Monday, December 14, 2009

New Book on James Monroe

I just finished a book I referred to here earlier, a biography of James Monroe, the fifth President of the United States. It is a very revealing and engrossing read.

Titled "The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation's Call To Greatness," Harlow Giles Unger sheds some necessary light and attention on the last U.S. President who had a hand in waging the American Revolution. Monroe, a Virginian, was man of notable character who joined the fight for American independence as a teenager, becoming a lieutenant in the service of General George Washington and fighting alongside and befriending the Marquis de Lafayette. Monroe later served as a U.S. senator, as a diplomat; as governor of Virginia he strengthened that office into one of the most powerful and effective governorships in to the country.

Unger portrays Monroe as a man of action who was instrumental in expanding American territory father over the continent to diminish the influence of foreign powers in North America and achieve secure borders for the country. As a diplomat in France, Monroe negotiated the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon; as President, he acquired Florida from Spain and was able quelled Seminole Indian raids on towns in the Deep South. Monroe also saved the country from collapse in the War of 1812, serving concurrently as President James Madison's Secretary of State and Secretary of War and serving as a de facto President in the wake of the British attack on Washington, D.C. He was able to take civilian command of American armies and resupply and redirect the troops, securing the capital from further attack and strengthening the defenses of Baltimore.

Monroe's administration, which lasted from 1817 to 1825, proved to be very successful in uniting the country and expanding economic prosperity. Unger stresses how Monroe's Presidency, known as the "Era of Good Feelings," promoted the construction of canals and roads and opened the Midwest to greater settlement, crating a new middle class of landowners and democratizing economic opportunity. Special attention also goes to Elizabeth Monroe, the President's wife, who turned the White House into a showcase of taste and sophistication at a time when Washington, D.C. had neither. Elizabeth Monroe was also a beautiful, cultured, and strong-willed woman who, while husband was a minister to France braved the violence of the Reign of Terror and got Lafayette's wife released from a French prison.

Unger also makes it clear that the Monroe Doctrine was President Monroe's own initiative and that it was not written by John Quincy Adams, Monroe's Secretary of State. Monroe was an accomplished lawyer and diplomat who knew who to write and issue a manifesto declaring national interests; his doctrine, telling European powers to cease and desist in colonizing the Western Hemisphere and pledging to avoid European entanglements, was based on his own convictions and his understanding of diplomacy in the carefully crafted language one would expect from a man of Monroe's experience.

"The Last Founding Father" is an important book to seek out for anyone interested in how the United States evolved from its early years of independence to its maturation following the War of 1812. It's also a wonderful character study of Monroe himself. More information on the book is available here.

Here, too, is a video of Harlow Giles Unger discussing his book. :-)

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