James Monroe: A Life

James Monroe: A Life, by Tim McGrath ★★★★★

This book is one of many biographies that I have completed in the last few years on the founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and presidents Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. Monroe makes the fifth president that I’ve read. I’ll be skipping John Quincy Adams and going to Andrew Jackson, then Polk, and Lincoln as well as the chronology of other Civil War notables and history of the war. The authors in all the cases so far, present their biography most resembling a hagiography, viewing the world from the subject’s perspective and defending their positions. I suggest this because the subjects of the other biographies I’ve read tend to take a beating, including Washington, and are left as less-than-perfect characters. Hamilton and Jackson are the most frequently attacked, though no founding father has escaped the critical hand of contemporary biographers.

Tim McGrath gives us a picture of a great though flawed fifth president. Perhaps the Monroe Doctrine is best remembered, though Monroe played an enormous part in the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase, as well as Florida. Monroe had a somewhat elitist upbringing in Virginia on the farm, becoming a lawyer through the aid of close family members. He fought in the Revolution along the side of Washington and Lafayette but was critically wounded at the battle of Trenton, leaving him on the sidelines for the remainder of the war. After the Revolutionary War, Monroe struggled continuously with his financial situation, while alternating between being a somewhat successful lawyer, running the plantation(s) that he owned, as well as serving stints in politics. He became the American ambassador to France under Jefferson, and then the secretary of state under Madison before being voted in for two terms as president of the USA. At the inception of our republic, civil servants, including the president were woefully underpaid, so that many functions of the president, such as travel or White House dinners with foreign dignitaries, came out of the president’s own pocket. The legislature was rather stingy with funds, including necessities such as maintaining an army and navy or building infrastructure such as roads, for the good of the whole nation. What this all meant was that one had to be a person of means to even survive civil office, not exactly fulfilling the constitution’s preamble of a government “of the people” since it was a government always of the elite.

Besides learning much that I didn’t know about Monroe, I also learned that the government even in the “golden age” of the Republic was seriously disjointed, manifesting extreme disagreements that nearly cost the nation its existence (such as political battles during the war of 1812); infighting, bickering, jealousy, and downright loathing of other political figures were abundant, leading one to wonder how the nation even survived. Indeed, it was not the elitist politicians, most of them truly nominal “Christians”, but the common man and his freedom and faith that allowed our nation to thrive and grow. The rift between the North and the South was quite extreme even at this early time of the Republic, and was over issues such as tariffs and management of the Indians, though the most prominent even back in Monroe’s time was the issue of slavery. Those who argue that the Civil War was not about slavery are deluded ideologues or confused states-rightists, driven more by ideology than an interest in discovering the full historical facts. Slavery was a bitterly hot issue in Monroes’ day, and while most of the early founding fathers (eg. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe) owned many slaves and knew that slavery was inconsistent with the ideals of the Constitution, they frequently expressed the wish to eliminate slavery yet had no incentive or reason to do so, so that, when each of the slave-owing president’s died, they did NOT grant their slaves freedom. Such hypocrisy is excelled only by the British, as well as many of our current politicians.

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