Tuesday, July 27, 2010

James Monroe: The The Quest for National Identity by Harry Ammon

James Monroe: The The Quest for National Identity
by Harry Ammon
Copyright 1990
University of Virginia Press
706 pages

Harry Ammon tackles a tough subject in his biography of James Monroe because Monroe left scant information about his life for historians to examine. Unlike the Adams, who were compulsive savers of correspondence and records, Monroe destroyed them routinely.

We don't really get to know James Monroe, the man. Nor do we get to know much about his wife, Elizabeth.

Monroe was born into wealth in colonial Virginia. Not a strong political activist during the pre-revolutionary days, he joined the Continental Army and rose to the rank of Colonel.

The book is aptly titled for no one did more to shape the national identity of the United States than James Monroe. He did it as a diplomat, as acting secretary of war, as secretary of state, and as president.

As president, he presided over the "Era of Good Feelings". Political rancor between the tattered remnants of the Federalists and the Democrats was at an all time low. Monroe was elected almost by acclamation. For the next eight years, the country experienced increased prosperity and peace after the struggle of the War of 1812.

Monroe was a protégé of Thomas Jefferson and part of a politically powerful Virginia political machine operated by Jefferson, James Madison, and himself. These three men, so different in their approach to government and personal conduct, were close friends and unwavering political allies through their entire careers. Jefferson the visionary; Madison the strategist; Monroe the statesman.

Monroe was an earlier version of Richard Nixon in his vision. In a time when global travel was a lengthy and dangerous journey and communications between countries took months, Monroe was able to examine the state of affairs in Europe and make a bold declaration to the continent. This was, of course, the Monroe Doctrine, developed intellectually by John Quincy Adams and put forward by Monroe as a bold statement to the world's superpowers. He told the powers of Europe that they were not to meddle in western hemisphere affairs. Neither France, nor England, nor Spain, who were constantly skirmishing, could afford to draw the ire of the United States and Monroe knew it.

Compare this to the Cold War strategy employed by Nixon. The Soviet Union and China skirmished and had a tense, uneasy relationship. Neither of them could afford a confrontation with the United States. Using this strategy of "triangulation," Nixon brought the Soviets to the negotiating table and established Detente while establishing our first diplomatic relations with China since Mao's forces ran Chiang Kai-Shek off the Chinese mainland in 1949.

Monroe's policies and popularity was able to assure that his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, was elected president. The succession to the presidency was traditionally from the Secretary of State position at that time.

Monroe suffered from his public service. His farm suffered from inattention. His law practice suffered from lack of time. And his personal finances were often tenuous because his pay from his diplomatic service did not cover the expenses of his job. Yet Monroe continue to give of himself up until his death.

Ammon is superb in his policy and political analysis. This is a good book for presidential biography wonks. Ammon comes up short in animating Monroe the man. He had only the commentaries of Monroe's contemporaries -- who all saw Monroe through their own biases -- to use. So Ammon can be forgiven his lack of “character development within his biography.

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