tv Book Discussion on The Last Founding Father CSPAN May 8, 2016 8:00am-8:52am EDT
is one of the least researched residents. he describes president monroe's life through his two terms as the fifth president of the united states. this program was recorded at borders in new york city in 2009. it is about 50 minutes. [applause] mr. unger: thank you very much. i am honored to be here and i want to thank my publisher for making this evening possible. my thanks to c-span television and borders bookstore, a landmark here at 57 and park avenue in new york city. i am particularly honored by the presence of several renowned authors, one of them alice phlegm, whose latest book is a
biography of martin luther king jr., "a dream of hope." the naval historian paul silverstone is here tonight. and thomas fleming, his new book is called the intimate lives of the founding fathers. i wonder what that is about. [laughter] mr. unger: i am honored by having you all here because i know that some of you sacrificed the $15,000 a plate fundraiser for president obama tonight. i can only offer you food for thought, but the price is right. i am sure you have all seen the famous painting of george washington crossing the delaware. you probably remember there is a soldier standing behind him with the american flag in his arms. that soldier, the officer, is ames monroe.
and there were two symbolic reasons that the artist, john trumbull placed monroe and washington as one of the only two important figures in the painting. one of the only two figures standing in the boat. monroe did not actually cross the delaware in the same boat as washington, but trumbull put him there to show him as a great hero of the battle of trenton under washington's leadership. he also put him next to washington to recognize him as the second greatest and second most beloved president after washington in the early years of the republic. indeed, monroe is the only president other than washington to be elected without opposition. with washington, americans trusted and loved monroe so much that political parties disappeared. vanished. everybody voted for monroe. yet, if you ask the average american today to identify him, he or she would probably not
know who monroe was. one person suggested he was a point guard on the new york basketball team. and another was certain that he was marilyn monroe's father. that is tragic, because he was the last of our founding fathers. next to washington, the greatest. he was the last president to have fought and lived through the revolution and as president, he transformed a tiny nation that washington had created into an empire that stretched from sea to shining sea. it was he, not jefferson, that bought louisiana. it was he who ripped florida from spain. and it was he, james monroe, who stretched america's frontiers to the pacific ocean. back to the battle of trenton.
monroe didn't cross the dell wear in the same boat as washington. he crossed earlier with a small squad and circled behind the town while washington landed with his troops on the riverside below the town. what makes trenton so important, is that the british had almost won the war by christmas of 1776. their troops had overrun long island, westchester, new york and most of new jersey. thousands of american troops had deserted and the british had traced the remnants of washington's army across new jersey, over the delaware and into pennsylvania. edcoats were in sight of philadelphia, the capital. congress had fled to baltimore and had decided talking about terms to concede to the british. the war was over, unless washington could come up with something.
he chose a young college student, lieutenant james monroe, to make a miracle happen. they all crossed the delaware during a blinding snowstorm. on christmas night, overwhelm six months after we declared independence. in trenton, 3000 mercenaries had spent in the evening celebrating and because of the storm, they went to sleep without posting uards. at dawn the next morning, monroe and his squad sneaked up to the placements at the top of king street in trenton, the main street that washington would have to come up with his troops to capture the town. the soldiers happened to step outside to do you know what and he spotted them. he shouted, the enemy. they poured out into the snowstorm in their night clothes. and started fire on monroe and his men. monroe was shot.
but he and his men block them until washington can come and force them to surrender. it was shear luck that a surgeon happened to wander by, tied off an artery, stopped the bleeding in monroe's arm and saved his life. washington gave him a promotion to captain --thanks to monroe, washington won the battle of trenton. the victory revived the morale of the american troops and the american public and saved the revolution. for the first time our citizen soldiers with little or no training defeated a professional rmy from europe. congress returned to philadelphia and abandoned thoughts of surrendering. when monroe was well enough, he rejoined washington, fought heroically at brandywine where
lafayette was wounded and he helped save that man's life. he survived the bitter winter at valley forge and served heroically at other battles. monroe grew up in a modest virginia farm. after the war, he decided against farming. he went back to finish his education at the college of william and mary and study law under thomas jefferson. e then chose public service as a full-time career, the first american leader ever to to so. by the time he died, he had held more offices than any public figure in history. the legislator, ambassador to france, congressman, minister to spain, a fourth term governor of his home state virginia, u.s. secretary of state, of war, and finally, a two-term president of the united states, the fifth president.
