the overlooked founder

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James Monroe's Revolutionary Life and Popular Presidency

"He was entitled to say, like Augustus Caesar of his imperial city, that he had found her built of brick and left her constructed of marble." ' John Quincy Adams, eulogizing James Monroe in the House of Representatives, 1831

James Monroe is the forgotten Founding Father, overshadowed by his predecessors in the Presidency ' George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison ' denigrated as a simple man whose accomplishments were credited to others, and relegated to the background of history because he hasn't had the same justice done to his legacy by historians and biographers of the past 200 years.

That has changed with Harlow Giles Unger's The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation's Call to Greatness (Da Capo Press, Paperback, 2010). I've often felt that I gave Monroe the credit he deserved for his Presidency, but I was wrong. After reading The Last Founding Father, I realized that I've short-changed James Monroe and his value to the creation of the United States in its infancy, as well as it's stewardship throughout the early years of this nation's life.

What stands out most about Unger's book is the clarity and ease of the author's writing. Too often, books focusing on the Founders will rely heavily on the letters of those great men and it's difficult to transition back-and-forth between their deliberative language and the author's own writing. Unger blends both ceaselessly and ties together giants of American History throughout his story, relying on their words to enhance his rich descriptions of that fascinating period.

James Monroe was not simply another Virginian who took part in the Revolutionary War and eventually held the Presidency. Monroe was a young soldier during the Revolution who fought bravely throughout some of the most challenging moments of the fight for independence. Serving in close quarters under George Washington, Monroe survived the vicious winter at Valley Forge and was amongst the courageous Americans who crossed the Delaware with Washington on Christmas Day 1776 to attack the British at the Battle of Trenton. In that fight, Monroe was severely wounded, nearly dying at the feet of Washington before a fortunately placed doctor helped save his life.

With too many generals and not enough soldiers, Monroe had a difficult time finding a commanding position in the Continental Army and returned to Virginia to finish college at William & Mary and study law under none other than Virginia's Governor ' a guy you might have heard of named Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson became a mentor to Monroe and they were lifelong friends. Monroe made friends easily and kept them for most of his life. Among his closest friends were Jefferson, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and Marquis de Lafayette. One of Monroe's childhood companions and lifelong friends was the most influential Chief Justice in the history of the Supreme Court, John Marshall.

Throughout the early history of the United States, Monroe wasn't just lost among the intriguing cast of patriots and builders, but he was at the forefront of events. Monroe served in the Virginia legislature and the Continental Congress, voted against Virginia's ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788, became one of the first U.S. Senators in 1790, and was appointed Minister to France by President Washington in 1794, arriving in France during the height of the bloody French Revolution yet falling deeply in love with the country and its people.

In 1796, Monroe was recalled from France after his Francophile ways caused a rift between him and President Washington. In 1799, Monroe became Governor of Virginia and served in that position until Thomas Jefferson once again appointed him Minister to France in 1803. While in Europe, Monroe also served as Minister to Spain, but his biggest accomplishment is one that he rarely receives credit for. In 1803, it was largely Monroe who engineered the Louisiana Purchase ' one of the largest land acquisitions in history, and an event which doubled the size of the nation and comprised nearly a quarter of the land of the present-day United States.

After the Louisiana Purchase, Monroe served as Minister to Great Britain, returned home to Virginia and served in the legislature once more, was elected Governor of Virginia again and was appointed Secretary of State by President James Madison in 1811. During the War of 1812, Monroe became acting Secretary of War while also maintaining his duties as Secretary of State and Unger tells us that, for the latter two years of President Madison's term, Monroe was the power behind the "incompetent" and hugely unpopular Madison.

In 1816, Monroe was elected President and the "Era of Good Feelings" was underway. Monroe was enormously popular and built upon that foundation of goodwill by touring the United States, giving more Americans a chance to actually see their President than ever before. While Monroe's tranquil Presidency was not without obstacles, he was re-elected in 1820 without any opposition and would have won a unanimous victory in the Electoral College if not for an Elector who wanted to reserve that honor for George Washington.

Now, I just ran down the bullet points to show you all of the things that James Monroe did, but in The Last Founding Father, Harlow Giles Unger tells us just how impactful and influential Monroe was from the 1780's through the terms of Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, until his own Presidency from 1817-1825. I was flabbergasted to learn just how much I underestimated James Monroe.

To me, the biggest revelation in The Last Founding Father is Unger's myth-busting declaration that it wasn't John Quincy Adams but Monroe himself who authored the famous Monroe Doctrine, which is the most important direct result of Monroe's Presidency. It has long been popular to attribute the Monroe Doctrine to JQA ' Monroe's able and loyal Secretary of State ' but Unger finally gives the credit to Monroe and does so with credibility, strength and defiance:

"Contrary to the writings of some historians, Monroe's proclamation was entirely his own creation ' not Adams's. The assertion that Adams authored the "Monroe Doctrine" is not only untrue, it borders on the ludicrous by implying that President Monroe was little more than a puppet manipulated by another's hand. Such assertions show little insight into the presidency itself and the type of man who aspires to and assumes that office; indeed, they denigrate the character, the intellect, the intensity, and the sense of power that drive American presidents."
Unger also includes a rundown of Monroe's diplomatic and political qualifications to illustrate clearly that he was not only capable of authoring such an important cornerstone of American foreign policy as the Monroe Doctrine, but that he was arguably more qualified than John Quincy Adams, who is widely considered to be one of the greatest diplomats in the history of American foreign relations. Unger declares that:

"(Monroe) knew how to govern and wield power ' and brooked no interference in doing so. He did not shrink before cabinet appointees or defer to their judgments. Like Washington and most other American presidents, he decided policies and expected cabinet officers to implement those policies ' or quit. They were there to advise, not to consent or govern."

I read a lot of books about Presidents that I already know a lot about, but this book taught me more about a single President than I have learned in years. The Last Founding Father is a compelling story about an American patriot who has finally received the approbation due to him. Within that story is the biography of a war hero, a diplomat, a Founder, a builder, a father, a husband and a friend. James Monroe deserves his place amongst the giants of our Founding, and Harlow Giles Unger has forever ensured it.

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 1:45 PM EDT | More details


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