JAMES MONROE by Gary Hart is a short (150 pages) biography of our fifth president in a series (The American Presidents edited by Arthur M. chlesinger, Jr.) of such biographies by notable biographers. Other works in the series include Theodore Roosevelt by Louis Auchincloss, William Howard Taft by Lewis H. Lapham and James Madison by Garry Wills.
This is certainly not an exhaustive work, but it was a good introduction to the presidency of a man I wasn't very familiar with. Hart focuses primarily on Monroe's pursuit of national security, and the book is organized around this thesis. It is lighter on personal details about Monroe, and pays more attention not even to just Monroe's career, but to his career's dedication to the safety and security of the new nation.
Hart compellingly illustrates Monroe's career by writing about his relationships with others, and this is instructive. Hart writes of Washintong's mentorship of Monroe, as well as of Jefferson's grooming of Monroe for his political career (Monroe is the final of the Revolutionary War presidents) and Madison's friendship, competition and also leadership in Monroe's life. Hart makes a case that while Monroe benefited from these relationships, he was not merely a follower of these other men. He held steady to his own opinions, even when he disagreed with any of these powerful mentors. Monroe was not as intellectual as Madison or Jefferson -- he was more on the soldier side of that continuum -- but he wasn't led by them, either.
The book also demonstrates something I was unaware of: the strong relationship between Monroe and John Quincy Adams (next on my list!). In fact, Hart addresses the hypothesis many have that JQA was the one primarily responsible for the Monroe Doctrine. I found this fascinating.
I was gratified to understand more fully the ramifications of Monroe's policy decisions and statements -- this is not just a past-tense work. As a contemporary politico, Hart can add and interpret his subject matter in a particularly cogent way.
Hart's thesis is stated very well, and it's what makes this book an interesting and fairly quick read (though it's not long, it's not really material for "skimming" -- I had to slow down and pay close attention): Hart states that Monroe was "claiming a new ground" for republicanism in America when he became president, and this shift was what made him innovative. It also may have mitigated the strength of his long-term reputation because he forged new territory beyond what his mentor Jefferson and his predecessor, Madison, had done.
I enjoyed this book and will look to this series in the future for biographies of the presidents of the United States.