James Monroe was born on April 28, 1758, in his parents' house located in a wooded area of Westmoreland County, Virginia. The marked site is one mile from the unincorporated community known today as Monroe Hall, Virginia. The James Monroe Family Home Site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. His father Spence Monroe (1727–1774) was a moderately prosperous planter who also practiced carpentry. His mother Elizabeth Jones (1730–1772) married Spence Monroe in 1752 and they had five children: Elizabeth, James, Spence, Andrew, and Joseph Jones.
His paternal great-great-grandfather Patrick Andrew Monroe emigrated to America from Scotland in the mid-17th century, and was part of an ancient Scottish clan known as Clan Munro. In 1650 he patented a large tract of land in Washington Parish, Westmoreland County, Virginia. Monroe's mother was the daughter of a wealthy immigrant by the name of James Jones, who immigrated from Wales and had settled in nearby King George County, Virginia. Jones was an architect. Also among James Monroe's ancestors were French Huguenot immigrants, who came to Virginia in 1700.
At age eleven, Monroe was enrolled in the lone school in the county. Monroe attended this school for only eleven weeks a year, as his labor was needed on the farm. During this time, Monroe formed a lifelong friendship with an older classmate, John Marshall. Monroe's mother died in 1772, and his father died two years later. Though he inherited property from both of his parents, the sixteen-year-old Monroe was forced to withdraw from school to support his younger brothers. His childless maternal uncle, Joseph Jones, became a surrogate father to Monroe and his siblings. A member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, Jones took Monroe to the capital of Williamsburg, Virginia and enrolled him in the College of William and Mary. Jones also introduced Monroe to important Virginians such as Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and George Washington. In 1774, opposition to the British government grew in the Thirteen Colonies in reaction to the "Intolerable Acts," and Virginia sent a delegation to the First Continental Congress. Monroe became involved in the opposition to Lord Dunmore, the colonial governor of Virginia, and he took part in the storming of the Governor's Palace.
Revolutionary War service
In early 1776, about a year and a half after his enrollment, Monroe dropped out of college and joined the 3rd Virginia Regiment in the Continental Army. As the fledgling army valued literacy in its officers, Monroe was commissioned with the rank of lieutenant, serving under Captain William Washington. After months of training, Monroe and seven hundred Virginia infantrymen were called north to serve in the New York and New Jersey campaign. Shortly after the Virginians arrived, George Washington led the army in a retreat from New York City into New Jersey and then across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. In December, Monroe took part in a surprise attack on a Hessian encampment. Though the attack was successful, Monroe suffered a severed artery in the battle and nearly died. In the aftermath of the battle, George Washington cited Monroe and William Washington for their bravery, and promoted Monroe to the rank of captain. After his wounds healed, Monroe returned to Virginia to recruit his own company of soldiers. Monroe's participation in the battle was memorialized in John Trumbull's painting, The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, December 26, 1776, as well as Emanuel Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware.
Lacking the wealth to induce soldiers to join his company, Monroe instead asked his uncle to return him to the front. Monroe was assigned to the staff of General William Alexander, Lord Stirling. During this time, Monroe formed a close friendship with the Marquis de Lafayette, a French volunteer who encouraged Monroe to view the war as part of a wider struggle against religious and political tyranny. Monroe served in the Philadelphia campaign and spent the winter of 1777–1778 at the encampment of Valley Forge, sharing a log hut with Marshall. After serving in the Battle of Monmouth, the destitute Monroe resigned his commission in December 1778 and joined his uncle in Philadelphia. After the British captured Savannah, the Virginia legislature decided to raise four regiments, and Monroe returned to his native state, hoping to receive his own command. With letters of recommendation from Washington, Stirling, and Alexander Hamilton, Monroe received a commission as a lieutenant colonel and was expected to lead one of the regiments, but recruitment again proved to be an issue. On the advice of Jones, Monroe returned to Williamsburg to study law, becoming a protege of Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson.
With the British increasingly focusing their operations in the Southern colonies, the Virginians moved the capital to the more defensible city of Richmond, and Monroe accompanied Jefferson to the new capital. As Governor of Virginia, Jefferson held command over the state's militia, and he appointed Monroe to the rank of colonel, and Monroe established a messenger network to coordinate with the Continental Army and other state militias. Still unable to raise an army due to a lack of interested recruits, Monroe traveled to his home in King George County, and thus was not present for the British raid of Richmond. As both the Continental Army and the Virginia militia had an abundance of officers, Monroe did not serve during the Yorktown campaign, and, much to his frustration, Monroe did not take part in the Siege of Yorktown. Although Andrew Jackson served as a courier in a militia unit at age thirteen, Monroe is regarded as the last U.S. President who was a Revolutionary War veteran, since he served as an officer of the Continental Army and took part in combat.
Monroe resumed studying law under Jefferson and continued until 1783. He was not particularly interested in legal theory or practice, but chose to take it up because he thought it offered "the most immediate rewards" and could ease his path to wealth, social standing, and political influence. Monroe was admitted to the Virginia bar and practiced in Fredericksburg, Virginia.