Tim McGrath has written two award-winning winning books about the early history of the United States Navy: Give Me a Fast Ship and John Barry. For his third book, he switched gears to tackle an oft-overlooked soldier, lawyer, politician, and president: James Monroe. In what will likely be the definitive Monroe biography, McGrath tackles the entirety of our fifth president’s life. Born in 1758, Monroe joined the American army in the Revolution’s early days until he was sidelined with a serious wound at Trenton.
As McGrath tells it, the story of Monroe’s early life was a constant search for a mentor and sponsor, which eventually landed him on William “Lord Stirling” Alexander’s staff. It was enough to bring him the attention and lukewarm friendship or support of many of the army’s leading lights and the country’s future leaders, but not enough to really launch his career. Eventually, he landed a legal apprenticeship with Virginia’s Governor Thomas Jefferson. It changed Monroe’s life, giving him a path forward professionally, politically, and intellectually.
Monroe clearly did not have a head for business or farming, but improving his station meant becoming a large landowner, which in Virginia embedded him deeply in the state’s slave economy. McGrath extensively discusses Monroe’s interaction with enslaved Americans on his plantations and in political office, both personally and as a moral and philosophical issue. As with so many Revolutionaries, the institution troubled him, but he could not come up with a way of reconciling his moral qualms with his economic comfort. McGrath does not gloss over this issue and identifies a few of Monroe’s slaves by name, usually in the context of their interaction with their owner.
Given his limits as a farmer and businessman, Monroe’s primary income seems to have come from his law practice, which was uneven and separated him from his new family after he married Elizabeth Kortright, daughter of a wealthy New York trader and merchant. To supplement that and to advance his Republican sentiments, Monroe sought and held various state and federal political positions, including the Virginia House of Delegates, the Confederation Congress, the United States State Senate, Minister to France, Ambassador to England, Governor of Virginia, Secretary of State and Secretary of War. Allied with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, he routinely jousted with the federalists over issues of federal and state power or foreign policy. An able debater, Monroe usually followed Jefferson or Madison’s lead.
McGrath’s biography shines as he spins the tale of Monroe’s political and personal life during these periods, offering enough detail for context and filling the narrative with the curious, often outrageous, characters who defined the early republic. If he wasn’t always the driving force behind major developments in the nation’s history, Monroe was usually at, or near, the center of things. Monroe’s turn to lead the country came in the 1816 election, when he had his own opportunity to shape the new nation’s future. Under his leadership, the country worked through the results of the War of 1812 and settled the country’s northern border with Canada, grew by five new states, and promulgated the “Monroe Doctrine,” recognizing the legitimacy of the revolutionary states in Latin America and nominally ending the practice the European practice of colonizing the western hemisphere.
With Monroe’s departure from office, the last of the presidents who had fought the American Revolution or played a role in defining the early United States passed from the scene. McGrath has given him an admirable monument in writing.
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