Book Review: James Monroe by Gary Hart

I borrowed this book from the local library.

I set a goal to read, in order, all of the biographies of the presidents of the United States who have passed away.

Book Review James Monroe by Gary Hart

James Monroe is a short biography written by Gary Hart (US Senator, D – CO) about the fifth president of the United States.  James Monroe, the last of the presidents who served in the American Revolutionary War, (he got wounded in the Battle of Trenton) is never ranked highly in his role as chief executive, especially when compared with big guns he had followed (fellow Virginians, Washington, Jefferson and Madison as well as Massachusetts native John Adams).

The theme the author chose to follow is that Monroe is the “first national security president”.  As a solider, like Washington, James Monroe saw the building of the nation through the eyes scarred from the battlefield, not through legislative eyes of Jefferson and Madison. Gary Hart does a masterful job in filling the gaps in the life of a president who played an important role in the building of these United States.

I find that true in today’s world as well.  Many soldiers and ex-soldiers view the world from a different perspective than those who have not worn a uniform.  Maybe it is because we have seen human kind at its best and worst; we have seen people act in unbelievable kindness under the harshest circumstances as well as commit the crimes which we didn’t think civilized human beings are capable of even imagining.

The first chapter gives the reader a background about Monroe’s service in the Continental Army, a role which, as explained before, affects his policies and administration.  After the revolution Monroe served in several political roles such as Governor of Virginia, Congress, an ambassador as well as the first person to hold duel offices of Secretary of State and Secretary of War during the tenure of James Madison.

Taking on the office of the president, Hart describes how Monroe differed from the Republican ideals of the time (those who studied and shaped their policy from the ancient Greek texts, not today’s Republican Party), as well as the breakthrough act of installing John Quincy Adams, a northerner, to a position of power and influence in the administration.

At this point, Hart touches on the important part Monroe’s successor John Quincy Adams played in the administration.  As an experienced diplomat and Secretary of State Adams had large influence on the president’s policies towards Europe and South America, as well as what we known today as the “Monroe Doctrine”.  To my disappointment the Missouri Compromise barley gets mentioned even though it was a defining moment in Monroe’s administration in which he gambled many of his political chips.

Hart goes on to describe the post-presidency years of James Monroe.  Unlike many of today’s politicians, James Monroe did not line his pockets during his tenure because he felt it was unethical. When Monroe left politics he was in debt due to his out of pocket expenses during the years of his service.  At the time, unless you were very rich (Washington, Jefferson) or had a steady source of income (Adams) public servant salaries, especially at the upper echelon of the government, did not pay a living wage.

Former president Monroe, bankrupt and out of assets to sell, was forced to be Congress to reimburse him for his expenses overseas, representing the country he gave so much to help create.  The embarrassing scenario was made even more humiliating when Congress ignores his requests and even the mighty Jefferson could not help.

James Monroe, wounded veteran of the Continental Army, Senator, Congressman, ambassador, president – died bankrupt.

In the last chapter, Hart tries to put Monroe’s tenure and policies in context to today’s world.  The author does a fine job even though he could not resist taking a few cheap shots at the Bush (43) administration which I felt, right or wrong, were out of place in this book.

The book is a good discussion starter about President Monroe, it is by no means a complete biography, but it’s not meant to be either.  The narrow scope of the book is interesting, concise and well written; a welcomed introduction a president many have forgotten.

My rating for James Monroe – 3Do you think we should take care of our former Presidents (as we do now) or just let them fend for themselves?

Zohar – Man of La Book
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