James Monroe by Gary Hart

President #5, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #14

What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?

jamesmonroe

James Monroe was the last of a series of three Virginia presidents, following Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. And, since he didn’t write the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, Monroe is remembered mainly for his eponymous foreign policy doctrine. And, some people think that John Quincy Adams wrote that. But, former Senator Gary Hart does his best to stick up for James Monroe, whom he describes as the first “national security president.”

Hart devotes most of this biography of Monroe to his foreign policy efforts. The Panic of 1819, America’s first recession borne out of business cycles is glossed over. The Missouri Compromise is discussed mainly to show how little Monroe had to do with it. The fact that Monroe faced only token opposition in his run for the Presidency in 1816 and then none at all in 1820 gets a page.

But, it is Monroe’s ability to establish one of the cornerstones of American foreign policy that Hart concentrates on. Monroe, who suffered through some unfortunate experiences as a diplomat in Europe, ended up being one of the most effective Presidents in dealing with Europe and preserving the security of the nation.

James Monroe was born on April 28, 1758 in Westmoreland County, Virginia. When he was a 17-year old student at William and Mary, Monroe and a group of older students, after hearing about the battles of Lexington and Concord, led a raid on an armory. The weapons they took would be used to form a regiment in the Virginia Militia.

When he was just 18, Monroe accompanied George Washington’s troops for their fateful crossing of the Delaware. Monroe would fight in the Battle of Trenton. In 1851, artist Emmanuel Leutze would insert Monroe into his painting Washington Crossing the Delaware. (He is the man holding the flag.)

In 1780, Virginia governor Thomas Jefferson asked Monroe to come back home to help with the militia there. Jefferson also tutored Monroe in law, seeing Monroe as a future political leader.

In 1782, Monroe was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. One year later, Monroe was elected to the Confederation Congress. However, Monroe was not asked to participate in the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

Monroe originally opposed the Constitution, but made his peace with it. He ran for a seat in the House in the 1st Congress, but he lost to Madison. (This is the only time two future Presidents ever ran against each other for a seat in Congress.)

In 1790, Monroe won a seat in the Senate. It’s hard to judge Monroe’s Senate career since all activities of the Senate during his term (1790-1794) were not made public. Monroe was known to be an advocate of opening the Senate’s business to the public as the House was. However, this would not happen until after Monroe left office.

In 1794, President George Washington found himself in need of a new Minister to France. The Revolutionary Government of France had asked for the old Minister, Gouverneur Morris, to be recalled as they felt he was too pro-British.

Washington turned to Monroe, who was both sympathetic to the French Revolution, but also somewhat levelheaded. Washington was not afraid (at this time) to appoint people to high office even if they were opposed to his policies.

Monroe’s service in France didn’t go well. Washington’s administration remained strongly pro-British. Chief Justice John Jay had been dispatched to London to negotiate a treaty to alleviate tensions between Britain and the U.S. Monroe assured the French that they had nothing to fear from the treaty. Monroe believed that the U.S. would still back the terms of the Alliance signed back in 1777.

But, Jay was not forthcoming to Monroe about what he intended to negotiate. The treaty ended up being pro-British. The French, naturally, hated it. Monroe ended up looking foolish. In 1796, Washington recalled Monroe.

Monroe returned home, but wasn’t out of public life for too long. He was elected Governor of Virginia in 1799 and served for three years. In 1803, President Jefferson asked Monroe to go overseas again.

The first job for Monroe would be to assist Robert Livingston in negotiations with Napoleon for the purchase of New Orleans. Monroe had long made free navigation of the rivers of the West one of his pet projects and was eager to help.

When Monroe joined Livingston in Paris, he soon found out that Napoleon just didn’t want to sell New Orleans. He wanted to sell the whole Louisiana Territory. This turned out to be a deal that Monroe, Livingston, and Jefferson couldn’t refuse. The Louisiana Purchase added over 800,000 square miles of territory to the U.S. for just $15 million. (That’s about $ 200 million in today’s dollars.) Even better, Monroe decided not to buy the extended warranty that Napoleon was offering on the deal. He might have gone for rust proofing, but Livingston told Monroe to walk away.

After concluding this business, Jefferson sent Monroe to London to serve as the U.S. Minister there. (The U.S. didn’t use the title of ambassador until the late 19th Century.) Monroe’s tenure in London often brought him in conflict with Jefferson.

