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Thursday, April 28, 2016

James Monroe Portraits

President James Monroe official White House portrait, 1819, Samuel F. B. Morse.
What? You were hoping for a painting of Marilyn Monroe?
When you probe the Internet in search of our fifth President of the United States, you run into as much regarding Marilyn Monroe as you do James Monroe. I suppose it would be no contest as to which has become the more famous, the president famous for the Monroe Doctrine or the movie star famous for having sung Happy Birthday to another president--John F. Kennedy. Speaking of birthdays, today, April 28, 2016, would have been James Monroe's 258th birthday...had he lived this long. He didn't. He died on July 4th, 1831, at the ripe old age (for his time) of seventy-three. He was the last of the so-called "Founding Fathers."

James Monroe with Cabinet, Clyde Deland
James Monroe, 1816, John Vanderlyn,
National Portrait Gallery
It's hard to imagine in this age of dirty, rotten, stinking political diatribes, but James Monroe was elected president with eighty percent of the electoral vote and reelected, four years later, with nearly one-hundred percent. Only one elector voted against him (in favor of John Quincy Adams). Tradition has it he wished to maintain George Wash-ington's record as the only president ever chosen unanimously by that body. Actually, there was more to it than that, political chicanery, as usual, so complex I won't bore you with the details. Regardless, historians aren't kidding when they refer to this period in American history as the "Era of Good Feeling." There was only one vi-able political party, the Democratic Re-publicans, the Federalist party having fractured into nothingness when it be-came known they were considering disunion. This was some forty years before the Civil War, which also brought down the Whig party in the 1850s. Isn't it sad that we're still struggling with racial equality 150 years after that war ended?

Ash Lawn is interesting in that, having been added to several times over the years, it has three main entrances. Oak Hill is said to have been designed by Thomas Jefferson.
As much as we today tend to worship and adore our founding fathers, particularly the first five presidents among them, we must also reconcile ourselves to the fact that virtually all of them before the Civil War owned slaves. James Monroe became a slave owner upon the death of his father. Young James was only sixteen at the time. At various times he owned at least two plantations, which he operated in absentia using between thirty and fifty slaves. Throughout his entire life, Monroe’s relationship with slavery revealed a pattern of paternalistic racism. While he never advocated for their equal rights, Monroe sought a gradual end to slavery and promoted the re-settling of freed slaves either in the Caribbean or in Africa. He also allow certain slaves a degree of self-determination in work assignments, sought medical treatment for slaves who were ill, and demanded that his slaves have access to the basics of food, clothing, and shelter. Monroe sold his small inherited Virginia plantation (Highland) in 1783 to enter law and politics. It was only later that he fulfilled his youthful dream of becoming the owner of a large plantation while wielding great political power. Yet his plantations were never profitable, largely because he owned much more land and slaves than he could adequately manage while at the same time involved in his practice of law. He was rarely on-site to oversee the operations. Overseers treated the slaves harshly to force production. Nevertheless, the plantations rarely broke even. Moreover, Monroe incurred debts as the result of his lavish lifestyle and was often forced to sell property (and slaves) to pay them off.

Artists who painted our last "Founding Father."
Monroe was first elected to the Virginia legislature in 1782. A year later he was elected to Congress, serving in Annapolis until Congress left for Trenton in 1784. By that time, the government was meeting in the temporary capital of New York City, Monroe had retired from politics. However, In Virginia, the struggle over the ratification of the proposed Constitution involved more than a simple clash between federalists and anti-federalists. Virginians held a broad range of opinions as to the shape of the proposed new national government. George Washington and James Madison were leading supporters while Patrick Henry and George Mason were leading opponents. Those in the middle ideologically became the central figures. Led by Monroe and Edmund Pendleton, these "federalists who are for amendments," criticized the absence of a bill of rights while also worrying about the taxation powers of a central government. Virginia ratified the Constitution in June 1788, largely because Monroe, Pendleton, and others set aside their reservations and vowed to press for changes after the new government had been established. Virginia narrowly ratified the Constitution. Monroe ran for a House seat in the First Congress but was defeated by James Madison. In 1790 he was elected by the state legislature as United States Senator. He soon joined the "Democratic-Republican" faction led by Jefferson and Madison. By 1791 Monroe was the party leader in the Senate.

