Saturday, February 02, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Five, The Unknown

Getting a little metaphorical here, so I'll explain.

I've gotten interested in tracking Presidential Character through reading the work on that topic by James David Barber.  Thing is, his go-to source Presidential Character: The Novel only covers most of the 20th Century Presidents (up to, just barely, Bush the Elder 1988-92).  He briefly describes the first four Presidents - Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison - only because they ironically provided near-perfect examples of the four character types - Passive-Negative, Active-Negative, Active-Positive, Passive-Positive - Barber charts.  The first four are Introductories.

Which meant by the fifth guy on the hit list - James Monroe - anyone going by Barber to determine Presidential Character of any of the Presidents before Teddy Roosevelt was going to have to do a ton of original research.  /headdesk  Until we get to Roosevelt, most of these upcoming character reviews are delving into the Unknown.

Another reason why I'm using the word "Unknown" is due to the fact that Monroe is one of those forgotten Presidents.  When people think of Presidents in historical thought they jump to the usual suspects of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts.  Maybe Grover Cleveland only because he provides humor in non-consecutive jokes.  In terms of contemporary history Eisenhower and upward are remembered due to the fact people alive today remember living during their tenures (and because, Tricky Dick, we are never going to forget you /damned with faint praise).  But this means a large number of 19th Century Presidents get overlooked by the general populus: notable exceptions would be Andrew Jackson (who noticeably contributed to the term Jacksonian politics dominating most of the century) and James K. Polk (helps to have a They Might Be Giants song named after ya... and a million screaming Mexicans mad at ya).

It doesn't help that a majority of "bad" (read: ineffective) Presidents ruled during the 19th Century, rendering that part of American History a bit of a slog to study through.  When nearly every historical interest of that era gravitates toward the giant black hole that is THE CIVIL WAR (seriously, go to any public library in the U.S.  The largest non-fiction shelf section outside of cookbooks is gonna be the 973.7 shelves), the rest of the century suffers.

And it also doesn't help Monroe's case that he became President at the least conflicted moment in American political debate.  Which is a shame because as one of the rare two-term Presidents of the 19th Century, and as one of the Active-Positive Presidents of the era, Monroe does deserve a lot more interest from historians.  At least a lot more interest than in Grover Cleveland (and the non-consecutive joke is deployed.  Ta-daaa).

Labeling Monroe as an A-P is risky because I'm not going by any established research from Barber.  I'm basing my estimate of Monroe as this because he proved throughout his career an Adaptive and energetic role in a lot of major moments in history leading up to and during his Presidential tenure.

Monroe was the last of the recognized Founding Fathers to become President.  He served as a young man in Washington's army during the Revolution.  He became a protege of Jefferson's, serving in various duties when Jefferson worked as Governor of Virginia.  Although he opposed the Constitution as it formed a too-strong central government by his estimates, he became an active part of that new government by becoming one of the first Senators of the first constitutional Congress.  Serving his own stint as Governor of Virginia, he then moved on to working for Jefferson's administration and was sent as a diplomat to France... right at the time Napoleon was offering up the Louisiana Territory for dirt-cheap (literally) price.

Flashback to my article on Jefferson regarding the Louisiana Purchase: yes the final decision - and the rule-breaking to make that decision - was Jefferson's to make in his own A-P character.  But Monroe was the guy on the ground: it was up to Monroe to decide right there in France whether or not to pursue Napoleon's offer.  This was in the time of long-distance communication taking months: there was no immediate input from Jefferson or the U.S. government telling Monroe what to do.  So Monroe, adapting to the situation, made the decision: he saw the opportunity for more territory, the chance of removing a European power from meddling in the western hemisphere, and the value of land being sold for 3 pennies per acre (seriously, that's dirt-cheap).  Sending his colleagues back to Washington DC as quick as possible, Monroe stayed on in France securing the first steps in making the deal before Napoleon - notoriously impulsive - changed his mind.

The next clue to Monroe's character trait came during the War of 1812.  Under Madison's poor management of the war effort, things were not looking so good for the home team.  Right after the British invasion that led to the burning of the nation's capital - our lowest point - Monroe, then serving as Secretary of State, asked Madison to let him serve as Secretary of War (since no one wanted the Sec of State job Monroe continued at that task, making him the only person to serve multiple Cabinet posts at the same time).    Under Monroe's guidance, the army got better organized.  By this time, effective generals had been found - mostly through the weeding process of bad generals getting captured, killed or fired - and enough victories were had to let Americans feel the war ended as a victory for the nation (let's be fair: it was a tie between Great Britain and the U.S., and a moral victory for Canada).