Monroe negotiated a commercial treaty with the British that he thought would relieve the tensions between the two nations. However, Jefferson rejected the treaty because it did not contain any prohibitions against the impressments of sailors, which was the hot button issue of the day.

When Monroe came home, he was elected Governor of Virginia again in 1811, but he resigned that post to serve as Secretary of State for President Madison. Monroe also served as interim Secretary of War. And, then just as Secretary of State. And then both offices again.

During the War of 1812, Monroe visited soldiers on the front lines in Baltimore, and did some scouting of his own. Monroe is likely the only serving Secretary of State to ever actively participate in a military action.

When Madison’s left the White House (or what was left it after the British burning Washington in 1814) in 1817, Monroe took over. Monroe faced very little opposition from the Federalist Party, which was nearing extinction. Monroe won 183 electoral votes to just 34 for Rufus King.

Monroe, although he was a Republican (now Democrat) and learned from Jefferson and Madison, governed in a much different style. In many respects, Monroe was a “New Republican” similar to Bill Clinton being a “New Democrat.”

Jefferson and Madison feared standing armies. Monroe thought a standing army was vital to the security of the nation. Jefferson feared a central bank, and Madison only grudgingly approved a new one. Monroe embraced the idea of a central bank. Monroe did veto a bill that would have allowed the Federal government to collect tolls on the interstate Cumberland Road.  (It would be the only veto by Monroe in his eight years in office.)

Monroe’s background as a soldier in the Revolutionary War gave him a much different perspective on the United States than Jefferson and Madison had. Soon after taking office, Monroe toured the country. This was partly to increase his visibility and partly to drum up support for increased military spending.

While on this tour, Andrew Jackson, ostensibly defending Georgia against pirates, ended up occupying parts of Florida. Jackson also executed two British subjects and he and his troops killed thousands of Indians.  Jackson managed to upset the Spanish, British, and a good chunk of the American population. However, Jackson’s occupation of Florida eventually led to diplomatic negotiations with Spain and the eventual purchase of Florida in the Adams-Onis Treaty.

Even though the America economy went into a deep recession in 1819, Monroe faced no opposition when he ran for reelection in 1820. The Federalist Party had few good ideas left and the Republicans co-opted those. No opposition party had yet formed. This caused this era to be called “The Era of Good Feelings.”

Monroe received all but one electoral vote in 1820. A New Hampshire elector named William Plumer voted for John Quincy Adams. Plumer felt that Monroe was not as smart as Adams (which was likely true), and he also wanted to preserve Washington’s distinction for being the only President to be unanimously selected. John Adams, an elector from Massachusetts, didn’t even vote for his own son.

During his second term, Monroe encountered more foreign policy challenges. The South American countries were winning their independence from Spain. Congressional leaders such as Henry Clay demanded that Monroe extend diplomatic recognition immediately. (Clay didn’t dislike Monroe; he just thought he was a nonentity.)

However, Monroe had to wait for Spain to complete its ratification of the treaty on Florida. Once this was accomplished, Monroe extended diplomatic recognition to new countries like Argentina and Colombia. But, this led to another issue.

Russia was refusing to accept any diplomatic representatives from the South American countries. This was because Russia, along with Prussia and Austria, had formed something called The Holy Alliance. These three nations had ideas on recolonizing the South American nations and giving them back to Spain. Or perhaps keeping them for themselves.

For Monroe, this was unacceptable. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams entered into discussions with British Foreign Minister George Canning to come up with a solution.

Canning said the British would be willing to go along with an American proposal to declare that the Western Hemisphere was off limits for further colonization. Adams relayed the information to Monroe, who decided to include language outlining this in his Annual Message to Congress in December of 1823.

In his message, Monroe issued this famous statement:

In the discussions to which this interest has given rise and in the arrangements by which they may terminate the occasion has been judged proper for asserting, as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers. . .

Hart spends a whole chapter giving Monroe credit for “The Monroe Doctrine.” Many historians have said it was mostly the work of Adams. British historians tend to give credit to Canning. But, Hart asserts, Monroe was the one who drafted the language. And, it was Monroe’s idea just as much as it was Adams.

In addition to the language about the Western Hemisphere, Monroe included statements indicating that the United States would stay out of any European issues. This part of the Monroe Doctrine would later sound quaint as history showed us.

