Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Virginians

In connection with attending the Alger convention, I joined with some others there over the two days or so to visit the nearby homes of our 3rd, 4th, and 5th Presidents, of the U.S., that is: Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. I'd previously seen Monticello, right on a hill outside Charlottesville, but the Alger society organized a special tour through our host, who is chief editor of the Jefferson Papers Project, located in a fine library down the hill from Monticello.

This visit to Monticello included the recently-opened dome. The guide was a knowledgeable UVa grad, proud like them all of Mr J, but not guilty of skipping the sore spots, like the $100,000+ hole he left his descendants in on July 4, 1826, the famous date on which both he and John Adams died. Madison and Monroe also ran up the debts, so all three homes were sold and later recovered by foundations organized for the purpose. I was also pleased that the guide did not slight Commodore Uriah Phillips Levy, who might also be called Mr J, who bought Monticello with the aim of preserving as much of Jefferson's legacy as possible, and whose descendants sold it back in 1923 to the current foundation ownership.

I knew a reasonable amount about Madison but found Montpelier, his home out in Orange County, a beautiful site. The house is still being renovated, and is a place to see how that is done. I've always found Madison fascinating, because he was so involved in so many aspects of the U.S. founding era. He managed to be Jefferson's closest friend and ally but also co-wrote the Federalist Papers with Hamilton, probably the most important work of political theory ever written in this country. As a Representative in the 1st Congress, he put the Bill of Rights through. He was shy and short and managed to work with so many different people, probably because he was not directly threatening to them. As with his two friends, he knew many languages but never managed to get over to Europe as they did. He even, in one recollection seen or heard at Montpelier, worked with Aaron Burr on one project. Well, they both had been Princetonians, although then it was still the College of New Jersey.

Monroe, except for his Doctrine, and his having been elected virtually unanimously for his second term (one electoral vote was witheld so Washington would remain the only unanimous choice), was less familiar to me. I did not know that he spent more total time in public service than any of them, that he was the last Revolutionary War vet to be president (he had been advance party for the successful surprise attack that won back Trenton but was pictured in Leutze's famed picture of GW crossing the Delaware anyway), and that he and his family spoke French during their rare times at Ashlawn Highlands, the house he built about 2 1/2 miles from Monticello. He married a New York girl in New York; he and Elizabeth were the opposite of James and Dolley Madison in that he was tall and she quite short. He spent two years at William & Mary before leaving for the War and coincidentally, his house is now owned by that university.

All three sites prominently now mention their having been supported by the slave economy in their day. All are somewhat discombobulated by it. Monticello can no longer resist the DNA proof that Mr J fathered one or more of Sally Hemings's children. Unlike Washington, they did not free all their slaves even at their end, as he did, presumably because the peculiar institution was integrally part of the operation. Monroe favored manumission, or return to Africa, which is why the returned slaves who found Liberia named their capital, Monrovia, for him. Slave quarters are being restored at Montpelier and Ashland.

I get a kick out of the fact that he who had the most insight into what the U.S. would become, the non-native-born New Yorker, Hamilton, was the proverbial kid from nowhere, well, Nevis, with nothing, and never had any slaves, although some were owned up north in those days. He was the only one of the Founding Fathers who favored emancipation way back when.

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