Review of “James Monroe: A Life” by Tim McGrath

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Released on May 5, “James Monroe: A Life” by Tim McGrath is the first comprehensive exploration of Monroe’s life in over a decade.  McGrath is a business executive, author and two-time winner of the Commodore John Barry Book award. His previous books include “Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America’s Revolution at Sea” and “John Barry: An American Hero in the Age of Sail.”

At first glance, James Monroe seems an unlikely subject for McGrath – whose specialty is early American naval affairs. Nevertheless this biography appears well researched, contains copious footnotes and proves quite thorough. And with 586 pages of text (and nearly 140 pages of bibliography and footnotes) it is the longest of the three biographies of Monroe I’ve read.

With a limited selection of books covering Monroe’s life – and the need for an insightful, engaging and indisputably definitive biography of James Monroe – I had high hopes this would be my clear favorite. But while it proves commendable in many respects, it does not break away from the pack.

McGrath views Monroe as an under-valued figure whose political evolution from sectarian (during his early career) to bipartisan statesman (while president) was extraordinarily uncommon. This inclusive approach to politics, combined with a keen sense of judgment, allowed Monroe to revitalize his young but beleaguered nation as president. To McGrath’s credit, while he is clearly a fan of Monroe his advocacy is generally subtle.

In many ways, McGrath’s biography of James Monroe reads like two different books: one covering the first part of his life (childhood, aborted college career, Revolutionary War service, law studies and early career) and one focusing on his later, more noteworthy efforts (as a US senator, governor, diplomat and president). The former is relatively dense, dull, disjointed and disappointing while the latter proves far more engaging, insightful and enjoyable.

The early narrative is often strangely detached from Monroe; the reader observes his actions but never feels any sense of intimacy with his character and there is never a sense of seeing the world through Monroe’s eyes. In the same spirit, there is relatively little connectivity with the broader arc of history. While the text provides the detail behind numerous important historical events there is little connection to the broader context or the “big picture.”

The early pace is also remarkably uneven. In some scenes the narrative slows dramatically to reveal much about a particular event while in other moments time passes with a remarkable frenzy. For instance, in just one paragraph Monroe concludes his law studies, is admitted to the bar, seeks election to the Virginia General Assembly, campaigns…and wins. The net effect of these bursts of history mixed among moments of deliberate focus can be dizzying.

Readers unfamiliar with Monroe may also find portions of the narrative somewhat difficult to follow. Chapters tend not to telegraph where Monroe’s life will take him or to highlight critical upcoming moments or themes. And there is rarely a concluding paragraph (or even sentence) to ensure the reader absorbed the chapter’s most important essence. Finally, this part of the biography is excellent at observing what happened but rarely explains why.

But where the first half of this biography is often frustrating, a notable (and refreshing) transition occurs as the narrative tackles Monroe’s senatorial career and his service as a diplomat in France. And by the time the War of 1812 brings British troops to American soil the narrative is nearly perfectly paced and far more satisfying. As a result, the best moments from this portion of the book tend to shine more brightly.

Among the highlights are excellent coverage of Gabriel’s slave rebellion, the British invasion of Washington DC and the run-up to Monroe’s presidency – including a good review of the presidential campaign. Readers are also treated to a surprisingly captivating summary of President Monroe’s four-month tour of the northeast in 1817. Finally, McGrath offers a particularly interesting description of efforts to rebuild the White House after it burned, a penetrating chapter on slavery (within the context of Monroe’s time) and appropriate attention to Monroe’s wife, daughters and his other important relationships.

Overall, Tim McGrath’s new biography of James Monroe provides good, but inconsistent, treatment of the life of the last Founding Father to serve as president. Readers hoping to understand Monroe’s formative years and early career may find the young Monroe (and his era) elusive, but those seeking to embrace his presidency are likely to walk away far more satisfied. But one thing is certain: the modern definitive biography of James Monroe still remains to be published.

Overall rating: 3¾ stars