In which the author reminisces on previous presidential house visits. This post chronicles my fourth presidential house visit in 2008.
James Monroe is a difficult man to dislike.
The last of the presidents who was also a Founding Father, his presidency coincided with a time of relative peace in the United States. After the breakdown of the Federalist Party, Monroe ran unopposed in 1816. The only reason his election was not unanimous was because one elector abstained in order to ensure that only George Washington had that honor. His time in office was dubbed “The Era of Good Feelings.” Even a minor financial crisis couldn’t put Monroe out of office. He is the only president to have been re-elected after presiding over a panic. The only memorable controversy of his tenure, The Monroe Doctrine, was actually written by his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams (who could have used some of his boss’s charm).
Monroe was perhaps too likable. His genial popularity now seems like plain old mediocrity. I prefer to think of it as competency, a trait that seems to have all but disappeared from modern government. Still, James Monroe is like the safe boyfriend the protagonist of a romantic comedy leaves at the last moment for the exciting, romantic male lead (for our purposes, Andrew Jackson).
For this reason, I am pre-disposed to like James Monroe even more. I am the kind of person who thinks Sleepless in Seattle would have been improved if Meg Ryan had forgotten about Tom Hanks and stuck with Bill Pullman (this may have something to do with my love of Bill Pullman, but I digress). Sure, James Monroe’s presidency wasn’t that exciting, but excitement is often overrated. The man led a politically unified America the likes of which was never seen again. He was an amazing diplomat and an excellent administrator.
So I was a little disappointed by my visit to Ash Lawn-Highland, his country estate that is only a few miles outside of Charlottesville, VA. After the beautiful trainwreck of Monticello, Ash Lawn-Highland is a bit of a letdown. It looks like a country manor house from a mid-90s BBC period drama. Normally, this would thrill me, but I had hoped to learn more about what made Monroe tick. I wanted insight into the man.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to be had. The entire house oozed with an air of pleasant domesticity. It was easy to imagine a family living there comfortably. The house is full of elegant decorations and portraits of friends Monroe had made while in public service. They seem for the most part like polite, impersonal gifts from important people that were put on display so as not to offend the gift givers, and also to remind the viewer that Monroe knew some exceptional people.
However, one of these friendly reminders rises above the rest and makes for a great story, or at least a great Tour Guide Story. There is a bust of Napoleon in the drawing room that is little too large for the room. The face is modeled less on the general himself and more on classical Roman sculpture. It is also a physical representation of one of those surprising connections that crop up quite a bit when you study history.
James Monroe was serving as Minister to France in Paris when the French Revolution broke out. He and his wife were well-regarded in French society, even when the monarchy fell. After Napoleon’s rise to power, the Monroe’s sent their eldest daughter Eliza to a prestigious girl’s school in France that was founded by a down-on-her-luck aristocrat. Another on of her pupils was Hortense de Beauharnais, daughter of Empress Josephine and step-daughter to Napoleon himself. Eliza Monroe and Hortense became friends at school and maintained their friendship throughout their lives, even though their paths diverged quite dramatically.
While Eliza Monroe returned to America, got married, and started a family, Hortense was contracted in a political marriage to Napoleon’s brother/her step-uncle Louis who was the King of Holland. The marriage was apparently quite miserable; according to Wikipedia, “she was much liked by the public, which annoyed her husband.” Despite this documented dislike, the couple managed to have three sons, one of whom became Napoleon III.
Eliza Monroe had an inconsequential life in comparison to her friend, but given the choice, I would choose her life over Hortense’s. Excitement and misery often go hand in hand, and Hortense was often depressed. She may have been a queen, but she felt like a prisoner. Similarly, reading about Napoleon and his exploits is a lot more interesting than reading about James Monroe, but Monroe was the man you would want to have as your leader. Political upheaval and war make for riveting history books, but is less pleasant to actually live through.
So maybe I’m being too hard on James Monroe. Sometimes good is for the best.