as governor of virginia, he became the second most powerful figure in america. a virginia then was america's largest, wealthiest, and most heavily populated state with 20% of the american population. it stretched to the mississippi river and all the way north to the great lakes. it was enormous and the prestige of its governor was likable to illinois, texas, california all put together. he was not only governor of america's most important state, he was a national hero in the revolutionary war. he was a giant in his day. i do not understand why historians ignore him which is why i wrote this book, to restore him to his rightful place in american history.
the most important president in the early days of our nation. now, some historians elevate john adams to historical prominence. most historians all but deify thomas jefferson and james madison, and these were three great founding fathers and great political philosophers, but they were disastrous presidents. those three men left the nation orse off than it had been when washington ceded them the presidency 20 years yerl. john adams went to war, declared a naval war on the french. he stripped americans of their first amendment rights to free speech and freedom of the press. thomas jefferson imposed a trade embargo that bankrupted the nation. and madison declared war, unnecessarily, on britain. which had just signed a peace treaty. those three presidents left the
nation still threatened on the north by british troops, threatened on the south by spanish troops, and threatened in the west as indian tribes slaughtered farmers. it took monroe to end those threats and leave that still small, still poor, still undeveloped nation to greatness. it took monroe to transform the nation into an empire. now, along the way to greatness, monroe fell in love with and married the beautiful elizabeth cartwright, a new york heiress who unlike most women of her day, had received an education in the arts, history, and literature. she could hold her own with the best educated men in her era. theirs was perhaps the greatest love affair in white house history. i mean, you talk about passion,
let me put it this way. the history book club put the monroe story on the front cover of its christmas catalog. it buried bill clinton and monica lewinsky on the inside. the monroe's adored each other. they were inseparable throughout their lives, everywhere that he went, she was by his side, elegant. when you see the portrait, you will see that she was the most beautiful and elegant first lady in history. also, the most gracious. -- courageous. monroe was still a senator when president washington sent him to france to negotiate with the revolutionary government. elizabeth and their daughter went with him. in paris, they learned that lafayette's wife had been entenced to death.
monroe couldn't do anything about it without risking his diplomatic status, so elizabeth took matters into her own hands. she got into their carriage and like out of a movie, she drove through the paris mobs, by herself to the prison. she had a driver, but she was alone in the carriage and when she got there she demanded to see the wife of lafayette. eventually, she won her release. elizabeth monroe was only about five feet tall, a tiny little lady. but the courage and heart of a joan of arc and she won the hearts of the french people. they called her the beautiful american lady. monroe then helped lafayette and her children flee france to safety. together, elizabeth and james onroe saved their lives.
on his next mission to france, a decade later, this time for president jefferson, monroe went with $9 million from congress to negotiate the purchase of the island of new orleans. that was all he was supposed to do. the farmers west of the am latch chance could float their grain down the mississippi to new orleans for shipment to overseas markets. instead of buying an island, monroe borrowed 6 million more ollars from an english bank on his own signature and doubled the size of the nation. he bought almost one million acres, the largest territory ever acquired by any nation in history from another, peacefully. without a war. one million acres and at a bargain price of two cents an
acre. even in those days, the average price for wilderness land was two dollars an acre. the louisiana purchase stretched the nation's boundaries to the rockies and gave us the river valley. it was monroe that engineered the louisiana purchase. and as president, jefferson took credit for the deal, but he , in fact, almost canceled it, s you'll see in my book. he had to be talked out of canceling it. he thought it was unconstitutional for the u.s. government to buy foreign territory. now, while james monroe was in paris buying louisiana at a bargain, elizabeth monroe was doing some bargain shopping of her own. snapping up french furniture and furnishings. the revolutionaries had looted several homes and shadows and used furniture shops had piles
of magnificent louis the 14th furnishings and furniture. it was at bargain prices. she bought dozens of beautiful pieces and later as first lady, she filled the white house with the priceless european treasures. it transforms it into the glittering palace it is today. you can see the pieces if you our the white house today, a long stunning silver tray with a magnificent silver candelabra, still sits on the long dining table that is still used often for formal state dinners. her portrait hangs in the east room on the wall opposite the podium that the president uses at his press conferences, as he answers questions, he can stare over their ugly faces and be inspired by her beauty on the opposite wall. [laughter]
mr. unger: one other thing that they did on their second trip to paris was to save the lafayette from french destitution. he was bankrupt and james monroe convinced a bank to accept land in the american wilderness as collateral and advanced lafayette enough cash to ecover, financially. james monroe became america's fifth president, two years after the end of the war of 1812, in which the british invasion left the public buildings of our capital gutted by fire. americans called the war of 1812, madison's war, because james madison and his incompetent cabinet, urged him to declare war on britain and invade canada, instead of waiting for a peace treaty to arrive from england.
