President Monroe

THE full title of Mr. Gilman’s scholarly essay on James Monroe1 hints at the grounds on which the fifth President finds a place in the careful list of American statesmen, and Monroe’s own career and historic associations suggest very interesting speculations as to the future conditions of public life in America. John Quincy Adams was more distinctly trained to an administrative life ; but he was also a man of more striking individuality, and the figure which he shows in our history is that of a person, rather than that of an officer. His official position served as a background upon which to write his character, and although he lived from boyhood in the atmosphere of public service, he can scarcely be called the product of that service.

The character of Monroe, on the other hand, does not indicate a power which would have made him a marked man under all conditions. The fact that he has hitherto not been the subject of a formal biography is a slight sign of the absence in him of strong lines of personality. Mr. Gilman, in accordance with the scheme of the series in which his book stands, has not attempted a life. He invites some historical student, in search of a subject, to undertake a full life of Monroe ; yet it is doubtful if any student would be attracted by the personal element in the subject. The few pages which Mr. Gilman gives to this side are interesting and satisfactory ; one does not care for much more. An indefinite series of anecdotes or illustrations, if they could be found, would hardly build any very picturesque figure. Monroe appears as an awkward, diffident man, slow of speech, courteous, unimaginative, a little dull, perhaps, but uniformly unselfish, honorable, and faithful. He was, as Mr. Gilman points out, rather a man of action than of intellectual power; and his promptness and self-reliance during the second war with Great Britain certainly seem to bear out this view, and lead one to believe that Colonel Monroe, as he was commonly called, would have made a good general in the war for independence, if he had been older then, and would be an efficient railroad president, if he were in his prime now.

It is chiefly from the recollections of Judge Watson, contributed to this volume, that we get our notion of Monroe in his personal relations, and there are one or two passages which are interesting as bringing us closer to the man as he knew himself. “ There was not,” says Judge Watson, " the least particle of conceit in Mr. Monroe, and yet he seemed always strongly to feel that he had rendered great public service. From Washington to John Quincy Adams, he was the associate and co-laborer of the greatest and best men of his day. . . . One striking peculiarity about Mr. Monroe was his sensitiveness, his timidity in reference to public sentiment. I do not mean as it respected his past public life ; as to that, he appeared to feel secure. But in retirement his great care seemed to be to do and say nothing unbecoming in an ex-President of the United States. He thought it incumbent on him to have nothing to do with party politics. This was beneath the dignity of an ex-President; and it was unjust to the people who had so highly honored him to seek to throw the weight of his name and character on either side of any contest between them. Hence, Mr. Monroe, after retiring from office, rarely, if ever, expressed his opinions of public men or measures, except confidentially.”

From these and other details, it is not difficult to reconstruct Mr. Monroe as he saw himself, and one can have only respect for a man who took so serious a view of his office and its responsibilities. In a merely external view, Monroe’s official honor was very great. “ No one but Washington was ever reëlected to the highest office in the land with so near an approach to unanimity.” It is true that the calm of the political waters upon the reëlection of Monroe was not very profound, but the common consent by which he was continued in office was a just tribute to the integrity and good sense of the President. One who had enjoyed this public confidence might fairly be complacent over it, but Monroe showed his fine character by respecting the public as much as the public respected him, and by using his office as the chief servant of the nation.

What impresses us most in his public life is the completeness with which he caught the sentiment of the people, and reproduced it in his official papers. The Monroe Doctrine is the completest expression of this. Mr. Gilman has shown how little that doctrine was a mere pronunciamento of the President, and how gradually it was evolved as the growth of the public consciousness. In giving voice to the gathering conviction of the nation, Mr. Monroe was the spokesman of the people, and not its champion. Historical students, indeed, will be a little disappointed that Mr. Gilman has not discussed the question of the share which the Secretary of State had in the document. So little is Mr. Monroe’s personal equation of force that it remained for a still later development of the popular thought to give the formal statement a fuller content; so that when we speak, to-day, of the Monroe Doctrine it becomes necessary to discriminate between the historic expression and the convenient formula which stands now for somewhat more. The doctrine is one of the landmarks of national progress, but, like other landmarks in nature, it diminishes in apparent greatness as one comes nearer to it.

It is, however, as we have hinted, chiefly as an illustration of administrative evolution that President Monroe’s career may be studied to advantage. If we were to select representatives of this evolution in the three periods of United States history, they would be Monroe, Buchanan, and Garfield. Mr. Buchanan hit himself off, when he labeled himself, like a wax figure, an Old Public Functionary. He is the Turveydrop of American statesmen, and represents a condition of public life when the highest officer of the nation was a puppet in the hands of stronger men. He was the outgrowth of an oligarchy ; he had passed his life in office, learning thoroughly all parts of the mechanism ; he was entirely at home in the artificial political life which was built upon the conception of the administration as a delicately adjusted machine, contrived for continuing the party in power. The administration in Buchanan’s time was the government, but it pretended to be only the attorney for the government. It would, perhaps, be more exact to say that the real government was in the hands of a compact body of men, who ruled in the name of the people, and employed the administration as their agency.

Mr. Monroe, on the other hand, while he had served the same kind of apprenticeship as Mr. Buchanan, was the product of a different time. The English and colonial conception of the administration as the real government lingered for some time after the formal proclamation of democratic principles, and in the early years of the republic, when the central organization was simple and very limited in its agencies, the government was largely aristocratic. It was under this régime that Monroe was trained, and he came to the top when the system was giving way before the rising tide of democracy. He inherited the ideas of the strong men who had laid the foundations of the nation, and he carried them out faithfully and with a high sense of honor. Place was a trust, and he never failed so to regard it.

In the administration which it was hoped would bear Mr. Garfield’s name, the people looked with eagerness and some confidence for the realization of a public life which should make the administration, what the theory of democracy demands, a register of the best public mind. As the country grows more complex in its inter-relations, it requires that the management of its public affairs should be entrusted to men who have been trained for it, and trained in a school which recognizes one authority, — we, the people. It is for this reason that so positive an injunction has been given to rid the civil service of its oligarchic taint. No facts in our recent political history are so significant as the decision with which this injunction has been pronounced, and the silent, unorganized combination which has used the ballot as a skillful weapon. The truth is that a century of ballot-throwing has been needed to perfect the engine; and now that it is in the possession of the people, and well adjusted to their hands, it is used with tremendous force. The individual ballot and the unpolitical office go together, and in the new era upon which we are entering this presentation of Monroe’s career becomes of great value. We believe that the government is passing into the hands of the people, and we have reason to believe that an administration will result which will express that government as admirably as Monroe’s expressed the aristocratic government of his day.

We ought not to leave Mr. Gilman’s book without recognizing the thoroughness of its equipment. He has made a readable book for any citizen ; he has also made a most serviceable hand-book for the special student; and by his relegation to an appendix of matters which constitute an index to his subject, he has served both classes, and offended neither.

  1. 2James Monroe in his Relations to the Public Service during Half a Century, 1776 to 1826. By DANIEL C. GILMAN, President of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. Boston : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1883. [American Statesmen Series.]