Wednesday, July 14, 2010


A review of Harry Ammon’s James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity (1971, original) (1991, my copy)

(Rating 4 of 5)

James Monroe, although not our most exciting president, was certainly popular being the last president to run unopposed in the election of 1820. I think there is some debate over whether we can call James Monroe a Founding Father. Although he is certainly of the founding generation, he played only a minor role in founding of the country. He was a company officer in the Army of George Washington, fighting in the famous Battle of Trenton in which Washington and his men crossed the Delaware to surprise the Hessians after Christmas. He was only president to be on the Anti-Federalist side during the ratification debates. Yet, he is also the president responsible for his famous Monroe Doctrine, and the Era of Good Feelings.

Although this book was written in 1971, my copy (paperback) was not produced until 1991. What is very amusing about this, is in the new preface Harry Ammon states in the first paragraph that there is no difference between the two editions, because in the two decades between them no new information has come out about the life of James Monroe. Unlike Jefferson or Lincoln whom how they are presented can vary wildly between each generation that followed them, poor plain James Monroe is that same as he ever was.

The first few chapters focus on Monroe's youth and education, the book follows his brief military career during the Revolutionary War. Monroe earns the rank of colonel, and recommend by Washington to lead a regiment but the war ends before Monroe's regiment can be raised. Monroe would go on to serve in the Virginia House of Delegates, and then into the Congress of the Confederation. After the Constitutional Convention wrote a new constitution for the nation to be presented for ratification, Monroe would take the side of the Anti-Federalists in those debates, despite later becoming a strong supporter of the U.S. Constitution.

Monroe would try to be elected to First Congress but he would lose to another famous Virginian named James Madison. In 1790, he would earn a seat in the United States Senate; there he would act as a member of the opposition, but in 1794 he was appointed by President Washington to serve as Minster to France. As a foreign minister, he would act in the exact opposite way Washington wanted. His reputation would be so damaged that he had to publish a defense of his actions, which Washington, now retired, bought a copy and critiqued it in the margins.

(President Washington was very disappointed in Monroe.)

“Monroe never saw the comments made by Washington, which would have interested him far more than any others. The former President read Monroe's book carefully, jotting comments in the margin of his copy. These extensive notations, occupying more then forty pages in his printed correspondence, constituted a running argument with the opinions of the former Minister. Washington felt, and in this he was correct, that Monroe had been less then just in his refusal to acknowledge the strict neutrality adopted by the administration. Somewhat less correctly Washington believed that Monroe's subservience to France led him to sacrifice the interests of the United States” p.168

He would then go on to serve as Governor of Virginia, which was an honorable but powerless office. Monroe did oversee the suppression of Gabriel's Rebellion, but his effort to pardon the rebels or at least spare their lives was undermined by the executive council. After his time as governor was over he was sent, by President Jefferson, to Europe to serve as our Minster to the Court of St. James.

(President Jefferson sent Monroe to Europe again.)

“The council after approving his request for six pardons, was divided in October when the Governor proposed to reprieve all who were less deeply involved until the legislature should meet. Without the right to break the tie, Monroe had no alternative then to let the executions take place.” p.188

(Monument to heroes who died fighting for their freedom.)

During his second tour of Europe, Monroe would meet many interesting personalities, most notably, King George III and Napoleon Bonaparte. It is interesting, unlike Jefferson and more like John Adams, Monroe found himself really liking King George III. Monroe was very disappointed in the way the French Revolution was going. It seemed to him that the British Monarchy had principals that were more republican then the French Republic, which soon was not going to a republic.

(King George III, who Monroe surprisingly liked.)

“Monroe naturally looked forward with curiosity to his presentation to the King—a rebel encountering his former sovereign. His long-cherished animosity towards George III was modified by the courtesy of the King's reception. When the American Minister voiced the desire of the President to maintain friendly relations with the two nations, the King, expressing reciprocal sentiments, spoke of the great interest he had taken in the welfare of the United States since the Revolution. After these formal remarks George III inquired about conditions in Virginia, and revealed, to Monroe's surprise, a considerable knowledge of the early history of the College of William and Mary. The only embarrassing moment during the interview occurred when the King queried about the French: 'They have no religion, have they?' After a momentary hesitation Monroe cautiously ventured the opinion that he believed there were many in France, who, indeed, had none. Since this seemed to accord with the King's opinion, the reception ended on an amicable noted. The new Minister felt that the King, at the request of the Foreign Secretary, Lord Hawkesbury, had made a sincere effort to create a friendly atmosphere.”p.225-6

Returning to the United States, he goes on to be Governor of Virginia again, but left soon after Robert Smith had proven to be a disappointment to President James Madison as secretary of state. Monroe was then called to fill that role for the country. In next few years, the War of 1812 erupted and the country was invade and Washington D.C. was sacked and burnt. After President Madison fired John Armstrong, Jr. as Secretary of War, he had Secretary Monroe succeed him and therefore be the nation’s war and state chiefs all at the same time. Monroe had served with distinction although what he really wanted a field command. Nevertheless, the country was so pleased with his performance that he was elected President of the United States, over the last Federalist nominee, Rufus King, in 1816.

(President Madison strongly relied on James Monroe in the War of 1812.)

“For the first time the Presidency seemed to be offered as a reward for meritorious service or as an honor bestowed on a respected public servant, rather then as a prize to be carried off by the strongest party in a bitterly fought contest.” p.357

As Monroe took office the United States began what we refer to as the
'Era of Good Feelings,’ because the Federalist Party was now dead, and there was a national consensus in support of President Monroe. During his presidency, we would gain the Florida as a territory; adopt a new code for the Flag of the United States, with thirteen stripes for the original colonies and stars to represent the states. The most important foreign policy accomplishment was enacted with the Monroe Doctrine, which declared the Americas off limits to further colonization and recolonization from European powers. He was reelected without opposition in 1820*, however since no one else ran there was a record low voter turn out. When Monroe declined to run in 1824, that year marked one of the most contested elections of all, which would restore the country's two party system.

“The Monroe Doctrine has had a long and varied history as the keystone of American policy toward Latin America. Only in recent times has it faded into the background, as a result of the imperial connotations attached to it. Most of these subsequent developments were not contemplated by Monroe; if he had guessed at them, he would indeed have been alarmed.” p.491

(President James Monroe)

The end of the book focuses on his quite post-presidency, that would only last six years of him leaving the White House. Monroe's legacy would, on occasion, in the chaos that was going to come would often be one of nostalgia. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who would like to know more or anything about our nation's fifth president.

*However he did not get a unanimous vote in the Electoral College, because William Plummer, who did not like Monroe, did not want to see anyone but Washington get that honor.

{Video taken from the History Channel.}

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