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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
What a handsome devil.
Glad to be reading a book that isn’t the literary equivalent of The English Patient, which has been hailed as the most boring movie of all times by
several all rational critics and audiences alike.
Let me just start by saying how very wrong my aforementioned pal, Chad, was when he said something about any book by a man named Noble E. Cunningham was bound to be a page turner. Even though it was very obvious to me that Chad was being quite sarcastic, I don’t think there’s enough sarcasm in the world to imply such a thing. I’ll get there. I will say that I’m getting a pretty good grasp on who all of the major players of that day were. Through the course of the last few books, I’ve picked up a lot on John Jay, Nathanael Green, Horatio Gates, Patrick Henry and others about whom I formerly knew little (if anything more than their name). Also, I’m so glad that Hamilton was never President, because I feel like (from what I’ve read) I wouldn’t like him!
This small book, just 412 pages, took me longer to read than the entire Harry Potter series. Longer than War and Peace and Crime and Punishment together. Longer than just about anything I’ve ever sat down with mind to read. Except Moby Dick. In fact, Cunningham has succeeded in writing a book was met with a similar loathing; the familiar feeling of trudging through the pages waiting for Old Mobes to be spotted/ Tommy-J to do SOMETHING (you can surely figure out which I was waiting for in regards to the book).
Something that baffled my mind about this text was that there was a lot of information on important battles of various wars. Nearly all of these were before Jefferson was hugely involved in anything, so aside from setting the stage were unnecessary as far as I’m concerned. Not even my Washington book focused so much on individual battles, and Washington actually had an involvement in the wars!
One of the most frustrating things about In Pursuit of Reason was the odd placement of priorities and the unequal time spent of various parts of Jefferson’s life; that, and how boring it was. I understand that a fire destroyed almost everything for Jefferson’s life pre-adulthood, and all that exists is one letter about college. That’s fine- I get it. I was disappointed, yes, in not knowing what his roots were, but I get that most of the world is in a similar state of ignorance about it. I also get that Jefferson was a very private man and destroyed every correspondence he and his wife shared, as well as much of his other close family. I get that too. I’m not really expecting Cunningham to pull a ton of something from nothing. But what I did notice is that it’s safe to safe the majority of the book was about Jefferson’s time in France. (I still don’t understand what he was doing there). He was President for a few chapters, and then in the last 30 pages, his 2nd term ended, he quit his public career, started a university, lived 20 years, died, and his legacy was discussed. It felt rushed (but after 11 days of reading, I didn’t mind too much!). The other thing (last I’ll mention) that I was disappointed with was the lack of, how should I say…drama? I’m not a gossip (though it was recently pointed out to me that this side of me comes out on occasion), but I can appreciate an unforeseen plot twist, angst-ridden character mad at the world, and a little bit of scandal. Mr. Cunningham could not. In fact, I was thrilled to find out what would be said about Sally Hemmings, the slave he fathered 7 children with (and the only 7 slaves he ever released from service, though oddly still employing their mother). It was hugely scandalous of the day and lots of texts are written of it now still. You know what Cunningham said? “There is not reason to introduce a slave, Sally Hemmings, into an account of Jeffereson’s life had not some writers charged that she became Jefferson’s mistress in Paris and remained so through the remainder of his life.” (115). I do not support this idea. SERIOUSLY!? UGH. Disappointment.
To say something positive about the book, it was… I’ll come up with something maybe, and when I do, I’ll let you know.
So old TJ was a suspicious character. First off, he had a very sad life. His wife and almost all of his kids died before adulthood (well, his wife made it to adulthood, but died young). He seems hypocritical in that the man owned some 600 slaves, but was really anti-slavery. Many attribute this to his guilt, and though Cunningham doesn’t mention his slaves at all (aside from the brief Sally Hemmings reference) says, “As John C. Miller pointed out, Jefferson could never have lived with the thought that white Americans might be denying opportunities to a black Isaac Newton, a black Francis Bacon, or a black John Locke.” (50) and Jefferson himself said, “…the spirit of the master is abating…by the end of my life I hope for a total emancipation from this evil that must be extinguished.” (63). But did he emancipate his slaves? Nope. He did, however, as president sign a bill that eliminated America’s part in international slave trade.
