MyAmericanFuture

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MyAmericanFuture

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

November 30, 2016: James MonroeStudying: Expanding America



[On December 4th, 2016, James Monroe was elected the fifth president of the United States. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five histories and contexts linked to Monroe’s life and presidency.]
On three ways Monroe’s public service reflects a globally and geographically expanding nation.
Thanks in large part to Hamilton, some of the key questions and debates from America’s long-forgotten first decade as a post-Constitution political entity (the 1790s) have become more familiar: the battles between the Hamilton and Jefferson factions, the questions of federal power and potency, the visions of what the new nation would truly become and be. But to my mind, at least as central to 1790s America were a pair of international entanglements: the conflicts with North African states and pirates that led to the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli; and the undeclared war with France that culminated in the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts. Distinct and complex as each of these conflicts was, taken together they reflect a new nation that was expanding its commercial, military, and diplomatic presence around the globe. And in his position as George Washington’s Ambassador to France during the particularly tense and touchy period prior to the Alien and Sedition Acts (and amidst France’s own ongoing and controversial Revolution), James Monroe both illustrates those globalizing trends and played a key role in shaping the official response to them.
Although he returned to Virginia during the Adams administration, beginning his terms as the state’s Governor in 1799, Monroe remained linked to both the national Democrat-Republican party and France, and through those connections was sent by President Thomas Jefferson back to France in January 1803 to help Ambassador Robert Livingston negotiate the Louisana Purchase. Nearly two decades later, during his own first term as president, Monroe and his administration (led by John Quincy Adams, Monroe’s successor as president) signed the 1819 Adams-OnĂ­s Treaty with Spain, purchasing Spanish Florida and integrating it into the United States. Taken together, the purchase and treaty hugely increased the total area of the United States, reflecting a nation that was rapidly expanding from its origins as a small collection of eastern colonies into a continental presence. Yet the 1819 treaty likewise stipulated that the U.S. would not pursue any interests in what was (at that time) Spanish Texas, illustrating the continued territorial and international complexities that would accompany this continental expansion. Those issues and histories were vital to early 19th century America, and James Monroe was closely linked to many of them.
Just as vital to Early Republic America, of course, was the issue of slavery, and there too (in addition to his personal connections to slavery, about which I wrote yesterday) Monroe reflected and extended the relationship between a globalizing nation and this dark historical reality. Monroe was an early member of the American Colonization Society, the organization founded in 1816 (the same year as his presidential election) to promote the “resettlement” of freed slaves to Africa. As president, Monroe helped secure $100,000 in Federal money to support colonization, funds that allowed the group to purchase the land that would eventually become the new nation of Liberia (with a capital, Monrovia, named after Monroe). As I detailed in yesterday’s post, Monroe was no abolitionist (although he did, late in life, describe slavery as a “blight” on the nation), and the colonization efforts were driven at least as much by racism as by opposition to slavery or (least consistently) concern for African American communities and lives. Yet in any case, they represented one more way in which America was expanding its influence and connections around the globe, and one more such expansion to which James Monroe was closely linked.
Next MonroeStudying tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Monroe histories or contexts you’d highlight?

