Number Five

Finally! A good biography of the fifth U.S. president, James Monroe!! When I started reading presidential biographies, in order, I figured there might be some patches where no decent and recent biography would be available, but I certainly wasn’t expecting a hard stop at number five. Tim McGrath to the rescue–with his 586-page doorstop, James Monroe: A Life. After I read what turned out to be a strong, well-written biography, my appetite wasn’t sated. After reading Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life, David McCullough’s John Adams, John B. Boles’ recent Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty (which I reviewed in 2017), Lynne Cheney’s James Madison: A Life Reconsidered, along with books about John Marshall, also reviewed here, Hamilton, and others,  I realized how little I knew about a man who was very much a part of the founding story, but then disappeared–Aaron Burr. Fortunately, I found a very good (used) book, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg. Now, the pieces of the puzzle fit together in a way that makes more sense to me. I have much more to learn, but Burr was a missing piece for me–and I’ll thank multiple viewings of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical for piquing my curiosity.

Let’s start with Burr, the man who might have been our fourth, or perhaps, our fifth U.S. president. In fact, Burr was very much in “the room where it happened” throughout much of his political career–a mover and shaker who managed to pull himself up from tragedy, as Hamilton did. Both men were serious political operators, very appealing, with active sexual lives–Burr kept a diary of his sex life, apparently not unusual at the time. Burr was born entitled. His father was the first president of what became Princeton University, and when he died, Aaron Jr.’s grandfather (his mother Esther’s father), the preacher Jonathan Edwards, took the job. Shortly after, young Aaron nearly died but somehow survived. Months later, his mother Esther and her father Jonathan were gone, followed by Esther’s mother, Sarah. The story begins, as it does with Alexander Hamilton, with our hero as an orphan. And, as with his real-life rival Hamilton, Burr becomes a distinguished attorney, supports a Revolutionary War general (though Hamilton’s prestigious connection with Washington outshines Burr’s with Stirling), and becomes deeply involved in New York State politics, and the national scene. Eventually, Burr becomes the nation’s third Vice President–to Jefferson–but there’s a problem. Jefferson does not wish to see Hamilton as the nation’s fourth President; instead, he prefers his friend and neighbor, James Madison. This complicated storyline eventually places James Monroe–who was closely allied with both Jefferson and Madison, as Number Five. Along the way, all of these dudes made incredibly stupid decisions in their personal lives but figured out how to build and grow a new nation. Over more than two centuries, mythology overwhelmed the Burr story, and Professor Isenberg gets a lot of credit for weeding out the nonsense and trying to set the story straight.

Burr didn’t think much of Monroe–“he called the last President in the Virginia Dynasty ‘naturally dull & stupid–extremely illiterate,’ ‘indecisive…pusillanimous & of course hypocritical,” and “observing that he never ‘commanded a platoon or was every fit to command one.” And… “as a lawyer, Monroe was ‘far below Mediocrity…” His ‘character exactly suited… the View of the Virginia Junto,’ which “maintained itself on sycophancy instead of recruiting men of “Talent and Independence.” Jumping from the book about Burr to the book about Monroe, Burr’s criticism was bombastic and colorful, but it contains a fair amount of truth.

The problem with Monroe is that he was more of an ordinary man than a legendary character–and he was our first president with that particular characteristic. Author McGrath makes the best of that situation and tells a good story about an essentially good man’s life in the midst of revolutionary change and a new nation.

For example…18-year old Lieutenant Monroe crossed the Delaware River with General Washington. Interesting story: in December 1776, while leading his men, as quietly as possible, from the landing site down into Trenton, a dog barked, and the dog’s owner, John Riker, came out to see what was happening. When he heard the men’s Virginia accents, he welcomed them as revolutionaries, offered them food, and insisted on joining them in Trenton. Lt. Monroe did his best to dissuade Dr. Riker because he was losing valuable time and did not want to show up late for the sneak attack on the Hessian mercenaries in Trenton. Riker came anyway. Monroe was wounded by a cannonball; it opened his chest. Dr. Riker saved his life.

Monroe’s family was prosperous and well-connected, but his parents died while he was still a teenager. He had some land, an interest in speculating in more land, rather poor financial management instincts, an interest in law, and a knack for politics. By 1787, he was a member of the Virginia state assembly, and by 1790, he was a U.S. Senator. Politically, he stood with Madison and Jefferson (his former law instructor), against the forces of Adams and Hamilton. Three years later, he was the U.S. Minister to France, skillful in rebuilding and managing relationships in Paris, but often overwhelmed because he was often excluded from policy discussions, and never quite figured out how to work his way back into the conversation–and anything he did try to accomplish created problems with the Federalists. When Adams became president, Monroe was recalled, and shortly after, became Virginia’s governor.

When Madison finished his second term, Monroe was ideally positioned to become the fifth president. By that time, the U.S. and Britain were again at war, and there was no guarantee that the United States would remain viable as a unified nation. Author McGrath describes some astonishing scenes of “Washington City” in ruins as a result of successful British attacks–and Monroe’s attempts to keep government and family together, and safe. As the war fades from view, Monroe and his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, and a somewhat out-of-control general Andrew Jackson push the Spanish away from Florida and consolidate power while building relationships with newly independent South American nations. Seeing opportunity and potential political salvation, Aaron Burr’s meanderings weave in and out of the story, more so in Isenberg than in McGrath, another reason to read both books together.

In short, the Monroe book is a well-told story of a transition–the era of the founders is fading, and Monroe represents their last huzzah, and the era of U.S. expansion is beginning in earnest, as the U.S. begins to become, if not a world power, than a controlling influence on its hemisphere. And that helps to explain how and why Monroe was able to issue a doctrine to stop the Europeans from messing around in our part of the world. Think of his doctrine more as a capstone, less of a disruption. The world was moving on.

A post-script: The University of Virginia’s Miller Center offers a fine biography of James Monroe, in several sections, on its website. In fact, the work on Monroe is a small part of a massive biographical, historical and contextual series of essays about every U.S. president: Life in Brief, Life Before the Presidency, Campaigns and Elections, Domestic Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Death of the President, Family Life, The American Franchise, and Impact and Legacy.

 

 

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