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James Monroe: A president for his time, not ours

A recent Times Op-Ed article gives the fifth president too much credit for policies that ended the 1819 economic panic.

October 20, 2009|By Sandra A. Moats

In his Oct. 15 Op-Ed article, "James Monroe, a president for our times?," Harlow Giles Unger offers an enthusiastic portrait of the fifth president's two terms in office from 1817-25, giving him much credit for the New Deal-like programs that helped end the economic panic of 1819. Unger seems to have confused Franklin D. Roosevelt with Monroe, painting Monroe's achievements in such broad strokes as to render him unrecognizable.

Unger gives Monroe enormous credit for the various internal improvement projects, such as roads and canals, that were launched during his presidency. Monroe supported some infrastructure projects, such as the National Road, but only if he viewed the Constitution as explicitly authorizing the programs. Monroe's strict constitutional requirement resulted in a mixed legacy on the National Road and other infrastructure projects, as the president supported some but vetoed others.

Unger also gives Monroe credit for the economic benefits associated with the Erie Canal, a project that involved neither Monroe nor the federal government. The Erie Canal was the pet project of New York Gov. De Witt Clinton, who relied exclusively on state, local and private money to construct it. Many in Congress at the time believed the canal was of only local significance and therefore undeserving of federal funds. Many also questioned the viability of such a canal, initially dismissing it as "Clinton's ditch."

Unger implies that Monroe broke a congressional deadlock over an economic recovery package by declaring, "Discord does not belong to our system." This statement comes from Monroe's first inaugural address, delivered March 4, 1817, well before the economic panic of 1819. Monroe said this to promote a partisanship-free government during his presidency, not to cajole Congress to pass economic legislation.

Unger writes that Monroe's unchallenged reelection in 1820 testifies to the president's success in uniting and modernizing the nation. Aside from the problems of speaking of "modernizing" before many technological advancements had occurred, Monroe owed his unopposed reelection to several factors largely beyond his control. The collapse of the Federalist Party (the party of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams) at the national level and Monroe's failed nonpartisan efforts to offer it a political lifeline meant that no opposition party existed to nominate a rival candidate. Although Congress and Monroe's Cabinet consisted of ambitious men from his own Democratic-Republican Party, such as William H. Crawford, John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay, these younger politicians wisely waited their turns and chose not to challenge a sitting, founding-era president from their own party.

Unger concludes his article by writing that Monroe's two terms had resulted in an "Era of Good Feelings." Unger does not explore the origins of this phrase, leaving the impression that it has to do with economic prosperity when actually it reflected the partisan aspirations of the New England Federalists. Benjamin Russell, editor of the Boston-based Columbian Centinel, coined this statement in the hope that Monroe might appoint his region's Federalists to Cabinet positions, a move that would have reinvigorated the ailing party. Monroe's nonpartisan vision was never realized, nor were the "good feelings" this phrase promised -- economic, partisan or otherwise.

None of this is to say the Monroe administration lacked notable achievements. During the Monroe's two terms in office, the president embarked on two tours intended to unite the nation, the U.S. acquired Florida from Spain, the Missouri Compromise over slavery's expansion westward was signed, and the stage was set for a smooth political transition from a governance by the Revolutionary War generation to a younger one. The fifth president deserves credit for what he did accomplish. But Monroe, ever the pragmatist, would be wary of the fulsome and undeserved praise Unger offers, and so should we.

Sandra Moats, an assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, is the author of the forthcoming book, "Celebrating the Republic: Presidential Ceremony and Popular Sovereignty from Washington to Monroe" (Northern Illinois University Press).

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