We should all be familiar (at least the Americans) with Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s 1851 painting called Washington Crossing the Delaware. But do you know the identity of the man standing behind General Washington, holding the flag? It’s Lieutenant James Monroe, who would eventually become fifth President of the United States.
Monroe was 18 years old, in 1776, when he dropped out of the College of William and Mary to join the Continental army. That December, he found himself in a boat, crossing the Delaware River from Pennsylvania to New Jersey, to surprise a group of Hessians camped in Trenton. He was shot in the Battle of Trenton and in another famous painting, Capture of the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton by John Trumbull, he can be seen lying wounded in the middle of the picture. He carried the bullet in his shoulder for the rest of his life.
He left the army as a lieutenant colonel in 1778. “He was very proud of his military career,” said the docent in the parlor of Highland, Monroe’s Virginia plantation. “He liked being called “Colonel.”
Encouraged by Thomas Jefferson, under whom he had studied law after resigning his commission, Colonel Monroe bought 1000 acres next to Jefferson’s Monticello in 1793. He named it Highland and built a home there, where his family would live, off and on, from 1799 to 1823.
Unlike Jefferson’s Monticello or friend James Madison’s Montpelier, Highland is a modest farmhouse. Like Jefferson and Madison, however, Monroe lived in perpetual debt and had to sell Highland, in 1825, to pay some of them. Not to worry, though. He and his wife Elizabeth simply moved themselves to Oak Hill, their grand, Montpelier look-alike in northern Virginia. They also had a house, Monroe Hill, on the University of Virginia campus.
Highland went through several owners before it was donated, in 1974, to the College of William and Mary. Renamed Ash Lawn by a later owner, it’s now called Ash Lawn-Highland. After the sophisticated operations of Montpelier and Monticello, Highland was downright quaint. No visitors centers, no films, no exhibits, no lines. We bought our tickets in the small gift shop, then waited with four other people on the patio for the tour.
The rooms are decorated in early Victorian and there’s not much there that belonged to the Monroes. An exception are some dresses that belonged to James’ wife, Elizabeth, which show her to be about 4’10” tall and about 80 lbs. Each room had a different docent and some were better than others.
The totality of the things to do at Highland are the house tour, seeing a couple of dependencies and a small garden on your own, and a tiny gift shop. There was a not very personable interpreter spinning wool. Kathie, a spinner who actually owned one of those big 19th century spinning wheels and even dyed her own wool, tried her best to engage the woman. Not happening. Fortunately, the only other interpreter there was much more engaging.
The last room in the house was furnished as Colonel Monroe’s study and had the ultimate Highland docent, James Monroe himself. Or, at least, an interpreter portraying James Monroe. He was very tall and soldierly, and looked remarkably like the Monroe statue in the garden. He thanked us for coming to visit him in his retirement and asked for questions. There was only one, about his presidency.
He answered the question, but he really didn’t want to talk about the presidency. He had been Secretary of State and Secretary of War for James Madison during the War of 1812 and he wanted to tell us how he felt about being part of that critical time in American history.
He gave a dramatic recitation of the Star Spangled Banner before bowing us out. Another President for whom other achievements had eclipsed the presidency.