James Monroe (1817-1825)


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

Author: Harlow Giles Unger

1. Date published- Nearly 40 years after Henry Ammon’s classic Monroe biography, Unger’s 2009 work is a much needed work for the 21st century. Those attempting to trade a bit of the scholarly depth for a contemporary lens will find this work to be a much appreciated addition to Monroe literature. The recent nature of the work allows Unger to explore Monroe in a fresh perspective such as where the Monroe Doctrine fits in the 21st Century world. The most tangible aspect is evident from Unger’s reference to Monroe as a founding father. With the rise of groups such as the Tea Party and the continued prominence of WWTFD searching for the supposed soul of the founding fathers collectively, Unger’s work seems especially relevant and essential for the context in which Monroe lived.

Grade: B

2. Scope- As with all works of the revolutionary era, the life of the founders has much to do with the formation of the nation as the nation they would lead. For someone such as Washington or Adams, the early life is essential to the biography even though it does not necessarily contain a narrative of the presidency. Unger attempts to put this treatment with Monroe, giving up nearly two thirds of the work to Monroe’s young life, his diplomacy, and his cabinet position with James Madison. This places far too much emphasis on a young career for this consensus top 15 president. That is not to say the scope is completely off. Few would deny that moments such as the Louisiana Purchase and the burning of Washington are unworthy of the many pages of reference in the work. However, Monroe has a doctrine named after him. To give the Monroe Doctrine and its immense importance such little attention holds back this work from being all encompassing in scope. With the spread of mass communication reaching unprecedented levels, the Monroe Doctrine deserves a better treatment in its most up to date work on the man who penned it.

Grade: B-

3. Author- Harlow Unger has been dubbed “Americas Most Readable Historian.” The reason for this moniker is quite evident from the writing style. He has written over 20 books, mostly about the Revolutionary era and almost always biographies. Writing about Patrick Henry, Lafayette, and George Washington to name a few, Unger has been a consistent force in the short biography version of this project. For someone attempting to not get bogged down in weighty works, Unger gets to the point in a concise fashion and doesn’t make you feel like you are missing something. His background besides history is in broadcasting and journalism, but evident bias or blatant revisionism is not suggested in the work. Unger benefits by simply updating a 40 year old work and does not feel the need to embellish or outsize the man in Monroe. The Yale graduate remains on an even keel and leaves many opinions to the reader, as he should.

Grade: A

4. Length- At the risk of comparing Unger’s work again to Ammon’s, this work is the condensed and concise story of James Monroe. Clocking in around 350 pages, the assessable work can be completed briskly with relative ease. However, one should not be fooled by the slightly short work. It avoids pitfalls of short biography by delving into Monroe’s early struggles, family confrontations, and the importance of his development. It has many features of long biographies such as extended passages, letters, and other primary source materials. For a man who burned all of his correspondence with his wife, Unger is able to recreate his marriage, his family life, and he more than a few times reveals an emotional and human side of the fifth president. Readers will be shocked by how quick the work is, but they will be equally shocked by how much they enjoyed it.

Grade: B+

5. Mission- Rarely is the mission evident before even looking at the prologue or introduction of a historical biography. Whether at Unger’s urging or just a happy editorial addition, “the last founding father” at once conveys the mission and context that Unger creates. He not only wanted to tell the story of Monroe, but what Monroe meant to the nation as it said goodbye to knee breeches and powdered wigs on its way out into nation adolescence. The mission is to show how a man who was president in 1825 was still of incredible importance to 1776. What the end of the Monroe presidency represented was a new age for the young nation where others were suddenly asked to carry the torch and steer the ship. In that sense, Unger accomplished his goal, showing how Monroe embodied the graying revolutionary generation and put a capstone on the era that today is seen as immaculate.

Grade: B+

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