[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,
PS. What do you think? Monroe histories or contexts you’d highlight?
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