Friday, December 11, 2009

Last Revolutionary Dude

now finished:
James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity by Harry Ammon
Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster
now reading:
John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul C. Nagel

James Monroe took a lot of flak, but he was actually quite awesome. He had integrity and just honest-to-god wanted to do the right things to make this fledgling union into - well, an awesome union! As a diplomat and in all the other positions he held he worked really hard, but the partisan winds of politics weren't always blowing in his favor. This was never more true than during his presidential administration: he was the last sure-thing destined-to-be-president dude from the Revolutionary generation, and pretty much his entire cabinet plus an enemy or two in Congress wanted to be the first of the younger generation to be elected, in 1824. So they spent the whole time jockeying for position and stirring up shite, while Monroe remained unfailingly neutral but still got blamed for lots of dumb stuff.

This book gave me such a greater understanding of him. He wasn't as inherently brilliant as his buddies Madison and Jefferson, but he excelled at being a pragmatic problem solver, which they did not. And he did a lot of things well. He completely and totally saved Madison's skin during the War of 1812, for example. Another likable president who actually did quite a bit to save the day.

Ammon's book is not my favorite of the bios I've been reading; it's a little slow and convoluted at times. But even when I got bogged down, I felt bad disliking the book at all because I so much respect Ammon and other historian/biographers who have combed through pages and pages and volumes and volumes of material for, like, fifteen years to write a well-researched book. Can you imagine working on a book for fifteen years? Is there anything to which I have devoted fifteen years? Besides, say, watching baseball, or Oscar-nominated films. (Which, speaking of, it's totally awards season; check out my ramblings on my "front page" blog.)

Monroe also tried, often, to do the right thing for Native Americans and slaves. Not that he was sure what the right thing was, but he at least tried to solve those huge problems that are such a blemish on the reputations of him and his crew. Besides his attempts to get Liberia going (you know - Monrovia and stuff), he tried to stop the execution of slaves who were arrested after plotting an uprising. It was all such a mess, and I can't imagine what good anyone I know today would have done about slavery if they had lived at that time, despite how easy it is to criticize with hindsight.

I relate to Monroe a lot because he was a little self-critical but also it upset him terribly when people didn't understand him, or misjudged him or his motivations. I think the people around him might have been oblivious to how much he cared, while they were basically willing to be shallow. All in all, I am impressed by my boy Monroe. Except for the part where he enjoyed/was good at practicing law. Yuck. But I do like that initially he, as with all the others, didn't know what he should do with his life.

Next up? My new BFF JQA!

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