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

1 rating: 3.0
A book by Harlow Giles Unger

Kirkus, 8/15/09   “[A] cogent reexamination of a relatively neglected American icon…Unger makes a solid and cohesive argument for Monroe’s importance in the early years of the United States…A worthy attempt to rescue … see full wiki

Tags: Book
Author: Harlow Giles Unger
Genre: History
Publisher: Da Capo Press
1 review about The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and...

Personal biography refocuses the picture on Monroe

  • Nov 7, 2009
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams famously died within hours of each other, July 4, 1826. James Monroe, as is not so well known, also died on that celebrated anniversary, but in 1831, always five years later than his more celebrated co-patriots. Unger's biography sets out to erase that deficit of renown in this well-done biography.

Unger establishes Monroe's Founding Father status early and easily with simple straightforward research and writing. Lifelong neighbor and friend of Jefferson and John Marshall (the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), Monroe served alongside George Washington in the revolutionary army and Thomas Paine in the colonial legislature, and served under Presidents Washington, Adams, and Madison as emissary and ambassador to England and France. Just a few years younger than these other Founders, Monroe was always in the background of the group portrait, just off center toward the edge of the frame and out of range of focus.

But he was always in the portrait, contributing behind the scenes to the political founding, economic growth, and diplomatic security of the fledgling country when it was most in need of foundation, growth, and strength. His ideas, while expressed from a Rousseau-ian heart that revered the French revolution like Jefferson, never sacrificed romance for reason--he supported national infrastructure upgrades like canals and the National Highway even before the founding of the Constitution, and spoke in favor of the stronger executive the Constitution instituted while some of his fellow Republicans blanched at the new elected Monarch (Monroe revered Washington, we learn, as did all of his generation).

And when given or elected to positions of authority his decisions were swift (buying the Louisiana territory from Napoleon for more than he was authorized to offer but far less than it was worth) and sure (acting to defend the burned Capital after it was abandoned by Madison and his weak-kneed military commander). As President, Monroe was a uniter, traveling the country to universal acclaim (but to the detriment of his original intent of traveling as a private citizen, which to his regret and our amazement he though was possible) and presiding over economic and territorial expansion as a result of his diplomatic efforts.

In his last term, Monroe did suffer from lame-duck disease, and Unger seems to pull back his punches a bit here to preserve his thesis of Monroe as hero. But it is best to remember that this is a personal biography, not a political one, so there is not as much detail of Monroe's policies and public life during the presidential years as one might hope.

But by focusing on the person, we get to meet Monroe as an honest and honorable man in all facets of his life, including and especially in his family life, which is well-told here. If it is true that the measure of a man is how he acts when no one is watching, then Monroe was a hero indeed, and Unger's biography a welcome recentering of the focus onto Monroe.

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