Chronicling the life of a less-celebrated founding father
James Monroe served in more public positions than anyone else in American history. He was both a U.S. congressman and a senator, a governor of Virginia, secretary of state and secretary of war, ambassador to France and Great Britain and minister to Spain, and the fifth U.S. president, serving two terms. A hero of the American Revolution, Monroe served at Valley Forge and was seriously wounded in battle at Trenton. Despite such an imposing resume, Monroe’s contributions to the nation are usually overshadowed by those of his close friends Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
In his compelling new biography, The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness, Harlow Giles Unger demonstrates that Monroe was a major player with significant achievements, including the Louisiana Purchase. Even his supposed diplomatic failures look like impossible tasks. Unger, an award-winning author of 15 books, including four biographies of other founding fathers, deftly guides us through Monroe’s pre-presidential period, which includes assisting a wounded Lafayette during the Revolution and rescuing Thomas Paine from a French prison.
Unger argues that the three presidents between Washington and Monroe—John Adams, Jefferson and Madison—were merely “caretakers” whose administrations left the country divided and bankrupt, her borders vulnerable and, after the War of 1812, despite the heroic efforts of Monroe as acting secretary of war, the capital seriously damaged. Holding two top cabinet positions (secretary of state was the other) Monroe was hailed for his brilliant military strategy and astute management of peace negotiations. As president, Monroe was a transitional figure, the last of the founding generation, but also responsible for westward expansion and economic recovery. He worked hard to achieve unity, appointing representatives of a wide range of views. He made long tours of the country that helped to bring people together. Despite problems, including the Panic of 1819, there were good reasons to refer to his presidency as “the era of good feelings.”
Unger vigorously refutes those historians who claim that Secretary of State John Quincy Adams wrote what Monroe is best known for, the “Monroe Doctrine.” Monroe had almost eight years of experience as a seasoned diplomat in the most sensitive posts, was a highly regarded lawyer and a gifted politician. Once he decided to include in his seventh annual message to Congress a manifesto about the U.S. staying free of entangling alliances and defining America’s sphere of influence, he conducted a series of cabinet meetings in which he asked for written and oral arguments on the subject. Adam’s diplomatic experience did give him more influence than others, yet, Unger notes, only one of Adams’ submissions appears in the final policy statement.
The Monroes were a close-knit family and James’ beautiful wife Elizabeth was a formidable influence, especially in matters of taste and style. She also demonstrated extreme courage in 1795. Realizing that her husband, who had obtained the release of Americans from French prisons, might jeopardize his diplomatic status if he tried to rescue someone who had only honorary American citizenship, she decided to go herself. She was able to get Lafayette’s wife, Adrienne, freed after 16 months in prison.
Unger’s outstanding biography of Monroe is consistently illuminating and a fine introduction to its subject.
Roger Bishop is a retired Nashville bookseller and a frequent contributor to BookPage.