Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: James Monroe: A Life, by Tim McGrath

In my presidential biography series, I come to the end of the Founding Fathers.

James Monroe: A Life

Dutton, 2020, 738 pages

Monroe lived a life defined by revolutions. From the battlefields of the War for Independence, to his ambassadorship in Paris in the days of the guillotine, to his own role in the creation of Congress's partisan divide, he was a man who embodied the restless spirit of the age. He was never one to back down from a fight, whether it be with Alexander Hamilton, with whom he nearly engaged in a duel (prevented, ironically, by Aaron Burr), or George Washington, his hero turned political opponent.

This magnificent new biography vividly recreates the epic sweep of Monroe's life: His near-death wounding at Trenton and a brutal winter at Valley Forge; his pivotal negotiations with France over the Louisiana Purchase; his deep, complex friendships with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison; his valiant leadership when the British ransacked the nation's capital and burned down the Executive Mansion; and Monroe's lifelong struggle to reckon with his own complicity in slavery. Elected the fifth president of the United States in 1816, this fiercest of partisans sought to bridge divisions and sow unity, calming turbulent political seas and inheriting Washington's mantle of placing country above party. Over his two terms, Monroe transformed the nation, strengthening American power both at home and abroad.

Critically-acclaimed author Tim McGrath has consulted an extensive array of primary sources, many rarely seen since Monroe's own time, to conjure up this fascinating portrait of an essential American statesman and president.

After reading about the definitively presidential Washington, the quarrelsome and irascible Adams, the witty, wily, and weaselly Jefferson, and the brilliant, wonkish Madison, I admit I didn't have high expectations for a biography about a president I really didn't know much about. James Monroe is sometimes called "the last Founding father," though he really wasn't properly one of the Founders. He fought as a teenager in the Revolutionary War (and was seriously wounded, so unlike many presidents, he could honestly say he'd shed blood for his country), but he was not one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, he did not attend the Constitutional Convention, and he opposed the Constitution's ratification. Yet he did come from that era, he was a friend and associate of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, and he was deeply involved in the events of the early republic. His death, on the 55th anniversary of the United States, seemed to be recognized by the country at large as the passing of an era.

Tim McGrath's thick biography of Monroe covers his entire life with a historian's perspective. Not overly partisan, McGrath is as sympathetic as most biographers are to his subject, which means in the many disputes Monroe had with rivals, McGrath tends to take Monroe's side, or at least paints his position most sympathetically. I found Monroe more likeable than I expected, despite him being yet another slave-holding Virginian.

James Monroe

Monroe would follow the pattern of his fellow Virginians: like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison before him, he was the son of a wealthy father who grew up with a plantation and hundreds of slaves, yet would be plagued by money troubles his entire life and die with his estate in debt. Like his fellow Virginians, he would wrestle with his conscience over the issue of slavery, and his conscience, despite putting up a valiant effort, would lose.

The parallels continue. Following the Revolutionary War, Monroe had a law practice, and his political and social life benefited greatly when he "married up." His wife, Elizabeth née Kortright, was the daughter of a wealthy New York Dutch merchant. She was beautiful and socially accomplished, and though Dolly Madison was a tough act to follow, Elizabeth Monroe would acquit herself well as First Lady.

Elizabeth Monroe

Monroe also had his share of family troubles, from a wastrel younger brother to a spoiled daughter, Eliza, who apparently enjoyed herself greatly while attending a privileged French boarding school during the Reign of Terror, and later became something of a terror herself at the White House, causing dramas and feuds as she apparently assumed that being the "First Daughter" entitled her to the same level of respect and accommodation as her parents. (McGrath doesn't talk much about how Monroe viewed his daughter's spoiled and entitled behavior, though apparently he did find it aggravating; one gets the impression that Eliza was very much a Daddy's Girl.)

Monroe was not a brilliant man, an academic, or a political theorist. A protege of Jefferson and friends with Madison, despite repeatedly running against his friend and even opposing him over the Constitution, Monroe was part of the Southern Republican faction. He was a man of great ambition and sound thinking, credited with his peers as having good judgment even if he wasn't one of the great thinkers or orators of his time.

His initial entry into politics was at the instigation of Patrick Henry, then Governor of Virginia and James Madison's archenemy. Henry wanted Monroe to run against Madison, and Monroe was persuaded to do it despite being very much aware of Henry's machinations. He lost, but was elected to the Senate a few years later, where he was appalled at how little the Senate actually got done.

The Monroes in Paris

As Minister to France, Monroe was much better than either his predecessor or jolly, brilliant but lazy Ben Franklin. He arrived at France in the middle of the French Revolution, and Franco-American relations were fraught. He spoke French and gave a speech at his initial reception that won much of the Assembly over. His beautiful wife Elizabeth won hearts, becoming known as "La Belle American." And he worked hard at the job. Hundreds of Americans were stuck in Revolutionary France, some of them imprisoned, and they all begged for his help. Monroe read all their letters and tried to assist each of them, including Thomas Paine, whom he actually got released from prison. Meanwhile, his wife Elizabeth went to visit the wife of the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette himself was in prison in Austria, but his wife had not made it out of France, and she was expecting to be sent to the guillotine at any moment. Elizabeth actually walked into the women's prison where she was being held, and eventually got her freed.

