Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared at Forbes.com.
Sunday, April 28, marks the 255th anniversary of President James Monroe’s birth in 1758.
Recently, I had the pleasure of reading one of Harlow Giles Unger’s thorough biographies of key figures in the era of America’s founding. In reading “The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness,” I found myself wondering: How have we let this great patriot become a forgotten man?
Monroe’s military service alone made him a hero. When he was 18 and newly matriculated at William and Mary College, and the Second Continental Congress proclaimed the Declaration of Independence, he suspended his education to enlist in the Virginia infantry.
He arrived in New York to find that the British army had just decimated Washington's army at Harlem Heights—having killed 1,500 out of 5,000 troops. Two days later, Monroe and his fellow Virginia sharpshooters repelled a British advance, marking the first time in the War for Independence that Americans had whooped the British, forcing the redcoats to turn tail and run for their lives.
Monroe played a key role in Washington’s famous 1776 Christmas night sortie across the Delaware River. The teenaged Monroe was the co-leader, with one of Washington’s cousins, of an advance party of 50 that had crossed the river ahead of the rest of Washington’s troops, and then captured the two strategically placed cannons that defended the Hessian military camp outside of Trenton. Though seriously wounded by a musket shot, Monroe stood his ground, repelling repeated Hessian attempts to recapture the big guns, thereby saving many American lives (including, possibly, Washington's), and thereby making that indispensable, resounding victory possible.
During the War of 1812, 38 years later, Monroe was in his mid-50s. At that time, he was serving in the Madison administration as both Secretary of State and (after a disastrous performance of his predecessor had almost resulted in total defeat) as Secretary of War. Inheriting a dire military situation in 1814, Monroe virtually single-handedly altered the course of the war. He rallied the country’s disorganized military forces, developed a country-saving military strategy, and personally led American troops from horseback from dawn until dusk—which prevented the total collapse of American resistance to the British by dint of his courage, inspirational leadership, and military genius.