Adams benefits from leaving voluminous notes behind of his work as Secretary of State (and just about everything else). Monroe was not the most organized of men. Also, he was not as learned as Adams, so it is natural to think that the Harvard grad was the actual author instead of the William and Mary dropout.

Originally, the Monroe Doctrine was called “The Principles of 1823.” But, as time went on, Monroe ended up with the writing credit. The net effect of this was to make the question on your history test in high school to be “When was the Monroe Doctrine written?” rather than “Who wrote the Principles of 1823?”

“The Era of Good Feelings” didn’t last until the next election in 1824, when Monroe’s successor would be chosen. The country was starting to divide itself over the issue of slavery. The Missouri Compromise, signed by Monroe in 1820, admitted Missouri into the Union as a slave state, Maine as a free state, and then prohibited slavery north of 36 degrees, 30 minutes. Monroe had little to do with the passage of the Missouri Compromise, although he feared that it was a sign that the country would eventually be torn apart by the issue of slavery.

Adams prevailed in the turbulent 1824 election. This turned out to be very bad for Monroe’s retirement plans, according to Hart.

During his diplomatic tours in Europe, Monroe had borrowed against much of his landholdings to pay his expenses. Monroe expected to be reimbursed when he returned to the U.S. But, Congress never got around to paying Monroe. Then, Monroe decided not to pursue the matter while he was serving in Madison’s Cabinet or as President.

Once out of office, Monroe realized that he was going to be desperately short of money. He sent reams of papers to Congress asking to be reimbursed and even asked Jefferson and Madison to intervene for him. However, Monroe’s expense account payments got caught in politics. Andrew Jackson’s supporters, upset over Monroe failing to back him in the 1824 election, blocked any action on the matter.

Monroe had to sell his home in Virginia and move in with a daughter in New York City. He had to accept private charity. He died, mostly forgotten just six years after leaving the White House, on July 4, 1831.

James Monroe may only be remembered for one foreign policy statement he made in 1823. But, Monroe, in the view of Hart, was crucial in bringing America along from its adolescence to young adulthood. In many ways, he was the right man for the era. He wasn’t Thomas Jefferson or James Madison. But, Monroe didn’t need to be like those two men. His Presidency may not have been memorable, but it certainly wasn’t a bad time for the country.

Other stuff: Monroe was originally buried in the New York Marble Cemetery, but was later reinterred at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. John Tyler is also buried there. A grandson of Alexander Hamilton, Laurens Hamilton, died after falling overboard on the ship that was carrying Monroe’s body from New York to Richmond.

The James Monroe Foundation has tried building a museum around Monroe’s birthplace, but it still appears to be in the planning stages. You can visit one of James Monroe’s homes, Ash Lawn-Highland, in Charlottesville, Virginia. It is run by William and Mary University.

I took the SATs at James Monroe High in North Hills, California. The school newspaper is called “The Doctrine.” The sports teams are, naturally, the Vikings.

Monroe’s Vice President, Daniel Tompkins, served two full terms for him. No other Vice President would serve two full terms for the same President until Thomas Marshall did so for Woodrow Wilson from 1913-1921. Tompkins died three months after leaving office, most likely from the effects of alcoholism.

And yes, I’m on vacation. I wrote this before I left and scheduled it to appear later.

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William Howard Taft: An Intimate History by Judith Icke Anderson

President #27, C-SPAN historians’ ranking #24

Why Am I President? It Was On My Wife’s To Do List.

taftWhen it came time to find a biography of President William Taft, it wasn’t easy. Despite holding office during a time when Constitutional Amendments introducing the income tax and the direct election of senators, the admission of two states (New Mexico and Arizona), and running in an election against two of the 20th Century’s most famous presidents (Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson), Taft hasn’t received much interest from historians.

This left me finding this book, which was published commercially in 1981, but was actually a more commercial version of a UCLA dissertation by a woman for whom I can find no trace further trace of.

“An Intimate History” is the same subtitle that Jefferson biographer Fawn Brodie used for his study of our third president. That book was published in 1974. Brodie was Anderson’s adviser at UCLA and she followed in her footsteps. And in this book, the reader learns about William Taft, the man, and why he did what he did. And in Anderson’s view, Taft’s actions in all aspects of life were mostly an attempt to please his mother, and, then later, his wife.

And Anderson goes on at length about Taft’s weight. It is not something that can be ignored, especially since Taft tipped the scales at up to 355 pounds while he served as President.

