Presidential Biographies: James Monroe #5

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with James Monroe, the fifth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and  this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies), I picked James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity by Harry Ammon.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!!

James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity by Harry Ammon

James Monroe – lived 1758-1831 ; President from 1817-1825

The Monroe Doctrine! You’ve heard of it, right? But do you know what it is? I barely did. Reading this biography helped set the Monroe Doctrine in its historical perspective and shed light on the issues that were pressing in Monroe’s day. But before we get to that, a broader survey is worth noting.

Monroe was another story of success in the United States from someone who held a relatively low place in society. There’s no question that Monroe’s family was wealthier than the vast majority of people in the United States at the time, but his family was also not among the absolute elite. They were planters, but wealth didn’t come easy and indeed, throughout Monroe’s life, he was struggling to make ends meet with his financial obligations and investments constantly battling for attention. He fought in the Revolutionary War and was opposed to the Federalist Party, forming part of the opposition to the ratification of the Constitution. His opposition was based on his feeling that it made the central government too powerful. He eventually went on to become a diplomat to France, and thus helped to orchestrate the wildly successful (depending on one’s view of the situation) Louisiana Purchase.

Elected President, he was one of the first powerful political figures who opposed the Federalist Party, which at this point was starting to collapse. His interest in foreign policy–perhaps bolstered by his time overseas in both Britain and France–was cemented into the Monroe Doctrine. Essentially, this Doctrine basically said that any attempt by European powers to interfere in America (North or South) would be treated as acts of agression and demand U.S. intervention. My analysis as follows would probably make a number of experts in the field weep, but this is how I’m going to summarize it. In a vacuum, this seems either remarkably interventionist or a kind of strange isolationism of two continents from another. But contextually, Monroe was dealing with the very real possibility of a number of colonies in South and Central America declaring independence and getting wars started all over. The Monroe Doctrine effectively gave a blanket warning to all the European Powers that the United States was going to do a bit more than sword rattling regarding wars on its borders. There was also the possibility of numerous colonies realigning themselves with European countries and thus creating major powers right next door to the United States–a danger that was all too real given that Washington D.C. had just been put to the torch in the War of 1812. Thus, the Doctrine at the time seemed reasonable and perhaps necessary. It also clearly helped set the U.S. up as a major power in the West and guided future foreign policy decisions, for better or ill.

Monroe was also of the opinion that Native Americans ought to be allowed to stay put, and he favored a policy in which the government dealt with Native Americans as a whole through a system of federal laws rather than along tribal lines. This was, at the time, seen as a more moderate position. It did, after all, guarantee a stronger Federal system to honor treaties with First Nations groups. However, as Ammon pointed out, the motivation was a bit more insidious, for Monroe and those like him favored this policy as a way to assimilate Native Americans into what they saw as the true “American” society–namely, white society. The thought was that by encouraging a “sedentary” lifestyle among Native groups, they would assimilate and basically just become more white people. This motivation is inexcusable, though the policy itself certainly seems preferable to that of many others’–including several Presidents–which was forced relocation and slaughter.

Regarding slaves, Monroe favored resettlement back in Africa. Ammon did not go much into Monroe’s thoughts on why this would be preferable to freed slaves living in the U.S. but based on what I’ve read from others at the time, it was likely because he and others felt that the freed slaves would be inherently stupid or incapable of living in society alongside whites. Again, I’m not positive this was Monroe’s motivation, but that was what many at the time used as their reasoning for sending slaves “back to Africa.” On the other hand, the freed slaves who did go on to make a colony in Africa–Liberia, specifically–named it Monrovia after the President, so they may have seen it as a pretty good thing. Moreover, it was helped along by the American Colonization Society, whose many members included evangelical Christians and Quakers who favored abolition but felt that freed slaves had a better chance of society in Africa. Nevertheless, it’s important not to lionize people like abolitionists purely for their views on slavery; many still felt that blacks were inferior on any number of levels due to mistaken beliefs about ancestry, among other things. I digress. Monroe did own slaves on his plantation, including while he was in office. So here we have yet another stain on the history of the Presidency.

