James Monroe was the first of the earliest presidents to capture the presidency without an obvious tailwind assisting his efforts. He was a college drop-out and Revolutionary War veteran who was never able to achieve a command he believed equal to his talents. And, like some modern-day presidents, he was not particularly intellectually gifted or a natural leader.
But he was hard working, likable and a little bit scrappy. He carefully cultivated personal relationships throughout his life, and along the way he gained some valuable mentors and friends. Among these were Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Marshall.
During his four decades of public service, Monroe served in the Virginia House of Delegates, on the Virginia Governor’s Council, as a Delegate to the Continental Congress, as a U.S. Senator, Minister to France, Governor of Virginia, as special Envoy to France, Minister to Britain, Secretary of State, Secretary of War and, finally, as a two-term President of the United States.
Yet very few Americans are familiar with Monroe, much less with anything he actually did during his life. Forced to name anything Monroe did as president before I began this journey through the best presidential biographies, all I could conjure up was the Monroe Doctrine…and that only because I had an excellent American history teacher in high school.
Biographers seem equally detached from Monroe and his legacy; only a very small number of books focused on Monroe are available. And few of those seem to have been read by more than just the author’s “friends and family.” For the purpose of my quest, I read the two most popular (but thorough) biographies of Monroe I could find.
* Harry Ammon’s “James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity” was written over forty years ago and remains the standard Monroe biography for interested scholars and aspiring presidential historians. Unfortunately for the latter, it seems to have been written not to entertain, but primarily to inform. And in an effort to avoid injecting bias into the text, the author diligently avoids passing along the insightful opinions he undoubtedly formed while conducting research for this book.
The reader also fails to learn much about the personal side of Monroe; he is never fully humanized and seems two-dimensional. But otherwise the book is a thorough and informative review of Monroe’s life. (Full review here)
* Harlow Unger’s “The Last Founding Father: James Monroe” was written just four years ago and provides a more colorful glimpse into Monroe’s life. This biography is more more rapidly paced and easily read than Ammon’s. Unger’s biography of Monroe also features more (many more) of its author’s own opinions. This proves to be both a fundamental strength and a critical weakness of the book.
The author’s provocative, against-the-grain statements are often interesting to read but many seem almost outrageous when seriously considered (Adams, Jefferson and Madison were merely caretaker presidents?) Fortunately, these claims are easy to spot and consider critically. But how many opinions were more subtly disguised as fact? In the end, this was a more entertaining biography than Ammon’s, but left me with the feeling I had read the biography Monroe would have written of himself rather than the book a perfectly objective historian would have authored. (Full review)
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Best Biography of Monroe: “James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity” by Harry Ammon
Most Entertaining Biography of Monroe: “The Last Founding Father: James Monroe” by Harlow Unger