American history, best biographies, book reviews, Harlow Unger, Harry Ammon, James Monroe, presidential biographies, Presidents
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 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 or anything he did prior to his presidency. Forced to identify any of Monroe’s presidential accomplishments before I began this biographical journey, all I could conjure up was the Monroe Doctrine…
Biographers seem equally detached from Monroe and his legacy; only a modest number of books focused on Monroe have been published. 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 much more recently 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 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 an objective historian would have authored. (Full review)
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[Added May 2020]
* The first comprehensive biography of James Monroe’s in over a decade was published this week – so I jumped at the chance to read and review it immediately. Tim McGrath’s “James Monroe: A Life” is delightfully thorough – the longest of the three Monroe biographies I’ve now read – and is commendable in many respects. But it does not break away from the pack.
In many ways it reads like two different books: one focused on Monroe’s early life (which, for me, was relatively dense, dull, disjointed and disappointing) and one focused on his service as a US senator, governor, diplomat and president (which proved far more engaging, insightful and enjoyable). In a perfect world, I suppose, readers would absorb Monroe’s early life from Ammon or Unger and then re-live Monroe’s political career through the eyes of McGrath. (Full review here)
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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
Most Recent Biography of Monroe: “James Monroe: A Life” by Tim McGrath
For a President that gave us the Monroe Doctrine you would think there would be more scholarship about him. Interesting post Steve.
My wife was similarly surprised since Monroe (who she knows a bit about since he grew up near where we live) only has two books on my list while John Quincy Adams (who she has heard next to nothing about) has no fewer than four biographies currently sitting on the corner of my desk…
Janet Rörschåch said:
I couldn’t even have named the Monroe Doctrine. I wonder if the reason for so little interest is due to standing between Madison and John Quincy. It’s like the old stage saying, “Never go on after animals and children.”
OK, now that’s funny. I’ve never heard that expression before, but now I’m looking for opportunities to use it!
Teacher in Tejas said:
WC Fields basically said, “never perform with animals or children.”
I just came across your blog on my own presidential biography adventure. It’s fantastic and a great resource!
I’m just finishing up Ketcham’s Madison and ready for Monroe, but after reading your reviews I’m torn over which book to choose. I’m guessing Ammon’s book is more useful and similar to Ketcham, which I am enjoying despite some dry spells. I don’t tend to enjoy overly opinionated biographies. I found Meacham’s Jefferson too slanted and trying to entertain. At the same time, I very much enjoyed McCullough’s Adams, though it’s been interesting see him depicted much more harshly in books on Jefferson and Madison.
Sounds like you are facing many of the same dilemmas I confronted when I was trying to choose “just one” biography per president. I gave up, of course, and went the route of multiple bios per president – but I recognize that’s a route that almost no one would voluntarily choose!
I also tend not to appreciate highly-opinionated biographies; in those instances I usually feel like an author is trying to “con” me. Instead, I prefer bios where the facts and context are provided clearly and the reader is allowed to form a considered opinion. And when that is combined with an entertaining, colorful narrative – all the better!
James Monroe was the first president I had limited knowledge about, except the Monroe Doctrine, so I was excited to read the Ammon biography. I was not let down, the last paragraph of your review of the book not only summarizes the book, but explains excellently what I look for in a biography.
Having not read the book in just over three years, your comment compelled me to re-read the review. Amazingly, after reading that last paragraph, I remember the book almost like it was yesterday!
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I’m almost through with Madison and trying to figure out which biography I want to go with for Monroe. I am very torn after reading both your reviews and the comments people have left about each book. It’s surprising to me that these really seem to be the only two options. What would you suggest?
On James Monroe all I can say is…I feel your pain! He has clearly been underserved by biographers but I don’t see that changing anytime soon. I live near his birthplace, law office and his retirement home (formerly known as Ashlawn-Highland) so I’m naturally motivated to understand his life. Although it has been about 4.5 years, I recall the biography dilemma and I think it’s really a coin toss. As I recall, Ammon’s dated biography is the standard but is a bit flat and uninspiring. Harlow Unger’s much more recently biography is likely to appeal to people who are content to read well-written books.
I am torn, however, because while I usually like the tie to go to the book that’s more engaging, in this case Ammon’s book is about 50% more lengthy and I’m not sure you can really adequately cover someone who became president in <350 pages.
Wish I could be more help, but do let me know which you choose and what you thought!
Thanks for the insight! I’m leaning towards Unger’s book, and I’ll be back to let you know what I think when I get to it. It’ll probably still be several more months before I get around to it. I recently finished Lynne Cheney’s biography on Madison and I also have Noah Feldman’s bio of him that I intend to read as well. My pace is much less ambitious than yours—only 2-3 presidents a year, and as you can see, I just got started. Your blog is such a great resource!
Bill Wilson said:
I’ve been reading three or four biographies of each of the presidents and I’m now up to Monroe. I’ve been reading the Ammon and Unger biographies together; going back and forth roughly based on the time period covered.
I just went back and read your review of the Unger book and was comforted to find that you also think that his treatment of Monroe is more than a bit colored by Unger’s admiration for his subject. I’m coming away thinking that someone needs to do a well-researched biography that falls somewhere between Ammon’s catalogue of events and Unger’s charming, sometimes glorified version of events.
