Non-fiction Review: James Monroe: A Life, by Tim McGrath

book coverSynopsis

Monroe lived a life defined by revolutions. From the battlefields of the War for Independence, to his ambassadorship in Paris in the days of the guillotine, to his own role in the creation of Congress’s partisan divide, he was a man who embodied the restless spirit of the age. He was never one to back down from a fight, whether it be with Alexander Hamilton, with whom he nearly engaged in a duel (prevented, ironically, by Aaron Burr), or George Washington, his hero turned political opponent.

This magnificent new biography vividly recreates the epic sweep of Monroe’s life: his near-death wounding at Trenton and a brutal winter at Valley Forge; his pivotal negotiations with France over the Louisiana Purchase; his deep, complex friendships with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison; his valiant leadership when the British ransacked the nation’s capital and burned down the Executive Mansion; and Monroe’s lifelong struggle to reckon with his own complicity in slavery. Elected the fifth president of the United States in 1816, this fiercest of partisans sought to bridge divisions and sow unity, calming turbulent political seas and inheriting Washington’s mantle of placing country above party. Over his two terms, Monroe transformed the nation, strengthening American power both at home and abroad.

Critically-acclaimed author Tim McGrath has consulted an extensive array of primary sources, many rarely seen since Monroe’s own time, to conjure up this fascinating portrait of an essential American statesman and president.


Disclaimer: Although I received an electronic Uncorrected Proof of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, the words and opinions below are my own.

Growing up in Britain meant I didn’t really know much about American history prior to World War Two. Whereas I could recite all the kings and queens of England from 1066 onwards (I can still recall half of them today), I couldn’t have done similar with the American presidents, and probably still can’t today. What I knew about James Monroe before reading this new biography of his life could fit on the proverbial back of a postage stamp. I’d heard of the Monroe Doctrine, but couldn’t tell you what it was and, if pressed, I could probably tell you that of course he must have something to do with the capital of Liberia since it was named after him but nothing more.

James Monroe: A Life is not a book you can sail through, not when it contains over 700 pages. Which is a detail I’d overlooked when starting my read and review process. It starts, not at the beginning of Monroe’s life, but approximately three centuries previously and a couple of thousand miles away in a country to which I also have a connection: Scotland. This is where the story of the Munro/Monroe family first forges a relationship with rebellion against tyrants. The reader moves quickly to the New World and charts the first years of the future president, his early brush with the rebellion, and eventually to the pivotal Battle of Trenton. Here, McGrath gives an engaging description of the fight; one that almost ended Monroe’s life before it had barely begun.

When it comes to American politics, this book showed me that today’s disfunction is absolutely nothing new. It appears division wasn’t just along party lines, such as the parties were back then when the Federalists wanted heavy central government and the Republicans strongly favored states’ rights. Self-interest and cronyism played huge roles, and Gerrymandering existed long before the events that gave the process its name. Monroe wanted to be bipartisan, but McGrath also sees him as one of the originators of partisan politics. He wanted transparency, but occasionally went to great lengths to ensure certain texts were not made public.

The division between northern and southern states wasn’t only about slavery; what was in the best interests of the north wasn’t necessarily in the interest of the south, and vice versa. Given the era, slavery does feature heavily. This is the era of the Missouri Compromise, when northern abolitionists wanted to prohibit slavery in newly created states and southern politicians protested the idea. Monroe, like many in his day, disliked the concept of slavery but owned slaves and relied on the practice. He made moves to stop the import of slaves but did nothing to prohibit human trade within the country. Nor did he care for the idea of freed slaves being a full part of society. Instead, he liked the idea of returning them to Africa. Hence: the founding of Liberia and the capital Monrovia being named for him.

Monroe doesn’t come out smelling like a rose in this book, which I appreciate, and not just when it comes to slavery. I was astounded by how much debt he accumulated. On the one hand, the new country was broke thanks to the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. But much of James and Elizabeth Monroe’s expenses appeared to go on home furnishings and décor. Again, I understood that the country couldn’t provide much in the way of ambassadorial residences but I felt like the couple had a desire to “keep up with the Joneses” even when the Joneses were members of long-established families in the Old World. Readers also get to see the fallibilities of Washington, Hamilton, and several others of their time.

A good book relies on extensive research, and McGrath has done that. Over one third of the book is devoted to his acknowledgments and notes, providing plenty of fodder for additional reading. How wonderful it is to have the words from our founding fathers and their contemporaries, kept for so many years in the form of handwritten letters. Will emails have the same impact on history as these?

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book. Yes, it took longer than I expected to finish it. But part of that was down to me going off on tangents and researching the lives of almost everyone else who appears in it. Monroe worked with a LOT of people during his life, both at home and abroad. I could’ve done with a cheat sheet to keep track of everyone! But I found it informative and easy to read. It was difficult to put down. I now want to visit Trenton, and Monroe’s main home of Ashlawn-Highland. I wish another of his homes, Oak Hill, was also open to the public. Thanks to this book, I know a lot more now about our fifth president than I did previously. Oh, and the Monroe Doctrine? Turns out it’s a policy opposed to European colonialism in the Americas, first issued at a time when states in South America were seeking their own independence from countries such as Spain and France.

Author Information

Tim McGrath is a two-time winner of the Commodore John Barry Book Award, as well as the author of the critically acclaimed biography John Barry: An American Hero in the Age of Sail.

Product Information

Publisher: Dutton (an imprint of Penguin Random House)

Publication Date: 05 May 2020

Book Information


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