Artist John Trumbull’s Capture of the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton
shows a wounded James Monroe.
Besides serving his country in various political roles including President, James Monroe, hardly out of his teens, was also a Revolutionary War hero. In early 1776, about a year and a half after his enrollment at the College of William and Mary, Monroe dropped out to joined the Continental Army where his background as a college student and the son of a well-known planter enabled him to obtain an officer's commission. He never returned to earn his degree. In June 1775, after the battles of Lexington and Concord, Monroe, and some other William and Mary students joined twenty-four older men in raiding the arsenal at the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg. They confiscated some 200 muskets and 300 swords to arm the Williamsburg militia. Monroe is regarded as the last U.S. President to see combat as a Revolutionary War officer of the Continental Army. Washington's army, including Monroe's regiment, was chased from Long Island in the fall of 1776. They moved down the length of New Jersey shore, crossing the Delaware River in December. Washington decided that only a bold step could save the Army and the revolutionary cause from oblivion. He ordered his force, which had by then shrunk to about ten percent of its original strength to under three-thousand,to cross the Delaware River on Christmas Eve, 1776, in the Battle of Trenton. Monroe and his regiment crossed over and marched through a blinding snow storm north and east towards Trenton. Along the way, they were spotted by a young patriot doctor, John Riker, whose dogs had been awakened in the pre-dawn morning. Riker volunteered to lend his services to their efforts. Avoiding detection, the Americans approached Trenton from north and south. As the Hessians awoke Christmas morning, they tried to get several artillery pieces into action in order to pour grapeshot into the Americans ranks. Lieutenant Monroe and General Washington's cousin, Captain William Washington, led their men as they rushed to seize the guns before they could fire. Both were severely wounded. Captain Washington lost the use of both hands, while Monroe had to be carried from the field bleeding badly from a shoulder wound, which had severed an artery. It would be the young volunteer doctor, John Riker, who clamped the artery, saving the life of a man who would go on to achieve so much as a Virginian and as a future President. Monroe was sent home to nurse his injuries. The Battle of Trenton would be Monroe's only battle as he would spend the next three months recuperating from his wound. In John Trumbull's painting, Capture of the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton (above), Monroe can be seen lying wounded at left center of the painting. In the famous painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware (below), Monroe is depicted holding the American flag.

Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze.
On January 16, 1786, the future President married a 17-year-old New York beauty named Elizabeth Kortright. She first caught his eye in 1785, while he was in New York serving as a member of the Continental Congress. The six-foot-tall, twenty-six-year-old Monroe, a practicing lawyer, and famous war hero, married for love, not money. Elizabeth's father, once a wealthy privateer, had lost most of his fortune during the Revolutionary War. After a brief honeymoon the newlyweds returned to New York City to live with her father, until the Continental Congress adjourned.

As First Lady, Elizabeth Monroe, had some big slippers to fill,
following in the footsteps of the legendary Dolley Madison.
The new President, George Washington, appointed Monroe Minister to France in 1794. As ambassador, Monroe secured the release of Thomas Paine in revolutionary France after his arrest for opposition to the execution of Louis XVI. The government insisted that Paine be deported to the United States. Following that, Monroe arranged to free all the Americans held in French prisons. He also gained the freedom of Adrienne de La Fayette and issued her and her family American passports (they had already been granted citizenship for contributions during the Revolution.) A strong friend of the French Revolution, Monroe tried to assure France that Washington's policy of strict neutrality did not favor Britain. But American policy had come to favor Britain. Monroe was stunned by the United States' signing of the Jay Treaty in London. With France and Britain at war, the Jay Treaty alarmed and angered the French. Consequently, Washington had differences with Monroe and fired him claiming "inefficiency, disruptive maneuvers, and failure to safeguard the interests of his country."

Two paintings, one portrait.
When Monroe returned to the U.S. in 1796, he brought his family back to his Oak Hill plantation in Virginia. For the next 15 years, Monroe was held various political offices including President James Madison's offer to serve as Secretary of State. Six years later, Monroe himself was elected president from 1817-1825. During their 1st year in Washington, the Monroes lived in temporary lodgings until the White House, which had been destroyed by the British during the War of 1812, could be repaired. As first lady, Elizabeth deferred to her husband's wishes to minimize White House social events. He and Elizabeth both deplored the opulent displays of the previous first lady, Dolley Madison. They preferring more private, stately affairs modeled after European society. White House social life also declined along with Elizabeth's declining health. Washington society mistook the lack of White House social events for snobbery. Shortly after office, President Monroe embarked on a "Goodwill Tour" of the United States. Paying expenses out of his own pocket, the new President was greeted by cheering crowds, celebratory picnics, dinners, and receptions in every city he visited. Monroe is most noted for his proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, which stated that the United States would not tolerate further European intervention in the Americas. Incidentally, Monroe's purchase of Florida from Spain in 1819 for five-million dollars (about $92-million in today's cash) set the stage for Walt Disney's lakeside Kingdom, which today is worth somewhat more than that.

The USS James Monroe, still enforcing
the Monroe Doctrine yet today.


1 comment:

  1. Your post concerning James Monroe and his many homes is serendipitous, particularly on the date of 4/28/16, as significant architectural information regarding Highland (Ash Lawn) was made public via a mass media entity, The Washington Post. The small home described as the homestead of the Monroe family had carbon dating on its wood construction, indicating erection likely 1818. Portions of a sizable foundation of 74' x 30' has been excavated, which indicates a much larger residential footprint at that location. The New York Times has also published a story, and the Facebook page "Highland" has quite a bit about it. Since you posted your info on Monroe shortly after midnight on 4/28/16, beating out the WAPO's story, I can only assume you have prescient insights!