Editor’s note: This online-only article accompanies Harry Kollatz Jr.’s Flashback column in our January issue, looking at the start of James Monroe’s presidency 200 years ago.
When I first went to the library to research this piece about James Monroe, who became president 200 years ago this March, I found two biographies on the shelf — fewer than for lesser-known executives such as Martin Van Buren or James Knox Polk. The perplexed librarian went downstairs to fetch older books. She observed, “He must’ve fallen out of favor.”
That might be changing.
In the spring of 2016, some big news came out of the Monroe estate near Charlottesville, Highland (previously known as Ash Lawn-Highland). Monroe’s alma mater, the College of William and Mary, owns the modest two-room cottage in which somehow the Monroes were supposed to have lived. Recent archaeology yielded quite a different story.
As Charlottesville-based journalist Hawes Spencer wrote for the New York Times, excavation revealed “a fieldstone foundation for a much larger house with a footprint of about 74 by 30 feet. Tours have been revised to reflect the discovery that the humble cottage was, in fact, merely a guesthouse — and Monroe’s actual home, a mansion, had probably burned down after he sold the property.”
Monroe somewhat facetiously referred to his house as a “cabin-castle,” and that description caused historians to think that the little place was just that. That one was built about 20 years after the main Monroe house that no longer stands. Monroe kept ownership of Highland until he moved to Oak Hill in 1826. The article quotes William Hosley, a Connecticut-based house museum consultant, calling the findings an “occupational hazard” of preserving historic sites. “They’re all works in progress. You’ve got to play the cards you’ve got.” As goes archaeology, so goes the founding of nations.
Meanwhile, at the University of Mary Washington, the ongoing Papers of James Monroe project is steadily working toward publishing a 10-volume collection of selected letters and papers by Monroe. Five have already hit the shelves; they include pieces written from Valley Forge during the winter of 1777 and forward through his 1811 appointment as secretary of state. Volume Six, coming out in 2017, comprises materials from 1811 to 1813, with correspondence from the War of 1812 and Monroe’s cabinet positions as secretary of state and secretary of war. You can delve into this endeavor here.
When his Revolutionary War service ended, Monroe “assumed more public posts than any American in history: state legislator, U.S. congressman, U.S. senator, ambassador to France and Britain, minister to Spain, four-term governor of Virginia, U.S. secretary of state, U.S. secretary of war, and, finally, America’s fifth president, for two successive terms,” writes Harlow Giles Unger in “The Last Founding Father” (2009).
James Monroe and his wife, Elizabeth Kortright Monroe. James' portrait was completed around 1820 by Samuel F.B. Morse, renowned for his development of the telegraph and co-inventor of its language, Morse Code. The painting is in the White House collection today and hangs in the Blue Room (Wikimedia Commons). Elizabeth's portrait is by Eben F. Comens after John Vanderlyn, 1816 or 1820. (Wikipedia)
A Little-known Love Story
Unger describes the untrendy Monroe as “dressed in outmoded knee breeches and buckled shoes, protecting the fragile structure of republican government from disunion.” In contrast to Monroe’s unassuming appearance, his wife, Elizabeth Kortwright Monroe, was admired for her elegance and style.
Unger calls the courtship of James and “stunningly beautiful” Elizabeth, “one of the great — yet little-known — love stories in early American history. All but unknown to most Americans, Elizabeth Monroe was America’s most beautiful and most courageous first lady.”
She twice crossed the Atlantic on sailing ships with her children to join Monroe on his ambassadorial duties. During the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution, Unger writes, “she braved Paris mobs by herself to free [the Marquis] de Lafayette’s wife from prison and the guillotine. A New York sophisticate with exquisite tastes, Elizabeth Monroe filled the White House with priceless French and American furnishings and set standards of elegance that transformed it into the glittering showplace it remains today. The wedding of the younger Monroe daughter was the first ever held in the White House.” When Louisa Adams, John Quincy’s wife, reflected on Elizabeth Monroe, she compared her “dress and demeanor to those of a goddess.” Yet, her taste for finer things and her ability to seem younger than her years provoked gossip and smears borne from envy disguised as republican ire.
Though only in her 40s when the Monroes moved to Washington, Elizabeth grew afflicted by severe rheumatoid arthritis. She also never recovered emotionally from the loss of their second child, James Spence, who lived only from 1799 to 1801. Yet to stand at her husband’s side and represent them at formal occasions, Unger writes, “She often ignored the pain and stood poised, stately and as beautiful as ever in her magnificent gowns.” She didn’t like large crowds but exuded charm when at the center of a small circle of friends or visitors. In that respect, she was unlike her social butterfly friend Dolley Madison. If you’d like to go down a James and Elizabeth rabbit hole, via C-SPAN, and you should, click here.
