A President Who Should Be Known For More Than His Doctrine A new book on James Monroe meets the challenges of presidential biographies.

James Monroe: A Life

By Tim McGrath (2020, Penguin Books) 586 pages with acknowledgements, notes, bibliography, index, illustrations, and maps

James Monroe occupies a strange place in the pantheon of American leaders. Most people know the foreign policy attached to his name: the Monroe Doctrine. Anybody studying the era of the Founding Fathers must at some point or another discuss Monroe. But he does not stand out much in the grand scheme of presidents. A 2014 study found that Monroe fared pretty poorly when it comes to the limited task of identifying his name or knowing that he served as president. He placed last among the presidents of the Founding Era, and languished alongside the likes of Andrew Johnson and William Howard Taft. He fared better than characters like Franklin Pierce, Benjamin Harrison, and Warren Harding; but that is not much of an accomplishment.

All of this would most likely have upset Monroe himself, a man who concluded his life having accumulated an impressive resumé: decorated veteran of the American Revolution; successful attorney taught personally by Thomas Jefferson; U.S. Senator; governor of Virginia; minister to France and later to Great Britain; U.S. Secretary of State and briefly Secretary of War; all this before winning a landslide electoral victory in the 1816 Presidential election and in 1820 becoming the only president other than George Washington to win victory unopposed by another serious candidate. When he died in 1831, Monroe was the subject of both public mourning and extended celebration for his considerable accomplishments.

So why don’t Americans know more about Monroe? Is it that he seems so similar to those other Virginians who served before him (Washington, Jefferson, Madison), or is it because he disappears in their shadow? Or could it be because Monroe never generated much traction with biographers?  Monroe’s contemporaries in the presidency—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, John and John Quincy Adams—have each been the subject of more biographies in the past twenty years that Monroe has been in the last century. Somehow authors and readers alike have concluded that there is something more to be told about and something more to be learned from those other presidents.

McGrath has finally provided James Monroe with a modern and complete biography drawn from a careful consideration of the available sources. Understanding the Founding Era as a time period and the presidency as an institution depends on just that sort of study.

Whatever the reason, most readers seeking a full-length biography of the fifth President still rely on Harry Ammon’s 1971 James Monroe. So a proper modern biography was long overdue, and Tim McGrath has provided us with one.

James Monroe: A Life is both detailed and fast-paced. That is no mean feat. At 586 pages (not counting endnotes, bibliography, etc.), this is no superficial page-turner. There is not a facet of Monroe’s life that McGrath does not explore. McGrath’s lively prose and keen sense of balance between the big picture and the important detail propels this study through the life of a politician of extraordinary accomplishment during a period of tumultuous change. In the process, McGrath has finally provided James Monroe with a modern and complete biography drawn from a careful consideration of the available sources. Understanding the Founding Era as a time period and the presidency as an institution depends on just that sort of study.

Beyond specific strengths and weaknesses, James Monroe also provides a valuable roadmap for the twists and turns of presidential biography. The book covers all the necessary steps, and in the process serves as a reminder of the tropes and prerequisites of the genre. The book also struggles against the limitations of that genre and against its own internal contradictions in ways that lay bare a variety of writing challenges that grip any presidential biography.

James Monroe was born in 1758 and was still a student at the College of William & Mary when he was swept up in the American Revolution. That fact alone would both connect him with and separate him from the other Virginians who dominated the early presidency. Like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, Monroe’s concerns were always shaped by the struggle for independence. Throughout his public career he would remain committed to the independence and unity of the United States. His vision of politics was shaped by the powerful yet diffuse notions of republicanism, democracy, and liberalism that were so often at odds in the minds of the Revolutionary generation. He maintained an abiding distrust for the British Empire into which he had been born but which he later fought. And fight he did, to the point of being severely wounded in 1777 at the Battle of Trenton. Yet Monroe was younger than those other Virginians, all of whom were in positions of authority during the Revolution. To varying degrees, Monroe saw all three men as mentors and as friends, but it was always clear that their political experience exceeded his own.

