Book Review: James Monroe by Gary Hart

July 26, 2010

James Monroe s 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, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison as well as Massachusetts native John Adams).

  • 192 pages
  • Publisher: Times Books
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805069607

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.

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

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Dis­claimer: I got this book from the local library.
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10 Comments

  • Creations by Laurel- July 26, 2010 at 10:43 am

    This sounds like an intriguing book…as to your question, that's a good one. I am going back and forth on it, but I guess that we should at least provide security. As for anything else, I don't think so. They're all pretty well-off when they take office…Thanks for visiting my blog.

  • Chelle July 26, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    I actually own this book because at the time I was ready to read Monroe my library didn't have anything on him. There was plenty on Marilyn Monroe but nothing about one of our presidents. I thought that was sad. If I remember right, both Jefferson and Washington's estate were sold right after their deaths due to their huge amounts of debt. But I think Monroe really did get the worst deal since he had to go around begging. Hard to think that could ever happen to a president today.

  • Man of la Book July 26, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    Thanks for the nice comment LaurelChelle, at the time of his death George Washington was a very astute farmer and businessman as well as one of the richest, if not the richest, man in Virginia. His estate went to his family however they could not maintain it and sold it to the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union who own it to this day.It is a wonderful place to visit since it has been restored to the days of George Washington and is now an actual working farm.Jefferson on the other hand, spent money like water and he did die while in debt.

  • Lorin July 26, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    I see on your currently reading page that you are planning a trip to Charlottesville, home of my alma mater.I know very few things about Monroe: the Doctrine named for him, his close friendship with Jefferson, and that he gave his estate to the University of Virginia, so there are a lot of buildings named after him there. Sad, aren't I?

  • Man of la Book July 26, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    Hi Lorin,yes, we're leaving this week for a few days. We went to Mt. Vernon for a day and stayed in Yorktown for a week – about two years ago and I have to say that our vacation in VA was one of the best ones we took as a family.

  • DeLynne July 26, 2010 at 7:06 pm

    It's hard to imagine an American president being in debt these days. They certainly are wealthy before and after office. Maybe their pay should be performance-based. Bonuses for peace, high employment and lower interest rates.

  • Autumn July 26, 2010 at 8:33 pm

    That's a really interesting reading challenge.I don't think an American President would ever have that problem anymore. Even if he or she had financial troubles they could write books or do speaking tours or do any number of things now that weren't as available or lucrative in the past.

  • Carin S. July 30, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    Have you read A Perfect Union about Dolly Madison? Fascinating! One of the best biographies I've read. She really was the first "First Lady" as we think of them (of the three previous president, one was a widower, and the other two's wives stayed home on the farm during their administrations.) I don't think James would have been half as successful as Dolly.

  • Carin S. July 30, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    I meant he wouldn't have been half as successful WITHOUT Dolly.

  • Man of la Book August 1, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    Carin, I haven't read the book about Dolly Madison (I recall seeing it in the gift shop when visiting their home in Virginia. Dolly Madison, I believe, is credited with defining the role of first lady.

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