my year with 44 men

Reading the Presidents One by One

Archive for the month “February, 2012”

The Kind of Fellow I can Admire

I’m not quite finished with JQA, but I just wanted to put out on the great interwebs some of the things that I really like about him (unlike his father, who had absolutely no characteristics I liked).

1. His favorite hobbies included a daily nude swim in the Pontomac River at between 4:15 and 5 am and getting shitfaced and playing the flute.  I can imagine that it turned out like this gem:

2. Apparently no one in the world was good enough to marry him, according to his mother.  He kept falling in love with ladies and Mommy Dearest kept putting the kibosh on it.  At one point he mentioned that he really needed to get to finding a lady friend because he had “a receding hairline and was a few pounds overweight.”  Sounds an awful lot like a line from my favorite movie (first 15 seconds or so of this clip).


Why the Long Face Johnny Q?

Apparently he kept a daily diary for 70 years (age 11-death at 81).  I can’t even manage to keep up with a blog once a week.  No wonder he looks so frustrated!

Excited to hang out with the offspring of my least favorite historical politician.

In honor of Presidents’ Day…and James Monroe

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 Book:

“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.

The President:

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Well Look Who We Have Here!

I’m a good way through Monroe and working to get some cohesive thoughts together, but I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to let all of you know that our buddy Ja-Mon (I’m working to make that nickname a thing) was in my favorite picture of all time and I didn’t even know it (obviously, the arrow is pointing to him…I think; everyone in those days looks sort of similar in paintings).   Is it common knowledge that the fellow holding the flag is Monroe?  Is it common knowledge that he was even involved in the Revolutionary War at all?  Am I as out of the loop as I feel?

In other news, I keep hitting roadblocks with buying Harrison (William Henry; I haven’t gotten so far to think about Benjamin yet) and John Tyler.  sigh.


ALSO:  As someone from, not just the Land of Lincoln, but more specifically the place he lived, worked, and is buried, I have to send a shout-out and a big ol’ HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my buddy Abe today! 🙂  Also, a quick thanks to him for a day off of work tomorrow.

I’m Apparently to the Last Founding Father

Number 5 is none less than my buddy, James Monroe.



James Madison: The Back-scratcher and Back-stabber

Ok, I’d like to start by apologizing for my slow reading.  I’m sure all 4 of you who read (hey Mom and Robert!) have been waiting on pins and needles to hear what I have to say about Jimmy-Mad.  I know excuses are worthless, but I just started a new job and I’ve been exhausted.  Plus I’ve been sick.  Plus other stuff.  It’s taken me an embarrassingly long amount of time to get through these last few books, but my goal is to pick up the pace in February.  Anyway, I love James Madison.  I love Mr. Brookhiser.  I am back in good standing with my project and I’m not mad anymore.

The Book:

I really enjoyed the presentation of Brookhiser’s book, James Madison.  It was new and super readable- meant to be picked up by an average reader.  It wasn’t dry like Jefferson’s book, or an untackleable monster like Washington’s.  It wasn’t presumptuous like Adam’s.  But my goal isn’t to go all “fan-girl” and list 16 things I liked about it.  To start with things that I like (because I don’t want to start on a bad note), it was funny.  Little quips referring to Madison being the oldest of eleven siblings who he educated were like, “…Madison would soon become interested in politics; we do not know if he made the connection, but herding small children is good training for certain aspects of legislative work” (17). That’s funny, right?  Other positives include that it was smart, fast-paced, there was an appropriate amount of information for each sub-area of Madison’s life, and again, very readable.  On the flip side, there wasn’t a single picture!  I found that to be extremely depressing, especially since he was such a looker!  Additionally, there weren’t too many primary sources in here, which is probably what made it so readable, but at the same time made it less reliable for me.  I’m not saying that the information was false, but without all the footnotes (there were endnotes) it made me suspicious.  My last big problem was there was SO much about Alexander Hamilton…and you all know how much I dislike him!  The book did an excellent job setting the stage, but I could have done without so much Hamilton. Is that too picky of me?

The President:

I feel like James Madison would be the sort of person I’d vote for.  I’m confused as to how the political terms (like, vocab, not timeframes) worked.  The Republican party was Madison, Jefferson and their allies, and their enemies were the Federalists.  “This Republican Party still exists, though they call themselves Democrats.  The modern Republican Party is a newer, different organization” (109).  Because that’s not confusing at all.  I did learn that Madison is often as hailed at the Father of Politics

Here are a few things that I learned about Jimmy Mad.

  1. He was just a little guy.  Never hit more than 100 lbs and was shorter than 5’0.  He apparently was also epileptic and never a particularly healthy person.  Hard to imagine such a little guy as the leader of a nation in turmoil.
  2. He loved Washington.  They were BFFs.  Kind of.  They got into a tiff, and things ended there.  “He had supplied [Washington] with Madeira, and helped him with canals and constitution-making; Washington had blessed his marriage [he and Martha kind of set up he and Dolley].  The man who never quarreled with his biological parents did not want to fight with the father of his country” (126).
  3. He hated Adams (who didn’t?) and in fact my book noted that the only politician that Adams could get on his side was his own son, John Quincy. Hahaha
  4. He loved Jefferson.  I think in fact at some point, Brookhiser referred to them as soulmates.  “The distant friends were establishing a template for their relationship- Jefferson, the philosopher and strategist, Madison the reality check and right-hand man.  As time passed, they would, like an old couple, occasionally switch roles” (43).
  5. Huge proponent of Western Expansion, and in fact proposed that we sell the land in the West to the tune of $600 million and use the money to buy and resettle all the slaves (apparently he also was against the institution of slavery.  It should be noted that at his death, he still owned 100+ slaves).
  6. Even though he wasn’t very good at war, he jumped right in in 1812 and though it was more or less disastrous, he did what he thought had to be done, regardless of popular opinion.  He also wasn’t good at helping with the Louisiana Purchase, because he was very confused when he found out that he hadn’t, in fact, bought Florida.  What a disappointment!
  7. Knew what he believed in and was steady in those beliefs.  Never gave up on religious liberty, freedom of press, Anglophobia and Francophilia, explansion (222), but was very brainy and well-versed in history, and used his knowledge to determine what policies he needed to revise.

Just to note something else that the last three books also emphasized.  Being President sucked.  Washington kept trying to retire and no one would let him.  Adams wanted to be reelected so badly, but noted that no one who had been in the position would congratulate a friend on the office.  Jefferson said something about feeling like a prisoner taking off his shackles.  On his last day in office, someone recorded that James Madison looked, “like a schoolboy on a long vacation.”  Man- what a job!

I liked it.  That’s really all you need to know.  Onto the next James- Jimmy Mon.

Post Navigation