The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness
Author: Harlow Giles Unger
Release Date: September 2009
Five books into this presidential reading challenge, I’m starting to get some perspective on this whole “what makes a good president” thing. For starters, the circumstances somebody inherits gives the most opportunity for success and failure. James Monroe took office right after the War of 1812 and had virtually none of the trials that his predecessors had in office with European powers. The result was a booming economy and an Era of Good Feeling and a second term in office running unopposed. How do we handicap somebody with that sort of good fortune? In the end, it has to do with not screwing up what you’ve got, and Monroe did a pretty decent job of that. How does he stack up in my custom made presidential rating categories?
Born into – Monroe’s family, although wealthy enough to allow him to get educated and own land, was certainly not the wealthy family of stature that other Virginians such as Washington, Jefferson and Madison were blessed with. On top of that, his parents were dead by the time he was sixteen, and Monroe had to raise his brothers and relied on the help of an uncle to get that education and succeed. Although not rags to riches, it is the closest of all the presidents thus far (or at least since Adams). 4 out of 5.
Pre-president – This book made a big deal about how James Monroe held more key offices than any other president in U.S. history, including key diplomat, multi-term governor, and various secretary positions in Madison’s cabinet. Of particular note were Monroe’s role in the Louisiana Purchase (which as mentioned with Jefferson had more to do with America’s good timing and France’s situation than anything an American did) and his role as a soldier in the Revolutionary War and key leader during the War of 1812. His time as a diplomat was not unmarred, as he was recalled while serving as one for Washington due to upsetting his federalist companions in the states. It was odd to see a citizen bounce back and forth so effortlessly from high office to struggling law practice/farmer depending on the year. 4 out of 5.
Presidential career – As already mentioned, Monroe was fortunate in the circumstances he inherited as president, but he certainly took advantage of that. I enjoyed reading how he emulated Washington’s journey through the country in the spirit of unification as well as importance in expanding the countries borders to their natural (geographic) strengths, as well as the lasting importance of the Monroe Doctrine on foreign policy. Monroe gets docked a bit for taking a hands off approach with many key issues, being one of many presidents to not head off any of the issues that eventually led to Civil War. Eliminating the property tax and both strengthening the military while cutting the budge for it were impressive accomplishments. 4.5 out of 5.
Vice President – Daniel Tompkins was important enough to be mentioned at least once in this book; he was a friend to Monroe and the two apparently got along well enough. 1 out of 5
First Lady – Elizabeth Monroe’s lasting legacy was in the style and decorations that she restocked the White House with. This seems pretty minor, however it was more proactive than any of the other first ladies of the time, except of course for Dolly Madison. Elizabeth also was a constant travel companion for James, and together along with their daughters I was given the impression of a more solid family unit than any other President so far. 3.5 out of 5.
Post presidency – Monroe followed Jefferson and Madison’s lead in being involved with the local university after his presidency, and also helped out with the Virginia Constitution before bowing out due to health concerns. Most of his post presidency however dealt with staying with his family and alleviating the debt he had accumulated since focusing on politics. 2 out of 5.
Book overall – Madison’s Gift was short lived as my second favorite president biography (after Zernow’s Washington book), as I really enjoyed this book. Monroe was brought to live more than the previous three presidents, as well as his family. I felt the gravity of Lafayette and his daughters aging through anecdotes of Monroe’s relationships and writings. The author was certainly pro Monroe, however unlike Jefferson’s biography, it felt deserved rather than over the top. Highly recommended. 5/5