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A Review of James Monroe's Political Writings


Friday, Jul. 26, 2002

James P. Lucier, editor, The Political Writings of James Monroe (Regnery Publishing 2001)

James Lucier will not escape such criticism of his collection of James Monroe's letters and pamphlets. Lucier is sometimes idiosyncratically selective, and his editorial touch is both light and repetitious - especially in the attention he lavishes on Monroe's views of state-federal relations. He should, however, get plenty of credit for choosing a timely subject and letting that subject pretty much speak for himself.

With the exception of George Washington, no Founding Father is more fit than James Monroe to inspire Americans and their leaders in the post-9/11 world. And this is the first new treatment of Monroe's writings since Stanislaus Murray Hamilton's seven-volume collection was published 100 years ago.

Monroe: A Revolutionary Hero In Deed As Well As Word

James Monroe was President of the United States (1817-1825), Secretary of State (1811-1817), Secretary of War (1814-1815), a Senator from Virginia (1790-1794), and Governor of Virginia (1799-1802, 1811). He spent most of the rest of his adult life as a diplomat in France and England, and as a legislator in Virginia and in the Continental Congress.

Monroe was, in other words, in the same league with Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John and John Quincy Adams when it came to the duration and prominence of his public service during the birth and infancy of his country. He shared with them an extraordinary (and extraordinarily optimistic) vision of a great American nation and the willingness to risk all to achieve that vision - qualities that were then prerequisites for national leadership.

But Monroe's courage did not end there. Unlike the worthies listed above, he was a member of a more exclusive group - limited perhaps to himself, Washington, and Alexander Hamilton.

These were the men who had not only the talent and ambition for national political leadership, but also the personal courage to do more than sign a Declaration in 1776 "pledg[ing] to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor" to achieve independence. These three took to the front lines and risked their own lives for independence, exhibiting a brand of bravery that John Adams, perhaps the most honestly self-critical of the Founding Fathers, was to admit that he lacked.

Monroe's finest hour came early in the Revolutionary War. Everyone knows the story of Washington's famous attack on the Hessians at Trenton, New Jersey, on Christmas 1776. Less well-known is Monroe's role.

After spending a freezing Christmas night leading an advance scouting party, Monroe led an early assault on Hessian artillery defending the town. It was this initial surprise attack that opened the way for many of Washington's troops to enter the town and eventually win the Battle of Trenton.

Although this period of Monroe's life can hardly be said to be "political," Lucier does include a sample of Monroe's correspondence with his commander, George Washington.

In National Office, More Risks for Monroe

More than 35 years later, during the War of 1812, Monroe put both his life and his fortune directly at risk in defense of his country.

On August 18, 1814, Secretary of State Monroe sent a letter to Secretary of War John Armstrong, warning him of impending attacks on the East Coast and on Washington, DC, in particular: "the enemy menaces this place, among others, and this, I conceive, in a more imminent degree than any other."

For weeks, Monroe had been warning President Madison and his Cabinet of an impending British invasion, but he had received little more than the Chicken Little treatment. The August 18 letter was Monroe's last ditch attempt to generate some action to defend the Capital.

In the letter he volunteered to personally lead a small scouting party in search of British forces. Secretary Armstrong acquiesced, Monroe's fears were confirmed, and within a week British soldiers were setting fire to the President's House (which would soon be popularly known as the White House because of the quantities of white paint used to cover up the soot and scorch marks from the fires of August 1814) while President Madison led the evacuation of the national government.

Lucier provides most, but not all, of the most illuminating pieces of Monroe's correspondence from this episode and its aftermath, including a field report to Madison as the British were approaching Washington and Monroe's "Notes Respecting the Burning City in 1814." Monroe's notes, written in the third person, recap his role as the military leader of the reoccupation of Washington, during which he confronted an attempt by the city fathers of Georgetown to surrender to the British:

"He [Monroe] forbade the measure. It was then remarked that the situation of the inhabitants was deplorable; there being no force prepared for their defense, their houses might be burnt down. Mr. Monroe then observed that he had been charged by the President with authority to take measures for defense of the city, and that it should be defended; that if any deputation moved toward the enemy it should be repelled by the bayonet."

Later in the War of 1812, when the national government was broke, Monroe used his own assets to guarantee loans to fund Andrew Jackson's famous defense of New Orleans from British invaders. Strangely, and without explanation, Lucier offers an excerpt from a deposition by Tench Ringgold (a friend of Monroe and sometime U.S. Marshall for the District of Columbia), rather than the passage from Monroe's own memoir on the subject. Maybe Lucier thinks that the Ringgold statement is more credible than a self-serving story from Monroe, but this book is a collection of Monroe's writings, which ought to stand on their own merits. Lucier does, however, include correspondence from later in Monroe's life in which he briefly mentions the episode.

Monroe's papers, at the very minimum, are enough to make one wonder how he would react to modern Americans who can't bear the suffering caused by extended waits at airport security checkpoints, or the terrifying prospect of paying a bit more for petroleum products, or the agony of making hard choices balancing liberty and security.

Monroe is not a great writer or philosophizer, but his clear and straightforward language is easily accessible to the modern reader. So is the thinking behind it. He is matter-of-fact. He is focused on making things work while upholding the institutions designed to perpetuate the freedoms for which he fought in 1776.

Monroe was most certainly a hypocrite on important subjects such as slavery, sex, and Indians, but there is a heck of a lot about him that is still worth admiring, even emulating. Those qualities come through in this collection.

Ross Davies is an assistant professor of law at the George Mason University School of Law and editor-in-chief of The Green Bag, An Entertaining Journal of Law

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