As one of the heroes of the War of 1812, Monroe was a near unanimous choice to run for President in 1816 (albeit because most Democratic-Republican rivals took each other out of the equation).  Having looked to Monroe's background to demonstrate his Active-Positive values, what does his Presidency demonstrate?

Monroe made the most of the "Active" part of being an Active-Positive.  He was the first President to extensively tour the nation while in office.  And while the tours had the appearance of "jubilees" and celebrations, Monroe did use these tours to talk policy matters with the citizenry: he took the tours seriously as part of his presidential duties.  His other Active behaviors included selecting competent men for Cabinet posts that best suited them - John Quincy Adams to State, John C. Calhoun (that bastard, but smart enough to know how to organize a department) to War - after an era of less-competent men holding such offices.

The biggest piece of evidence of Monroe's Active tenure is the foreign policy stance that bears his name and remains a key foundation for all modern U.S. foreign policy (and is pretty much the only thing remembered of his tenure): The Monroe Doctrine.  During the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, the colonies of Central and South America rebelled against their European overlords: with the wars in Europe over, those imperial powers - especially Spain and Russia - sought to re-conquer their lost colonies and the ones lost by a now-weakened France.  As these newly-formed nations lacked a European sponsor the way the United States had when our nation rebelled, the potential of the Central / South Americans to form their own republics were threatened.

At the urging of Adams, Monroe issued his Doctrine.  The United States would view any overseas aggression against any Central or South American nation as a threat to American sovereignty: meaning Worst Case Scenario that England - yes read on - will go to war over it.  The United States would NOT intervene in any "internal" dispute between an existing colony and their European holder: which placated Great Britain because they were the only overseas Empire to not lose most of their Central / South American colonies, and helped to get them as an unofficial co-backer of the plan.

The United States - still reorganizing after the War of 1812 - may not have been in any shape to enforce the Doctrine, but it gave political cover to Great Britain to enforce protection of their own sea-faring empire (Pax Britannica).  It had the political virtue of ensuring the nascent Latin American nations the room to build, and allowed for a gradual, progressive end of colonial rule within the Western Hemisphere.  The Doctrine also created the underlying foreign policy belief of anti-colonialism that would influence American policy to this very day.

Other Active-leaning accomplishments were creating a treaty with Great Britain defining the U.S. / Canadian border (at the time) along with dismantling all fortifications by both sides, creating one of the longest undefended borders in contemporary history (future treaties with England and Canada would lead to the U.S. / Canada we have today as the longest undefended border in human history).  I mentioned under Madison's entry last week that Great Britain traded away their holding of Florida as a far-sighted removal of a problem, but I erred to point out that their holdings were not Florida Proper (or what we know as Florida today): their holdings were the southern tips of what we now know as Alabama and Mississippi.  Spain gained control of Florida as a Spanish territory as part of the solution for the War of 1812, and as obvious as anything there was conflict over it (as England figured, smart guys the Brits).  Especially with native tribes in Florida raiding into Georgia.  Monroe's Active move was direct and controversial: he sent Andrew Jackson in as general in charge of the armies and militia in the region to defend the border, and Jackson - ooooo, is THAT guy a sonofabitch, more on him later - led raids (he argued he had the authority, but most likely the SOB's Blood Knight character was the impetus) into Florida to fight the natives, angering up Spain with a legitimate international grievance.  Whether or not Monroe signed off on Jackson's raiding, it did provide a stick to the carrot that Adams was using as Sec of State to negotiate Florida's purchase from Spain.

As for Monroe's Positive character traits, aside from the obvious relish of those national tours, Monroe reveled in the political game that being President provided him.  He worked with Congress, passing a sizable amount of legislation covering taxes and reduction of the national debt.  He presided over the period of five states being admitted to the Union, second only to (of all Presidents) Benjamin Harrison (Washington doesn't count because the thirteen original states were already part of the United States when he became President).  Monroe did veto and oppose certain forward-looking bills such as the planned Cumberland Road funding based on his Republican-Democrat ideology of strict constitutionalism.  Monroe had a hand - mostly behind-the-scenes - resolving the Missouri Compromise allowing Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state (alongside Maine, which began the practice of balancing the addition of a slave state with a free state) and banning slavery in any future states and territories north of Missouri's southern border.

