With only a few days available for a get-away, Mrs. Present and I made a trip to Charlottesville, VA. Forced into a late booking, we choose the Sleep Inn and Suites Monticello. Our room was well priced, clean, and provided the requisite comfort for a one-night stay. The staff was friendly, and the complimentary continental breakfast was satisfying. Not having time to research local eateries before we arrived, we welcomed the recommendations offered by the Front Desk staff. Their recommendations for lunch and dinner proved exceptional.
We planned to visit three sites. James Monroe’s Highland, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and James Madison’s Montpelier. Because of the volume of information associated with each site, I will break the trip into three parts. [Day 1] Part 1: Monroe’s Highland and lunch. Part 2: Jefferson’s Monticello and dinner. [Day 2] Part 3: Madison’s Montpelier and lunch.
Part 1: James Monroe’s Highland
This trip made me aware of how little I know about James Monroe. Oh, I certainly know the more prominent stuff. He was a hero was the Revolution, served his nation as a diplomat, as Secretary of State under James Madison, and then as the nation’s fifth president. He was part of the Virginia dynasty. I know that the foreign policy doctrine that carries his name was largely the work of John Quincy Adams, Monroe’s Secretary of State. I know that Monroe was a slaver. I know he supported relocating American slaves to Liberia. I know that the Missouri Compromise was reached during his administration. Of the details of his life, however, I know little. I have to ask myself, how could I know so little about such a prominent figure? I suppose I am not alone in my ignorance of the deeper details of James Monroe’s life.
For years, visitors to James Monroe’s Highland were told that the modest structure, now attached to the larger Victorian house, was the former president’s home. We now know that is not true. Research into letters and newspaper accounts have led to the discovery of foundations for a much larger structure that once stood on the property. While the archaeologist explore the evidence of Monroe’s larger home, the smaller structure is now believed to have been used as a guest house. The yellow Victorian structure was built by a later owner.
Since our trip, I have read more about James Monroe. When we consider the founders of the U.S., Monroe seems much an afterthought. Slightly behind the giant personalities of Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison. I believe most would list John Hancock, Sam Adams, Paul Revere, and Patrick Henry as revolutionary patriots well before uttering Monroe’s name. It is unfortunate, his record of service to the young nation is lengthy. He dropped out of William and Mary to join the Continental Army in 1776. Monroe crossed the Delaware with George Washington and was severely wounded at Trenton. Monroe served in Virginia’s state government, and as the U.S. Ambassador to France. Rather than continue an extra-lengthy biography of James Monroe, I will provide several links and recommend several books at the end of the article.
Elizabeth Monroe also receives little consideration today. She too, is overshadowed by her predecessors (Martha) Washington, (Abigail) Adams, and (Dolly) Madison. Most of her positive accomplishments in service to the nation occurred while the couple was in France. Her life during much of Monroe’s presidency is tragic. Illness kept her from being as engaged in Washington society as was Dolly Madison. Her poor health (possibly epilepsy) was not well known. Her frequent non-presence was mistakenly viewed as a lack social sensibility. Elizabeth suffered greatly from pain during her final five years. She died in 1830, and James died soon afterwards.
James Monroe devoted most of his life to the ideals of liberty. His work gained much for the United States, toward securing liberty for its people. However, for others, Monroe’s rhetoric and deeds were just rhetoric. While many of his American contemporaries benefited from his efforts, others had to wait. James Monroe was a slaver. Somewhere between 30 and 40 people lived in bondage at Highland. Monroe understood slavery to be evil, yet participated in it. Fearing that swift emancipation would initiate a great race war, Monroe explored what he considered to be a viable option. He endorsed efforts to relocate freed slaves to Liberia. A slave uprising, “Gabriel’s Rebellion”, occurred outside of Richmond while Monroe was Governor of Virginia. Monroe advocated mercy for slaves whose testimony in the subsequent trials had been obviously coerced. This act demonstrates a duality of conscience that many of that era possessed. They clearly understood slavery’s evil, but rarely opposed it in meaningful ways. The overseer’s house and smokehouse at Highland are original. The well house and slave quarters are reproductions.
We are grateful for our guide at Highland, Neil. I had many questions about ongoing research into the new discoveries, and Neil was very helpful. He made himself available for questions after the scripted tour was completed.
Accepting the recommendations given us by the hotel’s front desk staff, we eat lunch at the South Street Brewery in downtown Charlottesville. We were not disappointed. The atmosphere was relaxing, the service was great, and so was the food. I love brew pubs and South Street Brewery now ranks as one of my favorites. Let’s start with the brew. I had Satan’s Pony, an exceptional amber ale. Mrs. Present had My Personal Helles, a tasty golden lager. I recommend both. Now for the food. Mrs. Present, tired from the drive and not wanting anything heavy, had the House Salad. Not to neglect the fresh veggies, the star of the salad was the Molasses Malt Vinaigrette dressing. The portion was more than adequate. I love pub burgers and South Street provided a shining example of one. The Hangover Burger. If you are visiting Charlottesville, please visit South Street Brewery.
On the way back to our car we stopped by Paradox Pastry. I am glad we did. Full from lunch, we limited ourselves to one Blueberry-Lemon Tart. It was delicious. While I do not regret eating lunch at South Street first, Paradox Pastry made me regret not having a larger stomach. Paradox’s entire selection looked appealing. Again, if you are in Charlottesville, please visit Paradox Pastry. South Street Brewery and Paradox Pastry are only a few buildings apart!
Books on James Monroe:
Harlow Giles Unger, The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness, Da Capo Press; Reprint edition (September 28, 2010), ISBN-13: 978-0306819186
Harry Ammon, James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity, University of Virginia Press; 1st pbk. ed edition (March 15, 1990), ISBN-13: 978-0813912660
A large number of older writings concerning James Madison is available through Google Play.