madison and his war secretary left the city of washington undefended. when he realized the mistake, he pleaded with james monroe to become the secretary of state and then to become secretary of war to hold the two positions imultaneously. monroe all but galloped into battle to protect washington, but it was too late. so he took all the men he could muster to baltimore to protect it. that battle raged through the night, but at dawn, our flag was still there and the british retreated, thanks largely to the rilliance of james monroe. but the capitol building and the presidential mansion, as it was called, had been gutted by fire. they slathered on thick coats of white paint to cover the black
exterior of the president's house, and that's when the house got it's name, the white house, for the first time. it was elizabeth monroe, the first lady to live in it after the war who redeck grated and refunnished it and turned it into america's most beautiful home. while elizabeth was re-furnishing the white house, her husband was refinishing the nation. e was determined to make the nation impregnable to future attacks by foreign enemies. he expanded our boundaries to the natural defenses of the oceans, lakes, rivers and mountains that surrounded the continent. he sent andrew jackson and a small army to seize florida from spain. he forced spain to redraw the western boundaries of the louisiana territory, to extend
into the rocky mountains. and north to the pacific ocean. for the first time since they declared independence, americans were secure from attack by foreign troops, and they streamed westward over the am matchian mountains into the wilderness to claim their share of america, buying up wilderness lands from the government and carving out farms, harvesting furs, timber, ore, in an era hen land was wealth. the land rush added six states to the americas. wealth -- never before in history had a sovereign state transferred ownership of some much land, and so much political power, to so many people not of oble rank.
with the land ownership, the americans gained the right to vote, stand for office, govern themselves and communities, their state and nation. you could not vote or stand for office if you did not own land. if you owned land, you owned the nation. to ensure success for the land rush and perpetuate economic growth, james monroe promoted the construction of roads, bridges, and canals in every region of the nation with outlets to the sea and shipping routes to the world. the massive building program transforms the wilderness into the most prosperous nation on earth. the economic recovery converted the u.s. government deficit into such a large surplus, that james monroe abolished all personal taxes in america. his presidency made poor men rich, encouraged the arts, literature and fine arts. he turned political allies into friends.
and united a divided people as no president had done since washington, and never would again perhaps until the second world war. political parties dissolved, disappeared. americans of all political persuasions rallied under a single star-spangled banner and reelected him to the presidency without opposition. the only president other than washington to win the presidency without opposition. he created an era never seen before or since, an era of good feeling, they called it. that propelled the nation and the people to greatness. after he had built the american military a naval power to levels that made the shores impenetrable, monroe climaxed his presidency and startled the world with the most important
manifesto after the declaration of independence, the monroe doctrine. he warned the world that the united states would no longer permit foreign incursions into the americas. he used diplomatic language to reiterate the warning of the rattlesnake on his regiment, do not tread on me. it was unprecedented in world history, the monroe doctrine, or the manifesto, unilaterally extended america's sphere of influence over one third of the entire western hemisphere, he told the world we would not meddle in their affairs and don't they dare meddle in ours. he told the world they would profit far more by trading with us and trading with the americas than trying to conquer us. he infuriated some heads of
state, but he gave americans joy. giving them universal aically mation. henry clay told him, you have made me prouder of my country han i ever was before. some of you are wondering about the slavery issue. president monroe like others owned slaves, but he considered slavery immoral. but saw no way to end it without a bloodbath. a lot of buts. but, i'll use one myself, the first thing to remember is slavery was not an american institution, it was british, french, and spanish. americans inherited it after it was 200 years old. virginians had actually voted to ban slavery in the early
1700s. but the british government of good queen anne overruled the act, largely because the royal treasury depended on revenues from british slave traders. in the decades that followed, under the three king georges, virginians petitioned time after time to end slavery importation. the georges all refused, and more africans crossed the atlantic, involuntarily of course. ironically, the increase in the number of slaves was more of a burden than a benefit to most virginia planters. slaves were usually unskilled and unable to speak english. they had fewer incentives to work than workers in the north. and as they aged and father
children, they added enormous numbers of nonproductive infants and elderly to the population of -- that the planters had to support. in only 50 years, from 1720-1770, just before the american revolution, in those years virginia's slave population grew almost eightfold. from 25,000, when the problem was still controllable, to nearly 200,000, or more than 90% of the white population. virginians owned 40% of all the slaves in america. with traders going up the james river, virginians feared that blacks would soon outnumber whites and stage an uprising that would end in a bloodbath. most virginia planters wanted to end importation of slaves and get rid of the ones they had, but where would they go?
