American History Reviews: Monroe, Presidential Manager

The fifth president wasn’t a boldface name, but he presided as the political system evolved

Compared to the other six occupants of the American presidency during that office’s first half century, James Monroe seems uninteresting. His antecedents were war heroes, writers and signers of the Declaration, boldface figures who wrote and implemented the Constitution, creators of major political parties, and influential political theorists.

James Monroe: A Life
By Tim McGrath
(Dutton, 2020: $36)

Monroe was different—an obscure Revolutionary War officer and participant not in the Constitutional Convention but his state’s convention on ratification. His early political career and its brief stints as a senator, ambassador, and governor of Virginia signaled transient prominence. And by the time he achieved the presidency the Federalist Party had lost to the Democratic-Republicans and was fading into history, with the Whig/Democrat rivalry yet to emerge. The Monroe Doctrine was a rare departure from his otherwise quotidian record of governance.

McGrath’s extensive and detailed book shows that Monroe’s life is fascinating because of the very factors which seem to count against it. A marginal spot in the Venn diagram of leading rebellious circles and a later presidency assured him of a well-documented life. Remaining on the peripheries of early national leadership kept him closer to ordinary people than a Washington or a Jefferson. The result is a rare window into revolutionary America’s often under-documented “middle management.”

Monroe’s superficially placid presidency likewise deceives. “The era of good feelings” in truth was a time of realignment behind the scrim of single-party politics. Federalists and moderate Democratic-Republicans were beginning an ad hoc cooperation from which the Whig Party would evolve. Democratic-Republican hardliners were coalescing into the future basis of the Democrats.

More importantly, the politics of revolutionary America were maturing—some might say “festering”—into those of the antebellum period. Early presidents had governed amid debate over the meaning of independence. Did it mean replacing colonial subjugation and a neo-monarchic nobility with a British alliance and an unlabeled de facto aristocracy? Or did independence bespeak egalitarian or libertarian democracy in the mode of revolutionary France? While Monroe was in office this conversation receded, replaced by sectional rivalry and the fight over slavery that led to civil war.

Monroe is not among the sui generis holders the nation’s highest office, but few presidents’ lives illuminate as much about some of American history’s most decisive events and changes as his does.

The Jamestown Brides: The Story of England’s “Maids for Virginia”
By Jennifer Potter
(Oxford, 2019; $29.95)

Some date the start of the project of settling America to 1620 and Plymouth’s founding, whereas by then Jamestown and Virginia had been around 13 years. The discrepancy has roots in fact. Plymouth was the work of families bent on creating a civilization. Jamestown was as commercial as an open pit mine, to be sustained or abandoned as practicality dictated. However, when economic success required a civilization, Jamestown acquired families.

In an account as highly detailed as it is entertaining, Jamestown Brides chronicles an episode in which necessity mandated motherhood. Self-exiled from home by an all-male business structure, Jamestown’s men wanted wives. The Virginia Company, which ran the colony, was going broke. To fill two bills in one stroke, the proprietors shipped 56 women across the Atlantic—their passages and a substantial profit margin charged to the lonely guys mooning around the ramshackle village on the James.

The dames arriving in Jamestown included adventuresses every bit as calculating as the men who booked their berths. A few may have had connections to colonists. Most were fleeing hometown circumstances impeding their ability to wed, their best shot at stable lives. In general, the travelers seemed willing and able to enhance the colony, whether by family ties to the upper or professional classes or with skills and savvy gained as servants and tradesmen’s daughters.

Margaret Bordman and Lucy Remnant were nieces of knights. Ann Harmer’s father was a minor country gentleman’s daughter. Lettice King was a lawyer’s sister. Catherine Finche, the biggest outlier, was indubitably working-class—but her brother made the king’s crossbows, affording his sister access to court. Trades among the emigres’ male relatives tended toward shoemaker, gardener, waterman, and cloth worker. Besides knowing household chores such as churning butter and brewing beer, the ladies could weave and make lace and jewelry.

Addressing as she was emigres from all over Britain boarding various vessels at various times, Potter could have made her saga into a “social history” that homogenized defining details into “typical” experiences. Instead she shows history as it really is—distinct individual experiences she admirably collates into glimpses through fact and anecdote of unique lives lived by remarkable characters. 

Escalante’s Dream: On the Trail of the Spanish Discovery of the Southwest
By David Roberts
(Norton, 2019; $26.95)

In July 1776 a dozen men set out on an expedition that would prove a milestone event in the history of the lands now comprising the mainland United States of America. The party’s leaders were Silvestre Escalante, Francisco Atanasio Dominguez, and Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco. The first two were Franciscan monks, the latter a cartographer. Their colony was New Mexico. The milestone? An exploration intended to discover a land route from New Mexico to Monterrey en route converting to Catholicism the indigenes encountered. It is a fascinating story entertainingly presented by the right man for the job–a man who is not just an accomplished scholar and writer but himself an explorer who, as recently as the 1960s, leaded the first party to travel through Alaska’s Revelation Mountains.

Escalante’s expedition achieved neither intended purpose but nonetheless achieved remarkable success, covering more territory in six months than Lewis and Clark did in two-plus years. Before the unit returned to settled lands after enduring near starvation its members not only had drawn some of the first major maps of the Southwest but also had laid out much of the route between Santa Fe and the Salt Lake Valley. As the Old Spanish Trail, that passage featured prominently in later American settlement of the region.

The expedition’s importance was outstripped only by its boldness. Traversing territory inhabited by some of the most famously violent Indian tribes, including the Apache and the Comanche, its ranks, which included not a single soldier, carried no weapons aside from a few guns for hunting. When a friendly Hopi informed Escalante of a Navajo plan to massacre the explorers, the monk calmly replied that God’s protection could defeat any number of attackers.

 “American history” is often distills itself to the history of the United States of America. Some scholars view the history of the British colonies as formative rather than a backdrop, and pre-colonial Native American history is gaining attention, though lack of written records hampers practitioners working that vein. However, the literature almost entirely ignores the role of the Spanish in exploring and settling the southwest remains despite enduring Spanish cultural influence there and the American population’s vibrant Latin American minority. Escalante’s Dream admirably helps to fill that gap.—James Baresel is a freelance writer living in Front Royal, VA.

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