What? The blog lives? Yes, yes, I'm still reading over here. I've just been putting off this recap forever because this is the worst presidential biography I've read to date. Harlow Giles Unger makes Lynne Cheney look like a cool, unbiased historian. And considering that I described her book on Madison as "a gushing, teen girl's fan letter to her adored celebrity crush" that should really tell you something. I mean, when you make the claim that Adams, Jefferson, and Madison were "mere caretaker presidents" in the opening pages of your biography, do you really expect anybody to take you seriously?? I all but put confidence in anything Unger had to say. ("All but" was his favorite little catch phrase and you could find those two annoying words put together on almost every page of the book.)
But I digress. I'll try to share some pertinent details and keep this short. Otherwise we'll end up with an overlong ranty post about who should be allowed to write biographies interjected with bitter diatribes about money-grabbing publishers who put this nonsense out into the world.
The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and A Nation's Call to Greatness by Harlow Giles Unger was published in 2009 by Da Capo Press. As far as a biography goes, it was emotional, overly dramatic, and poorly written.
Monroe himself would be an interesting character to read about, and he deserves to have a well written, up-to-date biography written of his life, but unfortunately, as far as I can tell, the two best options to read a full account of his life are this one or Harry Ammon's stale 1971 offering. So here we are.
Monroe was involved in every aspect of Revolutionary America, serving as soldier, congressman, senator, minister to France and Britain, governor of Virginia, secretary of state, and secretary of war before finally becoming America's fifth president. A pretty impressive resumé in and of itself. He was instrumental in the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase, and his Monroe Doctrine is an enduring proclamation that still has relevant political implications today. Personally, he was hot tempered and a bit vain which made him unlikeable for me as a human being. He and Kitty seemed to have a good marriage and their younger daughter Maria was the first president's child to be married in the White House.
However, as I have already stated, this particular biography of Monroe is laughably biased. He had not one bad thing to say about Monroe and spent all his energy defending the objectively less than stellar bits of Monroe's life. After asserting that Adams, Jefferson, and Madison were "caretaker presidents" until Monroe could step up and save the day, he later contradicts his own words by arguing for Monroe's sole authorship of the Monroe Doctrine (some historians have posited that John Quincy Adams actually authored it) by stating that "such assertions show little insight into the presidency itself and the type of man who aspires to and assumes that office; indeed, they denigrate the character, the intellect, the intensity, and the sense of power that drive American presidents." All this after trying to convince the reader that Madison was a completely impotent puppet of Monroe's for Madison's entire presidency.
If you're looking for a good biography of Monroe, this certainly isn't it. However, it may be your best bet. I would love it if Noah Feldman or Joseph J. Ellis would undertake to write a biography on our nation's fifth president. Until then, I suggest reading this biography with a very big grain of salt.
I am actually facing (with great trepidation) another of Unger's biographies on John Quincy Adams. It is on my list for this year (and I already own it), but I am considering switching it out for James Traub's 2016 biography of the sixth president of the United States. What do you think? Should I ditch Unger and go with Traub or stick with what I've got?