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The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation's Call to Greatness Paperback – September 28, 2010
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Dead Presidents website, 10/19/10
“What stands out most about Unger’s book is the clarity and ease of the author’s writing…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…James Monroe deserves his place amongst the giants of our Founding, and Harlow Giles Unger has forever ensured it.”
“Unger shows how the public and private commitments of early American diplomats were sometimes intertwined.”
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One problem is that there is little acknowledgement of important events prior to Monroe taking office, most glaring is the perfunctory mention of the Louisiana Purchase. I realize this is a biography of Monroe but I didn't feel that it was given proper context or importance relative to the foreign policy that became the Monroe Doctrine.
The same could be said about his treatment of John Quincy Adams who is widely regarded as the best Secretary of State in U.S. history. Most glaringly is that he treats Adams as little more than a caddy in terms of the defining moments in the Monroe Administration: The Transcontinental Treaty and The Monroe Doctrine. This interpretation by Unger seems dubious at best. If he gives short shrift to JQA on those achievements he lets him off the hook, or makes no mention at least, of how his Secretary of State and successor became President through the "Corrupt Bargain". Unger does recall the 1824 Presidential Election but does not mention the controversial arrangement by which JQA won the election. Monroe's perspective on this event is relevant given the importance of JQA in the Monroe Administration.
Finally, the hagiographic treatment of Monroe presents problems when juxtaposed against modern interpretations of Native Americans and Slavery. According Unger, the Native Americans were enemies or an obstruction that needed to be cleared as we expanded from sea-to-shining sea. The imperialistic displacement of Native Americans, as well as Monroe's indifference toward slavery may have made him a man of his time but not above it on those domestic policy issues.
Unger's book serves much better in providing a detailed timeline of the life and career of our 5th President. The view of his personal life was particularly illuminating. Despite his importance in American public life, he had many challenges at home too such as losing a child and financial debt that he incurred in service to our country. Also, his wife battled chronic illness that made it difficult to uphold the onerous social requirements that often come with the job of First Lady. The recall of these events and his true friendship and loyalty to Marquis de Lafayette take the man off the pedestal and allow us to know him on a more intimate level. 8/2015
Unger claims that, from the time the British burned Washington to the end of the war, President Madison was essentially a puppet, and that Monroe was really running the war effort and indeed the entire country, acting as a virtual dictator. Several times he makes the claim that, for virtually Madison's entire second term, Monroe was really calling the shots.
A few chapters later, however, Unger becomes incensed over the widely-accepted notion among historians that the Monroe Doctrine was actually written by then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, with Monroe merely signing off on it. Unger calls this claim ludicrous, claiming that it implies 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 America presidents." Oddly, he never seems to have considered that he'd just spent most of a chapter claiming that President Madison was little more than a puppet manipulated by Monroe's hand. I wonder what he'd have to say about his own lack of insight into the presidency.
My recommendation? Save your money for a different biography of Monroe. I wish I had.