James Monroe

When James Monroe became president, the Federalist party, that of Presidents Washington and Adams, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, which believed in a strong Federal government and a strong, almost royal, executive, and close ties to Great Britain, was dead. The Republican party (no relationship to today’s Republican party), which believed in States’ rights, a weak Federal government and executive, and close ties to the revolutionary republic of France, reigned supreme. It is worth noting, however, that Monroe continued Madison’s movement of the Republican party closer to the center of the political spectrum. The White House was significantly more formal than it was during Jefferson’s presidency, and while consolidating the United States’ control over a swatch of North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific, he expanded the power of the Presidency considerably.

Monroe was elected to a second term virtually unopposed. Were it not for one electoral vote for John Quincy Adams, he would have been the second president (after Washington) to have been elected unanimously by the electoral college. We think that the lack of organized opposition would guarantee his ability to get things done. This was not the case. In Monroe’s second term, his cabinet members and congressional leaders were more interested in pursuing their own political agenda than in working with their president. For example, according to Harlow Giles Unger, author of “The Last Founding Father,” Madison’s Treasury Secretary, William Crawford, deliberately misreported the financial state of the government (he reported a surplus, when in fact there was a $5 million deficit) in order to make John Calhoun, Secretary of War, look bad because of the heavy spending on the military.

It turns out that the lack of party politics meant that there was no cooperation to get things done, because there was no opponent against whom to organize. It was every man for himself. A decision making body comprised of people who all think the same has no one to challenge their thinking. A knife needs a sharpening blade, a whetstone, or some other hard substance upon which to grind it in order to keep it sharp. A Board or a Congress without an opposition will similarly lose its sharpness.

This ought to be a lesson for synagogues and other institutions, when recruiting Board members. They shouldn’t look for ideological uniformity, but rather for people who are willing to talk to and learn from those with very different political or religious outlooks.

Next up:  “John Quincy Adams,” by Harlow Giles Unger.

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