Why was Taft so heavy? According to Anderson, Taft was someone who took solace in eating when he was either stressed out or felt a need to please someone. And when Taft was in the White House, he was stressed out. His enormous weight likely gave Taft a case of apnea as he often dozed off at inappropriate times and snored loudly during public gatherings.

Taft’s career path to the White House was not a normal one. The son of a former Secretary of War, Alphonso Taft, William went to college at Yale and then to law school at the University of Cincinnati. His mother assumed that William, like all Tafts would achieve greatness.

But first, Taft needed to find a wife. And he eventually met Helen “Nellie” Herron at a sledding party in Cincinnati. Taft courted Nellie for years before she agreed to marry him. Nellie’s hesitancy stemmed from the fact that she considered herself to be fairly independent. However, she also wanted to be attached to important people. And she sensed that William Taft was someone who could bring up her to the highest circles of power, even the White House.

But, Taft’s ambition was to be a judge. He served in a local court in Ohio and loved it. However, he was picked to go to Washington by President Benjamin Harrison to serve as Solicitor General.  Nellie loved the change of scenery. Although Taft was a good judge, he was a lousy litigator. He did not have an adversarial nature. He wanted to be everyone’s friend. Although I am not a lawyer, I’m guessing being conciliatory and jovial isn’t the tone you’re looking for.

In Washington, Taft became friends with a young man who was serving as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. His name was Theodore Roosevelt.

President William McKinley offered Taft a position on the Federal District Court back in Ohio, so Taft returned there to a job he loved above all other.  Later, McKinley asked Taft back when he needed someone to serve as the first civil governor of the newest United States territories, the Philippines.

The people of the Philippines didn’t particularly enjoy being under Spanish control, and they didn’t particularly like having Americans tell them what to do either. The American military governor, General Arthur MacArthur (who had a son named Douglas), had to suppress an insurrection. MacArthur did so, but in a brutal fashion that often involved torture.

Taft had to work to repair America’s image both in the Philippines and the world while building up a system of government for the people of the Philippines. Anderson describes Taft as being well regarded by the Filipinos, although coming after MacArthur, that’s not much of a surprise.

By 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt needed a new Secretary of War and he asked his old friend William Taft to take over that post. Taft didn’t know much about running the Army, but Roosevelt thought well of him. Taft actually spent much of his time travelling on diplomatic missions as Roosevelt had stretched U.S. interests to all parts of the globe.

Roosevelt had promised Taft that he would get him a seat on the Supreme Court, preferably Chief Justice, if one ever came up. But the time was never right, so Taft remained in Roosevelt’s Cabinet.

When Roosevelt was elected to a full term in 1904, he promised he wouldn’t run again. This was a bit of a problem for him in 1908 because he was still relatively young (50 on Election Day) and extremely popular. But Roosevelt felt he couldn’t go back on his promise, so he designated Taft to be his successor.

Taft was not particularly interested in becoming President, but Nellie was quite interested in being First Lady. And in most discussions between William and Nellie, Nellie won. Taft was elected easily over Democratic nominee, and three-time loser, Wililam Jennings Bryan.

Almost as soon as the election was over, things went wrong for Taft. The President-elect had sent a telegram to supporters thanking two people for his election: Roosevelt (for his popularity that made it easy for another Republican to win) and his brother Charles Taft (for extensive financial support). Roosevelt was appalled to be lumped in with someone who just wrote checks.

One of the first major pieces of legislation Taft wanted to get passed was a tariff reform bill. Roosevelt advised Taft that tariffs needed to be lowered, but he didn’t do while he was in office because he knew the issue was too sensitive with an election coming up.

In 1909, the Republicans were the party of high tariffs. And the more conservative Republicans liked the tariffs to be as high as possible. The bill that passed Congress, the Payne-Aldrich Tariff ended up raising duties on nearly every type of imported goods. Conservatives were happy, but Progressive Republicans (who were Roosevelt supporters) were appalled. Taft was immediately branded as a weak leader.

Also in 1909, Taft faced a major political crisis in the Interior Department. Taft had appointed former Seattle mayor Richard Ballinger as his new Secretary of the Interior. However, Taft kept on in the Forestry Service, a Roosevelt loyalist named Gifford Pinchot.

