Friday, December 2, 2016
December 2, 2016: James MonroeStudying: Remembering Monroe
[On December 4th, 2016, James Monroe was elected the fifth president of the United States. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five histories and contexts linked to Monroe’s life and presidency.]
On whether and how to better remember a lesser-known president.
I’ve written before about the problem with our over-emphasis on presidents in our collective memories (which is the reason why I only included a couple presidents in my roster of Memory Day nominees), and would stand by that perspective. The problem is particularly acute with those Rushmore presidents, who often become the central (if not the sole) way in which we remember eras and histories that are far more multi-layered and complex than any individual could capture. But I believe even lesser-known presidents consistently receive far too much space in our collective memories, a trend that might make for successful performances on standardized tests or quiz shows (I myself memorized every president and vice president in chronological order for my high school quiz team, a personal history toward which I feel a precise mixture of pride and shame) but that can only tell us so much about our national histories and stories (if it does not indeed warp our understanding more than it positively shapes it). So you could argue that we shouldn’t remember James Monroe much better than we already do, and I’d be inclined to agree.
Part of the problem with those presidential memories, though, isn’t about the presidents themselves; it’s the emphasis on things like the dates of their terms or their number in the sequence, those standardized-test kinds of facts that have precious little to offer our historical understanding. So what would it mean if we remembered a president like James Monroe in our collective memories through a handful of key, complex historical facts like those about which I’ve written this week? If we wrote those facts in shorthand on the elementary school portraits, even? Monroe the plantation owner, Monroe the Revolutionary War officer, Monroe the ambassador to France, Monroe and African colonization, Monroe and Latin American revolutions, and so on. Those facts and phrases themselves only scratch the surface of the multi-layered histories to which they gesture, but they’re certainly starting points for further investigation, analysis, and conversation in a much more direct and meaningful way than are dates of terms or the like. Presidents and presidencies themselves, after all, are a kind of historical shorthand for those underlying and more broadly significant issues, and this form of collective memory would help use our presidents in precisely that way.
At the same time that we could better remember those broader histories through a president like Monroe, however, I also believe we could do a better job thinking about the individual human story and identity that he (like all of us) featured. By the time he was 20 years old, Monroe had both inherited a slave plantation after his father’s death and volunteered to fight in the Revolutionary War—and while those dual details nicely encapsulate the more and less inspiring sides to both the man and the era, they’re also two hugely complex and formative moments in the life of someone not yet two decades old. By the time of his death at age 73, on July 4th, 1831 (making him the third Founding Father and president to die on July 4th!), Monroe had been forced by debts to sell his plantations, was a widower who had moved to New York City to live with daughter and her family, and continued to be active in support of the American Colonization Society, to name three equally complex biographical details. Psychoanalyzing historical figures is always a fraught proposition, but we don’t have to put Monroe on the couch to consider what such details could help us understand about the man and the many histories to which he connects. One more way to better remember our fifth president.
November Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Monroe histories or contexts you’d highlight?