How James Monroe Policies Might Help Obama Triumph over Foreign Foes

News Abroad

Mr. Unger is the author of seven books on America’s Founding Fathers, including The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness, just released by Da Capo Press.

As President Obama struggles to end threats to American security in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and North Korea, he might find solutions in policies that one of his earliest predecessors, James Monroe, implemented to crush similar threats to our nation.

Fifth president of the United States, Monroe had been a heroic officer during the Revolutionary War, suffering a serious wound at the Battle of Trenton and surviving the bitter winter at Valley Forge. He won election to the Presidency two years after the War of 1812, which President James Madison had provoked by invading Canada. Before it ended, a British invasion left the public buildings in Washington gutted by fire.

With British troops still poised to attack the nation from the north, Spanish troops threatening from the South, and Indian tribes slaughtering farmers in the West, Monroe abandoned Madison’s warlike policies in favor of strong defensive measures to make the nation impregnable to attack by foreign enemies. He reinforced existing defenses, then expanded our national boundaries to the natural defenses of the oceans, lakes, rivers, and mountains that rimmed the continent. He sent Andrew Jackson and a small army to seize Florida from Spain and force Spain to redraw western boundaries of the Louisiana territory to extend U. S. dominion westward to the protection of the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.

For the first time since they declared independence from Britain, Americans were secure from attack by foreign troops, and they streamed westward across the Appalachian Mountains to claim their share of America, buying up wilderness lands from the government and carving out farms, harvesting furs and pelts from abundant wildlife, culling timber from rich forests, and chiseling ore from mountainsides. In an era when land—not money—was wealth, the land rush added six states to the Union and produced the largest redistribution of wealth in the annals of man. Never before in history had a sovereign state transferred ownership of so much land—and so much political power—to so many people not of noble rank.

To ensure success for the land rush and perpetuate economic growth, Monroe promoted construction of roads, turnpikes, bridges and canals that linked every region of the nation with outlets to the sea and shipping routes to the world. The massive building programs transformed the American wilderness into the most prosperous, productive nation in history. The economic recovery converted U.S. government deficits into such large surpluses that Monroe abolished all personal federal taxes in America.

Monroe’s presidency made poor men rich, and encouraged the arts, literature, music and fine art. He turned political allies into friends, and united a divided people as no president had done since George Washington and never would again until, perhaps, the Second World War. Political parties dissolved and disappeared. Americans of all political persuasions rallied around him and reelected him to the presidency in 1820 without opposition. He created an era never seen before or since in American history—an “Era of Good Feelings” that propelled the nation and its people to greatness.

After building American military and naval power to levels that made our shores impregnable, Monroe climaxed his presidency—and startled the world—with the most important political manifesto in American history after the Declaration of Independence:  the Monroe Doctrine. Monroe warned the world that the United States would no longer permit foreign incursions in the Americas. It was unprecedented in world history. The Monroe Doctrine (or more accurately, manifesto) unilaterally extended America’s sphere of influence over the entire Western Hemisphere—one-third of the globe. In effect, he told the world we would no longer meddle in their affairs, but they had best not meddle in ours. He told enemies and friends alike that they would profit far more by trading with us than trying to conquer us.

Several presidents in the Cold War era used—and misused—Monroe’s policies, all but losing the Cold War by invading Vietnam. The United States won the Cold War not by sending troops into eastern Europe or the Soviet Union, but by building anti-missile-missile defenses to make our shores all but impregnable to attack and building retaliatory capability to levels that made the Soviets realize they would profit far more by trading with us than attacking us. A similar policy might just convince the North Koreans, Iranians, and nations that host the Taliban and Al Qaeda to do the same. Like the end of the War of 1812, the end of the Cold War sparked unprecedented investments at home, unprecedented wealth for Americans, and the conversion of U.S. government deficits into surpluses. Ending troop involvement in the Middle East might well produce the same results.

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 11/13/2009

My recollections of the Madison and Monroe administrations are totally in accord with those of Sandy Moats.

Neither mention it above, but Monroe did not behave honorably in the matter of the Reynolds attempt to blackmail Alexander Hamilton, something which should always be held against him.

Also, Unger's headline for this piece presumes that Obama WANTS America to prevail her foes, but unfortunately the President has given no indication so far that he harbors such desires, and several indications that he does not.

Sandy Moats - 11/10/2009

Harlow Giles Unger has undertaken the admirable task of resurrecting James Monroe's historical reputation. Unfortunately, Unger's portait contains so many inaccurate and exaggerated claims that Monroe's actual achievemetns are obscured and so are the historical "lessons" he believes Monroe's two terms can provide.

Unger blames James Madison for provoking the War of 1812. Madison reluctantly declared war on Britain when it became clear that diplomacy and embargoes would not resolve the longstanding trade problems that provided the basis for the war. "War Hawks" in Congress such as John Calhoun and Henry Clay also nudged a recalcitrant Madison to take a more aggressive stance against Great Britain.

Unger states that "Monroe abandoned Madison's warlike policies in favor of strong defense measures." Madison was president during the entire War of 1812 (1812-1815), while Monroe entered the presidency in the war's aftermath. It should be obvious why one man needed to pursue a war policy while the other did not. Additionally, many of the post-war defense improvements were initiated during Madison's presidency and continued during Monroe's.

Unger gives Monroe credit for the acquisition of Florida, although the achievement had more to do with the zealousness of General Andrew Jackson than Monroe's diplomatic efforts. Jackson overstepped his military instructions and aggressively attacked Florida in an invasion that resulted in the execution of two British citizens.
This attack created an opportunity for Monroe and his administration to gain Florida from Spain, something they were unwilling to do previously.

Unger claims that Monroe presided over the "largest redistribution of wealth in the annals of man." Before we can understand such a hyperbolic claim, it would be helpful if Unger explained what comprises the "annals of man" and the "largest redistribution of wealth." Is he referring to American history, world history, or the very beginnings of humans roaming the Earth?

Unger also gives Monroe credit for constructing roads and canals during his presidency. Monroe opposed most of these projects, citing a lack of constitutional authority for them. Instead, state leaders such as De Witt Clinton and private investors took the lead in constructing and funding projects like the Erie Canal.

Unger concludes his piece with a discussion of the Monroe Doctrine and its importance. This document, and its significance, need to be understood in the context that produced it. The United States in 1823 was a relatively young country that saw the need to assert its neutrality and autonomy in the face of European aggression. To believe that the United States in 2009 can merely assert these same principles is to greatly misunderstand the changes that have occurred in the United States' global role since 1823.

I am all in favor of giving James Monroe his historical due. However, Unger goes too far by giving Monroe credit for achievements that occurred during his two terms, whether or not he had anything to do with them, while ignoring his actual accomplishments.

James Monroe would be wary of such unmerited and fulsome praise, and we should be as well.

Arnold Shcherban - 11/8/2009

The intentionally or unintentionally peaceful, non-aggressive drive of the article is quite commendable, but occasionally the author employs the mistaken (again, whether intentionally or unintentionally) arguments to support that drive.
E.g. <building retaliatory capability to levels that made the Soviets realize they would profit far more by trading with us than attacking us.> takes as axiomatic premise the inborn aggressiveness of "the Soviets", completely ignoring such factor a minor factor as considerations of their national security (which is apparently the most important one exclusively for the US), not already mentioning the well-known, at least nowadays, fact that their offensive and defensive capabilities were invariably inferior during all Cold War period.