Pinchot, who would likely be called an environmentalist now, although “conservation” was the term used in the day, accused Ballinger of leasing public lands in Alaska to large corporations for mining and other ways to tap their natural resources. Charges flew back and forth between the two men. Pinchot was eventually fired by Taft, an action that Roosevelt’s supporters could not abide. Eventually, Ballinger resigned as well. Taft bungled the matter every way possible. And mostly this happened because Taft didn’t want to take command of the situation, but rather just try to make everybody happy.

Another problem for Taft was one that was not of his own making. Roosevelt had established himself as a Progressive Republican, with a penchant for going after big business. Taft was a conservative. Roosevelt had to know this. Yet, Roosevelt backed a man for President whom he had to believe was going to reverse some of his policies.

In the midterm elections, the Republicans lost control of both houses of Congress. Soon after, Roosevelt returned from a long trip to Africa to great national acclaim. And soon set into his old friend Taft and started to position himself for another run at the White House.

Taft pretty much knew that he couldn’t get reelected in 1912. He just didn’t have the national support. His only reason for being elected in the first place was that he was Theodore Roosevelt’s friend. And now Roosevelt hated him. That left Taft without much to go on.

But Nellie was determined that her husband at least not lose the Republican nomination to Roosevelt. And Taft agreed with his wife. He decided he wanted to make Roosevelt run as a third party candidate.

Fortunately for Taft, there were only a handful of these newfangled things called primaries during the nominating season. Roosevelt won the majority of those, but Taft, through the power of patronage, was able to control enough delegates to win the nomination. Roosevelt was left to run on his own as the Progressive Party Candidate. Meanwhile, the Democrats nominated the nerdy, yet popular, governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson.

Almost nothing went write right for Taft during the campaign. His trusted confidante and personal aide, Archie Butt, had left him because of personal issues in 1912. Butt had served as Roosevelt’s personal aide as well and he couldn’t decide whom to work for. So, he went to Europe to think about it. Butt booked passage on the Titanic for the trip home. He didn’t make it.

Taft’s Vice President, James “Sunny Jim” Sherman, died a few weeks before Election Day as well. Taft made odd statements to the press, including one where he said he would campaign “like a cornered rat.”

When the counting was done, Wilson was an easy winner. Taft won just two states, the worst showing of any incumbent President ever. And Taft won one of the states, Vermont, by just 923 votes. In 1912, Vermont was not yet run by the Ben & Jerry’s types, and was one of the most conservative states in the country.

Losing the election relieved a great burden from Taft. He no longer had to be the bad guy who told people “no.” Not that Taft said “no” all that often.

Once leaving office, Taft taught law at Yale, but finally got his dream job in 1921 when President Warren Harding appointed him to be Chief Justice of the United States. Taft loved this job more than any other. And according to Anderson, his weight dropped into the 260 lb range. He no longer had to eat his way through stress. He had found his dream job, the one he had thought about since he came to Washington in 1886.

William Taft passed away in 1930 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, the first President to be so honored. His wife Nellie wanted that honor. However, few people wander over to the section of Arlington to see Taft’s grave. Just like finding a biography of Taft, it’s something you have to seek out. Perhaps a better story of Taft’s life is still to be written.

But the life of Willam Howard Taft teaches us one thing: if you want to be remembered by historians as president, don’t have your term fall in between those of two far more famous presidents.

Psychobiography was a popular discipline in the 1970s, but it isn’t used now. Brodie was able to apply it to it someone like Jefferson because there was quite a bit to work on. The inner workings of the psyche of William Howard Taft may not be that be interesting. Especially since Anderson spells it all out very early in the book. The final 200 or so pages are more repetitions of the theme of “Taft tries to please wife, eats too much, becomes less happy, repeat.” Perhaps there is more to Taft than just a domineering wife and a battle with obesity. However, that book hasn’t been written yet.

But Nellie Taft got a major biography written about her just three years ago. Sorry Bill, you can’t win this game.

Other stuff: Taft, despite his great size, was an avid sportsman and he tried to play a round of golf nearly everyday. Taft was also the first U.S. President to throw out the ceremonial first pitch to mark the beginning of baseball season. This started in 1910.

The National Park service operates the William Howard Taft National Historic Site in Cincinnati.

Taft’s son, Robert, served as a Senator from Ohio and ran for the Republican nomination for President in 1940, 1944, and 1952. A William Howard Taft IV (great-grandson of the president) worked for a time in the George W. Bush Administration. Robert Taft III, who went by Bob Taft, served as governor of Ohio. Generally, if you run into something in the U.S. with the name “Taft” in it, it’s probably this president’s family.