James Monroe (1817-1825)

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Book: James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity

Author: Harry Ammon

1. Date published- When Ammon published this biography in 1971, James Monroe was largely defined by the doctrine that famously bore his name. Ammon did not elaborate or break new ground in his private life but wrote a standard account for his public works. However, this biography is now 40 years old and while the factual assertions remain solid and in most cases relevant to modern readers, the test of time can be seen in the pages. Published during a Nixon presidency and a lengthy war in Vietnam, Ammon’s work reflects a confusing time in America’s history attempting to rise above its subordinate past onto the world stage. More recent works are available to readers who want fresh perspective in worldview and American mood. However, this work encapsulates a great deal of reflection and distance from contemporary feeling despite being five decades old. Not the most recent work, but definitely one far enough from the events to have perspective.

Grade: B

2. Scope- As mentioned in the first post of the blog, the primary goal of the Presidents Project is to study the presidency through biography, a slow burn history of America. The tricky aspect of this work is that Ammon covers the presidency extremely well, but not in chronological order and with a great deal of overlap. Curiously, most if not all of the pre-presidency is a concise and methodical chronology of Monroe’s rise to power. His post-presidency unfolds the same way. Interestingly, Ammon abandons this layout when it comes to the presidency. Here, Ammon unfolds his presidency not month by month but topic by topic. The result is no doubt a thorough coverage, but an interesting case where overlap is common and not always to reinforce points. It feels as if the author is telling a story, gets to the best part and decides it is better to go down a list of topics rather than let them unfold as they did over time. The result is at times topics discussed late in his second term followed by an early term issue in the following chapter. This disjointed structure nonetheless encompasses a complete scope even if it does not feel that way at times.

Grade: B

3. Author- Harry Ammon has admittedly evaded attempts at further inspection. The biographical background is none too well known. He was Professor Emeritus of History at Southern Illinois University when he completed this work in 1971. Two years later he returned to this time period but only to cover the Genet Affair and certainly not a biography style work. As a detached professor there does not appear to be any overwhelming bias. The detached feeling makes for a work authored from an objective stance indicative of Ammon’s Ivy Tower background. Ammon does not seem to take a position with only a faint defensive deposition of Monroe’s foes and aims to let the facts speak for themselves.

Grade: B

4. Length- The length of this work leads this book toward being a standard long biography of James Monroe. Not overly long just at 700 pages, this work never feels like the standard epic it would become due to its unmatched presence among Monroe biographies. It is certainly not a quick read, with many dense aspects of policy and minute detail into specific areas. As a solid contrast to Unger’s more concise work, Ammon’s is the choice for those looking for a more extended look at the 5th president. The amount of content in the presidency can bog the work down at times, but length does not have a negative bear on the work overall.

Grade: B

5. Mission- Ammon mentions quite simply in the introduction and throughout the book that creating Monroe in the Revolutionary context is his goal in the book. It is remarkably focused on his public works at the expense of little to no private look at James Monroe the person. In fact, next to nothing is mentioned of his family or personal relationships and rarely if they did not have a practical utility in explaining a public moment in Monroe’s life. It seems Ammon was reaching for a straightforward chronological account of Monroe’s long and storied career and his role in American history and not a personal account of Monroe’s life. In that respect, he rarely strays from his mission despite changing his layout once reaching the presidency. The result is an overly thorough look at Monroe the Public Servant and a hazy look at Monroe the Man.

Grade: B+

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