The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness — Harlow Giles Unger

James Monroe is a relatively neglected president when compared to his predecessors and he was the first president whose name I hadn’t really heard of. He witnessed many of the significant events of his time, served in the Continental Army, and dedicated much of his life to public service, including time in France where he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase. He was both Madison’s Secretary of State and Secretary of War and the last of the Founding Father presidents.

As president, Monroe assembled an impressive cabinet with John Quincy Adams as his Secretary of State, John C. Calhoun as his Secretary of War and the largely forgotten William H. Crawford as Secretary of Treasury, all three of whom were impressive figures in their day. Monroe’s political strength was aided by the dominance of his party, and the diminishing power of the Federalists. In fact, Unger is keen to point out that there was a time under Monroe when political parties ceased to exist: this is not quite true, and the so-called “Era of Good Feelings” was more of a propaganda exercise to paper over divisions with the Democratic-Republicans, but it is the case that Monroe’s appointments were done on their merits and that some sought to ignore party affiliation.

Most significantly for posterity, Monroe oversaw the Monroe Doctrine, a declaration that European powers should no longer seek to interfere with states in the Americas. This is talked about even today and has proved a lasting legacy.

Unger takes what should have been an uncontentious position in his biography: that Monroe’s contributions were more significant than the popular consciousness gives him credit for and that his presidency was important and successful. Unger makes this case reasonably well. The book is a pacey account of Monroe’s life and I felt that, although far from being comprehensive, Unger was giving fair coverage to events. It was more detailed than Brookhiser’s James Madison which felt rushed and came in at 100 pages shorter.

Sadly, Unger was not content simply to highlight Monroe’s strengths and argue that he deserves greater recognition. Instead this book quite swiftly became an attempt to establish two things: that Monroe was the greatest president among the Founding Fathers after Washington, and that the other three were relatively useless or unimportant, in many cases achieving things only because of Monroe’s involvement. And “swiftly” is an understatement. Unger claims as early as page 2 (two!) that:

Washington’s 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. Monroe took office determined to lead the nation to greatness

This would be all well and good if Unger could substantiate his opinions. But he can’t. And even on his own terms, he is discredited. For instance, two paragraphs before the one just quoted, Monroe’s virtues are being extolled as a minister, as the engineer of the Louisiana Purchase, and crucially as the secretary of war in the War of 1812. Unger seems to want Monroe to receive credit for successes but offload responsibility onto Madison for the actual burning of the Capitol.

Unger is also at pains to describe in detail Monroe’s contribution to the Louisiana Purchase at the expense of Jefferson. Since Monroe was disobeying Jefferson’s explicit instructions in that enterprise, he does deserve credit for it and Unger supports this position in detail. However, something changes later when dealing with the Monroe Doctrine. When it comes to analysing the extent of (John Quincy) Adams’s or Monroe’s contribution to the doctrine, Unger has this to say:

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

He continues by observing that Monroe’s credentials as a foreign minister made him sufficiently competent to write the doctrine (although Adams’s credentials were probably more impressive). This feels lazy. No specific analysis is provided on the doctrine itself and Adams’s involvement in its creation is a relatively well-established fact. It’s a laudable enterprise to build a reputation for Monroe with well-researched and well-supported claims but Unger seems to feel free to discredit others with no facts at all besides general claims about the nature of the presidency. Couldn’t the same claims be made about negotiating treaties with France, or fighting the British? This baseless postulating is compounded by his generally antagonistic style which again serves to insult or denigrate other presidents with sentences such as “When Jefferson took over the presidency from the Francophobic John Adams in 1801, Napoléon and his advisers assumed that the new president’s witless reverence for all things French would permit swift and unimpeded French occupation of Louisiana.” Jefferson and “witless” just do not seem like words that belong together.

Maybe this style comes from Unger’s background as a journalist and he feels it necessary to stake out a clear position on the topic. Maybe it comes from a lack of time to research: a possible knock-on effect of his impressively large output. Or maybe Unger is right but didn’t consider evidence necessary. But Unger destroys his credibility with such obvious hyperbole, and it left me wondering why he felt a need to be so defensive. Consequently his initial, probably valid, claim became discredited.

This is not a bad book. It is highly readable and gives a thorough account of Monroe’s life for someone wanting a less meaty option, and I am glad I chose this over Harry Ammon’s biography. But Unger lacks the entertainment and personality of Brookhiser whose judgmental approach I liked, and fails to achieve the authoritative and engaging tone of the clearly partisan McCullough. Instead he comes across as petty. I found myself frustrated at times by his attitude. That said, I came away actually quite liking Monroe. He seemed like a clever man with a strong sense of duty that informed much of what he did. And I suspect history has been less kind to him than it could have been. I just wish someone else were making the case for him.

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