James Madison and James Monroe are interchangeable in mind. Both were important Founding Fathers, their names are fairly similar, they served consecutive dual terms as president, they both hailed from Virginia, were both proteges of Thomas Jefferson and turned against George Washington and the Federalists. Both served as Secretaries of State. Madison and Monroe were even close friends for 25 years (before temporarily severing ties with one another).
There are numerous differences between the two men, but the one that stands out for me is their presidencies. In some ways, Madison floundered ineptly as chief executive. The War of 1812 was costly and pointless: victory could have been attained without firing a shot, and decisive victory on the field of battle occurred after the war concluded in a stalemate. Many of the reasons for US failure in the war (no national bank or standing federal army) were partly Madison’s fault.
Monroe, on the other hand, was possibly the best president in between Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Not only did he continue the work he started as a diplomat in the Jefferson administration (he largely negotiated the Louisiana Purchase) by settling border disagreements with Britain and Spain (including the purchase of Florida), but his “era of Good Feelings” allowed for proliferation in areas as such as roads and education (Monroe supported equal education for women). Like Washington before him, Monroe sought (and largely achieved, for his administration, at least) a country free from political factions, and went on two goodwill tours of the country that served to unite and bind the country together. His was an era of calm before the tumultuous antebellum period that followed. His greatest legacy is perhaps the Monroe Doctrine, which dictated the terms under which the US would engage the rest of the world in relation to its spheres of influence.
There are a couple key things that stood out for me about this biography. The treatment of his wife Elizabeth was respectful and noteworthy. Not only was she a beautiful and engaging woman, but also courageous and intelligent. She braved multiple transatlantic voyages (with children) to be close to her husband while he served as a diplomat in Europe. In France, during the Terror, she almost single-handedly won the freedom of Madame La Fayette, wife of the Marquis de Lafayette (hero of the American Revolution), who was being held in prison pending an inevitable visit to the guillotine. Elizabeth Monroe’s name should come as readily to our lips as Dolly Madison or Martha Washington, and I don’t feel like it does. That is to our embarrassment.
The second important point about this biography is that I don’t feel like it spent enough time on Monroe’s relationship to slavery. Like many of his era, he thought it a blight upon the country, which didn’t, of course, prevent him from owning slaves himself. But his role in the founding of Liberia, in Africa, was large enough that the capital of Liberia is named after him: Monrovia. This part of his life, I feel, wasn’t adequately covered.
All in all, this was a very solid biography of someone I’ve long felt indistinguishable from his predecessor. But a more nuanced depiction of his faults is certainly warranted.