PODCAST#13 … Review of The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness, by Harlow Giles Unger
Did you know that the single greatest president in America’s first half-century was James Monroe? Even more than that, did you know that the most significant Founder of the fledgling Republic was James Monroe? That Monroe’s long-overlooked accomplishments and contributions dwarfed those of Washington, Jefferson and Madison and all the rest? That Monroe was a towering figure in both establishing and leading the new nation? I didn’t either, but that is the boast of The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness, by Harlow Giles Unger.
Should you suspect that I am unfairly exaggerating the author’s bold claim, look no further than page two of the “Prologue” to learn that while Washington may have won American independence, his legacy was little more than a “fragile little nation” and his “… three successors—John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison—were mere caretaker presidents who left the nation bankrupt, its people deeply divided, its borders under attack, its capital city in ashes.” It was, apparently, left to the heroic, brilliant, and larger-than-life character of James Monroe to step in and make America great, as summarized by Unger:
Monroe’s presidency made poor men rich, turned political allies into friends, and united a divided people … Political parties dissolved and disappeared. Americans of all political persuasions rallied around him under a single “Star Spangled Banner.” He created an era never seen before or since in American history … that propelled the nation and its people to greatness.
That’s from page three. I might have closed the cover after that burst of hyperbole, which better channels the ending of a Disney movie than a historian’s measured analysis. But then I checked the dust jacket bio to find that Unger is “A former Distinguished Visiting Fellow in American History at George Washington’s Mount Vernon … a veteran journalist, broadcaster, educator and historian … the author of sixteen books, including four other biographies of America’s Founding Fathers.” Perhaps I was misjudging him? So, I read on …
Spoiler alert: it does not get any better.
Presidential biography is a favorite of mine, and I have read more than a couple of dozen. For the uninitiated, the genre tends to diverge along three paths: the laudatory, the condemnatory and the analytical. While closer to the first category, The Last Founding Father really fits into none of these classifications. In fact, one might argue that it is less biography than hagiography, for the author is so consumed with awe by his subject that the latter is simply incapable of transgression in any arena. When I was a child, I could do no wrong in my grandmother’s eyes. If I did go astray, she would redefine right and wrong to suit the circumstances, so I always landed on the positive side of the equation. Unger offers similar dispensation for Monroe throughout this work.
Unger’s inflated reverence for Monroe should not diminish his subject’s importance to the early Republic, only compel us to examine the man and his legacy with a more critical eye. The list of “Founding Fathers”—a term only coined by Woodrow Wilson in 1916—is somewhat arbitrary, and Monroe does not even always make the cut. The essential seven that all historians agree upon are: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. Other lists are more broad, and many also include Monroe, who was after all not only the fifth President of the United States, but also U.S. Senator, Ambassador to France and England, Secretary of State, and Secretary of War—at one point even holding the latter two cabinet positions simultaneously. Monroe’s tenure in the White House has famously been dubbed the “Era of Good Feelings,” but only school kids—and Unger, apparently—believe that this is because suddenly faction disappeared, and both rival politics and personalities gave way to a mythical fellowship. In fact, historians have long recognized that this period was characterized by the one-party rule of the Democratic-Republican Party that dominated after the disintegration of the Federalist Party, which had flirted with treason and been discredited in its opposition to the War of 1812. But Monroe’s Democratic-Republicans represented far more of a coalition of loose factions than the powerful central force that the party had been under the stewardship of Jefferson and Madison before him. The fissures unacknowledged by Unger were brewing all along, later made manifest in the Second Party System of Clay and Jackson.
Most studies of Monroe reveal a man of great personal courage with stalwart dedication to principle and service to his country. Few—Unger is the exception—credit him with the kind of intellectual brilliance seen in peers like Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton. Like Hamilton—who indeed once challenged him to a duel—Monroe seems to have possessed an outsize ego and a prickly sense of honor that was easily slighted if not subject to the praise and recognition he felt certain he rightly deserved, such as sole credit for the Louisiana Purchase! Nearly a decade earlier than that milestone, Monroe had served as ambassador to France but was later recalled by Washington, who found him too easily flattered and otherwise lacking in the traits essential to upholding American diplomatic interests. Monroe was stung by this, but in his long future in government service he was in turn to have fallings-out with both Jefferson and his old friend Madison, unable to tolerate differences in opinion and bristling in his perception of being ever snubbed by not being elevated to the prominence he felt due him. Like Jefferson, Madison’s presidency proved to be a disappointing chapter in a life marked by great achievements. But while the War of 1812 was hardly Madison’s finest hour, and Monroe indeed played a pivotal role during the existential crisis of the burning of Washington and its aftermath, Madison was hardly the bewildered, sniveling coward Unger portrays in his account, so incapacitated by events that Monroe had to heroically swoop in to serve as acting president and single-handedly rescue the Republic.
The many flaws in this biography are unfortunate, because Unger writes very well and citations are abundant, lending to the book the style and form of a solid history. On a closer look, however, the reader will find that the excerpts from primary sources that populate the narrative are often focused on superficial topics, such as food served at events, room furnishings, or styles of dress. And Unger seems to sport a weirdly singular crush on Monroe’s wife, Eliza, whom he describes as “beautiful” more than a dozen times in the text—and that before I gave up counting! Attractive of not, she seems as First Lady to have come off as cold and imperious, with aristocratic airs that she no doubt accumulated during her times abroad with her husband, when they lived often in a grand style that was well beyond their means. Oddly, far more paragraphs are devoted to descriptions of Eliza’s clothing and social activities, and her many debilitating illnesses, real or imagined, than to Monroe’s eight years in the White House.
A greater complaint is that for a book published as recently as 2009, conspicuous in its absence are the less privileged people that walked the earth in Monroe’s time, Native Americans and most especially the enslaved African Americans kept as chattel property by elite Virginia planters like Monroe—as well as Jefferson, Madison and Washington—something that manifestly flies in the face of recent historiographical trends. Although Monroe owned hundreds of human beings over the course of his lifetime, the reader would hardly know it from turning the pages of The Last Founding Father, where the enslaved are mentioned in passing if mentioned at all, such as: “Although Monroe had to sell some slaves to rescue [his brother] Joseph from bankruptcy, he held to the belief that brotherly ties were indissoluble …” [p207] Long before the more famous Nat Turner Revolt, there was Gabriel’s Rebellion, and Monroe was Governor of Virginia when it was repressed and twenty-five blacks were hanged in retribution. The slightly more than two pages given to this episode lacks critical analysis but credits Monroe with promptly calling out the militia to put down the uprising [p140-142]. Such a cursory treatment of the inherent contradictions of the institution of chattel slavery to the ideals of the new Republic are an inexcusable blemish on any work of a twenty-first century historian. Since there is much in the literature about the incongruity of Monroe the plantation master—much like Jefferson—at times decrying while yet sustaining the peculiar institution, we can only conclude that Unger deliberately passed over this material lest it cast some aspersion upon the adoring portrait that this volume advances.
It pains me to write a bad review of any book. After all, the author typically labors mightily to generate the product, while I can read it—or not—in my leisure. But I am passionate about both historical studies and the rigors of scholarship, which should apply even more scrupulously to someone such as Harlow Giles Unger, who not only possesses appropriate credentials but has written widely in the field, and thus owes the student of history far more than this, which after all does no real service to the reader—nor to James Monroe by overstating his achievements while failing to contextualize his role as a key figure in the early Republic with the nuance and complexity that his legacy deserves.