Anyone with even a passing interest in early American and/or presidential history should take a few days with Harlow Giles Unger’s 2009 book The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness, and acknowledge the enormous and unsung impact our fifth president had on the United States.
James Monroe seems to be consigned to the historical dustbin even though he was, as the title states, “The Last Founding Father.” The term “Founding Father” is somewhat elastic – it can be used to describe the first colonists at Jamestown and Plymouth in the early 1600s, the signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the framers of the U.S. Constitution, veterans of the Revolutionary War, or – as is most often the case – a vague, convenient shorthand for all of the above.
Monroe, if he’s remembered at all, is remembered only for the Monroe Doctrine, which was given as part of his State of the Union report in 1823: a bold statement from a juvenile country just starting to flex its international muscle, informing Congress and the rest of the world that the entire Western Hemisphere was closed to any further European colonization, and providing one of the basic building blocks of our foreign policy to this day.
The appellation “Last Founding Father” is given to Monroe, I suppose, because he was the last person to serve the country on a national level (his presidency lasted until 1825) who was of age at the time of the Revolution in the 1770s. His successors to the presidency, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, were both pre-teens in short pants when the “shot heard ‘round the world” rang out at Lexington in 1775. Monroe, as a teenage Continental Army lieutenant, made the famous crossing of the Delaware with Washington’s tattered troops (in the famous painting, he is depicted as the one holding the flag, even though he occupied a separate boat in reality.) In the subsequent Battle of Trenton, he was severely wounded by a shot to the upper chest and nearly died. He also survived the famously harsh winter camp at Valley Forge, and after the war plunged himself into public service as a protégé of Thomas Jefferson.
All the of the first four presidents are rightly exalted for the accomplishments of their administrations (and for their decades-long pre-presidency service in government or military), creating a nation of unbounded hope and promise in the face of repeated setbacks and disasters, the opposition of foreign powers, and shrill, small-minded sectarian doomsayers domestically. But they had their flaws, too.
Washington – had a vicious temper, and was often swayed by partisan underlings
Adams – enormously egotistical and pompous
Jefferson – hypocritical and underhanded
Madison – had a hard time seeing the “big picture” of national/international politics beyond his precious Virginia
In contrast, Monroe seems handed down to us through the years with no real personal foibles or glaring personality defects. The worst that seems to be said of him was that he could be aloof and anti-social (another book – the excellent William Safire historical novel Scandalmonger – referred to him as “that icicle Monroe.”) But behind closed doors he was by all accounts unpretentious and warm-hearted, with a special fondness for children — his own and others. (He paid for and supervised the education of a friend’s deaf-mute son, and was open-handed to a fault with his own younger siblings and their offspring, who were often ne’er-do-well loafers.)
Like most men of his region and generation, he spent his early adulthood worshiping fellow Virginian George Washington, fought alongside him during the Revolution, and served as President Washington’s ambassador to France in the 1790s. He was instrumental in saving the family of staunch American ally Marquis de Lafayette from the guillotine during the worst excesses of the French Revolution. When the Washington administration recalled Monroe for being too cozy with the French and undermining Washington’s pro-British foreign policy, Monroe was deeply hurt. (Washington, despite all his other excellent qualities, seemed unwilling to forgive Monroe for allegedly acting against orders. According to one Washington biography, one of his last acts in December 1799 before retiring to his sickbed with the throat infection that would kill him was to listen to his wife Martha read the newspaper aloud. When she mentioned Monroe was just elected governor of Virginia, Washington was said to have “snorted with derision.”)
Monroe was named as a special U.S. agent to France by President Jefferson in 1803, and it was he that did the face-to-face negotiations with Napoleon that resulted in the Louisiana Purchase, which almost doubled the size of U.S. territory overnight.
Monroe’s sometime friend/sometime rival James Madison was a knowledgable scholar and political theoretician. We can thank him for organizing and tirelessly supervising the Philadelphia convention that gave us our Constitution in 1787, making sure that common sense and compromise won out among the deeply divided delegates. (Not for nothing is he called the “Father of the Constitution.”) But 22 years later, when he finally got his shot at the presidency, he was more set in his ways and less willing to bend his deeply democratic “strong Congress should hold sway over a weak president” political beliefs. Madison seemed willing and happy to be a powerless figurehead (and occasional finger-wagging pedant on a soapbox) as a reward for his years of service, then retire. Unfortunately, the U.S. fought its first war since the Revolution during his presidency, and Madison had no practical hands-on skills as a national leader in a time of crisis. In 1812, the woefully unprepared U.S. brashly declared war on Britain – then already at war with Napoleon – for harassing our neutral shipping.
