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In the early pages of The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation's Call to Greatness, Harlow Giles Unger writes, "Washington's three successors -- John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison-- were mere caretaker presidents who left the nation bankrupt, its people deeply divided, its borders under attack, its capital city in ashes." And then, by contrast, Unger states: "Monroe's presidency made poor men rich, turned political allies into friends, and united a divided people as no president had done since Washington. The most beloved president after Washington...(Monroe) created an era never seen before or since in American History--an "Era of Good Feelings" that propelled the nation and its people to greatness."

I highlighted these bold passages, found on pages 2 and 3, and thought much about them while I read. To my surprise, Unger sold it. True, he wrote in glorifying terms of all Monroe did for the country. He traveled to all of the states to spread good will. Along with First Lady Elizabeth, he brought class back to the White House, something that had been missing since Jefferson's casual ways (dirty boots and drunk guests sleeping on the floor) and Madison's mis-calculations that the British would not burn down the capitol. During his presidency, he completed the intention of the Louisiana Purchase by obtaining Florida. He streghthened military power, enlarged our borders, established a truly non-partisan presidency (which ironically ended up being a problem in his second term) and created the Monroe Doctrine, which has been called upon by modern presidents, most recently President Reagan. The city of Monrovia in West Africa was named for him for sending freed slaves there (although Monroe owned many slaves). I totally bought into Unger's adulation of our fifth president. If he had put a cape on him, I would have believed he could fly.

So is it true? Does James Monroe, who is so unappreciated many know there is a doctrine named after him but little of what it's about, deserve more notice? I'm going with a big yes. While in other reviews people complained of the aggrandizing nature of the book, I think Monroe is worthy of the accolades. Unger doesn't present all good. He presents a balanced account. His successes and failures. His many losses. His financial woes. Although, as with other biographies on our founding fathers, I wish Unger had dug deeper to reconcile Monroe's accountability as a slave holder. 

All in all, this book was very readable. Unger made some daring editorial choices which I enjoyed, such as the passages I quoted above. The bios that offer no insight other than the four corners of its subjects feel too stiff for me. Unger's biography on Monroe dares to place him in history alongside Washington and above Adams, Jefferson and Madison, and succeeds, if only in the bubble of this biography. 

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Joanne Lewis Blog