Jefferson, like Adams, went to France for some four years to work as an ambassador (doing something?), but unlike Adams lived a very different lifestyle. He wrote often of how much he missed his two living daughters, who were staying Stateside with aunts, and he had them brought over to France to be with them. But then he stuck them in boarding school and didn’t talk to them until a few years down the road when it was time to move back to the states. He sounds like a scumbag dad. His relationship with his daughters improved greatly later in life, and he became very close to his grandchildren who remembered him fondly. Personally, that’s all that Cunningham shared with the readers. That and that Jefferson loved stuff. When he moved from France to the US, he brought with him some hundred crates filled with everything. A list was included, so if you’re dying to know what he was into, I can let you know, but otherwise, you can assume it’s stuff like chairs and wallpaper and such. Regardless of how extravagant he was (and spent the majority of his life in great debt because of it), he was known to be a very shabby dresser, which was apparently worth commenting on for the time. He could throw a mean party though. Wheels of cheese that were some 1200 lbs were common investments (155) and he had people over nearly every night.
Politically, I think I like the way things were done back them. “Candidates were expected to refrain from openly campaigning for office.” (221). Jeez, wouldn’t that be nice? However, because of this, no one really knew much about the candidates. Because of that, the elections could take days at a time. His second term, he was deadlocked with Burr from a Wednesday through Saturday night (despite that they were “balloting” every hour of the day), took Sunday off, and finally someone from Delaware came to some sense and voted for him so that the tie would break and everyone could get on with their weeks. As for the Presidency itself, not much is mentioned in the book aside from the embargo. Whatever happened, though, must have been awful because on his last day in office he wrote, “Within a few days I retire to my family, books, and farms. Never did a prisoner, released from his chains, feel such relief as I shall on shaking off the shackles of power.” (319). Even stranger, his epitaph on his tombstone (which he wrote, naturally) said absolutely nothing about being president. It mentioned the Declaration (which I might add looked like a high school term paper all marked up on the rough draft), and being the founder of the University of Virginia. He must have been ashamed.
I know this book had a weird stance. I couldn’t figure out what Cunningham was trying to explain about Jefferson, but I think he could have been an interesting character if I had read a different text. Especially if that different text could give me a little peek into his relationship with Sally Hemmings (or the on-again-off-again BFFness with John Adams). Oh well, maybe next year.
Started this guy last night. In the paraphrased words of my friend Chad, “Anything written by a man named Noble E. Cunningham is bound to be a real page-turner.”
I’m excited for this one because I love a good scandal, and the way I understand it, Jefferson was full of scandal. Hopefully Cunningham also finds scandal interesting.
Also, hit the first major problem last night. So far, I’ve managed to get all of my books online for less than $0.42 (this guy cost me a penny at Amazon), but I found last night that Marty Van is going to cost like, $60. So here’s the big question, and where I need your help. Do I suck it up and buy it, hoping that all of my other men are cheap and it balances out or do I find a sub-par biography of Van Buren that falls in the used column for less than a dollar (I might be willing to pay up to $5, but I’m on a budget here, folks).
John Adams was kind of an a-hole. I’ll say it. Because he was. And I don’t like to lie. I’ll get there. But before I do, let’s take a second to reflect on the book, John Adams by David McCullough.