The biggest reason common historical remembrance of Monroe is forgotten today is that Monroe ruled during a literal "Era of Good Feelings."  The War of 1812 had burned away the passions for war that troubled the previous administrations.  It helped that the chaos of France's revolution and empire had ended, quieting down most foreign policy concerns.  Political partisan sniping faded into non-existence: the Federalist Party, broken by the national perception of them failing the nation during a time of war, died as a national power.  Monroe pursued an inclusive administration above all other accomplishments.  Monroe himself invited little controversy or scandal.  Monroe became the second man to run unopposed for the Presidency since Washington: only a vote for John Quincy Adams by a rogue Elector prevented Monroe from becoming the second man other than Washington to unanimously win all Electoral College votes.  It's ironic that such success makes a man forgettable: but history is more intriguing with intrigue; interest in history more focused on war and divided debate.

If there was any failing to Monroe's actions as President, it was that he failed to see the consequences of his primary goal of ending partisan strife (as noted, A-P Presidents never plan for the consequences of their acts).  He may have created an Era of Good Feelings through efforts to incorporate Federalists into government and Federalist policy into his administration, and he may have tempered the back-room struggles of his fellow Democrats over who would lead the party... but he basically put a lid on a lit powder-keg by doing so.  By leading with Federalist (pro-Union) ideology on a lot of issues, he angered up the Republican-Democratic states-rights' (which by this time devolved into Southern State dominance) believers.  By refusing to choose a successor among the obvious candidates such as Henry Clay, William Crawford, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, or even John C. Calhoun (that bastard), Monroe created the environment for his own party to shatter into factions and re-ignite partisan divisions... only this time along more geographic lines and with more rancor than before.

A possible failing for Monroe would be the Missouri Compromise.  Yes, it was a compromise over a contentious issue - the addition of a slave state further north than had been previously allowed, and in the Louisiana Territory where northerners hoped to apply the anti-slavery clauses of the Northwest Ordinance - but like all A-P actions it had consequences.  It created the "You Shall Not Pass" line for slaveowners blocking them from northerner territories but allowed them to expand to the south of that line: That encouraged the strain of Manifest Destiny that drove the United States to aggressively pursue territorial acquisition into the Texas and California regions then held by the newly forged Republic of Mexico.

Another failing - more debated (not debatable, I mean it's more talked about, actually more shouted about) - was with the Monroe Doctrine: for all its political virtue, it also engendered a vice (again, something Monroe never saw coming).  Future American governments interpreted the Doctrine to allow ourselves the power to meddle in the affairs of Central and South American governments.  After all, it never limited what the U.S. could do in our own "back yard" (and it implied that the U.S. would intermediate for foreign powers under the right circumstance).  For all the good things the Monroe Doctrine created (the gradual end of empire), it also created distrust among Latin American nations due to incursions ("filibusters") and attempted takeovers by American citizens looking to colonize for themselves.  The Doctrine also bred the fervor for Manifest Destiny - combined with the long-term failure of the Missouri Compromise - that led to conflict with Mexico.  The neoconservatives running around today crying all for military intervention everywhere - without thought of consequence and the destructiveness of war - get some of their "seeding democracy" argument from what the Monroe Doctrine sought to protect.  And nowadays, just try talking about the CIA anywhere south of the Rio Grande and see if you can avoid getting punched in the face.

There's a lot about our nation today that formed from the actions of President Monroe: it's a little disappointing how our history books don't do a better job examining Monroe's administration and its effects on the rest of 19th Century and current American history.

Some print references to follow:
Whitney, David and Whitney, Robin, American Presidents 8th Ed., Readers Digest: Pleasantville NY, 1993, p. 47 - 54

Weinberg, Neil, "Waiting in Line at Mount Rushmore: Understanding the Rankings of Presidential Greatness" (2012). Senior Honors Theses. Paper 292. p. 32 - 34

If you have access to JSTOR, see if Murray, Robert and Blessing, Tim, "The Presidential Performance Study: a Progress Report, " Journal of American History, v.70 n. 3 (Dec. 1983) p. 535-55 has anything on character.

Please comment with more research suggestions on Monroe or on Presidential Character as defined by Barber.  As I noted at the beginning, we're getting into uncharted waters here with the 19th Century Presidents...

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