Meanwhile, Eliza was learning to be a spoiled brat at one of the few bourgeoisie schools that hadn't been closed.

Young Eliza Monroe

Despite his valiant diplomatic efforts, Monroe was being sandbagged at home by Washington, and in Britain by John Jay, whose treaty with the British was kept secret from Monroe but eventually turned French sentiment against the Washington administration. He ended up being recalled from France in ignominy, only to be greeted on his return by Alexander Hamilton, with pistols metaphorically cocked.

Monroe and Hamilton

Since we're leaving the era of the Founding Fathers, this may be the last time I have to mention Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton.

I don't think Monroe is ever mentioned in Miranda's play. Maybe because he was younger than most of the other Founding Fathers, he wasn't actually present at the Constitutional Convention, and he wasn't in the White House until the Madison administration. But ironically, Monroe actually played a major role in Alexander Hamilton's life that Miranda rewrote.

It was the infamous "Reynolds Affair," in which Hamilton was accused of financial impropriety but was actually guilty of paying blackmail over an adulterous affair. In the musical, Hamilton is confronted by Jefferson, Madison, and Aaron Burr. In reality, none of those three were there, but Monroe was, and he was the least sympathetic and most judgmental as Hamilton poured out an embarrassing, TMI confessional to his accusers. Nonetheless, Monroe, like the other men, swore to keep the details to himself.

Years later, upon returning from France, Monroe would be confronted by a very angry Alexander Hamilton. The Reynolds Affair was blowing up. The details, hitherto kept private, had hit the papers (thanks to muckraker James Callender, a hatchet man of Jefferson's who would later expose Jefferson's affair with Sally Hemings). Hamilton believed Monroe was responsible. (In reality, it was almost certainly the unreliable and partisan clerk that Monroe had given the documents to.) Accusing Monroe of breaking his word, Hamilton demanded satisfaction from Monroe.

“Do you say I represented falsely, you are a Scoundrel,” Monroe charged.

“I will meet you like a Gentleman,” Hamilton replied — a veiled request for a duel.

“I am ready get your pistols,” Monroe retorted.

According to McGrath, repeating other accounts of the time, the two men nearly came to blows right there and had to be separated by the other men present.

The situation was defused and the two men were talked down by none other than... Aaron Burr. The man who would later kill Hamilton in a duel.

The Problem of Virginia

After he was recalled, and his almost-duel with Alexander Hamilton, Monroe became the Governor of Virginia. He was Governor during Gabriel's Rebellion.

By modern standards, this was not much of a rebellion. An enslaved blacksmith named Gabriel Prosser had managed to plot a revolt with hundreds of other slaves in several towns around Richmond, and though they were betrayed by other slaves, it was only a sudden bad turn of weather that kept them from probably killing a lot of white people before their inevitable suppression by local militias. Gabriel was literate and organized, but politically naive (he generally equated Republicans as "pro-slavery" and Federalists as "anti-slavery" and thought that non-slave-owning working class white people would support him). Gabriel's rebellion ended about as you'd expect, but it struck the fear of God into whites up and down the Atlantic. And it wouldn't be the last time there was a narrowly-averted slave uprising in Virginia.

Monroe, himself the owner of several hundred slaves, was stuck in the same spot as Washington, Jefferson, and Madison before him. Intellectually, he knew that slavery was unsustainable. Morally, he knew it was wrong. Financially, he was too dependent on it to give up being a slaveowner, and politically, he knew that it was too late for abolition. Like his fellow Virginians, he'd never be able to square that circle. Much later in life, after he was no longer president, he'd join with Madison in coming up with schemes to buy up slaves and send them to Africa, schemes that would never really get very far. (The fruit of their efforts, Liberia, with its capital of Monrovia, is a sad testament to the insufficiency of good intentions.) In the meantime, he would only ever free one of his slaves, and only as a dying wish.

As McGrath says:

But - and it will always be 'but' when discussing slave-holding presidents - Monroe's worldview of slavery stopped at his property line.

Who Really Gave Us Louisiana?

Jefferson, as President, usually gets credit for the Louisiana Purchase. But as McGrath describes it, it was really Monroe, who had been asked by Jefferson to return to Paris, who deserves most of the credit. It was Monroe who negotiated face-to-face with Napoleon Bonaparte, and despite being undermined by Robert Livingston, his fellow minister in Paris, who wanted all the credit for himself, it was Monroe who sealed the deal.

After that, Monroe was sent to Britain to be America's minister there. He got to meet King George III, and acquitted himself well enough, but sadly, once again he was being sandbagged unbeknownst to him by antics back in Washington. Jefferson was treating the British ambassador boorishly, and when word got back to London, the British retaliated against the poor Monroes. Despite this, Monroe almost secured a treaty with Britain that would have prevented the War of 1812. The single issue that was the sticking point was impressment, a huge issue for Americans and one that the British refused to concede. And yet, Monroe had managed to secure an "understanding," something he included in his letters back to Washington which Jefferson and Madison, if they'd read carefully, would have realized. But because it wasn't written in a treaty, Monroe was accused of failure, to his great displeasure.