When Elizabeth felt too indisposed to receive guests, her place was taken by her first-born daughter, Eliza Monroe Hay. Had Elizabeth dined with ambassadors at one particular occasion, a brawl might’ve been avoided.
This came during an official dinner at the White House. Writes biographer William P. Cresson, “According to a report of a New York representative, dinner parties at the Monroes’, which Mrs. Monroe seldom attended and to which, as a consequence, the wives of guests were rarely invited, were exceptionally dull.” At one such dinner, the guests were British minister Sir Charles Vaughan who was seated opposite his French counterpart, Count de Sérurier. When Vaughan made a remark, he noticed that the Frenchman bit his thumb, and this happened not just once, but a few times, until the gesture annoyed Vaughan enough for him to ask, “Do you bite your thumb at me, sir?” It’s a line right out of Shakespeare, and a gesture intended to start a fight.
The count replied, “I guess I do.”
The ministers stood from the table, and when Monroe went to follow them, he found the two in the next room with their swords crossed. The president drew his sword and swatted theirs apart. The demonstration of executive privilege defused the immediate tension. Monroe instructed servants to show the gentlemen out and called for their carriages. “The dinner was resumed,” Cresson describes, “and both miscreants sent their apologies the following morning.”
Money Troubles, Failing Health
Monroe’s second term began with such unanimity that no one ran against him. But this sense of harmonious relations didn’t last long. The speaker of the House – Hanover County native Henry Clay — wrote to Secretary of State John Quincy Adams that Monroe had “not the slightest influence in Congress. His career was considered as closed. There was nothing further to be expected of him or from him.” As author and former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart observes, “personal rivalries and sectional quarrels erupted to replace the deep philosophical divisions produced by the founding era.” An economic bust, replete with bank closures, defaults and evaporating property values, led to federal budget cutting.
Monroe’s personal money problems started even before he became president. A lifetime of public service financially ruined him. He was forced to sell his Highland plantation before leaving the presidency. In his later years, Monroe contended with growing infirmities, as did his wife. He once fell from his horse and was left on the ground 20 minutes before a neighbor found him. Elizabeth suffered a seizure and collapsed into a fireplace.
He declined another term as governor but accepted a delegate seat to the 1829 Virginia state constitutional convention – an opportunity to connect again with James Madison and his boyhood friend and Valley Forge bunkmate, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. He accepted chairmanship, but his illness forced him home to the Oak Hill estate in Loudoun County. He felt well enough by spring to resume horse riding and writing his autobiography, but the summer heat caused the collapse both of his son-in-law George Hay and Elizabeth. She died Sept. 23, 1830. Her passing drove Monroe into grief-stricken hysterics. He couldn’t sustain Oak Hill in his state of health and financial condition and thus moved in with his youngest daughter and son-in-law in New York City. There, he began a severe decline. The memoir went uncompleted.
Return to Virginia
Upon his death in New York City on July 4, 1831, his body was interred in that city's Marble (Second Street) Cemetery. In 1858, the 100th anniversary of his birth, the Commonwealth of Virginia decided that the remains should return home. The state legislature appropriated funds for this purpose. The directors of the barely decade-old Hollywood Cemetery were enthusiastic about receiving their first celebrity, even if pre-buried.
In a somewhat gruesome ritual of honor that Victorian-Americans seemed fond of, the exhumed body of President Monroe lay in state at the Church of the Annunciation on West 14th Street. The inner lead coffin was slid inside a new mahogany casket. He remains the only president to be laid out for public view long after his demise. Some 10,000 people shuffled past the pall and flag-draped coffin before transportation aboard the steamboat Jamestown.
The funereal party, including the 7th Regiment of the New York National Guard, arrived in Richmond on July 5. A ceremony of parades and pomp wended from Rocketts Landing past great crowds and at the gravesite, gun salutes and much speechifying including by Gov. Henry A. Wise.
The James Monroe Memorial Foundation each year holds a gravesite celebration of his life, and the next is scheduled for Friday, April 28, at 11 a.m. at Hollywood Cemetery. On April 22, 2017, Monroe's 259th birthday will be honored at 10 a.m. at his birthplace, 4460 James Monroe Highway, Colonial Beach.