Review

The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and A Nation’s Call to Greatness

by Harlow Giles Unger

“Then look at the map of United North America as it
was...in 1783. Compare it with the map of that same Empire as it is
now...The change, more than of any other man, living or dead, was
the work of James Monroe.”

     – Former President John Quincy
Adams, 1831

Ask any high school student to tell you who James Monroe is, and
some of them may know he was a president of the United States; some
may even know he was the fifth. Of those who know who he is, were
you to ask what he did in his lifetime, some may even be able to
make mention of the Monroe Doctrine. Therein lies the real
travesty, for Monroe led a most extraordinary life and deserves to
be much more than a dusty footnote under the beacons of Washington,
Adams and Jefferson. Thankfully, Harlow Giles Unger saw fit to
correct this with the supremely well-written and enlightening THE
LAST FOUNDING FATHER.

In this biography, we find Monroe born in Virginia in April 1758
during the midst of the Seven Years’ War. British sovereignty
was weighing heavy on the colonies, and Monroe shuffled to school
while his father tended a 500-acre farm. When his mother and father
both died early on, Monroe and his older sister raised the younger
siblings and controlled the farm. As the man of the family, he had
to quit school, but his struggles grew and a well-off uncle stepped
in and enrolled him in William and Mary College.

A student at the time of revolution, Monroe undertook his duty
to the idea of a free country and fought alongside George
Washington. Crossing the Delaware, it was Monroe and
Washington’s cousin, William, who succeeded in capturing the
enemy cannon, allowing the rest of the colonial army to claim the
land --- but it came at a price: Monroe had been shot through the
chest, the musket ball lodging in his shoulder and tearing an
artery. Were it not for the skill of a fine field medic, the
18-year-old Monroe would have bled to death. Monroe is forgotten in
these deeds but can be found in two historic paintings of the
event: John Trumbull’s image of the aftermath of the Battle
of Trenton shows a wounded Monroe lying at the feet of
Washington’s horse, and in Emanuel Leutze’s iconic
vision of Washington crossing the Delaware, it is Monroe who holds
the American flag.

Following the war, Monroe would return to William and Mary to
study law under Thomas Jefferson. A great friendship grew between
the two, and eventually Monroe would buy land adjacent to Jefferson
so that they could retire together in later years. And it was under
the care of Jefferson that his political career took flight, and he
became one of the most respected and well-known figures of his time
at every level of office to which he served.

Unger shows us much more than just a president, for Monroe
served in the Virginia legislature and the Confederation Congress,
was a part of Virginia’s Constitutional Ratification
Convention (where he voted “no” to ratifying the
Constitution on the basis that it bore no Bill of Rights and ceded
too much power from the states to the central government) and
worked as a lawyer of his own private practice until 1790 when he
was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Already, that list of accomplishments would be enough for most
men, especially any man who had been so deeply enmeshed in the
founding of a new nation, one that was very fragile and threatened
on all sides by the Spanish, the British (who were refusing to
leave their posts as required following the revolution) and the
Indians in the West. Unger also shows us Monroe’s frustration
at how much the nation was in danger of imploding from its own
state-to-state and regional turmoil, and how Monroe was nowhere
near done serving his country.

In 1794, Monroe resigned his Senate seat and was appointed
minister to France, taking his wife and young daughter across the
sea as France was embroiled in a revolution of their own. While
there, he saved the life of Thomas Paine and aided the Lafayette
family’s flight from France to the United States. He would be
elected Governor of Virginia on his return from France a few years
later, would be named minister to Spain, France and England in
1803, and then would broker a deal that would alter the outlook of
the United States forever --- the Louisiana Purchase.

Monroe would hold more high positions in the federal government,
ultimately reaching the pinnacle with election to the presidency.
He also became the only president other than Washington to be
elected by a unanimous vote when he won a second term. His
presidency saw the acquisition of Florida and his pronouncement of
the Monroe Doctrine, a three-paragraph regulation all but buried in
a message to Congress that would secure the United States from
European interventions and allow a young and struggling nation a
sense of security enough to begin an ascent into what would become
a world superpower of invention and might.

Monroe passed away as other presidents before him: penniless and
in debt. But as the last of the Revolutionary War presidents, it is
all the more fitting that he should pass on the Fourth of July like
Jefferson and Adams.

Unger goes a long way to opening up the eyes of a reader to the
vast value Monroe had at the founding of our nation, and taking
stock of all his achievements along the way brings a great sense of
sadness that such a patriot should be so readily forgotten. The
work done in crafting THE LAST FOUNDING FATHER serves to highlight
a great debt of gratitude owed by our nation to James Monroe.

Reviewed by Stephen Hubbard on December 30, 2010

The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and A Nation’s Call to Greatness
by Harlow Giles Unger

  • Publication Date: September 29, 2009
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press
  • ISBN-10: 0306818086
  • ISBN-13: 9780306818080