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Plead the 5th: "James Monroe"(11.23.20)

You may be a star, but if you mostly hang out with superstars, no one will see you shine. (There's an anti-inspirational poster here just begging to be made.)

For his entire adulthood, James Monroe hung out with superstars. Some call him the last Founding Father, but he's more like the Founding Kid Brother.

He dropped out of college to fight in the American Revolution, serving as a teenage officer under George Washington himself. When he got back into a classroom, he studied law under Thomas Jefferson himself. When he entered public life, he was a confidant of James Madison himself. Monroe was seldom the first to do anything; his most amazing roles were hand-me-downs from his older contemporaries. And like true older brothers, those contemporaries took him for granted or Monroe fell out with each of his famous friends at one point or another.

The end result is that we maybe don't appreciate Monroe as much as we should. Tim McGrath sets out to right that greivous wrong with "James Monroe," the most extensive biography of the fifth president in decades. He pored over thousands of letters, dispatches and political screeds -- so you don't have to!

It's not the most riveting political biography ever written, but it makes a pretty solid argument for Monroe's place in history. There are a few main themes:

Monroe actually wasn't the best. He was a remarkable individual, but each of his superstar colleagues outshone him in some way. Washington was a better leader, Jefferson had a more brilliant mind and Madison had a more analytical mind. In fact, when he was working as a diplomat Monroe could be a bit peevish and petty. Monroe's superior virtue, later in life, was his realtively even temperament -- he had been through enough that he figured out how to handle people who had once acted the way he did.

Monroe was a political creature. As the first American political parties formed, Monroe was a true partisan. He was happy to dump on the Federalists at every opportunity and had no problem with the federal government becoming an extension of his party. Later in life, he mellowed out -- after the Federalists were essentially destroyed, Monroe's presidency featured an "era of good feelings" where he tried to incorporate some Federalist ideas into the Republican platform. It created a huge schism within the Republican Party, but what can you do.

Monroe was a prisoner of the plantation system. He was in the "middle class" of Virginia planters, having modest amounts of lands and slaves. He never really devoted much attention to the management of his plantations, and like Jefferson and Madison, he fell into a lifelong debt spiral. Monroe lived well beyond his means -- sometimes out of pride, sometimes out of professional obligation -- and had that stress hanging over his head for his entire adulthood. His reliance on slavery for income also made him incapable of dealing with it effectively. Like some of his famous contemporaries, Monroe claimed to hate the institution and the slave trade, but didn't pursue emancipation.

All these play out over a career that is pretty stunning, in terms of its depth. Monroe's military exploits early on elevated him to elite status in Virginia politics. He spent some time in state government, then when the Constitution was written, secured appointment as one of Virginia's first U.S. Senators. George Washington sent him overseas to serve as minister to France. That didn't go well, but it didn't derail his career -- within a few years of his return he was governor of Virginia. He headed to Europe again, as a diplomat for President Jefferson. That also ended in frustration, but Monroe's overall competetnce and connections kept him relevant.

When President Madison found his secretary of state lacking, he turned to Monroe as a replacement. When, amid the war of 1812, the War Department was in shambles, Monroe stepped in to organize things there. He was an easy choice to become the fifth president.

As for accomplishments, Monroe had a few. He was a longtime advocate for acquisition of the Mississippi River and Florida; he eventually played key roles in both, helping to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase and, as president, overseeing the Adams-Onis treaty. He helped America emerge from "provincial backwater" into a global player, by steering the development of the Monroe Doctrine. And while it's not a proactive accomplishment, he did push America toward a reckoning on slavery by facilitating the Missouri Compromise.

McGrath is a fairly engaging writer, but sometimes there's only so much you can do with the source material. Diplomatic history from the early 19th century is a total slog. Monroe, working as a diplomat in England, France and Spain, was often negotiating with no knowledge of current events at home. (It took weeks for communications to cross the ocean.) There was political intrigue happening, but a lot of times the players had no idea who they were screwing over. Several times, Monroe felt like his superiors in Washington hung him out to dry, and it took MONTHS to figure these things out. I just read the book and I'm not sure I've figured them out, either.

The most lively parts have to do with military history; McGrath gives nice accountings of Monroe's limited involvement in the Revolution -- when he was shot at the Battle of Trenton, in particular -- and Monroe's attempt to clean up the mess in the war of 1812. There are some fascinating parts on Monroe's dealings with Andrew Jackson, and his partnership with John Quincy Adams.

And I do admire McGrath's refusal to sugarcoat Monroe's legacy. Although Monroe was there at the beginning of the nation, he was ultimately a transitional figure. His politics were the bridge between the Founders and the Jacksonian era; he put a lot of stuff in motion without being domineering.

It's probably not a book for the casual history fan, but it does have some bite.

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