37 Following

Seriously, Read a Book!

Thoughts on books, often interpreted through the high-brow prism of cartoon (read: Archer) references. Wait! I had something for this...

Currently reading

The Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Notetaking
Mike Rohde
The Antidote
Oliver Burkeman
The Kind Worth Killing
Peter Swanson
Data Points: Visualization That Means Something
Nathan Yau
James Buchanan
Jean H. Baker, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation's Call to Greatness

The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation's Call to Greatness - Harlow Giles Unger

A more suitable title for this biography may have been something to the effect of James Monroe: the Musings of a Fanboy. You might think I'm exaggerating, that, like many biographers after years of research and editing, Harlow Giles Unger was just a bit taken with his subject at the time of his writing. In that case, I'll direct you to Exhibit A (which I've tried to keep mercifully short).

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. Monroe took office determined to lead the nation to greatness by making the United States impregnable to foreign attack and ensuring the safety of Americans across the face of the continent.   

Now I'm no historian, and I haven't gotten to Madison as of yet in my presidential readings, but I'm pretty sure that the general consensus has not traditionally been that the era of POTUS two through four was about little more than, well, "caretaking."


The problem with Unger's unflappable gushing around Monroe, is that it was difficult to discern the reality of Monroe's contributions (of which I'm sure there were many).Take the eponymous Monroe Doctrine for example, obviously Monroe had something to do with it (after all, they named it after the guy), but Unger is so defensive about other scholars' assertions re. JQA's contributions, that it left me feeling suspect about the whole affair.


As for territorial expansion, I'll give Monroe some credit there (though I've gotta go with the Jack Donaghy wisdom re. Florida "Have you ever been to Florida? It's basically a criminal population. It's America's Australia."


James Monroe: He Bought Us Florida


Dude took us bi-coastal, true fact, but, again, Unger's language just made me queasy.

He expanded the nation’s military and naval power, then sent American troops to rip Florida and parts of the West from the Spanish, extending the nation’s borders to the natural defenses of the Rocky Mountains in the West and the rivers, lakes, and oceans of the nation’s other borders.

I could go on and on with examples of Unger's hyperbole, but I think you get the point (and I'd like to keep my breakfast down). I give Monroe props for public schools, and highways and such- I'm not totally cold-hearted.


There isn't exactly a plethora of Monroe biographies out there, so Unger gets an extra star for contributing to the body of available material with a full portrait of the Monroe family. I just wish he'd felt up to the task of adding a wart or two to the “Era of Good Feelings,” without which it simply seemed too good to be true.