The complexity of Madison’s treatment of slavery goes even farther, as he had to deal with issues that would lay the seeds for the Civil War. Debates over the legality and slavery in Missouri boiled over, but Monroe helped settle down the issue by offering a Second Missouri Compromise that at least ended the debate for the moment, though it did little to deal with lasting bitterness over the issues.

I thought the biography itself was quite fascinating, if a bit dry at times. Ammon has a very straightforward method of reporting the facts. Unlike some other biographies I’ve read so far, there appears to be very little by way of Ammon’s own view seeping in. Of course, any biographer is going to be biased, but I was hard-pressed to find any clear instances in this biography.


My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. So you’ll probably end up disagreeing with me. I look forward to your comments!

1. George Washington (1st President- original ranking- #1): Washington basically defined the office of the President for all who followed him. It was left intentionally vague by the framers, so he had to work within those strictures while trying to expand on them. Not easy, but he seems to have done it rather ably, refusing to become a major partisan while still demanding certain powers of the Executive Branch. During his Presidency the national bank was created, the country’s credit recovered, massive trade booms occurred, the Mississippi was opened for exploration, and beneficial partnerships with other countries were being formed. On the other hand, during his Presidency and life generally, slavery was tolerated and even expanded, Native Americans were brutalized, and throughout it all Washington either participated directly or turned his face the other way. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of Washington on the office of the President. On the other hand, we ought not to lionize him or see him as perfection itself.

2. Thomas Jefferson (3rd President- original ranking- #2): Jefferson’s accomplishments as President, Secretary of State, and Revolutionary cannot be understated. He deftly handled relationships with such countries as France and Spain, while also helping to secure borders of the United States for decades to come. One of the biggest splashes of his Presidency was the Louisiana Purchase, which vastly increased the size of the country. However, Jefferson was also a blatant womanizer, a slave owner who pandered to abolitionist leanings while owning slaves, was clearly racist, and encouraged the destruction of Native groups living on the land that was “purchased” from Napoleon. Back on the positive side, he advocated for religious tolerance–even of other faiths–despite his Deistic leanings. His diplomatic skill is beyond dispute. He actively sought compromise and valued even minority opinions–lessons we need to re-learn now. The legacy he left would impact almost every aspect of the country going forward, for good or ill. It is difficult to fully analyze such a complex, contradictory man.

3. James Madison (4th President- original ranking- #3): Called the “Father of the Constitution,” Madison’s impact is perhaps most important for what he did prior to becoming President. The sheer amount of work he did to get the Constitution written, improve upon it, amend it, and put it to vote is astonishing. As President, perhaps the most important event in his career was the War of 1812, itself a possible foreshadowing of the many and sundry conflicts the United States has entered with tenuous justification since. Though often disastrous, the War did lead to, somewhat paradoxically, better relations between the United States and Britain going forward. Perhaps it is best said that Madison was the consummate compromiser, for good or ill. As with many others, his owning of slaves directly conflicted with his affirmation of the idea that all people are created equal.

4. James Monroe (5th President – original ranking- #4): Monroe was a master of foreign policy, and his Presidency and political career reflected that. Certainly left his mark on U.S. policy in ways that we still feel regarding Europe and South America in particular. Probably to be considered a “moderate” regarding relations with Native Americans and for his stance on slavery, though his positions were still bigoted and rather arrogant regarding both groups of people. Little by way of scandal (see Jefferson for an early example of some rather scandalous things going on with Presidents), so that makes him more Presidential than some. Also, he appeared to be a loving husband and father, overall.

5. John Adams (2nd President- original ranking- #2): There’s something to be said for the fact that Adams basically held the line against all the forces threatening to either break the United States back apart or subsume it under an “alliance” that would turn it into a kind of vassal state. Adams did that, and he managed to keep the US out of another war in its infancy. The political treatises Adams wrote went on to define the constitutions of many states and help clarify the relationship between the state and federal government. Adams did, however, fail to hold his own political party together, whether through inaction or simply not being charismatic enough or willing enough to step into the leadership role he needed to take. Moreover, Adams was an absentee (at best) father and husband.

*Rankings not definitive


J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

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