‘James Monroe’ is an unclouded look at a complicated legacy

Biographers find themselves reckoning with the Founding Fathers’ complicity in slavery – and James Monroe is no exception.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“James Monroe: A Life” by Tim McGrath, Dutton, 752 pp.

It’s been roughly half a century since first William Cresson (in 1946) then Harry Ammon (in 1971) wrote full-dress biographies of James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States. In that time, there have of course been many, many subsequent studies – inevitably, since Monroe is a pivotal figure in the development of the American presidency, the American system of party politics, and American international policy. But even so, the appearance of “James Monroe: A Life” by Tim McGrath marks the first 700-page popular narrative reassessment of the man in quite some time. 

McGrath, author of two other terrific books on early America, neatly sums up some of the key fascinations of Monroe in the long view of history: He served bravely in the American Revolution (McGrath compares his front-line service with that of Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and George H.W. Bush), but he hasn’t been embraced by posterity. “He is not described with the wistful prose historians use when writing about Washington and Jefferson, the grudging respect given to either Adams, or the literary slap on the back Jackson enjoyed for generations,” McGrath writes. “Monroe remains unsung and unknown but for the doctrine.”

“The doctrine,” of course, refers to this president’s sole lasting claim to fame: the Monroe Doctrine. Written by John Quincy Adams – Monroe’s secretary of state at the time – and issued in 1823, the Monroe Doctrine ringingly demarcated the entire vast territory of the Americas as a new world, immune from European imperialism. Only three years before Monroe became president in 1817, British troops had burned the White House; now, he was instructing all the powers of Europe that America rejected their meddling. 

“Two centuries after it was written, the Monroe Doctrine can be seen as the third document from the founders that states American ideals for its government and citizens to live by,” McGrath writes, citing the Declaration of Independence as “the premise of the American experiment,” the Constitution as the guideline of that experiment, and the Monroe Doctrine as “a road map showing how to co-exist in the world.”

McGrath recounts the details of Monroe’s life and of his two terms as president, explaining the legislative nuances of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which admitted Missouri to the Union as a slave state and thereby greatly strengthened the forces of slavery in the country’s formative youth. 

This and many other aspects of Monroe’s personal and political lives tend to come back again and again to that subject: slavery. Biographers of James Monroe always face the same challenge when it comes to writing about his life, and they always stumble. 

These biographers want to like Monroe, and perhaps the more savvy among them know that many of their readers won’t particularly like a hatchet job done on him. McGrath faces this same challenge, and he too stumbles, although less than previous biographers. “Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe would call slavery evil all their lives, but the idea of emancipation was too bold politically to propose,” he writes. “It was also something they could not even do personally.” McGrath duly notes the well-known times when Monroe engaged in public hand-wringing about the treatment of slaves, and although he soft-pedals the full extent of Monroe’s personal cruelty, he’s direct about his final verdict on the subject. “The slaveholding founders believed themselves trapped in their times; no Congress would support outlawing slavery domestically or emancipating enslaved Americans,” he writes, adding: “In his lifetime, Monroe owned more than two hundred slaves. He freed one of them.”

McGrath draws a convincingly complex portrait of this first of the post-Founder presidents, a figure who more than any other in his era gave preliminary shape to both the office and the nation on the world stage. All of Monroe’s successors would live in the framework of the presidency he erected. This, too, is an ambiguous legacy – and McGrath is cautiously aware of that fact.

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