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james monroe

4 may 2008

Former U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart contributes a clearly-argued, forceful study of James Monroe to the Times Books American Presidents series. In Hart's analysis, Monroe was a "national security" President, seeing the role of the Executive in ways that foreshadow Presidential concerns of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Monroe's concerns were more personal than situational, according to Hart. No theorist of constitutional systems like his predecessors John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, James Monroe was a soldier in his youth and a diplomat for much of his adult life. Small wonder that he saw force and the threat of force on the international scene as the central problem of politics.

In repackaging Monroe as a figure worth our serious attention, Hart has a bit of an uphill task. The fifth President is fairly obscure in the general memory, and historians have generally conveyed the impression that he was slightly dense, slightly dull, and more than slightly a non-entity. The standard biography, a 1971 book by Harry Ammon that Hart quotes frequently, portrays Monroe as a point man for the Republican party of Jefferson and Madison, a follower who got carefully into line and assumed the Presidency when his number came up. Even the famous Doctrine forbidding new European colonial adventures in the New World is often attributed to Monroe's Secretary of State, the undeniably more cerebral John Quincy Adams.

But Hart's focused study contends that Monroe was as competent as any American leader. He simply did stuff instead of ruminating about it. And though he could bridle at criticism, he was relatively unthreatened in his competence. Where his three predecessors appointed time-servers and partisan hacks to high office, Monroe relied on three highly-talented Cabinet officers (Adams, John C. Calhoun at the War Department, and William H. Crawford at the Treasury), and held his own in dealing with the effective but obnoxious General Andrew Jackson (his commander on the strategic Florida front) and Henry Clay, the type-A Speaker of the House. A weaker man, presiding over such a collection of Washington wolves, might have been eaten alive. Monroe remained in charge.

Or so claims Gary Hart. Monroe's contemporaries were not as convinced. Clay wrote to Adams in 1820:

Mr. Monroe has just been re-elected with apparent unanimity, but he has not the slightest influence in Congress. His career was considered as closed. There was nothing further to be expected by him or from him. (Qtd. in Hart, 78)
Even Harry Ammon tends to imply that after Monroe became President, American politics passed him by. Hart tries to recuperate Monroe's image by attributing the Doctrine more directly to him. Much of the latter half of Hart's book is devoted to an explication of that Doctrine and its wide-ranging consequences. Hart even argues that George W. Bush's pre-emptive conquest and occupation of Iraq in 2003 was essentially an extension of Monroe's ideas. Monroe spread a protective umbrella across the emerging nations of South America; Bush attempted to extend that protection across the globe. The analogy is far from perfect, but there is a family resemblance between Monroe and Bush: both longed to set up a shield within which a democratic experiment could work itself out. Taking both "national security" Presidents in the most charitable possible terms, their projection of American guarantees onto the global stage shows a kind of idealism. Looking at the consequences from the perspective of a Latin American or an Iraqi, both seem to have been fairly clueless about how things might work out in practice.

Neither the Monroe Doctrine nor the second Iraq War were really about the people that these Presidents claimed to protect. We might think of the Monroe and Bush initiatives in national security as experiments in "branding," that popular 21st-century buzzword. Both men knew little and cared less about what was actually going on in the countries they strove to shield. But they were both good at stamping the "U.S." brand all over their projects. Whether the shielded parties reacted with resentment or grudging gratitude, they could not ignore Uncle Sam. Perhaps we ought to call James Monroe the first brand-conscious President.

Hart, Gary. James Monroe. New York: Times Books, 2005.