The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness

The Last Founding Father Book Cover The Last Founding Father
Harlow G. Unger
Biography & Autobiography
2009
388

In this lively and compelling biography Harlow Giles Unger reveals the dominant political figure of a generation. A fierce fighter in four critical Revolutionary War battles and a courageous survivor of Valley Forge and a near-fatal wound at the Battle of Trenton, James Monroe (1751–1831) went on to become America’s first full-time politician, dedicating his life to securing America’s national and international durability.Decorated by George Washington for his exploits as a soldier, Monroe became a congressman, a senator, U.S. minister to France and Britain, governor of Virginia, secretary of state, secretary of war, and finally America’s fifth president. The country embraced Monroe’s dreams of empire and elected him to two terms, the second time unanimously. Mentored by each of America’s first four presidents, Monroe was unquestionably the best prepared president in our history.

Like David McCullough’s John Adams and Jon Meacham’s recent book on Andrew Jackson, this new biography of Monroe is both a solid read and stellar scholarship—history in the grand tradition.

Fifth President of the United States
1817-1825 

“In a representative republic, the education of our children must be of the utmost importance.”
–James Monroe

When I started the process of reading the biographies of all of the presidents, I knew that I would find some that appealed to me more than others. In the area of politics, that was inevitable. And I have been mildly surprised that this happened even among the founding fathers. I always thought of the founding fathers as a group of men who worked out a new form of government, producing a unified objective and political purpose for the American system – which resulted in the early presidencies being fairly similar. It didn’t take me long to figure out this wasn’t the case. James Monroe is one example of how vastly the early presidencies varied from one another.

Harlow Unger presents a great history of a complicated man, who was multifaceted in all aspects of his life. Monroe served in more political offices and positions in his long career than any other founding father, and perhaps more than all other politicians. His career took him around the world as an ambassador, as well as gave him a deep well of political understanding domestically. Unger demonstrates how Monroe used that knowledge to his best advantage in all circumstances, and became one of the most effective presidents the nation would ever have.

What I found particularly interesting in this book is Monroe’s ability to engage with people and build strong, lasting relationships wherever he went. Unger gives us an appreciation for how important this characteristic was as president. Raised in what we would term “barely getting by middle class,” Monroe started with little, and spent his entire life struggling under financial difficulties. While Unger doesn’t make a point of it – I came away believing that this allowed Monroe to connect with his constituency on a personal and very real level. He could relate to those who elected him, which ultimately made him a better leader.

Unger also provides a look at Monroe’s military career which was short, but earned him a reputation as hero of the Revolution. A strong advocate of liberty, Monroe engaged in the advancement of his country. Having served at Concord and Monmouth, he was severely injured in battle. It was through his career as a soldier that he also made the acquaintance of the Marquis de Lafayette – a relationship that would ultimately grow into a lifelong friendship, to the benefit of them both. Through this initial connection, Monroe would go on to become a strong French supporter and advocate for the French culture.

Also of interest was that Monroe was the only president that would ultimately serve in an environment entirely void of political parties. The arguments that Unger makes are particularly intriguing. He suggests that when political parties are removed from government, it ultimately reduced Monroe to what people started calling a “lame duck” president for much of his second term. Unger suggests this resulted from not having political parties to keep people focused on supporting a specific political agenda. Rather, they started focusing on personal agendas, which degenerated into extreme amounts of infighting and ultimately administrative implosion.

Unger uses the Monroe presidencies as examples of how this could happen. Initially voted in as President in 1817, Monroe was a strong opponent to political parties. With his strong relationships throughout all groups of people, in all political parties and myriad nationalities, Monroe united the people behind him as president, minimizing the influence of the political alignments of the parties. This introduced a period of expansion, growth and political effectiveness. However, Unger suggests that a protracted period without political parties had consequences that surfaced when
Monroe announced he did not intend to run for a third term. Without political cohesion,
Monroe’s cabinet, descended into a state of ineffectiveness, which rippled out into
congress, and made it all but impossible for Monroe to accomplish much for the last two years of his second term. His cabinet and congressmen were more consumed with personal campaigning than the function of government, leaving Monroe incapable of accomplishing anything.

Why I found this argument interesting is because in today’s society, we are quick to blame many of the government’s ills on political parties. Our political world is one of either obsessive political association and debate, or a paranoid aversion, which leads to the lessening of political party influence. Unger seems to argue that Monroe provides a great look into what the potential consequences could be if political parties are removed from the political process.

Unger does a good job in writing this book. It is well conceived and researched. It is, for the most part a neutral bias. But I was disappointed that some of the areas of Monroe’s life were so lightly treated as to leave the reader wondering why he tried to include them at all. Overall, this is not a bad read, and offers the reader some important considerations for our own political world today.

My Rating:
3.0 rating

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