The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness by Harlow Giles Unger Download (read online) free eBook

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

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 securi

A more suitable title for this biography may have been something to the effect of James Monroe: the Musings of a Fanboy. You might think I’m exaggerating, that, like many biographers after years of research and editing, Harlow Giles Unger was just a bit taken with his subject at the time of his writing. In that case, I’ll direct you to Exhibit A (which I’ve tried to keep mercifully short).

Washington’s three successors—John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison—were mere caretaker presiden

Washington’s three successors—John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison—were mere caretaker presidents who left the nation bankrupt, its people deeply divided, its borders under attack, its capital city in ashes. Monroe took office determined to lead the nation to greatness by making the United States impregnable to foreign attack and ensuring the safety of Americans across the face of the continent.

Now I’m no historian, and I haven’t gotten to Madison as of yet in my presidential readings, but I’m pretty sure that the general consensus has not traditionally been that the era of POTUSes two through four was about little more than, well, “caretaking.”

The problem with Unger’s unflappable gushing around Monroe, is that it was difficult to discern the reality of Monroe’s contributions (of which I’m sure there were many).Take the eponymous Monroe Doctrine for example, obviously Monroe had something to do with it (after all, they named it after the guy), but Unger is so defensive about other scholars’ assertions re. JQA’s contributions, that it left me feeling suspect about the whole affair.

As for territorial expansion, I’ll give Monroe some credit there (though I’ve gotta go with the Jack Donaghy wisdom re. Florida “Have you ever been to Florida? It’s basically a criminal population. It’s America’s Australia.”)

James Monroe: He Bought Us Florida

Dude took us bi-coastal, true fact, but, again, Unger’s language just made me queasy.

He expanded the nation’s military and naval power, then sent American troops to rip Florida and parts of the West from the Spanish, extending the nation’s borders to the natural defenses of the Rocky Mountains in the West and the rivers, lakes, and oceans of the nation’s other borders.

I could go on and on with examples of Unger’s hyperbole, but I think you get the point (and I’d like to keep my breakfast down). I give Monroe props for public schools, and highways and such- I’m not totally cold-hearted.

There isn’t exactly a plethora of Monroe biographies out there, so Unger gets an extra star for contributing to the body of available material with a full portrait of the Monroe family. I just wish he’d felt up to the task of adding a wart or two to the “Era of Good Feelings” without which it simply seemed too good to be true.

Jay Connor

Mar 27, 2011

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review of another edition

A fascinating President who deserved a less subjective biography. Monroe by himself is due five stars, but the fawning, blind-eye treatment by Unger diminishes rather than elevates. I can’t think of one situation where Unger finds fault in his hero. If recent historical biographers (from Vidal to Ellis to McCullough to Chernow) allow us to see and relish in the founding generation — warts and all — why isn’t James Monroe, who certainly deserves to be in the pantheon of greatness, afforded this

Despite, rather than because of, this lack of subjectivity, “The Last Founding Father” is a great read and does put Monroe in his proper place in history as a result of the impact of his actions and sacrifices. Though Unger is lavish with his praise of Monroe, he often feels compelled to take it even a step further by undergirding his thesis of Monroe-greatness with a diminishment of those around his central figure. “Washington’s three successors — Adams, Jefferson, Madison — were mere caretaker presidents who left the nation bankrupt, its people divided, its borders under attack, its capital city in ashes.” Well … Monroe was a significant player in both the Jefferson and Madison administrations and much of the opportunity for Monroe’s Era of Good Feelings was laid in these prior administrations. Is Monroe great because of timing or personal contribution? A less biased biographer would have found more in the balance.

But perhaps the most blatant case of compliment by diminishment comes around the foundational “Monroe Doctrine.” Unger seeks to destroy any assertion that Monroe’s proclamation was not entirely his own creation. Especially not John Quincy Adams. He calls the suggestion “ludicrous” and demeans Adams diplomatic experience. He states that Monroe’s eight years as a diplomat was far more taxing than Quincy Adam’s five years of “dinners, balls, parades, receptions in St. Petersburg, Russia with his friend the czar.” But, hidden in the notes for the chapter is this draft proposal from Adams: “the American continents by the free and independent condition which they have assumed, and maintain are henceforth not to be considered as the subject of future colonization by any European power.” That is the essence of the Monroe Doctrine … the fact that it came from a open recommendation of his Secretary of State should not be hidden by his biographer or be diminished as mere “parroting” of an earlier Monroe warning. If Monroe is to be valued in the wisdom he showed in his formative ministerial roles, can he not also be valued in listening to his own ministers? Harlow Unger, I think you protest too much.

Unger does present a very interesting contemporary current in Monroe’s evolving view of the role of government. Monroe was present at both the American Revolution (staff to Washington) and the French Revolution (American Ambassador). At first, like Jefferson he fails to distinguish the two. This unified view frames revolution as about the expansion of human liberties. As a result of Napoleon’s policy reversal re Spain and Florida, however, he understands something which was never fully comprehended by his mentor: protection of national interests was the raison d’etra of all governments, whether born of revolution or not. Expansion of individual liberties had simply been a by-product of the American Revolution because it was essential in uniting the American people and, therefore, in the national interest. Tyranny — indeed Napoleon — had been the by-product of the French Revolution, because it was essential for maintaining the unity of the French people. The US foreign policy still struggles with this lesson. The core outcome in revolution is what brings unity (beyond throwing the bastards out). We can’t assume that it will always be democracy, even in the headiest revolution in the Middle East.

Parallels abound between Monroe and later Presidents. Monroe was central to expanding exponentially the territory of the United States (Louisiana Purchase which he negotiated with Talleyrand) as was Polk (Mexican War). Monroe sought permission from the President to lead a army in the War of 1812, as Teddy Roosevelt had petitioned Wilson during the First World War. Monroe failed to adequately pass the baton to a successor (John Quincy Adams v. Andrew Jackson) like Clinton to Gore which served to create a vacuum wherein many of his successes were reversed.

Monroe was a states rights republican who was, in John Quincy Adams words, “strengthening and consolidating the federative edifice of his country’s Union, til he was entitled to say, like Augustus Caesar of his imperial city, that he found her built in brick and left her constructed of marble.”