The Last Founding Father vs. Donald Trump

It seems to be another hectic week for our President – Donald Trump. A government shut down never looks good for the leader of the government. I heard this news from my Dad who was quite upset – not at Donald Trump – but at Democrats. See, my Dad is not an anomaly. Whenever our views are attacked, our elephant instincts kick in. We “react” first and “rationalize” later – usually, that rationalization is far from sensical. My Dad and I like to bump chests politically, but in the end, we always just sit on the couch and watch sports. However, our discussions about politics are not zero-sum gains. Trying to understand another person’s views takes time, patience, and empathy. My Dad and I have learned a lot from each other and our conversations keep getting more civil – our tandem elephants are becoming more docile.

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As an extension of last week’s post about James Madison, I am going to further question what it means to be “presidential.” Time will tell how Trump does over the next years but how can we truly judge his performance? We need to know how other Presidents have done in the past so we can have rationale conversations into the future. To achieve this goal, I am reading every US President’s biography and writing about them for your enjoyment – here is a list of all the previous posts: George Washington, John Adams (coming next week), Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Herbert Hoover. This week I read about America’s fifth president – James Monroe – The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness by Harlow Giles Unger.

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James Monroe was the last founding father to be President and was actually born shortly before the American Revolution in 1758. Monroe was raised in Virginia, but unlike Washington, Jefferson, or Madison he did not own substantial plantation property. He fought in the Revolutionary War and was actually with Washington in the Battle of Trenton when the famous crossing of the Deleware River occurred; he was wounded in the battle but eventually recovered. The military at the time had a glut of officers, so Monroe was never able to receive a position of command. Upon National Independence, he took up law to begin supporting himself and his wife, Elizabeth Monroe.

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Throughout this time, Monroe was mentored by a fellow Virginian – Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson pushed Monroe to join him in politics and Monroe initially split his time between law and the Virginian House of Delegates. He would go on to serve in the Congress of the Confederation and help ratify Virginia’s Constitution. His political career took off when he became Ambassador to France during the French Revolution, Ambassador to Britain and Minister to Spain – negotiating the Louisiana Purchase, land treaties, and peace negotiations while overseas. He would go on to be the Governor of Virgina for four terms, US Secretary of State, and US Secretary of War. While Secretary of War, he virtually ran the government because Madison was inept during that period of conflict. He would go on to be the most popular President since George Washington.

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Monroe committed over 40 years of his life to public service and served in more public posts than any American in history. While President, he pushed for Western expansion and acquired more land from the Spanish in modern-day Florida. He protected American interests at a time in history when European powers could quickly take advantage of the young country. The Monroe Doctrine was a masterpiece of diplomacy for the Western Hemisphere and allowed independence for myriad nations in Central and South America. Monroe was described by friends and foes alike as having plain and gentle manners. He was a bold and robust leader in times of war and peace and fought for the Bill of Rights and against secrecy rules in Congress – opening the halls of Government for the first time in history.

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Monroe established the first state-supported public schools and pushed the development of public roads and canals to further commerce. Monroe was secretly an excellent President who accomplished more than I had ever thought. He transformed a fragile nation into a glorious empire – by making the United States impregnable to attack and rich in natural resources. He allowed Americans to expand westward and gain a democratic vote through the ownership of land; his Presidency saw the largest redistribution of wealth in the annals of history. Monroe was so popular that there were no political parties during his presidency; he was able to bring people together and put his country first. James Monroe indeed achieved “presidential” status during his Presidency – unfortunately, Trump is nowhere close to his level at this point…but I’m hoping he will pull through.

Thomas Jefferson – Donald Trump Please Read

Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.
-Thomas Jefferson

Who is your favorite president? I always ask this to random people on President’s Day and usually get responses like Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama, or George Washington. My favorite president by far is Theodore Roosevelt but I think Thomas Jefferson might make my All-Star Team.

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Jefferson is a complicated man and the only thing I knew about him was that he authored the Declaration of Independence. I wanted to learn more about this formidable founding father so I read his biography – Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham. Thomas Jefferson was born in Shadwell, Virginia on April 13, 1743 and was the son of a popular local leader. Jefferson, from birth was raised to be a leader of men and to control the world he lived in. As a youth he was educated in the manners of the South: well learned with a cool, calm, and collected demeanor.

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He quickly took to all the sciences and was able to absorb Enlightenment philosophy during his first year at college. He was an insatiable learner who believed knowledge was a valuable possession which raised man from his “self-imposed immaturity.” By his 20’s he was the epitome of the renaissance man – farmer, violinist, scientist, philosopher, politician.

He was elected to the House of Burgesses at the age of 25 and lived a paradox as a politician – drawn to the spotlight but distraught by criticism. He was not a vocal man like John Adams but rather expressed himself best through writing. In 1774 he published the Summary View which argued for colony rights and became a rallying cry for the rumbling revolutionaries. The Summary View brought Jefferson to the Continental Congress and he quickly became the prime candidate to author the Declaration of Independence at the age of 33.

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The revolution quickly unfolded and Jefferson was elected as Governor of Virginia. As Governor, he trumpeted religious freedoms but fell short as a military hero – fleeing from the British when they came knocking. Nevertheless, with the end of the Revolutionary War, he was still esteemed and was sent to France as a delegate to promote the interests of America. While in France, he furthered his Enlightenment beliefs and helped Lafayette write “The Rights of Man.”

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Upon his return to America, he became the first Secretary of State and almost won the second presidency – ending up as the Vice President under John Adams. It was during his Vice Presidency that party politics first took a stronghold among the American public. John Adams and Alexander Hamilton (Federalist) were open to a stronger “monarchical” government while Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (Democratic-Republicans) were against anything that mirrored the old structure of hereditary power. With rising distrust of Federalist power, the people elected Thomas Jefferson as President.

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As President, Jefferson was a pragmatic philosopher who understood the need to compromise. He wanted a limited government except when the nation was best served by a more expansive one. In 1803, Napoleon sold Jefferson the Louisiana Purchase which more than doubled the size of the United States. Jefferson was extremely popular for this and was reelected to a second term. During his final four years in office, there was the high potential for war with Britain but Jefferson pushed for peace at all costs. By the time he had left office in 1809, Jefferson had put in place a heavy embargo which began to cripple the American economy and eventually the United States would go to war with Britain in 1812.

The Rotunda with a statue of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia.

Jefferson, throughout his career, fused Federalist and a Democratic-Republican ideologies – realizing that different tools were required for different jobs. In retirement, he would go on to found the University of Virginia and build his estate at Monticello. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams,would end up dying on July 4th, 1826 – 50 years after signing the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was a man with flaws but he was a man who left America and the world a better place. I especially like him as a President because he saw the merits of knowledge and was always on an eternal quest for wisdom. Jefferson for sure made bad decisions – he owned 600 slaves in his life and did little to fight for their freedom; siring many children with his mulatto slave – Sally Hemings.

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He was a man of his time in many ways but in other ways he was far ahead of the field – pushing for education, religious freedom, and  democracy when many wanted a King to rule. The United States would not be the same without Jefferson and I respect his beliefs of compromise that helped a country move through it’s precarious infancy.