Monroe also poses his own particular research challenges. His fingerprints are everywhere. His extended public career means that he wrote regularly with all the other big-shots of the early republic. Indeed, he operates as something of a historical relay, passing the baton from the generation that led during and after the Revolution to those who jostled for leadership a few decades later. Beyond his relationships with the other Virginia presidents, even Monroe gets his ironic Hamilton moment, something of a biographical requirement in the wake of the musical Hamilton. In 1797, Monroe almost found himself in a duel with Hamilton. Who served as the go-between to calm the waters? None other than Aaron Burr, who seven years later killed Hamilton in a duel of their own. Decades later, the senior officials surrounding Monroe during his presidency reads like a who’s-who of antebellum politics. His cabinet included both John Quincy Adams and John C. Calhoun. The House Speaker was Henry Clay. Andrew Jackson was still wearing a general’s uniform, and his military incursion into Florida in 1816 generated one of the worst diplomatic crises of the Monroe presidency. During Monroe’s diplomatic sojourns in France, his daughter, Eliza, established a long-standing friendship with Hortense de Beauharnais, Napoleon Bonaparte’s step-daughter. Hortense’s son, Emperor Napoleon III, would present one of the greatest challenges to the Monroe Doctrine when he ordered the invasion of Mexico in 1861.

Beyond specific strengths and weaknesses, James Monroe also provides a valuable roadmap for the twists and turns of presidential biography. The book covers all the necessary steps, and in the process serves as a reminder of the tropes and prerequisites of the genre.

Yet for all the correspondence flowing between all these aspiring politicos, it can be profoundly difficult to pin down James Monroe. This is due in large part to the absence of an authoritative editorial collection of his correspondence. A project is currently underway, but its contents are selective rather than comprehensive. Monroe’s early life is particularly elusive. McGrath relies heavily—and uncritically—on an unpublished autobiography that Monroe wrote in a self-serving effort to defend a failed diplomatic mission to Great Britain in 1806.

So McGrath is left to sift through other collections, and he does so admirably. McGrath is perhaps the first author to extensively mine the new Papers of James Monroe project, but he also makes fine use of other collections from the other Founders who surrounded Monroe. McGrath chronicles both momentous policymaking decisions and the mundane realities of daily life with equal detail and equal conviction. Monroe’s efforts to build a house or resolve a debt are as poignant as his effort to establish American power through the Monroe Doctrine. McGrath has a particularly keen eye for the telling quote or the revealing detail.

The James Monroe of this story is fundamentally heroic. McGrath’s opening vignette is of the moment in 1814 when Monroe, serving as both Secretary of State and Secretary of War, fearlessly rode through the British lines to personally review American troops defending the nation’s capital from the British invasion during the War of 1812. As a young man, Monroe fought valiantly in the Revolutionary War. At the Battle of Trenton, “Monroe took over the attack [after his commanding officer was injured], ‘and advanced in like manner at the head of the corps.’ Inspired by their lieutenant, the rest of the men followed.” A moment later, Monroe was shot. The internal quotation comes from Monroe’s autobiography, retelling Monroe’s own story of his personal heroism.

Monroe also emerges as equally steadfast and unflinching in moments of political conflict, whether that means advancing the Jeffersonian cause in domestic politics or defending the nation’s interests abroad as a diplomat. The political combat of the 1790s and 1800s then sets the stage for Monroe’s more capacious and conciliatory view of politics as president. No longer threatened by the Federalists, whose ideology proved unpopular and whose organization imploded, Monroe sought to bring both the ideas and individuals of his vanquished opponents into his governing coalition in the 1810s and ’20s.

In the midst of telling this story, McGrath provides a succinct summary of the major touchpoints during a tumultuous era in American history. We learn of the causes and consequences of the American Revolution, the central issues at work in the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the domestic and international challenges facing the United States, the rise and fall of the First Party System, and the origins of the Second Party System. The result is not only a biography of Monroe, but also a clear and accessible overview of American political development. Meanwhile, McGrath’s careful deployment of sources would satisfy the picky requirements of academic readers. If McGrath is uninterested in engaging with the ongoing scholarly battles about ideology and political culture, his story is nonetheless cognizant of those battles.

