the troops at all the stations from Washington to Maine and then along the inland frontier to Detroit.
He said that at 249 miles away, he considered the fort and stockade on the island of Michilimackinac too distant to give him enough time to travel there, inspect the fort, and return in time enough to return to Washington D.C. and resume his scheduled duties. He said that time constraints made it necessary to terminate his journey at Detroit, but that he relied on the ability of the commanding officer of the northwestern district to report the condition of the garrison on Mackinaw and take the necessary measures to increase and enlarge it.
On Monday, August 25, 1817, a respectable body of citizens accompanied President Monroe to Spring Wells where he and his party boarded barges and passed through Downriver again to meet the public vessels which awaited him at the mouth of the Detroit River. The remainder of his route took him to Sandusky , Columbus, and Chillicothe, Ohio and then to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.. Governor Cass, Major General Brown, and Major General Macomb accompanied President Monroe from Detroit to Pittsburgh and the Detroit city fathers presented President Monroe with a carriage and two horses for transporting his baggage. From Pittsburgh, the President and his party continued on to Cumberland, Maryland, and finally they returned to Washington D.C. in September 1817.
By the time Michigan Territory became the state of Michigan in 1837, President James Monroe had acquired Florida from Spain, established the Monroe Doctrine, and peacefully solved the problem of armaments on the Great Lakes .President James Monroe made an imprint on history with his diplomatic and administrative successes. Through his efforts to give the new American republic a sense of national identity while encouraging local and regional citizens like those of Detroit and Michigan Territory, he also helped shape Downriver’s destiny.
Brown, Henry. Detroit Entertains a President. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1954.
Cunningham, Noble E. The Presidency of James Monroe. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996.
Preston, Daniel. The Papers of James Monroe: A Documentary History of the Presidential Tours of James Monroe, 1817,1818. Volume 1. Greenwood, 2003.
A Narrative of a Tour of Observation Made During the Summer of 1817, by James Monroe, President of the United States, Through the North-Eastern and North-Western Departments of the Union with a View to the Examination of Their Several Military Defences. Philadelphia: S.A. Mitchell & Ames, 1818: 200-205.