My main takeaway from Harlow Unger’s The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness is that the life of James Monroe was not particularly interesting compared to that of some other founding fathers. That said, Monroe’s prominence during the unusual period of non-partisan politics that prevailed from the end of the War of 1812 until the inauguration of John Quincy Adams does illustrate some important points.
To roughly sketch the situation, James Madison’s administration blundered into a war with Great Britain that, for a while, was going quite poorly for the United States. The opposition Federalist Party went pretty deep in anti-war activism, up to and including advocacy of Northeastern secession from the USA. Then in a rather odd turn of events, first Britain and the U.S. concluded a peace treaty, second the U.S. won a couple of battles that were fought since slow communication meant the combatants didn’t know the war wasn’t over, and third Britain’s defeat of Napoleon removed the issues the U.S. and Britain were fighting over, making the Treaty of Ghent look much more favorable than it actually was. As Monroe was dual-hatted as Secretary of War and Secretary of State at the time, this made both him and President Madison look like geniuses. The Federalists, meanwhile, looked terrible and the party was done for.
This meant that the end of the Madison administration (in which Monroe was the key official), Monroe’s campaign for president, and his presidency were all conducted under conditions of non-partisanship and non-party government. The fact that Madison and Monroe shifted positions to adopt a lot of the Federalists’ best ideas (a central bank, for example) further cemented this. Monroe’s idea as president seemed to be that this would promote virtue and good government, with hiring done by merit and all the talents of the land collected into his administration. The reality was rather different.
What happened, basically, is that without political parties, there were no clear upward paths to political advancement. Monroe didn’t have a designated successor or a process by which a successor could be chosen. Instead, everyone who was prominent in politics was a possible presidential candidate. But that meant that everyone who was important in the Monroe administration was a possible presidential candidate. Which meant that Monroe’s Secretary of State (JQ Adams) and his Secretary of War (John Calhoun) and his Secretary of Treasury (William Crawford) and his most prominent general (Andrew Jackson) were constantly battling one another. Speaker of the House Henry Clay was another contender. Not only did the infighting undermine the efficacy of the executive branch, the lack of parties meant that not only did the president not face organized congressional opposition he couldn’t wield a bloc of congressional supporters either. There were no hierarchical ties of loyalty, no relationships of patronage dependency, just a lot of jockeying for position. Consequently, not a lot got done, and today we don’t really remember the Monroe administration for much of anything.
But the fact that we don’t remember it is in some ways the problem. Most voters, and many pundits, seem to see politics the way Monroe did. They think, with a mixture of condescension and naivete, that policy problems have obvious answers. The failure of policymakers to converge on these obvious answers is attributed to partisanship and the assumption is that if people didn’t have nefarious partisan interests the solutions would be forthcoming. The reality is quite different. Policy problems are difficult and the machinery of government is complicated. You need some kind of organizing institutions to get disparate individuals to work together, and the parties disagree not only because they’re jokeying for influence, but because serious people have principled differences of opinion about what we should do.