Beyond his relationships with the other Virginia presidents, even Monroe gets his ironic Hamilton moment, something of a biographical requirement in the wake of the musical Hamilton. In 1797, Monroe almost found himself in a duel with Hamilton. Who served as the go-between to calm the waters? None other than Aaron Burr, who seven years later killed Hamilton in a duel of their own.

Throughout much of this story, Monroe appears strangely drifting, at one moment the decisive and effective leader, at others a figure without ambition or consequence. In McGrath’s telling, Monroe always seems to be accepting office at someone else’s behest, responding to crises rather than precipitating them. At first glance, Monroe appears oddly passive. But this is actually very much the biography Monroe himself might have sought. After all, Monroe may have been President in the 1820s but he was very much a creature of the 1770s. He came of age within a republican political culture that proclaimed that one of the worst qualities of any public official was ambition. And the most celebrated people surrounding Monroe were those who could most actively claim that power had been imposed upon them rather than sought.

Indeed, presidential biography itself was born with this assumption in its DNA. James Monroe is no fawning celebration of its subject, but it comes from a tradition in which authors went through all sorts of intellectual gymnastics to prove that their subjects were responding to the needs of the public rather than their own desires. Only recently have presidential biographers fully embraced the notion that their subjects could be both self-aggrandizing and deserving of praise.

James Monroe is always telling two stories at once: Monroe’s extended public career culminating in his presidency from 1817-1825; and a private life consisting of family as well as a business career as planter and attorney that proceeded with a mix of success and failure. McGrath juggles these two projects effectively. For example, McGrath’s discussion of Monroe’s various trans-Atlantic diplomatic journeys always interweaves the tedious and potentially dangerous realities of oceanic travel as well as the consequences for Monroe’s wife and children.

Private and public life were never entirely separate. Monroe’s personal business ventures established important political connections, and vice versa. Affluent but less wealthy than the other Virginia Presidents, Monroe’s chronic financial fears shaped not only which public offices he sought but also the moods and distractions that affected him while holding those offices. Like every one of the Virginia Presidents, Monroe married well. His wife, Elizabeth Kortright, came from a wealthy New York family, and the marriage both elevated Monroe’s status and extended his connections.

McGrath is perhaps the first author to extensively mine the new Papers of James Monroe project, but he also makes fine use of other collections from the other Founders who surrounded Monroe.

Telling both a public story and a private story is the biographers’ great challenge, and presidential biographies especially are often judged on how they handle this high-wire act. Indeed, “balance” is so often the task of the presidential biography: a balanced evaluation of the subject, a balanced discussion of public and private life, a balance of describing the forest and the trees. Yet McGrath’s book is also an intriguing example of how authors tackle two fundamental and interconnected conundrums of contemporary biography.

First is the conundrum of sympathy. Most biographers get sucked into the lives of their subjects, and usually come out the other end in some way liking or admiring their subjects. Even when they do not, the genre itself usually requires that the author trumpet the subject’s significance.  Otherwise, why write a book in the first place? Only in the past half-century or so have some biographers come to question this approach. Before then, most biographies for general audiences were sympathetic and celebratory. Villains like Adolph Hitler were the exceptions that proved the rule.  But in recent decades, biography as a genre has placed greater demands on its practitioners. The very terms used to praise a good biography—complexity, nuance, ambiguity—speak to this change.

Second is the conundrum of complicity, especially when it comes to the Founding Fathers. Americans are now engaged in a broad-based and long-overdue discussion about whether to rethink the nation’s early leaders in light of their complicity with African American enslavement, Native American dispossession and genocide, territorial ambition, and gender inequality. That is particularly true for the Virginians, all of whom were slaveholders and slave traders, and all of whom sought to expand the federal domain at the expense of Native Americans.

McGrath seeks to reconcile these conundrums. His book is fundamentally sympathetic to Monroe. Yet he never permits the reader to avoid the reality of racial inequality, especially in the form of African-American enslavement. McGrath devotes less space to Indian policy, but Monroe himself successfully avoided this issue throughout most of his public career. The Monroe who emerges from this book is patriotic and brave, wise and effective, caring, and even-tempered.

Like Monroe himself, McGrath never fully resolves the conundrum of complicity. In his epilogue, McGrath writes that “As [the] years further recede, and Americans recalibrate their history to tell all sides, the viewpoint of the Virginia Dynasty toward race becomes more and more unacceptable. In his lifetime, Monroe owned more than two hundred slaves. He freed one of them.” Powerful words, and seemingly condemning words. Yet throughout the text of the book itself, McGrath more consistently emphasizes moments when Monroe cared about the slaves he owned and sought to free those he did not. Likewise, McGrath writes that “Monroe sought an Indian policy that would please both White and Native Americans, and came up woefully short.” Yet when McGrath describes Monroe’s actual engagement with native leaders, he describes Monroe as fundamentally respectful and reciprocal in those relationships.

The James Monroe of this story is fundamentally heroic. McGrath’s opening vignette is of the moment in 1814 when Monroe, serving as both Secretary of State and Secretary of War, fearlessly rode through the British lines to personally review American troops defending the nation’s capital from the British invasion during the War of 1812.

McGrath situates enslavement as a constant in Monroe’s life, recording how Monroe bought and sold human beings, how throughout his adult life Monroe saw his own status and prosperity in part through his participation in plantation agriculture. Yet McGrath also wants to make the case that Monroe was some form of quasi-abolitionist. In the 1810s and ’20s, Monroe joined with Jefferson and Madison in advocating for freeing slaves and colonizing them in West Africa. But as historians have shown for over a decade, this is a far cry from abolitionism and further still from any notion of racial equality.

Nowhere are these fundamental tensions more abundantly on display than in McGrath’s discussion of Gabriel’s Rebellion. In 1800, during Monroe’s second year as governor of Virginia, White officials learned of a rebellious conspiracy under the leadership of Gabriel Prosser, an enslaved blacksmith who lived in Richmond only a few blocks from the governor’s residence. The crackdown was quick and brutal, concluding with the execution of twenty-six enslaved people (including Prosser and his two brothers). Gabriel’s Rebellion frames McGrath’s discussion of Monroe’s term as governor, and rightly so. McGrath goes to great lengths to chronicle Prosser as a resident of Richmond much as he does Monroe. Yet at the end of the day, McGrath absolves Monroe, emphasizing how Monroe felt pressured to take action against the conspiracy, not how Monroe actively coordinated that reaction as a product of his own fears of racial revolt.

Not only is this portrait of Monroe internally contradictory, it is often at odds with Monroe’s own words. The Monroe who usually emerges from his correspondence is a deeply self-interested and competitive man with a quick temper and deep-seated grievances. Throughout his numerous overseas postings, Monroe chronically complained that he was underpaid or that he was insufficiently reimbursed for his expenses. Monroe certainly felt himself entitled to every office he ever sought, and he was hardly the idealized virtuous republican who eschewed public praise.

Monroe’s relationships with two men—James Madison and Robert R. Livingston—exemplified these qualities. In 1788, Monroe challenged Madison for Virginia’s 5th Congressional district. It was an act of considerable chutzpah. Monroe and Madison were friends, and only a year before Madison had been the central player in writing the Constitution. For Madison to lose his bid to join the government he had helped create would have been an extraordinary embarrassment. Madison won the election, and he and Monroe soon put the contest behind them. Two decades later Monroe again challenged Madison. In 1808 Madison was Jefferson’s hand-picked successor for the presidency. But malcontents among the Jeffersonian Republicans dissatisfied with Madison’s leadership went looking for a standard-bearer, and Monroe was all too happy to be considered.  Madison consolidated his support and secured the presidency, but it was two years before Madison coopted Monroe’s support—and that of the malcontents—by moving Monroe into the cabinet as Secretary of State.

In between these two contests would come Monroe’s greatest diplomatic accomplishment. In 1803 and 1804, Monroe and Robert R. Livingston engaged in a lengthy and bitter dispute over who deserved the lion’s share of credit for the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson himself eventually observed “A more disgusting correspondence between men of sense…I have never read.” Of course, neither man deserved credit for the Purchase. The French had dispensed with their North American holdings for reasons of their own, but Monroe was quick to announce himself as the able diplomat who had transformed North America.

The Monroe who usually emerges from his correspondence is a deeply self-interested and competitive man with a quick temper and deep-seated grievances.

In other words, another way to see Monroe is as an ambitious and competitive politician who embraced and propagated the systems of racial supremacy from which he had benefited. Yet that just does not work with the sympathetic presidential biography.

Indeed, McGrath’s book occupies an interesting space within the genre of presidential biography. And an influential genre it is. Americans consume stories of their Presidents at a voracious rate. Americans encounter these stories in so many ways, whether through books like McGraths, movie’s like Lincoln (or, for that matter, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), or visiting the Hall of Presidents at Disneyworld.

Academicians continue to propagate their own presidential biographies, but the Presidential biography is a welcoming field with a capacious collection of authors. Politicians themselves periodically write about the presidents who inspired them. Journalists have long written books about the presidents they covered. An interesting movement of late is the attraction of the Founding Fathers for those journalist authors. Jon Meacham’s recent biographies of Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson showed how a journalist unfamiliar with early American history could nonetheless write best-selling accounts of early American presidents. McGrath exemplifies a different cohort: the independent scholar and professional biographer. Much of his work has been in naval history, including a biography of Commodore John Barry and a study of the Continental Navy in which Barry served.

James Monroe constitutes McGrath’s entry into a field that remains defined by two authors separated by two centuries, neither of whom ever taught at a university. In 1799, Mason Locke Weems defined the features of the presidential biography with his Life of Washington. He knew that the best way to capture the character of the president as an adult was to find the apocryphal anecdote from childhood. So Weems invited the cherry tree myth to introduce the fundamental qualities of honesty and personal accountability that he considered at the heart of Washington’s virtue.  And virtue radiates from that book, offering a manifesto not only on Washington’s greatness but also how and why Americans should model their own behavior on Washington’s.

McGrath’s James Monroe lies somewhere in between, closer to Caro but never entirely removed from Weems. This is, after all, a modern biography that achieves its goals through a careful consideration of the evidence and told in a manner that engages with painful truths.

In contrast to Weems, Robert Caro’s multivolume biography of Lyndon Johnson provides a very different template for biography. Where Weems invented his stories, Caro has devoted his professional career to locating and substantiating the details of Johnson’s life. And some of the highest praise for Caro has been for his ability to wrestle with the way LBJ’s unpleasant personality and brutal politics combined to reach some of the most extraordinary accomplishments in twentieth-century policymaking.

McGrath’s James Monroe lies somewhere in between, closer to Caro but never entirely removed from Weems. This is, after all, a modern biography that achieves its goals through a careful consideration of the evidence and told in a manner that engages with painful truths. And it also serves as a reminder of the constants that connect presidential biographies from Weems to Caro. These books operate on the assumption that all Presidents have stories that need to be retold to each generation. And one thing Weems got right was the assumption that Americans would find in their Presidents the larger stories of their country. For Weems, that story was one of American virtue. For Caro, it was the inherent contradictions of the American political system. For McGrath, it is both the political possibility and the racial injustice of the Founding Era.

Throughout much of his life, James Monroe fought for what he considered his just due, whether that meant a profitable plantation or a thriving legal career or a contented family or credit for his political accomplishments. In James Monroe: A Life, he has received something else. A book that takes Monroe seriously and treats him on his own terms. In it, Monroe finally emerges from the shadows of those other Virginians, and stands on his own surrounded by the complexities, the suffering, and the opportunities of the United States in a revolutionary era.

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