James Monroe
Gary Hart, 2005

I first started following politics on February 29, 1984, when Good Morning America reported that Gary Hart had upset Walter Mondale in the New Hampshire primary. I was not familiar with either of these dudes but Hart was younger and the underdog and was said to have "new ideas" so I decided that I favored his bid. Such was my thinking when I was ten. Such, apparently, was the thinking of six and a half million other people. Hart quickly became notorious for incessantly repeating the phrase "new ideas" while remaining remarkably vague about what those "new ideas" actually were, leaving himself open for Mondale's "where's the beef" line that punctured his candidacy. A quarter of a century of political geekery later I'm still not entirely clear on Hart's platform! I do get his positioning: with conservatism regnant and his party viewed as a coalition of outdated labor interests and whining minorities, Hart hoped that a nebulously defined "third way" would allow him to triangulate his way into office, the way that Bill Clinton and Tony Blair would do in the following decade. Furthermore, by presenting himself as an "independent westerner" — a maverick, if you will — he hoped to disassociate himself from a party brand that was in the tank, much as John McCain has tried to do. But those actual ideas? Ultimately, they amounted to shuffling around some of the budget numbers. They might well have been great budgets! But highly detailed budget proposals aren't the sort of thing you can really campaign on. They're the sort of thing you stick on your web site. Problem is, there were no web sites in 1984. I guess he could have posted them on Compuserve.

Now, if Gary Hart had such trouble communicating the goals of his own potential presidency, imagine how his account of someone else's must read. James Monroe is a rambling, unfocused book that attempts to make the case that Monroe is underrated but instead makes the man and his presidency seem awfully... beefless. He comes across as kind of an empty suit, an old soldier to serve as a figurehead while his lieutenant basically ran the government — much like George Washington, only with John Quincy Adams playing the Alexander Hamilton role. Actually, it suddenly occurs to me that we can imagine the Monroe Administration as the beginning of a sort of recapitulation of what had come before:

18th century 19th century
Initiating war
War of Independence
War of 1812
Figurehead soldier
George Washington
James Monroe
Guy named Adams
John Adams
John Quincy Adams
Redefiner of democracy
Thomas Jefferson
Andrew Jackson
Less successful heir
James Madison
Martin Van Buren

I say "18th century" to cover 1789-1817 because the War of 1812 really does seem to mark the true beginning of the 19th century in America. For instance, it basically brought about industrialization, as lack of access to British mills forced New England to build its own manufacturing base. But even more tellingly, look at the main issue over which Monroe broke with his mentors Jefferson and Madison. All three were Republicans, in the 18th-century sense of the term: that is, the anti-Hamilton faction, devoted to a decentralized, agrarian society. An article of faith among Republicans was fierce opposition to a standing army, which could potentially become an instrument of tyranny, was likely to serve as a temptation to get entangled in foreign wars, and would certainly require taxes to support it. Who needs an army, they contended, when you've got the Second Amendment? Just let everyone keep a rifle in the shed, and if anyone tries to invade, a whole town's worth of instant soldiers will take the field to drive off the bad guys. But the thing about relying on the local militia is that the bad guys have to be within sight of the sheds with the rifles in them. This makes sense if you're defending a city-state, like those in the classical world of which the Founders were so fond — or like the original American colonies — but James Monroe had been a lead negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase and knew full well that the US was on course to be not a confederation of city-states but a continent-spanning megastate. And a continent-spanning megastate is incompatible with a military consisting entirely of farmers with rifles in their sheds. Thus, Hart argues, Monroe became the first "national security president," building military installations and sending Andrew Jackson to run around the countryside at the head of an army, violently clearing the way for the expansion of the nation.

And as Brad DeLong argues in the American economic history course I'm following, it was precisely this expansion and the unified, continent-wide marketplace it created that allowed America to be twice as rich by 1860 as it was in 1790 rather than 25% poorer. The depressing thing is that the metropolitan area (the Bay Area, say) actually does seem to me to be the largest truly coherent political unit, and in an ideal world such units would have a lot more autonomy than they do in the real world, with its elephantine amalgamations we call nation-states. But multiplicity inevitably leads to conflict, and the main way you win a conflict is through scale. Get big or risk getting eaten. So much as I might daydream about living in a country made up solely of the nine Bay Area counties, and much as that might be more along the lines of what the Founders had in mind than this nation of 300 million, I suppose that on balance it might be best that the following generation of leaders took the country in the direction they did, or instead of living in an autonomous Bay Area I might be living in, say, the Empire of Japan.

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