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James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness

by Harlow Giles Unger

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-306-81808-0
Publisher: Da Capo

Cogent reexamination of a relatively neglected American icon.

James Monroe (1758–1831) was a major guiding force in the territorial expansion of the country, argues historian Unger (America’s Second Revolution: How George Washington Defeated Patrick Henry and Saved the Nation, 2007, etc.). Monroe was a key negotiator of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, which effectively doubled the nation’s territory overnight. More importantly, as the nation’s fifth president he kept the country safe from outside attack via the Monroe Doctrine, an 1823 policy that warned European governments that colonization or interference with U.S. states would be viewed as an act of war. As a result, pioneers felt safe enough to trek westward and settle in faraway lands. Less prominent than some of the other Founding Fathers, he was nonetheless present at many major historical events in the revolutionary struggle. As a student in Virginia, he was inspired by Patrick Henry’s “give me liberty, or give me death” speech at Richmond in 1775. A soldier under General Washington, he holds the flag in Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s famous 1851 painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware. Monroe was also Secretary of State and Secretary of War during the War of 1812, the first true military challenge to the nascent United States. Unger ably explains how these experiences later informed Monroe’s pragmatic and confident leadership style. The author’s treatment of Monroe’s relationship with wife Elizabeth is somewhat less interesting and invites unfavorable comparison to David McCullough’s excellent John Adams (2001), which used John’s correspondence with Abigail in effective and revelatory ways. Still, Unger makes a solid and cohesive argument for Monroe’s importance in the early years of the United States, even if he goes too far in his enthusiasm by calling predecessors Adams, Madison and Jefferson “mere caretaker presidents.”

A worthy attempt to rescue Monroe from obscurity for a mainstream audience.