It was good. It was quite good. It won a Pulitzer. There’s no reason it took me a solid 7 days to read it aside from the fact that I dreaded picking it up because every time I did I wanted to flee to Canada and live in a country that wasn’t founded by a huge jerk. That, and I was out of town for four days and it’s more difficult to be social while reading than one might imagine. Regardless, McCullough did his research. It was laden with bits and pieces of letters (Adams was huge on correspondences with people he liked and many he didn’t), journals of all sorts of people (much of Adams’ family, as well as others who were in his circle), and even articles that appeared in popular papers of the time. Unfortunately, most of them led me to the conclusion that Adams was kind of a huge scumbag. Naturally I compared the writing to the writing of the Washington book I read, as it’s hard not to compare two things so similar that were read back to back. Something that I would have liked a bit more back ground with was Adam’s family history. Maybe 10 pages were devoted to his youth (and merely a couple of paragraphs looked into his time before the age of 15 and his entrance into Harvard), and very little was said about his immediate family. I’d like to have had a better foundation. Maybe because I’m young, I imagine that the first 15 years of his life would be pretty important in providing insight into the man he became. Something else that I wasn’t so keen on was that McCullough really focused on the time that Adams spent in France brokering peace treaties (which wasn’t too much of a task, as we were fairly peaceful with them already). He did spend 10 years there, and I can see why it was important to spend some time working through his oversees adventures, but I was bogged down and spent a good lot of the time asking, “There’s only 200 pages left, shouldn’t he about be President yet? Washington still isn’t in office!” Otherwise, the book was well written with awesome story telling, unbias fact, and most importantly, he knew where to stop. Upon reading other reviews of this book, I’ve found that others got a different picture of Adams than I did. Most took from McCullough what a strong politician (though flawed in a few areas), loving husband (despite countless escapades with other women while away from his wife), and home-loving (though apparently not so loving as he spent decades at a time away from home and family) man Adams was. I don’t know if I was against him from the start (I guess it’s fairly clear I was) or what the case was, but I took away the more negative aspects that McCullough mentioned. While I admit that Adams did have a few virtues, I didn’t find that to be the primary focus, unlike other readers. I guess you have to read for yourself to find your stance. If you are going to read about Adams, though, I would encourage you to read this one, as it was well done (or you could just watch the mini-series on HBO based from the book).
He was a snob (and not just because he went to Harvard at 15). He was ashamed and embarrassed of his mother who was illiterate, and he carried an air of being better than those who weren’t as educated his entire life. For example, on Washington he said, “Washington is too unlearned and has seen too little of the world for someone in his station.”
He didn’t get along with any of his peers.
Of course, he had big dreams. His to-do list in his journal consisted of things like, “An alliance to be formed with France and Spain”; “Government to be assumed by every colony”; “Powder mills to be in every colony and fresh efforts to make saltpetre”; and “a Declaration of Independency.” (89) That was some pretty highfalutin’ stuff to assume you’ll get to. Made my to-do list of “buy black shoes, walk the dog, work at 4” pale by comparison.
In his favor, he did have a difficult presidency. He desperately wanted the office, felt “wholly overlooked” (421) when he was awarded VP. 8 years later, he tied for 1st place (which would determine President. 2nd place was VP) with Thomas Jefferson, and was only chosen by Congress (by 3 votes) because he was a “man of God.” He wasn’t well liked by the middle of his term, and in fact wasn’t reelected into a second term, which was tied for first with Jefferson and Burr (obviously Jefferson was chosen by Congress this time). It was a difficult enough presidency that when his son was elected years later, he noted, “No man who ever held the office of President would congratulate a friend on obtaining it.” (639). He did do some pretty good stuff, like being a successful ambassador to France, becoming the “voice of the declaration” which is debatable, navigating us through the “Quasi-War” which I had never heard of, establishing the first American embassy (Netherlands), and building up the US Navy. However, as a person, I would consider him despicable. He cheated on his wife (though vowed that he always missed her dearly while he was away, French lady-parts all over the place), borrowed $10 Million to start the American credit system (first man to get us in extreme debt), and was incredibly self-deprecating, claimed that he had to insist that Jefferson pen the declaration and that everyone really wanted him (Adams) to do it, but he wanted to give young Jefferson a chance to shine. No one else remembers it happening that way. Sounds like he had some security issues.
Interesting fact: He died on the 4th of July (at the ancient age of 91) and his last words were “Thomas Jefferson survives!” Little did he know Jefferson had died about 5 hours before.
Hopefully his son isn’t quite so egotistical, or else Number 6 will be a toughie. I’ve got to take about a day to clear my head before I get to Jefferson or I might go mad.
Also, mildly unrelated, but I thought it was humorous that when I typed the book into my favorite book-nerd site, it insisted that it didn’t exist.