5. James Monroe

Birthplace and Monroe Museum (7/20/08)

On April 28, 1758, not far from the modern golf-cart community of Colonial Beach, Elizabeth Monroe squeezed out the kid who would one day become the ambitious, status-obsessed (and pretty good) fifth president of these United States. In honor of that blessed event, the fine leaders of our republic have seen fit, in all their wisdom, to install a road sign and small parking lot.

Farm living was relatively modest for the Monroes, who had slaves but weren't exactly loaded. I'd be very intrigued to know how his childhood experience stacked up against, say, the Washington and Jefferson types, because after he left the farm at 16 for William & Mary, Monroe always seemed to have SOMETHING to prove, not unlike Brenda Walsh in "Beverly Hills: 90210." Some of those resentments and motivations, which pushed him all the way to the top, would have formed in his early years, right?

I'm asking because I didn't find out at the James Monroe birthplace. There's a small visitor center (dedicated in 2008!) that looked very impressive when I put my face up on the glass door. It was closed, on a Saturday, during the one time of year tourists are most likely to be through the Northern Neck. There's a little garden that looks like it was planted and then completely ignored every day since. There's also an obelisk, and a plaque buried in a bunch of roped-off weeds that may or may not be covering the site of the long-gone Monroe home (there weren't any signs, or if there were, they were in the visitor center).

The pleasant way to put it: There's a lot of growth potential in the James Monroe birthplace industry, if only they can work out some of the management kinks. I envision the glorious, interactive day when visitors get to run through the woods, do chores (or have the slaves do them) and play fun colonial games like Don't Die of Smallpox, all while secretly hoping that George Washington's younger sister will go to the prom with you, even though you'd have to wear a shabby hand-me-down tux and pick her up in your dad's station wagon, which backfires constantly and all the kids are sure to see.

There's demand for this stuff -- I was pleasantly surprised to NOT be the only person at the site, as a nice married couple pulled up five minutes into my visit and started chatting about all the other presidential sites they had seen. This proves that having presidential site visits as a hobby is not a disqualification for eventual marriage. What a relief.

Anyhow, you're on notice, Monrovians. I'll be back in ten years, and it's technically possible that I could have a woman with me. If the animatronics aren't ready to go by then, a stern letter will be written. Consider yourself warned.

I wrapped up my day by cruising over to Fredericksburg to see the James Monroe museum, which is housed in his former law offices. Or so I thought! Turns out that carbon dating on the bricks indicates the building is too young for Monroe to have used it. But he did own some property there, and his office was somewhere on that immediate block. It might actually be in the wine bar next door. Who knows? Not the people at the James Monroe museum, that's who. But they were still cool.

Anyhow, for $5, you can see a few rooms of Monroe stuff and learn a little bit about the guy. I already knew everything in the museum, so it was probably not the best personal investment. One very cool item is on display, though: the desk Monroe used while president. That means the Monroe Doctrine was likely formulated on that very piece of furniture. It also had a secret compartment where Monroe kept letters to Jefferson and Madison, as well as the lyrics to all the power ballads he was working on later in life.

I never think to save my furniture, and so the desk where I formulated my plan to obsessively visit presidential sites is now in several pieces in a landfill somewhere. Just as well, because I don't think anything purchased at Office Max can ever become an artifact. But I guess that's ultimately up to the Smithsonian. I don't envy the historian who has to restore anything bought at Ikea, especially if the historical figure who owned it ever had to move and just asked his friends to help out. Sigh.

Ash-Lawn Highland (August 25, 2007)

Ten months after dropping out of school, most of us would be sitting in a basement drinking something fermented. 18-year-old James Monroe was busy getting shot by a foreigner in New Jersey. That's the kind of guy he was -- driven, civic-minded and with a great big chip on his shoulder. Also, they didn't have cable television or swank finished basements back then. That probably helped.

When you think of the Founding Fathers, Monroe gets lost in the shuffle, and that would have pissed him off. Born in 1758 to a fairly well-off Virginia planter, Monroe was orphaned as a teenager, but his uncle arranged to get him into William and Mary at age 16 (which at the time was the AAA team for rich white people who were going to run the colony). But when the Revolution came, he ditched school and joined the Third Virigina serving under George Washington.

