“From this, I soon recovered…”

Epidemics of varying degrees were not uncommon in the 19th century. Washington, DC was especially notorious for its unhealthy atmosphere and saw frequent outbreaks of disease such as influenza and yellow fever. During one such period in April 1815, James Monroe wrote to Thomas Jefferson that he “...had suffer’d much from a very severe attack of the sciatick, or rather of the prevailing epidemick which seized on the weaker parts of the system. From this, I soon recoverd, so far as to attend to business, but have not yet regaind my strength, and am affected by cold & sometimes fever on the slightest exposure.” Monroe had written to James Madison earlier that month, inquiring after Dolley Madison’s health with regard to the same outbreak: “We hope that Mrs. Madison’s indisposition, was the effect of the fatigue of the journey only, and not the epidemic.”   Historians often sit at the crossroads of the past and the present, and as such, find a modicum of reassurance in … [Read more...]

Flattening the Curve in 1800

James Monroe was no stranger to doing his part to flatten the curve. In August of 1800, during his first term as governor of Virginia, he instituted a quarantine on ships traveling from Norfolk into other port cities in an effort to reduce the spread of yellow fever throughout the Commonwealth. Quarantines for ships and their crews were not uncommon, and could last between 10–40 days.   By the Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. A PROCLAMATION. WHEREAS satisfactory information has been received, that some contagious disease exists at Norfolk, which without due precaution, may be communicated to other parts of this Commonwealth, and it being the duty of the Executive, to prevent the spreading of the said disease, by causing the Laws made and provided for that purpose, to be faithfully executed:—I have therefore thought fit with the advice of the Council of State, to issue this Proclamation, injoining all vessels coming from the said port of Norfolk up James River, to … [Read more...]

Examining the Details

This post is the third in the series, "Documenting a First Lady"   The note recently located in the archive at William & Mary is extremely short, but in examining its few details, we are able to make connections to the larger picture of the Monroes' life in Washington, D.C.  The note reads: Mrs Monroe requests Mr Smith will be so good as send by the bearer Tom, one hundred Dollars to the account of Mr Monroe Saturday January 21th 1815 This is not the first reference to Elizabeth Monroe managing her own finances.  Bank records from the Monroes’ time in Washington show her withdrawing money for her own uses on other occasions as well. Given the glimpses of her independence and decisiveness shown in other surviving documents, it does not come as a surprise to see her accessing her own accounts in this way. The “Mr Smith” to whom the note is addressed is Richard Smith, cashier of the Bank of the United States in Washington.  The first record of the family's account with … [Read more...]

Documenting a First Lady

This post is the second in the series "Documenting a First Lady" When discussing First Lady Elizabeth Monroe and the paucity of her written record, the immediate follow-on question is nearly always “How many of her letters have survived?” Quantifying the documentary record of any historic figure relies heavily on semantics – specifically, what counts as a letter? As a document? Which are being considered? In this case, Mrs. Monroe's written records fall primarily into two categories: correspondence in which she is either the author or recipient, and documents written in her hand but that are not necessarily intended to be communicative, such as mortgages or transaction records, or instances where she assisted her husband in copying out his letters.   By limiting the parameters to items where she is either author or recipient, rather than amanuensis or signatory, staff at the Papers of James Monroe are currently aware of six letters.  These include three documents that … [Read more...]

New First Lady Document Identified

  This post is the first in the series "Documenting a First Lady" Conditioned as we are to the accessible and often voluminous correspondence of many early Americans, it frequently comes as a surprise to both the public and scholars to find out that there are fewer than a half-dozen surviving documents written by Elizabeth Kortright Monroe.  According to their daughter, Eliza Hay, James Monroe burned his wife’s correspondence following her death in 1830.  Such an act would not have been considered unusual by their contemporaries, as individuals of this era held a strongly defined sense of what constituted private, rather than public, correspondence. To historians, however, the five letters that currently constitute Elizabeth Monroe’s entire body of correspondence function as a tarnished mirror, allowing only fleeting and incomplete glimpses of this enigmatic First Lady.   For decades, only one letter in her handwriting was known to have survived.   Addressed … [Read more...]