200,000 people, where would they go? in the north, there were cities with factories and apprenticeships to teach freemen ew skills. the south was agrarian and with fewer towns. the end of the road of one plantation led to the end of -- led to the beginning of the next. where exactly were the slaves to go? how would they feed and clothe themselves? where would they live? the only jobs in the south were for field workers. it was a widespread fear, for slave rebellions, that sparked the idea of resettling blacks. in africa. in 1817, a year after monroe's election, a group of southern plantation owners joined with northerners to form an alliance called the american colonization society to purchase and
emancipate slaves and transport them to africa. at president monroe's urging, congress appropriated $100,000, a lot of money then, to fund an agency to return africans captured from slave traders, to return them to their native lands. in 1821, the colonization society bought a large area of land at the mouth of the st. paul river in liberia, as a temporary haven for returning slaves, expecting them to set off for their native villages. after three or four generations in america, they do not know where their native villages were, so many did not move into the interior and that settlement grew into a city. they named monrovia to honor the american president. unfortunately, the work for the colonization society started about 40 years too late. the economy of the south had converted from tobacco to cotton.
tobacco plantations depended on skilled hands to grow the tender crops, which usually forced planters to foster worker contentment by providing adamant care for worker families, providing care for elderly and children. cotton changed that and changed slavery entirely. it required no skills. they absorbed women, children and the elderly as long as they could stand or crawl. it opened agriculture to a new class of grower. almost every white man could join you all he needed was a patch of land, whip, and enough money to buy a slave. white laborers and craftsmen who had traditionally opposed
slavery as free labor that deprived them of jobs, suddenly became its champions. buying their own small pieces of land and a slave to work it, free of any costs other than subsistence nourishment and living quarters. cruelty replaced paternalism across the south. the crack of the whip could be heard across the field and a violent revolt against the crackers would turn into an abolition. the slavery issue had become insoluble. the efforts of well-meaning men like washington and monroe had, come 120 years too late. beloved as he was, james monroe died almost pennyless. even as a youngster, he had always considered service to his country as his obligation, so like washington he refused all pay for serving in the revolutionary war as a lieutenant, captain, and finally
a colonel. all without pay. later, as an ambassador to france, he bought a house in paris to serve as living quarters for the family. and the u.s. embassy. 5 suming congress would reimburse him, he was wrong. he covered the cost of his office. always assuming he would be reimbursed, and he never was. when lafayette came to visit the u.s. in 1824 and heard of the outgoing president monroes financial plight, he responded immediately. "mr dear monroe, let your friends lend you resources to put your affairs in order. remember when i was in similar circumstances, i accepted your help. that should give me the right to eciprocity?" monroe was deeply moved, but far too proud.
he told lafayette, i could never take anything for you nor from your family. i have known and seen too much of yours in their sufferings to commit such an outrage. but if i ever visit france, i shall make your house my home or a good long time. he sold his beautiful virginia plantation to pay his debts. he moved into the home of his daughter and son-in-law. where he awaited debt pennyless but free of debt. he found strength to write to his old friend in virginia, james madison, for whom monroe had served as both secretary of state and secretary of war. they had known each other since they were young men in their 20's. "my condition renders the restoration of my health very uncertain. it is very distressing to me to sell my
property, or besides parting with all i have, i regret that there is no prospect of our ever meeting again. we have for so long been connected in public and private life in the most friendly way that a final separation is one of the most distressing incidents that could occur to me." monroe's letter so upset the aging madison that he eplied-- "the pain that i feel of never eeting again afflicts me deeply, associated as it is with the recollection of the long, close, uninterrupted friendship which united us. the pain makes me hope you may be brought back to us. this is a happiness my feelings covet. i will not despair at you not being able to keep up election with virginia." monroe died a few weeks later on july 4, 1831, at 73.