From that point on he was a professional friend to the stars -- he served under Washington at the Battle of Trenton (where he was shot -- he carried the bullet for the rest of his life), and then served at Valley Forge in 1777, where he rubbed elbows with Lafayette, Alexander Hamilton and others. When he was sent to Virginia to aid in recruitment, he ended up studying law under Governor Thomas Jefferson and buddied up with James Madison. And his life was almost non-stop public service: House of Delegates, Confederation Congress, U.S. Senate, envoy to France, governor of Virgina. He negotiated the Louisiana Purchase for Jefferson, served as Secretary of State (and War, briefly) for Madison, and then got the nod as our Fifth President, ushering in what people called the "Era of Good Feelings" as he cleaned up the slop from the War of 1812 and asserted the supremacy of the United States in the Western Hemisphere (The Monore Doctrine). He goes down as one of the most accomplished diplomats in American history.

But with all that he seemed to have a bit of an inferiority complex; he wasn't top-tier Virginia society and it bugged him. He ran with the big dogs, but he was always chafing somebody the wrong way. He had long fallouts with Madison and Jefferson, he seemed downright hostile to a lot of the Federalists (Hamilton in particular), and almost every job he had, he seemed to have a colleague who he thought was a moron.

In other words, James Monroe is my kind of guy.

You can get a pretty good sense of the man at Ash Lawn-Highland. You could call it a poor man's Monticello, but Monticello was actually a poor man's Monticello -- Jefferson and Monroe both died more or less broke. The house itself is relatively tiny, but decked out -- years of living the high life in Europe gave the Monroes some fairly rich tastes, plus they really wanted to wow visitors. And yet they never had an extra bedroom put on the house -- if you wanted to stay the night, you were sleeping in a room with James.

Monroe was only there for about 4 years of his life -- he bounced around to several different properties, plus work took him to Washington, Richmond, Paris, London and elsewhere for years at a time -- and he bought the plantation at the goading of Jefferson, who wanted to have his buddies nearby (Monticello is about 1.5 miles away), for book clubs, and late night slumber parties and whatnot. Monroe considered himself a farmer but he wasn't a very good one; he blamed his lack of personal supervision. He actually ended up selling the plantation later in life, but now it's in the hands of William & Mary. Why does that matter to you, the visitor? Because if you visit in the summer there's a good chance your tour guide won't be the usual (i.e. a very old person who may have actually known the president in question) but instead a hot co-ed doing a summer internship. History, like most subjects, is much more interesting when it's coming from cute 20-year-olds.

The grounds aren't huge (Monticello has more to walk through), and oddly enough most of the turf you can check out as been set up for weddings. Apparently people get married and have receptions all the time at Ash Lawn-Highland. I have nothing snarky to say about that.

  • In the famous "Washington Crossing the Delaware" painting, Monroe is the guy holding the flag, even though he had crossed hours before Washington with a scouting party, and Betsy Ross hadn't yet finished the flag at the time of the crossing. All this conclusively proves that Monroe had a time machine.
  • Our second Freemason president.
  • Died on July 4, 1831, the third president (along with Adams and Jefferson) to die on Independence Day. He died in New York, but his body was moved in 1858 to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. Or so the Freemasons would have us believe.
  • His wife Elizabeth had epilepsy, weighed 80 pounds and had a reputation of being aloof. In their old age she and Monroe burned their letters to each other, to hide the fact that she was one of the alien overlords that control the Freemasons.
  • Named his home "Highland" in honor of his Scottish roots, after rejecting the names "Sex With Sheep Manor" and "Drunk by Noon Grove."
  • The only man ever to have two cabinet posts at the same time (Secretary of State and War, 1814). During this period, he insisted on the title "Secretary of Getting S**t Done."
  • One New Hampshire member of the 1820 Electoral College voted for John Quincy Adams to prevent a unanimous re-election for Monroe, because he felt only Washington deserved the honor of a unanimous election. This is why the Monroe Doctrine applies to every part of the Western Hemisphere except New Hampshire. If anyone wants to invade, be our guest.
  • Our most painted president. The most famous portrait of Monroe was by Samuel Morse, the inventor of Morse Code. Which is why he looks so dashing. Get it? DASH-ing! Oh, I kill me.
  • Successfully negotiated the Louisiana Purchase after agreeing to pay for rustproofing.
  • As secretary of State, he personally took troops to scout the British advance on Washington in the War of 1812. Attempts to build a "fake Washington" five miles due east, and then blow it up when the British attacked, were unsuccessful.
  • Had a longstanding feud with Alexander Hamilton, who accused Monroe of leaking the news of Hamilton's extra-marital affair. Hamilton challenged Monroe to a duel, but was convinced to back out by ... Aaron Burr.

Here's an outbuilding at Ash Lawn. Exciting stuff, huh?

One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2013, Chris White