J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, November 09, 2017

A Presidential Plodder

Plodding Through the Presidents is Howard Dorre’s ongoing blog about reading Presidential biographies, starting with Flexner’s Washington: The Indispensable Man and getting as far as, well, Andrew Jackson. So the important ones, really.

Dorre has a delightfully irreverent attitude toward this process, as shown in his discussion of Harlow Giles Unger’s treatment of two successive chief executives:
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 [James] 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 president just a year later.

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.
There are also postings drawn from other books, inquiries into Presidential myths and mysteries, and personal history, such as how Dorre’s interest in serial killers spurred him to investigate J. Q. Adams’s childhood reading.

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