He came home to run against Madison again. Losing, he'd once more become Governor of Virginia, but then Madison would become President and ask him to be his Secretary of State. During the War of 1812, he'd also become the acting Secretary of War, serving well in both capacities despite the ongoing Federalist-Republican feuding and political maneuvering.

The Very Brief Era of Good Feelings

Monroe succeeded Madison as POTUS #5. His presidency is known as the "Era of Good Feelings," because following the War of 1812, the Federalist party collapsed, which meant a temporary (brief) end to partisan division in Washington, while the country was feeling like an up-and-comer with a glorious future.

As McGrath tells us, this "era" really never lasted that long. Even before the return of partisan politics, there were divisions and factions (aren't there always?). But Monroe took a tour of the country and was received everywhere with crowds and parades and fawning reception even in Federalist strongholds. He had appointed Federalist John Adams' son John Quincy Adams as his Secretary of State to show his nonpartisanship. The White House (now actually being called that) was becoming the place to be. His wife was popular, his daughter, well, maybe less so. But everything was looking sunny.

Then Andrew Jackson invaded Florida.

The Missouri Compromise, the Monroe Doctrine, and Acts of Almost War

This would be the subject of acrimonious dispute for years to come. Jackson had been sent to Florida to punish the Seminoles. Instead he decided "Why not take the whole damn state?" Stomping his boots on what was technically Spanish territory, he also executed some captured Englishmen who'd been working with the Seminoles for good measure. Britain and Spain were not happy, Monroe had a mess to deal with, and while he claimed Jackson had exceeded his orders, Jackson adamantly insisted he'd done nothing he hadn't been authorized to do by Monroe.

Years later, when Andrew Jackson himself became president, he'd use this as a political weapon against the long-retired Monroe. Jackson really knew how to hold a grudge.

Monroe would also be president during the Missouri Compromise, which was another taste of things to come on the slavery front. Suddenly Washington was full of political scheming and Monroe's assiduous attempts to follow George Washington's example and appear impartial and above the fray would never quite be successful. He had Andrew Jackson biting his ankles, and his own Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, would engage in several bitter arguments with him.

The thing Monroe is most famous for is the Monroe Doctrine. Declaring that the United States would no longer tolerate colonization or interference in the New World, it was a doctrine that the US would have varying abilities to enforce over the coming decades, but it showed how far the country had come — from being preyed on by French and British alike, to being able to flex in the direction of all of Europe.

Monroe Doctrine cartoon

Sad Epilogues

After his presidency, Monroe was significantly in debt and short on cash, and would remain so for the rest of his life. He lived to see a triumphal return visit by Lafayette, whom Americans still considered a national hero despite Lafayette being persona non grata back home, and Monroe pushed Congress to grant Lafayette some land and a pension, with the not entirely unselfinterested motive of hoping Congress would be persuaded to pay off a few of the debts he'd incurred in service to the country as well.

Eventually Monroe would get some money from Congress, though not nearly as much as he was hoping, in part thanks to the vindictiveness of Andrew Jackson (who insisted that Monroe had taken sides against him during his first presidential campaign versus John Quincy Adams).

McGrath describes the same episode that Ron Chernow does in his biography of Alexander Hamilton, in which Monroe would pay a visit to Hamilton's widow Eliza, many years later in her Washington home. Monroe, feeling his own mortality approaching, wanted to mend fences. But Eliza still blamed Monroe for her husband being dragged through the mud over the Reynolds Affair, and essentially told him, "Did you come to apologize? If not, go away."

Monroe, even after all those years, could not apologize as he didn't think he'd been in the wrong. So he bowed and went away.

James and Elizabeth Monroe were deeply in love. When Elizabeth, who had been in ill health for years, died, everyone knew that was it for James as well. He persisted for a few more years, long enough for a final collaboration with Madison, but eventually his own health would fail him, and he would die on the Fourth of July, 55 years after the Declaration of Independence. (This made three ex-Presidents in a row who died on the Fourth of July.)

His spoiled, dramatic daughter Eliza, now widowed, who had caused family and social feuds her entire life, ended up moving to Paris, where she joined a convent and converted to Catholicism.

Eliza Monroe

From thinking Monroe was just "the Monroe Doctrine guy," I came to actually like him. He was principled, reasonable, and probably the most straightforward and agreeable of the Virginians. He was more interesting than I thought. He had a front row seat at the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the French Revolution. He rubbed elbows with nearly every Founding Father, met Napoleon, King George, and Lafayette, and worked closely with generations of past and future presidents. He lived like a rich man but died land poor. And yes, that great "but" as McGrath puts it — but he owned slaves. But he was a better man than Jefferson or Jackson.

James Monroe: A Life doesn't quite reach the standards of Ron Chernow or Robert Caro's works, but it's a fine presidential biography that made "the Monroe Doctrine guy" more relateable and also clarified a lot of the political events that brought the United States into its adolescence and young adulthood.

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