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

November 29, 2016: James MonroeStudying: Slavery and the Founders



[On December 4th, 2016, James Monroe was elected the fifth president of the United States. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five histories and contexts linked to Monroe’s life and presidency.]
On two ways Monroe’s story expands and amplifies an originating American truth.
I’ve written a good deal about the complex interconnections between slavery and the Revolutionary era and its framing documents, including in my second-most-viewed piece on Talking Points Memo. As I’ve tried to argue throughout those posts, and would reiterate at the start of this one, the point and goal of such analyses aren’t simply or centrally to highlight hypocrisy, nor to critique or tear down iconic images of the Founding Fathers. Instead, such revisionist (in the best sense) historical efforts are meant to help us better understand the kinds of complex, dark, and inescapable histories out of which the United States was born, and which have continued to influence and shape our identity for the subsequent 240 years. Slavery wasn’t the only historical reality of the founding era, of course; but besides its own multifaceted and nation-wide presence, it was also inextricably bound to many of the period’s other histories and stories, including the lives and identities of a great many of the Founding Fathers and four of the first five presidents.
James Monroe was one of those presidents, a slaveowner throughout his adult life who owned multiple Virginia plantations at the height of his success. (He did also advocate late in life for the resettlement of freed slaves in Africa, a complex history about which I’ll write more in tomorrow’s post.) Monroe’s biography also helps us engage with two other histories to which slavery and the Revolution must be connected. For one thing, Monroe inherited his first plantation at the age of 16 in 1774, when his father (Virginia planter Spence Monroe) passed away. That’s how many slavers and plantation owners—and, even more overtly and tragically, slaves—became part of the system, of course: by being born into it. Indeed, while there were moral and philosophical considerations as well, the Framers could write an ambiguous legal end to the slave trade into the Constitution precisely because reproduction had become a sufficient method through which to ensure the continuation of slavery. But Monroe’s story also reminds us that, while the Revolution certainly changed a good deal in America, in many ways the society and structures that were in place by the 1770s remained in place after the war. The landed, slaveowning Virginia community that helped usher in the Revolution, drafted its most famous documents, and produced 80% of our first presidents represent one particularly clear continuity between 18th and 19th century America.
Monroe sold that small family plantation when he entered Congress in 1783, but over the course of his life would own a number of other, larger plantations around the state. Yet because he spent most of that subsequent life living elsewhere—as a Congressman in the 1780s, as the Minister to France in the 1790s, as Governor of Virginia in the first decade of the 1800s, and then in James Madison’s administration before his own two-term presidency—Monroe delegated the running of those plantations to a group of overseers. The website for Monroe’s home Highland works to highlight the ways in which Monroe and his family would have been personally connected to at least some of the plantation’s slaves, but the straightforward reality is that for most of his life, Monroe was a public servant, and his slaves, like his plantations, existed as business ventures, not homes or personal communities. The same was true, of course, for all of the slaveowning founders and presidents; our collective memories tend (for understandable if frustrating reasons) to focus on more humanizing moments such as Washington’s complex final freeing of at least some of his slaves, but in most ways these men were related to their plantations much like the CEO of Nike is to the company’s sweatshops around the world. That’s not an analogy that quite comports with many of our narratives of the founders, but it’s one we need to grapple with, and James Monroe offers a place to start.
Next MonroeStudying tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Monroe histories or contexts you’d highlight?

Monday, November 28, 2016

November 28, 2016: James MonroeStudying: Ash Lawn-Highland



[On December 4th, 2016, James Monroe was elected the fifth president of the United States. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five histories and contexts linked to Monroe’s life and presidency.]
On two very different, yet equally meaningful, ways to use a historic site.
James Monroe’s longtime home, Ash Lawn-Highland (renamed in recent years as simply Highland, but I’ll always know it by that hyphenated name!), sits just down the hill from Thomas Jefferson’s much more famous Monticello, and it’s fair to say that Monroe’s home will forever be in that shadow of that most prominent Charlottesville, Virginia, and American landmark. The relationship between the two houses and sites, much like that between the two Founding Fathers and Presidents (and their neighbor and the president who served in between their terms, James Madison), is certainly an interesting one, and could lead to plenty of American Studies analyses in its own right; but I believe that we owe it to Monroe and his home not to analyze them solely in that light. Moreover, having had the opportunity to spend two high school summers working at Ash Lawn-Highland, I came away particularly interested in the relationship between two quite distinct elements of the site.
The first, and far more traditional, is the site’s recreation of Monroe’s home and era, its role as an educational and performative historic site. There are a couple of interestingly unique components to that role, to be sure: Monroe, an alumnus of the College of William and Mary, left his house to that institution, and so its educational connections are long-term and multi-layered; and the site is a working farm, making its recreations not just performative but in many ways quite productive as well. Yet despite those unique qualities, Ash Lawn-Highland’s identity as a historic site parallels it very fully to other similar sites, from Monticello and Madison’s Montpelier to America’s many other historic houses. Such sites, as we discussed at length at the Spring 2012 New England ASA Colloquium, have their strengths and weaknesses, their opportunities and limitations in how they connect audiences to the past; they are in any case an invaluable part of our national heritage, and Ash Lawn-Highland is certainly a representative and interesting example of the type.
But every summer for many decades, Ash Lawn-Highland has featured a very different event: the Opera Festival (known, when I worked for two summers in the ticket and box office, as the Summer Music Festival). While some of the shows perfomed in the Festival are period pieces from the era of Monroe’s life, many are not—each summer includes at least one 20th century musical, for example; and many of the operas that have been performed over the years are likewise outside of the context of Monroe’s era. Yet what struck me about the festival, which for most of its run saw the shows performed on the site’s grounds (they have moved in recent years to a different Charlottesville theater), was precisely what it contributed to the experience of Ash Lawn-Highland: a new perspective on the home, in every sense; a chance to sit behind the main house on a summer evening, to see it in a different light (literally and figuratively), to have an experience that felt not at all disconnected from the goals and identities of America’s founders and of the educational, historical, and cultural legacies of their lives and era and purposes of the sites that remember them. There are many ways to connect to a figure like Monroe, and the world of which he was and is a part; in the Festival, Ash Lawn-Highland highlighted precisely the variety and power of those different approaches.
Next MonroeStudying tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Monroe histories or contexts you’d highlight?