In this post, we return to the “Ultimate Nerd Trip,” when my friend Julie and I traveled to Virginia to hit the homes of three presidents in three days. (Click here to read about the “Bonus Nerd Trip” at the start of this presidential extravaganza).
Our first official stop was Ash Lawn-Highland, the home of our fifth president, James Monroe. Thomas Jefferson wanted the Monroes to live nearby, so he encouraged his friend to buy this property down the road from Monticello.
The Monroes’ house seems rather small compared to the more famous Monticello, which gets many more visitors. However, there is plenty to learn about James Monroe and his family, so the Ash Lawn tour is a great way to start.
Our Ash Lawn guide pointed out that Mrs. Monroe, Elizabeth, was well known for her social skills and was also a valuable ambassador for the United States. The Parisian people called her “la belle Americaine.” (However, some people criticized Mrs. Monroe during her husband’s presidency for creating a formal atmosphere too similar to European courts).
Interestingly, Mrs. Monroe helped rescue Madame de Lafayette (Lafayette of American Revolution fame) from a trip to guillotine. The Monroes first lived in France during the “Reign of Terror,” following the French Revolution.
Ash Lawn has a display of Mrs. Monroe’s pink wedding dress, which seems very tiny! Ash Lawn may be a farm, but Monroes had some super fancy French furniture, thanks to their years overseas. On the tour, you can also see gifts from Napoleon and some very interesting wallpaper. The website’s virtual tour has some pictures. (Photographs are not allowed inside).
As with many sites associated with presidents of this era, Ash Lawn-Highland is upfront on the issue of slavery. We toured the slave quarters, including the overseer’s cottage, which may be the farm’s oldest standing structure. According to Ash Lawn’s website, “Monroe himself was torn between his belief in the ‘evil of slavery’ and his fear of the consequences of immediate abolition.”
Ash Lawn is still a working farm, and we had an encounter with this bold peacock!
As I was working on this post, a Monroe-related clue actually appeared in the New York Times crossword puzzle: April 9, 2012 #8 Down (3 letters) “___ of Good Feelings.” The answer is the “Era of Good Feelings,” a term used to describe Monroe’s presidency.
Next post: The famous Monroe Oak (this tree even has its own blog!), more Monroe history and the interesting connection between the deaths of Monroe, Jefferson and John Adams.
Did James Madison recite the Star Spangled Banner to you in the last room?
No! You had Madison at Ashlawn? Was that recently? Maybe it’s something with the anniversary of the Star Spangled banner this year. We did not get any kind of presidential recitation at either Ashlawn or Montpelier. At Ashlawn, we had a guide who had this weird habit of telling us a story, then saying, “I just thought you’d like to know that.” Odd.
Yes, we had a Madison interpreter speak with us in the last room (I think it was his study). It was a couple of years ago, actually — June of 2012. And when we went, there was a different docent in each room to tell us about it. Some were better than others.