James Monroe (1758-1831) was the 5th President of the United States, completing a two-term presidency (1817-1825) that capped a long political career at the state and national levels. Monroe’s primary connection to the William & Mary campus was as a student. Monroe arrived in Williamsburg from his family home in Westmoreland County, Virginia in 1774, and left in 1776 to join the American Revolution with the Continental Army’s 3rd Virginia Infantry Regiment. He took part in many major battles in the northeast, including the Battle of Trenton, where he led the advance guard and was among the wounded. He subsequently wintered at Valley Forge and fought at the Battle of Monmouth. Monroe resigned from the Continental Army in 1779 and preferred to use his rank of Colonel as a title for the remainder of his life, even over that of President.
Following his military service, Monroe was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, delegate to the Confederation Congress, U.S. Senator, Virginia Governor, minister to France under two presidents, and minister to Great Britain and Spain. He served as Secretary of State and Secretary of War, and after his presidency was called back to public service to lead the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829-1830.
Professional Life and Legacy
Professional activities throughout Monroe’s life intertwined his legacy with that of Thomas Jefferson. From studying law under then-Governor Jefferson and purchasing a plantation and constructing a home in Jefferson’s native Albemarle County, to sharing an emerging political party and series of elected offices, the men were two among a number of Virginians that helped form the government of the United States and contributed to shaping its political, economic, and racial framework.
In no small part due to the political power of Southern plantation owners such as Jefferson and Monroe, slavery was made legal in the framing of the nation and upheld by political, social, and economic systems in subsequent generations. While Monroe made statements acknowledging the evils of slavery, he and those like him benefitted from the labor of those they enslaved and knew individually, person to person, with indelible impact on generations of families.
Monroe is perhaps best known for his contributions to geopolitics—including foreign policy and the eponymous Monroe Doctrine, as well as the rancorous Missouri Crisis and its imperfect conclusion in 1820 that left millions of Americans enslaved for the decades leading up to the Civil War. Expansion of the United States that occurred during and after Monroe’s leadership roles, continued deeply negative impacts on a robust American Indian population and fueled the domestic slave trade in the spread of commercial agriculture.
William & Mary and Highland
Monroe’s legacy is of particular interest to William & Mary. A residence hall carries his name, and the main campus has a statue of Monroe that commemorates his national leadership. Since 1974, when it received the land as a gift, the university has owned Monroe’s Albemarle County property, Highland, and operated it as a historic site. In recent years, the university has contributed to an increasingly accurate and inclusive history of the site. Research generated at Highland since 2012 has overturned long-held misunderstandings and revealed the discovery of the lost and forgotten main house from 1799. At the same time, the work correctly identified the standing structure as the 1818 Guesthouse built by enslaved men Peter Malorry and George Williams, who usually lived, along with their wives Charity and Ann, respectively, at Oak Hill, Monroe’s grander property in Loudoun County, Virginia.
Highland's Council of Descendant Advisors
The correction of public knowledge of the physically misunderstood property has been an opportunity to approach the interpretation of Highland and Monroe himself with greater attention to the diverse nature of American history. Since 2017 Highland has collaborated with a group of individuals whose ancestors labored at Highland during slavery or after the Civil War. Now a formal advisory body, Highland’s Council of Descendant Advisors contributed to research and interpretation of history at Highland, including its content and delivery. This approach of shared authority for co-creating public knowledge is the core tenet of a grant of $1 million from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to William & Mary in 2019. Work on the Mellon Sharing Authority grant has led to increasing community engagement in William & Mary’s academics, especially in the field of public history.
Material in the Special Collections Research Center
- James Monroe in SCRC's Manuscripts and Archives Collection Guides
- James Monroe in The W&M Libraries Digital Archive
News From W&M
"Science rewrites history at the home of President James Monroe" August 10, 2016 from James Monroe's Highland
- "James Monroe's Highland" was the home of James Monroe and is located in Charlottesville, Virginia. It is owned and operated by William & Mary, Monroe's alma mater.
- "Encyclopedia Virginia (James Monroe's Highland")
- "The World of James Monroe Online" (coming soon)
- "Documentary sources about enslaved individuals at James Monroe's Highland"
- "Papers of James Monroe", University of Mary Washington.
- "American President", Miller Center, University of Virginia.
- "James Monroe Papers", Library of Congress.