It doesn’t appear that Hart’s rehash of Ammon fits the bill. Are you aware of any other balanced work that is being done on Monroe? There far more here than I initially imagined, but at this point, it’s hard to sort out the true picture.
Sadly, it seems that James Monroe’s life just hasn’t received the respect or attention of the more famous Founding Fathers. If I recall correctly, he and/or his wife burned much of their correspondence and biographers simply don’t have as much good primary source material to work with and, possibly as a result, fewer biographers have taken a crack at his life.
Have you heard of the WP Cresson Monroe biography that was part of the Easton Press series? Apparently the book is old, (Cresson died in 39) but totalling almost 600 pages it appears to be the longest Monroe biography I’m aware of. I can’t find any reviews on it anywhere, not even on goodreads. I’m curious, as it continues to sell at somewhat of a decent, affordable price on amazon and eBay.
Unless you’re collecting presidential biographies, you can skip Cresson’s book. It was superseded by Ammon’s book and Unger’s is probably the most readable. A new biography by Tim McGrath is due March 2020.
Cresson’s book had a strange journey to publication. He died in 1932 before completing the manuscript and his book was published in 1946. The first person selected to complete the work – Mark Antony De Wolfe Howe – eventually passed it along when he decided his lack of expertise and other commitments would hamper completion. The second editor – Scott Hurtt Paradise – died in 1942. The University Press of North Carolina finally got it completed in 1946. Mr. Howe did contribute an introduction.
I was able to locate a couple reviews:
– “Disappointing” – https://journals.psu.edu/pmhb/article/view/30187/29942
Oh wow… good to know. Didn’t realize he died that early. The publication sounds like a bit of a mess. Regarding Monroe, my local library only has the American Presidents Series entry and “The Presidency of James Monroe”. I would quite like to read something with a bit more girth to it. There’s currently a low-priced copy of the Cresson book for sale on eBay I was contemplating on purchasing. I suppose I’ll wait until McGrath’s bio is released next year, as my library will likely purchase it. Thanks.
Bill Wilson said:
I read both the Ammon and the Unger. Unger’s biography is a relatively easy read (most of his books are quite readable). I think that Ammon’s May be both more complete and maybe a little more even-handed. Unger has a tendency to reveal his point of view a little too readily in my opinion.
Joe B said:
Evidently McGrath’s book is pushed back to May (according to Amazon anyway)
Wha Wha…But i’m up to Monroe NOW! (just finished Brookhiser’s Madison)
I can wait and go out of order and hit JQA first, but that throws everything off.
Such a dilemma!!
Ah, such a predicament! I thought the two Monroe biographies I read a few years ago were fine, but I have high hopes for this one (out the first week of May, I believe). For the first time in presidential biography history, I have this book pre-ordered and expect to read and review it as soon as I get it.
Obviously you need to take a side-journey and read a biography of Hamilton or John Marshall or Ben Franklin or John Jay… But you WILL enjoy JQA whenever you get to him.
Joe Brandsdorfer said:
I am trying to get through all the president bios as a bucket list item ( I actually started with Fear, so went 45 then 1,2…). Anyway, what an absolutely brilliant idea!!
I think Marshall or Jay are most intriguing of your options simply because so much about Hamilton & even some Franklin was covered in the first 4 pres bios (plus knowing of them prior). Much less on Jay or Marshall (or Hancock, Sam Adams, etc.)
What specific book would you recommend for this side journey?
My favorite non-presidential biography so far has been Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, but since you’re looking for someone you’re less familiar with what I will say is: I’m really looking forward to Jean Edward Smith’s bio of John Marshall.
Everything I’ve read that JES has written I’ve thoroughly enjoyed (including bios of Grant, FDR, Eisenhower). Well, except for his biography of Bush 43. But other than that one exception, I’ve enjoyed his style, his balance, his analysis and level of detail, etc. And since John Marshall was such an important piece of the early American experiment, I have high hopes for JES’s bio of him.
I’m also curious whether Ira Stoll’s bio of Sam Adams will exceed my expectations and I’d really like to read biographies of John Calhoun, John Hancock and Patrick Henry (I have books for each of those listed under my “What’s Next” page. And I’d *really* like to find a great biography of George Wythe….
Bill Wilson said:
For what its worth, here is my shot at a presidential biographies list.
Bill Wilson firstname.lastname@example.org (608) 868-9180
From: My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies Reply-To: My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies Date: Monday, January 27, 2020 at 3:01 PM To: “email@example.com” Subject: [New comment] The Best Biographies of James Monroe
Steve commented: “My favorite non-presidential biography so far has been Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, but since you’re looking for someone you’re less familiar with what I will say is: I’m really looking forward to Jean Edward Smith’s bio of John Marshall. Everythin”
Joe B said:
Just read an overview of the JES book, looks great but i dont think i have 750 pages on Marshall in me. (I only really read on my daily commute. Adams by McCullough took me like 4 months)
I think i’ll opt for Stolls Adams book so i can get a little more of the Boston flavor after reading 2 straight Virginian presidents. If that doesnt take me to McGrath/ Monroe I’ll have to find a side side journey 🙂
Thanks much Steve!