“James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity” by Harry Ammon was originally published in 1971, making it the oldest of the well-read biographies of our fifth president (though this is not a particularly crowded field). Ammon is formerly a Professor of History at Southern Illinois University and the author of “The Genet Mission.”
Long regarded as a “go to” biography of Monroe, Ammon’s book is clearly intended primarily to inform and not to entertain. Like most presidential biographies of its era, it is long on historical facts and wisdom and relatively short on captivating anecdotes and observations.
Some of the blame may rest on Monroe himself, who had little of Jefferson’s worldliness, John Adams’s irascibility or the keen political cunning of Madison. Monroe was not a man of tremendous intellectual brilliance or outstanding charisma. He may be a difficult subject around whom to wrap an exciting narrative; Ammon seems to have figured this out and avoided the attempt.
Instead, the author paints a picture of Monroe as a man who, like Washington, was less well-educated (at least formally) than other famous politicians of his era and relied on what we consider “street smarts” and personal likability to succeed. Although occasionally considered a “Founding Father” – a view that is by no means universal – he is the least well known of these historical figures, and the least well articulated of the first five presidents.
Ammon describes a Monroe I did not previously know well: a man who dropped out of college to serve in the Revolutionary War, who served as a member of the Continental Congress, the Virginia House of Delegates and the United States Senate, was diplomat in France, Great Britain and Spain, served as Governor of Virginia, Secretary of State, Secretary of War and, ultimately, as President for two terms. This leaves me feeling rather under-accomplished by comparison.
But while this thorough description of Monroe’s public service provides an excellent review of his most important accomplishments, Ammon fails (as do many presidential biographers) to provide much insight into his subject’s private life or inner personality. Though the biography briefly describes his upbringing, his family and his personality traits, Monroe’s inner-self is never really revealed. We know of his wife and children, but almost nothing about them or how they may have influenced him. Though I am not certain, this may be rooted in his failure to leave many personal documents to posterity (apparently only a single letter to his wife survives).
I found most chapters of Ammon’s biography well-written but tedious or dry. At times I was uncertain whether this was the result of dull writing or more the result of what seemed, on balance, a relatively dull presidency. And because I never developed a keen sense of who Monroe was as a person (excepting the author’s excellent description of Monroe as a politician) there was little to spice up the stretches of time when his political career provided little controversy or excitement.
While the biography generally proceeds chronologically, Ammon choose to review Monroe’s presidency thematically. Unfortunately, this meant I often found myself trying to stitch timelines together from different “themes” (such as the purchase of Florida, relations with England and the Economic Panic of 1819). I have a desire to digest history chronologically in order to more easily understand cause and effect of events (or at least their proximity) and Ammon’s approach in these two-hundred pages made that more difficult.
Although there were inspired observations and moments of genius, these were surrounded by lengthy workaday stretches where I could hear one of my college professor lecturing to a large room, unaware whether the class was even awake. Of special value, however, was Ammon’s discussion of President Monroe’s choice of cabinet officers at the beginning of his first term. This section was particularly interesting, insightful and memorable and was perfectly timed to capture the reader’s attention at a critical time in Monroe’s life.
Overall, “James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity” was a worthwhile read. I would have preferred a more captivating narrative but, like Monroe, the book is straightforward and unexciting. I also wish Ammon had been more vocal about his own views of Monroe’s successes and failures as a politician and leader, but he ultimately leaves those decisions to the reader. But what Ammon does provide is a complete dissection of Monroe’s political life that will leave the reader extraordinarily informed, if not often entertained.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars