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James Monroe
Cover of James Monroe
James Monroe
A Life
The extraordinary life of James Monroe: soldier, senator, diplomat, and the last Founding Father to hold the presidency, a man who helped transform thirteen colonies into a vibrant and mighty republic.
"A first-rate account of a remarkable life."—Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Soul of America
Monroe lived a life defined by revolutions. From the battlefields of the War for Independence, to his ambassadorship in Paris in the days of the guillotine, to his own role in the creation of Congress's partisan divide, he was a man who embodied the restless spirit of the age. He was never one to back down from a fight, whether it be with Alexander Hamilton, with whom he nearly engaged in a duel (prevented, ironically, by Aaron Burr), or George Washington, his hero turned political opponent.

This magnificent new biography vividly recreates the epic sweep of Monroe's life: his near-death wounding at Trenton and a brutal winter at Valley Forge; his pivotal negotiations with France over the Louisiana Purchase; his deep, complex friendships with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison; his valiant leadership when the British ransacked the nation's capital and burned down the Executive Mansion; and Monroe's lifelong struggle to reckon with his own complicity in slavery. Elected the fifth president of the United States in 1816, this fiercest of partisans sought to bridge divisions and sow unity, calming turbulent political seas and inheriting Washington's mantle of placing country above party. Over his two terms, Monroe transformed the nation, strengthening American power both at home and abroad.
Critically-acclaimed author Tim McGrath has consulted an extensive array of primary sources, many rarely seen since Monroe's own time, to conjure up this fascinating portrait of an essential American statesman and president.
The extraordinary life of James Monroe: soldier, senator, diplomat, and the last Founding Father to hold the presidency, a man who helped transform thirteen colonies into a vibrant and mighty republic.
"A first-rate account of a remarkable life."—Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Soul of America
Monroe lived a life defined by revolutions. From the battlefields of the War for Independence, to his ambassadorship in Paris in the days of the guillotine, to his own role in the creation of Congress's partisan divide, he was a man who embodied the restless spirit of the age. He was never one to back down from a fight, whether it be with Alexander Hamilton, with whom he nearly engaged in a duel (prevented, ironically, by Aaron Burr), or George Washington, his hero turned political opponent.

This magnificent new biography vividly recreates the epic sweep of Monroe's life: his near-death wounding at Trenton and a brutal winter at Valley Forge; his pivotal negotiations with France over the Louisiana Purchase; his deep, complex friendships with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison; his valiant leadership when the British ransacked the nation's capital and burned down the Executive Mansion; and Monroe's lifelong struggle to reckon with his own complicity in slavery. Elected the fifth president of the United States in 1816, this fiercest of partisans sought to bridge divisions and sow unity, calming turbulent political seas and inheriting Washington's mantle of placing country above party. Over his two terms, Monroe transformed the nation, strengthening American power both at home and abroad.
Critically-acclaimed author Tim McGrath has consulted an extensive array of primary sources, many rarely seen since Monroe's own time, to conjure up this fascinating portrait of an essential American statesman and president.
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    Chapter One

    “A Worthy and Respectable Citizen”

    We then rallied and returned to the action.

    —James Monroe

    Like most land-owning families in colonial Virginia, the Monroes traced their presence in the New World to an Old World adventurer.

    In 1314, during the battle of Bannockburn, when a desperate army of Scotsmen thrashed King Edward II’s forces, winning a brief respite of independence from England, a Munro fought against the tyrant Crown.

    By the 1640s, Scottish troops found themselves fighting for the English king, Charles I, not against him, over the expulsion of Presbyterians from Parliament by Oliver Cromwell. At the Battle of Preston in 1648, Charles’ forces, Captain Andrew Munro among them, were soundly defeated by Cromwell’s “Roundheads,” ending the efforts of Charles’ cavaliers to keep him on the throne. Charles I lost his head and Munro lost his homeland. He returned to the family homestead, Foulis Castle, before departing for the new world.

    The exiled Munro somehow obtained a tract of land in the colony of Virginia and found passage on a ship carrying other Scots across the Atlantic. The colonists of Virginia were the precursors of the “rugged individualists” of American legend. Many, like Munro, were truly exiles; others were sons who sought in the New World the riches that were denied them at home by an older brother’s birthright. Munro’s tract of land was in Westmoreland County along Virginia’s Northern Neck.

    By 1660, news of Cromwell’s death and the restoration of the monarchy in the person of Charles II reached Virginia. Andrew, now spelling his name “Monroe,” visited Scotland After convincing some relations to accompany him back to Virginia, Andrew was awarded with another tract of land.

    Eleven hundred acres is an empire in the twenty-first century but not so in the eighteenth. The Monroes were well thought of but not well off. The men in the family were farmers, and often required another trade to put enough food on the table and clothe their family. Westmoreland County was also home to families whose surnames would be etched in American history: Washington, Madison, and Lee among them. The Washingtons were actually neighbors, as far as the eighteenth-century goes, as they lived a short three miles away when baby George was born in 1732 (shortly afterwards, they moved to King George’s County).

    For Andrew Monroe, son of the first Andrew’s son, William, that line of work came in public service. For years he served as Westmoreland County’s sheriff. He married his cousin’s widow, Christine Taylor Monroe, and they had four children. Their second, Spence, was born in 1727.

    When his father died, Spence inherited five hundred acres (his older brother got the other six hundred). Like his forebears, records listed him as a “planter,” but on the lower rungs of the gentry. He frequently worked as a carpenter, a trade he learned as a youth –and he was good at it. When he took on his own apprentice just before his marriage, Spence proudly signed “Cabinet maker” to the contract. Being a “tradesman” was not an impediment to being known as a “gentleman.”

    Spence was industrious and ambitious, especially in his choice of a wife. In fact, he married up. Elizabeth Jones’ father, James, had emigrated from Wales and quickly established his reputation as a successful attorney and a man of property in King George’s County. The Joneses were comfortably well-off, and Elizabeth had more than her share of suitors. Her family...

Reviews-
  • Kirkus

    March 15, 2020
    The life of "the last Founding Father to hold the presidency." In this deliberative take on Monroe (1758-1831), McGrath, a two-time winner of the Commodore John Barry Book Award, mines the Revolutionary and post-1812 eras, concentrating on Monroe's two-term presidency. A mentee of Thomas Jefferson and Revolutionary War hero in his home state of Virginia, Monroe served as a delegate on the Continental Congress and notably voted against the ratification of the Constitution. He was partly embroiled in the revelation of Alexander Hamilton's being blackmailed for his affair with Maria Reynolds--did Monroe reveal it to Jefferson? The bad blood would nearly cause them to fight a duel a few years later. As the author shows, Monroe certainly helped stoke the political animosity between Jefferson's supporters and Hamilton's Federalists. Serving as George Washington's ambassador to France when the mood in Paris was still dangerously revolutionary, Monroe was recalled due to his handling of the Jay Treaty, and his veneration of Washington was deeply shaken. McGrath follows Monroe from his time as governor of Virginia to his role as Jefferson's envoy in negotiating the Louisiana Purchase. Later, he served as James Madison's secretary of state and secretary of war, at the same time, while war with Britain raged. As president, he was able to defuse political tensions between the parties, and the Federalists were neutralized. Under his tenure, "he sought an Indian policy that would please both white and Native Americans, and came up woefully short," and he freed only one of his more than 200 slaves. McGrath, whose wide-ranging research is evident from the extensive list of primary sources, considers Monroe's legacy as "put[ting] his country on the world stage, for better and worse, for all time." It's a sturdy, straightforward text that will appeal to fans of presidential biographies, if not general readers. A proficient, readable life, though McGrath does not convincingly explain why a new biography on Monroe is necessary now.

    COPYRIGHT(2020) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    April 6, 2020
    In this dense, painstaking biography, historian McGrath (Give Me a Fast Ship) credits James Monroe (1758–1831) with “creat the presidency as Americans have come to know it.” Wounded in the Battle of Trenton during the Revolutionary War, Monroe returned to Virginia, where he studied law under Thomas Jefferson. Though “bitterly disappointed” not to have been selected as a delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, he played a decisive role in Virginia’s ratifying convention as a voice of compromise. He went on to serve as ambassador to France, governor of Virginia, negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase, and secretary of state and secretary of war—simultaneously—during the War of 1812. After entering the White House in 1816, Madison became the first president to tour the country, earning praise from journalists for inaugurating the “Era of Good Feelings.” In an 1823 address to congress, he issued what would later become known as the “Monroe Doctrine”—a foreign policy marked by opposition to European colonization of the Western Hemisphere and neutrality in European conflicts. McGrath makes a convincing case for Monroe’s pivotal role in American history, but occasionally grinds the narrative to a halt with accounts of endless partisan debates, political bickering, and diplomatic maneuvers. This exhaustive deep-dive corrects the record on one of America’s most overlooked founding fathers.

  • Library Journal

    Starred review from May 1, 2020

    Most readers likely know that James Monroe was the fifth U.S. president (and the creator of the Monroe Doctrine), but they may not be as familiar with the turbulent economic, diplomatic, and political events that shaped U.S. history before, during, and long after his presidency. Award-winning author McGrath (John Barry) ably outlines the complex and dramatic issues surrounding Monroe's (1758-1831) life-long public service as a soldier, diplomat, Founding Father, state legislator, governor, senator, cabinet officer, and president. The author highlights Monroe's evolution as a shrewd statesman who, mentored by Thomas Jefferson and advised by James Madison, attempted to emulate George Washington's gentlemanly demeanor and rise above partisan politics, despite being stymied by bitter political, diplomatic, and personal intrigue. As a diplomat and president, Monroe tactfully negotiated to expand and define U.S. borders while avoiding hostilities with European powers and maintaining U.S. strength and sovereignty. McGrath doesn't shy away from Monroe's history as a slaveholder, nor his preferences to send freed slaves to Liberia, and Native Americans to the West. VERDICT An excellent, exhaustively researched, thoughtful biography with appeal to armchair historians and academics alike.--Margaret Kappanadze, Elmira Coll. Lib., NY

    Copyright 2020 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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A Life
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