Library of a President

 “ ... it’s essential to read what they read. You then begin to understand not just their vocabulary, but how they thought ... ” David McCullough UMW Centennial Founders Day Convocation, 14 March 2008   As author David McCullough reminds us, the contents of a library serve as an unparalleled window into the minds of those we seek to understand.  It is nearly impossible to look at James Monroe, a consummate public servant, and not consider what motivated, informed and guided him during his five decades of service to his country.  Historians and bibliophiles alike naturally turn his bookshelves for answers to these and other questions.   By 1823, Monroe had assembled a significant library of approximately 3,000 books.  This number likely did not include his substantial collection of pamphlets, a hugely popular medium for making shorter, often political, publications available at a more affordable cost as compared to books.  He acquired books throughout his … [Read more...]

“Mr Monroe’s dying request”

“Mr Monroe’s dying request” By Bob Karachuk Assistant Editor, Papers of James Monroe   James Monroe died in New York City at the home of his younger daughter and her husband, Maria and Samuel Gouverneur, on Monday, July 4, 1831, at half past three in the afternoon. Although Monroe experienced an “easy death,” his decline was long and slow and unremitting. Nine-and-a-half months before his death, Monroe, in good if tender health, was dealt a blow that knocked him prostrate: On September 23, 1830, his wife, Elizabeth Monroe, died suddenly at Oak Hill, their plantation home in Loudon County, Virginia. Monroe was left in such distress by the loss of his wife that Maria Gouverneur and her sister, Eliza Hay, considered it unwise for their father to continue living at Oak Hill. Monroe moved to New York to live with the Gouverneurs in October. By the end of December, Monroe was too ill to leave his room. An incessant cough prevented him from resting properly. He grew weaker … [Read more...]

French Imposters, Diplomatic Double Speak, and Buried Archival Treasures

By Cassandra Good, Associate Editor of the Papers of James Monroe (This content originally appeared as a guest post on The Junto) The latest volume of The Papers of James Monroe covers a short but important period in Monroe’s life and career: April 1811 to March 1814. Monroe became Secretary of State in April 1811 and was tasked with trying to repair relations with both Great Britain and France. After war with Britain began in June 1812, his focus broadened to military affairs and included a stint as interim Secretary of War. The bulk of the volume, then, is focused on the War of 1812. However, there are a number of other stories revealed here that will be of interest to a range of historians.   To begin: what new information does the volume reveal about the War of 1812? We know that impressment was a key bone of contention with the British, but these documents suggest it played a bigger role in selling the war than in actually causing it. The correspondence with … [Read more...]

Inaugurating the Era of Good Feelings

  By Cassandra Good, Associate Editor, Papers of James Monroe On an unusually warm March afternoon two hundred years ago, James Monroe took the oath of office as America’s fifth president. In a capital city still recovering from having government buildings burned to the ground three years earlier by the British, large crowds thronged the city to celebrate Monroe’s inauguration on March 4, 1817.  The planning of the ceremony itself caused a congressional squabble, the oath was taken under a temporary portico outside of a temporary capitol building, and nobody could hear Monroe’s speech.  But that day ushered in a brief era of national unity and good feeling, when Americans formed (in Monroe’s words) “one great family with a common interest.” James Monroe entered the presidency with more experience in elected or appointed office than any man before—or since. Born on Virginia’s Northern Neck in 1758, he had joined the Continental Army to fight in the Revolution as a teenager … [Read more...]

The Near-Duel Between James Monroe and Alexander Hamilton

By Cassandra Good, Associate Editor, Papers of James Monroe While Alexander Hamilton’s fatal duel with Aaron Burr in 1804 is well-known, Hamilton also came close to dueling with James Monroe several years earlier. The correspondence relating to this incident, part of a larger controversy historians call the Reynolds Affair, is published in volumes 3 & 4 of the Papers of James Monroe. In 1792, while serving as senator from Virginia, Monroe was on a committee with Frederick Muhlenberg, speaker of the House of Representatives, and Abraham Venable, a Virginia congressmen, to investigate charges of financial malfeasance against Alexander Hamilton. The committee met with the accusers, Muhlenberg’s clerk Jacob Clingman and a New York speculator named James Reynolds, to get their testimonies. When the committee met with Hamilton, he revealed that he was innocent of these charges and that his financial involvement with Reynolds was in fact to cover up an affair with Reynolds’ wife, … [Read more...]