Presidential sites: History doesn’t change, but new information comes to light

Published 9:57 am Thursday, January 13, 2022

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By Betty Etchison West
Enterprise Record

A visitor to the property once owned by the man who was the fifth President of the United States, James Monroe, is quite interesting.
The property has been called Ash-Lawn-Highlands, Ash Lawn, and Highlands, but research seems to indicate that James Monroe called his property Highlands. Mr. Monroe may have named his property Highlands as a nod to hiss Scottish ancestry.
A visitor to Highlands in 2011 was told that the little white cottage with a two story yellow building attached at the front was Monroe’s home. The docent said that the yellow part was built after a fire destroyed part of the original building. During a call to Highlands recently, that person who visited in 2011, was told to forget everything the docent said during that visit. Forget everything that the docent said during the 2011 visit. Wow. Why? Does history change?
The answer is no. History does not change but what we know about history sometimes changes when a subject is researched more fully.
In 2012, a new staff was hired at Highlands. The new director, Sara Bon-Harper, did not feel that the story being told by the docents at Highlands held water. In other words, it was not believable because of what she knew about James Monroe.
Ms. Bon-Harper studied all documents available including Monroe’s personal papers. The more she learned, the less the story that the small cottage was Monroe’s home made sense.
She was then able to hire Rivanna Archaeological Services to explore the area. Success. The archaeologists soon uncovered what appeared to be a foundation of a bigger house.
As the excavation continued, they were also able to uncover what appeared to be the basement in which many objects were found. That information and the information that Bon-Harper gained through continued research has resulted in docents telling visitors at Highlands a different story in 2022.
Research established that the white part of the house that is now standing at Highlands was Mr. Monroe’s guest house. The big yellow two-story part was added to the white cottage by a later owner, and Mr. Monroe had absolutely nothing to do with that structure. In fact, the present staff would like to have that two-story part detached from the cottage and moved to some other part of the property where they could continue to use it as office space. That would leave Mr. Monroe’s guest house just as he built it.
The guest house today houses a number of exhibits and items that were owned by the Monroes; among those are a bust of Napoleon that was given to Mr. Monroe by the Emperor Napoleon himself and pieces of the Monroe presidential china.
In addition to the guest house, a visitor to Highlands will also be able to see restored slave quarters and dependencies such as the overseer’s office. The grounds and the trails can also be explored. James Monroe bought the 1,000-acre property in the early 1793 for 1,000 pounds. He hoped that he would make money by raising tobacco and wheat on his land.
Also, Monroe’s friend, Thomas Jefferson, urged him to buy the property. According to an article which was printed in the “New York Times” in April of 2016: “Monroe was lured to the area by Jefferson, his mentor ‘to create a society to our taste’ in an 1786 letter.”
Highlands was only about two miles from Jefferson’s Monticello. Monroe could see Monticello from his house, but Monticello is not visible now from Highlands because of the dense growth of trees. The Highlands Plantation was never financial success, but James Monroe enjoyed living there.
It is now believed as the result of information uncovered by the archaeological digs and by information gained from documents including Monroe’s papers that the house that Monroe had built was a rather large one-story house which he called his ‘cabin-castle.” It was not a mansion like Washington’s Mount Vernon, Jefferson’s Monticello, or Madison’s Montpelier, but a comfortable house that was home to the Monroe family for about 20 years.
Monroe bought the property in 1793 and owned it until just after he left the presidency in 1825. Fire destroyed Mr. Monroe’s “cabin-castle” after he sold the property. The staff at Highlands will continue their research, and, at some point, may have enough information to render a sketch of the “cabin-castle.”
According to the “New York Times” article, “Monroe held more elected offices than any other president and went to France to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase. He declared the Western Hemisphere off limit to European incursions. And he entered the presidency as a Revolutionary War hero carrying a bullet in his shoulder from the Battle of Trenton.”
Bon-Harper is quoted in the same article as saying, “Go into a library and there are more biographies of Marilyn Monroe than James Monroe.” That may change as Bon-Harper and her staff gain and disseminate information about the fifth President of the United States.
James Monroe and his wife, Elizabeth, moved to the Oak Hill Plantation in Virginia after his second term as President. Their retirement years were cut short by Elizabeth’s death in 1830.
About a year later, the former president, James Monroe, moved to New York to live with his daughter. He died there on July 4, 1831 and was buried in the New York City Marble Cemetery. Twenty-seven years later his body was reinterred in the President’s Circle at the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Va. Mr. Monroe’s wife’s body was also later reinterred beside her husband in Richmond.
An interesting fact—Mr. Monroe was the third president to die on July 4, the day that the United States of America celebrates its Independence. The other two former presidents were Thomas Jefferson and John Adams who both died on the same day, July 4, 1826.
The Oak Hill House, where the Monroes lived after he left the presidency, is still standing, but it is privately owned and is not open to visitors. The Highland Guest House is open most of the year. To find out about the exact hours that it is open to the public, call 434-293-8000. The Highland property is owned and administered by the College of William and Mary.
There is another Monroe site open to the public. It is the former law office of Mr. Monroe, which is in Fredericksburg, Va. That office is now a museum which has a number of Monroe artifacts on display.
When visiting Fredericksburg, people interested in presidential history should certainly visit the Monroe Law Office/Museum.