James Monroe: A Life

Dutton. May 2020. 752p. ISBN 9780451477262. $40. BIOG
Most readers likely know that James Monroe was the fifth U.S. president (and the creator of the Monroe Doctrine), but they may not be as familiar with the turbulent economic, diplomatic, and political events that shaped U.S. history before, during, and long after his presidency. Award-winning author McGrath (John Barry) ably outlines the complex and dramatic issues surrounding Monroe’s (1758–1831) life-long public service as a soldier, diplomat, Founding Father, state legislator, governor, senator, cabinet officer, and president. The author highlights Monroe’s evolution as a shrewd statesman who, mentored by Thomas Jefferson and advised by James Madison, attempted to emulate George Washington’s gentlemanly demeanor and rise above partisan politics, despite being stymied by bitter political, diplomatic, and personal intrigue. As a diplomat and president, Monroe tactfully negotiated to expand and define U.S. borders while avoiding hostilities with European powers and maintaining U.S. strength and sovereignty. McGrath doesn’t shy away from Monroe’s history as a slaveholder, nor his preferences to send freed slaves to Liberia, and Native Americans to the West.
VERDICT An excellent, exhaustively researched, thoughtful biography with appeal to armchair historians and academics alike.
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