the third american president to die on a july 4, and the last of the revolutionary war residents. in his eulogy to monroe, john quincy adams, who had served monroe for 8 years as his secretary of state, told americans to compare the map of north america in 1783 with the map of that empire as it is now. the change more than that of any other man living or dead was the work of james munro. -- monroe. strengthening his country for defense, sustaining her rights, dignity, and honor brought. soothing her dissensions and conciliating her absurdities of home. strengthening and unifying the edifice of his country's union
until he was entitled to say like augusta caesar, that he had found her built of brick and left her clad in gleaming marble. that was james monroe, the last of our founding fathers. thank you very much ladies and gentlemen. [applause] thank you very much. yes sir? >> i think you answered your own question. let me feed it back to you. see if you agree as to why he notoriety. right -- notoriety is my long life experience. scandal, military victories, or controversy. he seems to have avoided all three of those things by skillful diplomatic cooperation.
all sorts of wonderful ways of getting things done without getting himself that kind of notoriety. mr. unger: that may be one answer. the other is that he is difficult to write about. he just did his job and didn't seek a tremendous amount of publicity, as did some of the thers. yes sir? >> in your book, you describe the end of the party system nder monroe. and the consequences are fairly calamitous. it can be a constructive lesson in our times. can you talk more about the causes -- was it the british invasion of washington, or the antifederalists taking over the federalist position? mr. unger: the two are unrelated.
the first is about the end of parties, which is monroe uniting everyone in building the ation. there were unfortunate consequences of that. with the disappearance of political parties, members of his cabinet -- he was too honest a man and said he would not run for a third term. he had a perfect right to do so at that time. he said he wouldn't. the members of his cabinet all started eyeing his seat. they became -- their political ambitions came to the fore. with no political party system left, he had no way of disciplining them other than to toss them out of the cabinet or his office. there was no party structure left to discipline any of these potential candidates.
that was one of the unfortunate fallouts with the election. all but one, one died before the election, but all of them, four of them, ran and no one got a majority in the electoral college. it went into congress. congress gave the election, or voted for john quincy adams, over andrew jackson, even though jackson had a plurality of votes. he did not have the necessary majority. adams was elected and jackson had to hold off for four more years. the other question was the war of 1812. that had nothing to do with political parties. that was madison's incompetence as president. he had been secretary of state for eight years under jefferson. so he had no real experience running the nation.
he did not have to make any real decisions. he was simply incompetent. he took on, he left most of jefferson's cabinet in place and took on political hacks, especially the secretary of state. he replaced himself with a republican leader from congress. that secretary of state did a disastrous job. the british had signed a peace treaty with the americans in ondon. it took a month or more for ships to cross the atlantic. before the ship could bring the copies of the treaties here, madison was talked into invading canada to show off how strong we were. of course it was a disaster. yes sir?
>> you alluded at the beginning, the fact that most americans don't recognize him as one of the great presidents. or they don't recognize him at all. what do you think is the reason for that? mr. unger: the other gentlemen asked that question, i think. the reason simply is that historians like to cover exciting battles, a lot of blood, a lot of action. and they tend to ignore the solid work of hard-working political leaders. i think that is probably still true. people get elected a lot that way. here clearly was a man elected for his competence.
yes sir? >> he lived for several years after he left the presidency. do you have any idea how he felt about his successes? mr. unger: deep inside, he favored john quincy adams. he had worked with him for eight years. in those days, the secretary of state was the most important figure in government after the president. we were surrounded by foreign powers. the secretary of state had a very important role in dealing with the rest of the world. john quincy adams had been working in or with the diplomatic service since he was 17 years old, and was with them when his father was in france. clearly adams was the most competent man in the field of foreign affairs. monroe was quite pleased that adams won. he really favored adams.
