Review: The Last Founding Father

More than one hundred years ago, a small town was planted on the the South Dakota prairie. It was named Warrington (after whom I cannot recall, but he was probably one of those invested in the town). Some years later, a discussion arose about the town and some thought that it was too evocative of war (as the story goes). So, whoever had the power to do so changed the name of the town to Monroe.

Now, whether Monroe was named after the former president by that name or some other person (or a town in another state, etc) I cannot recall. But this is all prelude. It is interesting to me because I live in that little town, but you are probably wondering when I’m going to get to the point of this post.

The Last Founding FatherThe Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness by Harlow Giles Unger is the first biography I can recall reading of President James Monroe. From the book, he sounds as though he were someone who would have been a fine friend and a kind opponent.

The book is well written (not dry, as can be the case with biographies) and the author is quite obviously appreciative of James Monroe the man. If I have one complaint about the book, it is that it seems to depart into hagiography from time to time–though given the amount of time and effort which the biography appears to have spent working on the topic, that does not come as a surprise.

Both Monroe’s early life (as a soldier and lawyer, among other things) as well as his later years as representative, diplomat, president and elder statesman are covered in good detail. His personal life is brought into focus as it often conflicted with his public life, especially his constant struggle to remain financially afloat. The joys and sorrows of his time as husband and father are also laid out in detail. The book does well, I believe, in balancing the James Monroe that the public knew with the one known to friends and family.

If you are at all familiar with the period in US history covered by the book, you will be unsurprised to find many, many familiar faces, from Washington and Jefferson to Madison and Lafayette. The last mentioned comes into the story several times and would seem to have a been a particular friend of Monroe. Of course, since the author has also written a biography of that individual, it makes sense that he would have quite a bit of detail about the intersections of Lafayette’s life with Monroe’s.

The Monroe Doctrine, which was to define foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere for a century or more is addressed in detail, as is Monroe’s participation in the events which led to the Louisiana Purchase (a book about which topicĀ  I reviewed earlier).

All in all, a thoughtful and detailed examination of a contributor to this nation’s founding and early years who is given short shrift by comparison with the better known members of our founding fathers. At about 350 pages plus end-notes, it is a comfortable size. As all good books do, it has triggered a desire to learn more about the topics which were covered.