For an American president to be remembered, exciting things — good or bad — must occur on his “watch.” James Monroe had the good fortune to preside over a period of peace and prosperity between 1817 and 1825, but as a result his two terms were lacking in drama. He had the additional bad luck to come at the tail end of America’s most distinguished political generation, one that included the likes of Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Franklin.
These men were truly Founding Fathers, and the title of Harlow Giles Unger’s new biography, “The Last Founding Father,” is a bit pretentious. Monroe served with distinction in the American Revolution, but for much of his career he was little known outside of Virginia, and hardly a Founding Father.
Young Monroe was a student at the College of William and Mary at the outset of the American Revolution, but he was eager to join the fight. In 1775, he participated in a raid on the governor’s palace in Williamsburg in which Patriots appropriated several hundred muskets and swords on behalf of the Virginia militia. Two years later, Monroe joined Washington’s army as a lieutenant; he fought at the Battle of Trenton where he was wounded in the shoulder. After the war, Monroe returned to Virginia and studied law under Thomas Jefferson, with whom he formed a warm friendship and a lasting political association.
Monroe entered Virginia politics in 1782, serving in the House of Delegates and attending various conferences related to strengthening the Articles of Confederation. He opposed the draft Constitution, in part because of the absence of a Bill of Rights. Monroe was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1790, where he proved a stalwart Jeffersonian and a stern critic of the Washington administration. Eager to be rid of him, Washington appointed Monroe minister (ambassador) to France in 1794. Although Monroe was a Francophile at heart, he suffered from France’s annoyance at the terms of a new American treaty with Britain. Having pleased neither President Washington nor the French authorities, Monroe was recalled in 1796. He served three years as governor of Virginia before returning to France in 1803 to negotiate Jefferson’s famous Louisiana Purchase.
By 1808, Monroe was sufficiently well known for him to challenge James Madison for the Democratic-Republican presidential nomination. He lost, but there were no hard feelings; in 1811, Madison offered his former rival the post of secretary of state — then widely seen as a steppingstone to the presidency.
As secretary of state, Monroe hoped for a reconciliation with Britain over issues such as the impressment of American sailors. But the War of 1812 came, and Monroe proved to be one of the few competent members of Madison’s Cabinet. As the British advanced on Washington, Madison made Monroe secretary of war as well as secretary of state. Monroe attempted bravely and energetically to reorganize the defenses of Washington, requesting militia from nearby states and helping to distribute supplies. In Mr. Unger’s words, “He spent almost twenty-four hours a day in a frenzy of activity, building up troop strength around Washington.”
All to no avail, of course, but Monroe was one of the few prominent Americans who emerged from the war with his reputation enhanced, and among Democratic-Republicans he became Madison’s logical successor. With the collapse of the Federalists, Monroe was easily elected president in 1816.
The slavery issue had not yet divided the country, and Monroe’s presidency became known as the Era of Good Feeling. A visit by Lafayette, whose wife Monroe had assisted while minister to France, was an occasion for national rejoicing. The Monroe Doctrine, pronounced in 1823, became a cornerstone of American foreign policy. Scholars have debated for decades the relative roles of Monroe and his secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, in formulating the doctrine. Mr. Unger dismisses the controversy, stating, “Monroe’s proclamation was entirely his own creation.”
Monroe struggled with debt for most of his career, and the years after his presidency were difficult ones. He sold most of his Virginia land, but retained Ash Lawn near Jefferson’s Monticello. After the death of his wife, Elizabeth, to whom he was devoted, Monroe moved to New York City and spent his last year there with a married daughter.
Less scholarly than his presidential predecessors, and lacking in charisma, Monroe had the good fortune to occupy the White House before political differences once again divided the nation. Mr. Unger breaks little new ground in telling Monroe’s story, but provides a workmanlike study of a workmanlike president.
• Historian and biographer John M. Taylor lives in McLean.