but stayed out of the election. he did not feel that it was the role, as did washington, that a sitting president has any right to get involved in an election campaign for a successor. yes sir? >> you mentioned in your book how after the election, monroe sort of made a tour of the united states. to help unify all the factions and so forth. that put him out of washington, and in a sense, out of touch with what is going on for months at a time. and very difficult for communications back and forth. is that just a sign of the times, or that maybe those decisions were being made by others in washington? mr. unger: that is a wonderful question. in those days, people in washington were not the ones who
were doing things. they were there for a very short time. they did not feel their role was to keep passing laws after laws after laws. they went there, did their business, and got home to their farms. most of them were planters and farmers, doctors, lawyers, and bankers. they had full-time jobs. this is a part-time job. not much was going on in washington. what was going on was in the rest of the country. monroe, like washington -- remember, there was no television, no e-mail, no communications -- the only means of communications were these weekly newspapers that would come out weeks, often months ate with the news. like washington, monroe did not want the presidency to become a monarchy, with a monarch sitting in his castle in a cocoon, away from all the people. he went out to meet the people.
and that's why he was so loved. he became a people's president. he went out into the farmlands, shook their hands, walked with them over their fields and became one of them, as washington had done. these other presidents had sat in philadelphia, and later in washington, as they do today. as do congress men and women today. they are isolated from the people. monroe wanted to be in touch with the people. as a result, he found out what they wanted and provided it for hem. yes sir? >> one other question, monroe is obviously-- a man of great accomplishment. did he ever described what he though of as his greatest ccomplishment?
mr. unger: no, everyone who knew him all say he was a very modest man. a gentle man. yes sir, in the back? >> the louisiana purchase. other than for money, where -- were there multiple reasons that france was willing to part with the territory? and additionally to that, the population of the territory -- to what excellent was it colonial frenchmen as continues tinth from others. mr. unger: very few colonial frenchman. although there were some. this was the big difference between the english, french, and spanish. most of the english settlers came to settle. most of the spanish immigrants
to the americas and the french came to find treasure of one form or another. in the spanish, they wanted precious ores. they found it in mexico and south america. the french, they wanted furs and pelts. hey found that. but they were truly settlers. the reason the french were willing toive up for such small price was napole had had u s army, led by his rother-in-lawwas au jefferson was threatening -- madison was secretary of state, so he actual made the threat. there were rumors th the spanish were goingo retrocede the territy the french. ey had already done it. but we didn't know about it.
that set off other rumors that napoleon wasoing to nd tens of thousands of troops over here top a put urrier along the aplachians to keep settlers romg ou movinwest. madison said he uld announc that he would have 2,000 the mississippi before troops over ombined with the haitian uprising, and nohe was getting defeated in spain -- the british had inrv pushing out e french -- he realized he had extendedis forces tooar and too wide. he said literally, the hell with
he colonies, the hell with the coffee, all the sugar, the prodts of haiti. heecided to let that territory o. >>ho made the offer? did the french approach the americans to try to sell it? mr. unger: it wentoth ays. talleyrand, his wily forgn ministert gotiations. napoleon didtrust him, and am this went around in circles. it was finally negotiation between napoleon's own that ettled the deal. >> you mentioned on his way to rance to purchase new orleans, he also signed -- he took out a
$6 million ln. what did he use for collateral to make that purchase? mr. unger: just his signate. [laughter] he could talk people into anything. he w this mild, gentle fellow. one could only guess what the accents wereike in those days. we they part btish? werehey the so virginia acce? that still exists fromhen i was a boy and has disappeared now. he could -- you just trusted the man. he just talk to them into lending him $6 million. [laughter] e certainly tried to be. >> monroe sorted out being against the constitution because it gaveooh governnt.
he winds up buying louisiana and florida, going beyond the powers granted byhe constitution. dihe ever address these bjects? mr. unge n nor did any h predecessors. they all violated the nstitution and they continued to violation the constitution. every bran of government has violed the constitution since daone. send troops to crush the whiskey rebellion. he had no authory to demand that congress ve him control over the executive departments. john marshall, when he became chief justice, had no constitutional ahoty for declaring half the state laws unconstitional. there is nothing in the constitution that gives the supreme court the rit to declare laws constitutional. it ds give congress the right