In honor of Presidents’ Day, I FINALLY got around to writing this and telling you all about my buddy James Monroe.
Before I started reading about Ja-Mon (yeah, it’s becoming a “thing”), I had to ask myself, “How bad WAS this guy? Everyone had hated John Adams a few years before…why on earth would they elect his son? If John Quincy was Number 7, Number 6 must have been terrible!” As it turns out, I might never know. You see, Harlow Giles Unger, author of “The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness” may have been a little bias. See, he said, “Monroe’s presidency made poor men rich, turned political allies into friends, and united a divided people as no president has done since Washtingon….Americans of all political parties rallied around him under a single “Star-Spangled Banner.” (3). That was PAGE THREE…it only got a more “fan-boy” from there. Imagine how it was when on page 400, Unger announced that the sun shone out Monroe’s ears. (That didn’t happen, but I fully expected it to). However, I knew I would like him from the time I learned that he and Washington were BFFs, Jefferson had a huge respect for him, and Adams called him “a disgrace to the government of my country.”
“The Last Founding Father” was a well-rounded and informative biography. It gave a lot of background information into the life of Ja-Mon, but yet it didn’t focus heavily on his personal life (which was a little disappointing for me because I think by this point it’s pretty clear I like to know what these men are like outside the office). It’s another one that is definitely readable. It’s not meant for scholars, and aside from a few quotes, doesn’t have heavy annotations or primary sources. It does have pictures. After James Madison not having any, and Jefferson having a couple shanty ones, I was ready for some good viewing!
Something I was a little disappointed in was the lack of coverage on the Monroe Doctrine. I knew it was a thing (though I didn’t know what kind or what it said), and I was pretty disappointed I didn’t get more information that the basic, “he wrote it.” One thing I really loved about the book was that it gave a ton of insight into the political scenes around the world at the time. Most of the books I’ve read cover America’s entry into the political scene fairly extensively, and a few have discussed France (and mostly what Americans were doing in France. Sidebar: for a group of people who were so dead-set on getting out of Europe, we sent an awful lot of people back over there), but few have focused a lot of one what else was going on. Unger did just that. Another funny note: Unger called Andrew Jackson “crusty”. From what I’ve read, I think that if you’d called Jackson that to his face, you were liable to get shot.
While I think that Unger maybe did exaggerate a bit, I was fairly impressed by what Monroe really did. Before reading this, I consistently got he and Madison mixed up and I knew NOTHING (literally nothing) about him, aside from his colossal nose. First of all, he and his wife, Elizabeth had a tough go of it. He was busy being well, President, and she hated to entertain. In fact, the way I understand, she pretty much hated people, and marrying a politician if want a lot of “alone time” isn’t the greatest idea. Apparently she was pretty, just not particularly friendly, which is a little disappointing, especially following Dolley Madison who was known to be a great hostess. Rather, Elizabeth belongs in a Jane Austin book. “…Stunning- a natural beauty, superbly educated, a gifted artist and musician. She sang and played pianoforte. Her elegant dress and noble bearing made her seem taller than her 5 feet. A slight trace of her father’s English accented in her soft, seductive voice.” (I think Unger has a crush.) (61).
After getting fired from France, which made him pretty said (apparently he was fired from “neglect of duty”), he came back to the US and got pretty heavily involved in the home front. Though, from what I read about his time in France, aside from living like high-rollers, he and Elizabeth didn’t do much of anything! He did negotiate the deal for Florida and New Orleans. Congress allotted Jefferson shortly more than $1.5M for the two. Jefferson then told Monroe he could have some $9M to work with (communication in these days must have sucked terribly), and in turn, Monroe actually spent $15M (10 times more than he was allowed), and he didn’t even get Florida. Sounds like he’s very similar to many recent politicians.
He did make some good calls, though, and as governor, changed the role from a passive one to that of someone who had the ability to make changes and get more tasks complete. He did very well as a governor and aspired to do more politically, but was super non-confrontational. He once pledged not to be an active candidate in the presidential election or to attack Madison, but “should the nation be disposed to call any citizen to that situation” it would be his duty to accept it. Then, during the election process, he actually traveled to many different areas around the country, becoming the first politician to actually rally for support. It seems very much (and my Madison book by Brookhiser didn’t make it seem this way) that Madison was completely incompetent and Monroe had to do all his work for him (as VP). Regardless, Ja-Mon must have been pretty good at what he did (or was convincing people he was) because after he was President, we went into the Era of Good Feeling. Because it was one of the first times in America’s short history that we weren’t involved in a war, there was an overwhelming sense of nationalism and there were goals towards unifying politically rather than head in the direction of splitting parties against one another. It seems like this always seems to happen in times following a crisis, and while reading, I couldn’t help paralleling the post-WWII era. However, the Era of Good Feeling also seems in some ways like anytime someone was bothered by something, they’d just push their opponents buttons, sweep the drama under the rug and wait for it all to burst into a Civil War; “Although Americans would eventually confront each other in a full-scale civil war, the Missouri Compromise temporarily extended the Era of Good Feelings” (306). It couldn’t be all bad, though, as advances in the arts and education (especially in the educational system into what we know today with high schools and whatnot), agriculture and technology all really blossomed during this time.
To save some time here, I’ll briefly note a few other things that I found.
- This Lafayette fellow really seemed to be awesome! He keeps popping up, and I sort of wish he had been President so I could read something good and comprehensive about him.
- Ja-Mon died on the 4th of July. That’s 3 out of 5 so far. I’d be fearing for my life on July 3rd if I were President.
- He once complained about being so busy, saying, “I was seldom more than 5 or 6 hours in bed.” Yeah, join the club, Buddy. Ugh
So is he my favorite President so far? Nope- that’s still Washington. Was he a terrible guy? He doesn’t seem like it. Was he an all-around stand up guy? Does sound like that entirely either. What he was, however, was a founding father (the last one at that) and a guy who worked hard for what he thought America should look like. Not an all bad thing.