Cranking out a book a year since 2005, Harlow Giles Unger has been called “America’s Most Readable Historian.” One reason he’s so readable is because he doesn’t let boring things like facts get in the way of a good story.
When I chose to read his bio of James Monroe for my presidential biography project, I expected a little bias based on the reviews. What I didn’t expect was full-on hagiography.
In the first few pages, Unger sets up the case that Monroe was “the most beloved president after Washington” married to “America’s most beautiful and courageous First Lady,” and the other presidents since Washington – Adams, Jefferson, and Madison – were “mere caretaker presidents who left the nation bankrupt, its people deeply divided, its borders under attack, its capital city in ashes.”
Those were some big claims, but I was willing to strap in for the ride. Instead of the title “The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness,” I pretended it was called “Why James Monroe Is Awesome.”
That tactic was working out well until I came to one specific claim that flew in the face of everything I’d ever read. Unger claimed James Monroe was solely responsible for writing the Monroe Doctrine, and that John Quincy Adams had little if anything to do with it.
The Monroe Doctrine, in Unger’s words, “declared an end to foreign colonization in the New World and warned the Old World that the United States would no longer tolerate foreign incursions in the Americas.” It basically told Europe to stay out of the western hemisphere, and it still has impacts on our foreign policy today.
It’s widely known that Monroe’s Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, had a major role in authoring the policy as part of Monroe’s annual address to Congress in 1823. But Unger didn’t see it that way. He wrote:
“Contrary to the writings of some historians, Monroe’s proclamation was entirely his own – not Adams’s. The assertion that Adams authored the “Monroe Doctrine” is not only untrue; it borders on the ludicrous by implying that President Monroe was little more than a puppet manipulated by another’s hand. Such assertions show little insight into the presidency itself and the type of man who aspires to and assumes that office; indeed, they denigrate the character, the intellect, the intensity, and the sense of power that drive American presidents.”
Not only does he make a wildly contrarian claim, but he also shits all over most historians in the process. And his main point seems to be that only a president could write the Monroe Doctrine – certainly not John Quincy Adams, even though he became the next president.
|1901 cartoon of Uncle Sam rooster sheltering the Latin chicks and keeping the Europeans out
Three years after publishing his Monroe biography, Unger released John Quincy Adams. His thoughts on the Monroe Doctrine’s authorship seem to have magically evolved, as if he cared more about lionizing whoever his subject was than being consistent.
Unger wrote that JQA “wrote the core provision of the Monroe Doctrine” which the president included “verbatim, in his annual message.” He went on to say that “Monroe embraced John Quincy’s political philosophy and formally closed the Western Hemisphere to further colonization.”
So, according to Unger, it’s ludicrous to think John Quincy Adams “authored” the Monroe Doctrine but he did “write” it. And even though it was based on Adams’s own political philosophy that Monroe embraced, the doctrine was entirely Monroe’s and not Adams’s.
I couldn’t understand how he could reconcile these contradictory opinions. So when I found out he was on Twitter, I decided to ask him.
I had no idea if he would answer, or if it was even him running his Twitter. (He’s 85 years old and it’s possible he has research assistants doing much of his work.) But someone did answer, and we had the following exchange.
So the following are all true:
- The Monroe Doctrine was entirely Monroe’s and not Adams’s.
- The Monroe Doctrine was not entirely Monroe’s.
- Monroe and Adams worked together on the Monroe Doctrine.
- They both wrote it by themselves.
I have a hard time understanding how two people could collaborate so closely on something they both wrote all by themselves, but I was content to move on with my confusing lack of resolution. Like he said, there was no good reply. And what even is a Monroe Doctrine? I was afraid any further questions might result in Unger pulling a quarter out from behind my ear or disappearing in a puff a smoke.
The problem is – it never happened. From Jefferson through Wilson, annual presidential addresses (which we now call the State of the Union) were delivered to Congress in writing. Not in person.
This address was read to Congress by a clerk. The walking down the aisle, the applause, the trembling – I can’t find any other explanation except it was completely made up.
Unger admits that Monroe didn’t read his annual address containing the Monroe Doctrine to Congress, but he still tries to claim his story is factual. I cannot find any record of Monroe addressing Congress in person except at his inaugurals, which both happened years earlier. I asked Unger for his source for this, and he has yet to respond. If he (or anyone) can come up with some little-known Congressional tremble-party, I will gladly update this article.
One Amazon reviewer of Unger’s biography of the Marquis de Lafayatte said, “Just about every page you turn you say to yourself…. ‘Are you kidding?’” A reviewer of his John Quincy Adams bio wrote, “The first part of the book resulted in me thinking, ‘This guy was too good to have been a mortal.’ I began to feel as if the author is biased in favor of Adams.”
It’s not a good sign when your readers’ lasting impression is their own incredulous inner monologues.
Unger is inadvertently creating an army of evangelists for his subjects and arming them with hyperbolic half-cocked trivia designed to be discharged at dinner parties. He plays fast and loose with the details in a way you would expect in a film adaptation – not in a biography.
That said, his books are compelling and entertaining, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t jealous of his prolificness and success. I admire the passion that comes through in his prose, and his mission to educate people about the American founders. I hope he keeps cranking out biographies as long as possible, but I’d prefer he do it with research assistants and editors who help him keep it real.
I’d really prefer if he could be more of an impassioned reporter with journalistic integrity than a cheerleader.
Until then, I can only recommend his biographies for people who don’t require truth and objectivity in their nonfiction. Read Unger on the beach or airplane, but take him the same way you would a shot of aged tequila – with several grains of salt.
The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call To Greatness by Harlow Giles Unger
Open Letters Monthly: “He hit the Constitution much as the Lord hit chaos” by Thomas J Daly
Special thanks to The American History Fanatics Facebook group