Luckily, he had Monroe at his right hand. For a crucial ten weeks at the outset of the War of 1812, Monroe served as both Secretary of State and Secretary of War.
Stunned and indecisive, President Madison as a war-time measure ceded all civil and military control to the more active and experienced Monroe when the British invaded the Chesapeake Bay and sailed up the Potomac in 1814. As Madison fled deep into Maryland, James Monroe was effectively Dictator of the United States when the redcoats marched on the Baltimore and the brand-new city of Washington D.C. The Brits eventually withdrew, but not after putting the White House (then referred to as the “Presidential Palace” or “Executive Mansion”) and the Capitol building to the torch. (Their failed night-long naval assault on Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor inspired the poem – much later the song – The Star-Spangled Banner.)
Without Monroe’s cool-headed leadership – racing from place to place on horseback, working without rest for over a week – the invasion could have been much worse. The thick whitewash caked on the Executive Mansion by its repair crew to cover the soot marks lent it its new name. When the crisis passed, Monroe handed power back to the proper authorities, and the U.S. negotiated a truce with Britain. But Monroe’s deft, decisive handling of what the press sneeringly called “Mr. Madison’s War” made him a shoo-in to be the next president.
In the political world of the late 1700s and early 1800s, you were either a Federalist (favoring a strong national government, the commerce/shipping/banking/business interests of the bustling Northeast, and a close trade relationship with conservative Britain) or a Democratic-Republican (favoring strong state governments, the farming interests of the agricultural South and West, and a close trade relationship with revolutionary France). Monroe was the third two-term Democratic-Republican president in a row, and the Federalist party essentially winked out of existence. There were no party divisions – indeed, no parties at all – in the early 1820s. Monroe was the last president in our history to run unopposed for his second term. The United States was at peace with the world, and experiencing explosive economic and geographic growth. Monroe capped all of this with his famous Doctrine, the first tentative steps on the road to the U.S. being a true world power. Monroe was the first sitting president to make a public tour of all the states then in existence “to become acquainted with the people and learn their wants…and inform himself in regard to the resources of the country, and the means necessary to develop them,” in the words of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams.(He emphasized his ties to the revolutionary era by continuing to make public appearances wearing old-fashioned knee breeches, silk hose, and buckled shoes, long after most men had moved on to ankle-length pants. Sometimes his ensemble was topped off by a tri-cornered hat with a cockade.)
It’s no wonder historians refer to the Monroe presidency as the “Era of Good Feelings.” Unfortunately, by following Washington’s precedent and declining a third term (presidents had no term limits until after FDR in the 1940s), Monroe triggered a scramble of backstabbing and politicking in Congress and his own cabinet over who would be the next president, a scramble which reintroduced party politics on a permanent basis, and left Monroe ineffectual and depressed in his last year in office. (The term “lame duck” was first introduced to American politics to describe Monroe at this time.) As the tall and dignified Monroe aged and his hair whitened, many people pointed out that he began to bear an ironic, striking resemblance to his estranged idol, George Washington.
Unger’s book is no un-liftable doorstop – it comes in at under 400 pages, rare for a presidential biography – and moves at a brisk pace. Political issues of the day are explained clearly and quickly for the casual reader, and even those with a solid grounding in this era of U.S. history (such as the Holy Bee) are in for some surprises. Unger is an unabashed Monroe partisan, but in all of the other material I’ve read on Monroe’s contemporaries and this time period in general, I can’t recall anything contrary or opposed to Unger’s observations. So let’s hear it for James Monroe, an all-around decent guy.
“I was presented to the President, with whom I was exceedingly pleased, because of the plain simplicity of his manners, and the easy dignity of his deportment.”
— A Federalist congressman
“He is the most modest and unassuming man that I have seen…his countenance is expressive of a good heart and an amiable disposition.”
— Job Dufree, Rhode Island