Harlow Giles Unger’s James Monroe biography, THE LAST FOUNDING FATHER: JAMES MONROE AND A NATION’S CALL TO GREATNESS, reads less like a biology and more like a sacred tomb for acolytes to use in worshipping the do-no-wrong object of their devotion.
The parts where Unger is simply relaying the events that happened are well done and quite readable, but all too often, he offers opinions designed to glorify Monroe and his wife beyond all reason.
By Unger’s description, Monroe was preceded by three presidents in John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who “were mere caretaker presidents who left the nation bankrupt, its people deeply divided, its borders under attack (and) its its capital city in ashes.” Even worse, the 35 years after Monroe’s presidency were led by presidents who were “self-serving, politically ambitions successors” who undermined the national unity he created and led the country into Civil War.
Unger describes Jefferson’s choosing of Madison as his secretary of state over Monroe as Monroe “stepping aside,” rather than being overlooked in favor of Madison, a close and well-respected friend of Jefferson in his own right. Perhaps not coincidentally, Unger reserves much of his vitriol for Madison, claiming that when Monroe served in Madison’s cabinet, it was Monroe who took the reins of the country, especially in the wake of the British attack on Washington. Later, he doesn’t appear to recognize the irony of his response when he brings up accusations that John Quincy Adams had actually crafted the Monroe doctrine:
The assertion that Adams authored the Monroe Doctrine is not only untrue, it borders on the ludicrous by implying that President Monroe was little more than a puppet manipulated by another’s hand. Such assertions show little insight into the presidency itself and the type of man who aspires to and assumes that office; indeed, they denigrate the character, the intellect, the intensity, and the sense of power that drive American presidents.
Each time Unger mentions Madison, he makes certain to belittle the fourth president, referring to him as “incompetent,” and making frequent references to Madison’s well-documented health problems and his short stature. When comparing the foreign policy experience of the two presidents, he says:
Monroe’s many years as a minister overseas had taught him diplomacy as a chesslike game of subtle moves, each fraught with nuanced, ripple effects that can accrue to the advantage or disadvantage of either side. Madison’s years in a nation of unsophisticated frontiersmen had taught him diplomacy as a game akin to the new card craze of Slap Jack.
At another point:
… the president [Madison] seemed impotent, with no command of his armed forces, no credit with Congress, and little influence over the American people. His sickly Lilliputian stature did little to inspire confidence. Everything he said or did only alienated more Americans.
When Monroe makes his seventh annual address to Congress, Unger says that some members trembled with awe as they watch him make his way down the aisle, a description that again feels over the top; I would have loved to see a source there so it seemed less a product of Unger’s overactive, awestruck imagination.
If possible, Unger seems to go even further overboard in defense of Monroe’s wife, Elizabeth:
Washington gossips accused the Monroes – especially Elizabeth – of transforming the White House into a European court. Through no fault of her own, she became the target of mean-spirited attacks, born largely of envy – of her beauty, of her exquisite (and expensive) taste in clothes and furnishings, and of her refined manners and superb education.
What Unger wants you to understand is that not only was Monroe the awesomest president who ever presidented, but he also had the hottest and most perfect wife ever. People who disliked her didn’t have any genuine motivation for their feels — they were simply jealous!
Now, I don’t point all this out to demean Monroe or his wife — I bought this book specifically to learn more about him and his strengths as an American president, and Unger’s comparisons of Monroe to George Washington were indeed eye-opening. But over the course of the book, Unger’s descriptions of Monroe got in the way of the story of Monroe’s life, and made it difficult for me to trust Unger’s accounting of the events in Monroe’s life.
According to this book, everything great that happened, from the Louisiana Purchase to the conclusion of the War of 1812, was a product of Monroe’s greatness despite the perpetual idiocy that surrounded him.
A more nuanced view of Monroe’s life would have been far more satisfying. I have no doubt of his accomplishments or his strengths, but to really understand this president, I also would have liked to learn about his weaknesses and regrets. Unfortunately, this isn’t the book for that type of insight.