In 1799, James Monroe, our fifth president and the last of the Virginia dynasty of Founding Fathers, built a modest house in Albemarle County, Virginia, about a hundred miles southwest of the nation’s capital. He called it, plainly enough, “Highlands.” Presidents Washington, Jefferson, and Madison all lived like grandees, and their great houses have proven to be pilgrimage sites for the multitudes down the years. Comparatively speaking, Highlands is a mere cottage and is seldom crowded with visitors, especially when compared to Jefferson’s nearby Monticello, which almost literally overshadows it.
This fact long seemed to fit the history. Of the four Virginia dynasts, Monroe comes down to us with the slightest reputation, and it is easy to regard him more as a closer than an opener. He was the last president to wear a powdered wig and knee breeches. He was the last president to have fought in the Revolution, crossing the Delaware with Washington and catching a Hessian musket ball on Christmas Eve, 1776, from which he nearly bled to death. Back in Virginia he read law with Jefferson, imbibing his master’s republican principles but not his lucullan tastes. What he may have lacked in intellectual sparkle, Monroe made up for in sheer dedication to public service: his career stretched without interruption across more than fifty years, from the Virginia assembly to the president’s cabinet to the presidency.
Today, Highlands is owned and operated by the College of William & Mary, and you will find it up a winding road just east of Monticello. But what you will find there is not actually Monroe’s house at all—at least not the one he lived in. Four years ago, archaeologists announced a “stunning discovery.” A newly unearthed and exceptionally well preserved foundation just beneath the surface of the side garden at Highlands proved to be that of another structure altogether, which documentary sources identify as a lost, freestanding, more sizable house built by Monroe. There are sections of a stone foundation and thick walls belonging to a cellar now filled with rubble, charred planks, and twisted, cut nails (identified as coming from Jefferson’s nailery), all of which suggest that this was a wooden house destroyed by fire.
At the same time the archaeologists were digging for the vanished house, other researchers specializing in dendrochronology (the dating of historic wood through tree-ring analysis) concluded that the cottage long thought and advertised to have been Monroe’s 1799 house could not have been that house at all. This is because its corner posts were cut from timber not harvested until sometime between the spring of 1815 and the spring of 1818. This awkward fact required some quick re-jigging of the tour guide script on Monroe’s Highlands.
I visited Highlands just before and just after these revelations and can confirm the skill of the rewrite team. The house has been closed since spring, but the script, when the docents can recite it again, is forthright about how the archaeologists’ findings required a recasting. And so, what had been “the President’s house between 1799 and 1826” has become the guest house. In a letter to his son-in-law dated September 16, 1818, then-President Monroe mentioned such a building on his Albemarle plantation. The plausible speculation is that this modest but comfortable building was designed for use by visiting dignitaries whom the president could expect from time to time at his country estate. Situated on a sloping site, it is a charming little house with a great chimney, a narrow central hall, a cozy study, two bedchambers, and a dining room, all topside. Kitchen and pantry take up the cellar. One could do far worse for a house today (plumbing aside), whether as a “first-time-buyer starter house” or as a “right-sized retirement resting place.”
One of the lodgers we know to have paid a visit was the French ambassador. Monroe, who was fluent in French, had served in Paris in the 1790s, when he negotiated much of the Louisiana Purchase, for which history awarded Jefferson, his then-boss, most of the credit. Monroe and the Frenchman probably enjoyed a good dinner or two together, even without the benefit of Monticello’s dedicated dumbwaiter direct to the wine cellar.
While they were at it, the interpreters at Highlands put a new and improved gloss on their man. Monroe, we now learn, was an eminently reasonable national leader, a slow-to-speak but by no means shallow-thinking statesman. This constitutes something of a rehabilitation for our fifth president, and a good one, given how Monroe had the historical misfortune to be sandwiched between presidents (James Madison and John Quincy Adams) of greater intellects and larger egos. He was a leader with the good luck to see his presidency launched in a post-war “Era of Good Feelings,” as historians dubbed it, and, though he finished his second term acrimoniously, he never lost his instinct for seeking out the middle ground in politics. It was on his watch that the Missouri Compromise, which finessed the slavery issue for another thirty years, and his namesake “doctrine,” which declared the New World thenceforth off limits to the Old, both entered the history books.
Like most of our presidential sites, Highlands is multi-purpose. It welcomes weddings and other events, and of course it has a gift shop. Compared with the slick retail operation at Monticello, Highlands’s is modesty itself, like the man. You will find some local handicrafts, the requisite mugs and tourist trinkets, but mostly a lot of books. Like the house, the gift shop unfortunately is now closed. Four years ago, when Americans also thought themselves to be in a bad mood, someone at Highlands should have gotten a gold star for two uniquely inspired items. A two-hundredth anniversary (Monroe first won the presidency in 1816) not being something to waste, the shop offered, for $2.95 and $4.95 respectively, a bumper sticker and refrigerator magnet proudly plumping: “Monroe ’16: Leadership You Can Feel Good About.”
This year is the bicentenary of Monroe’s second win, in 1820. From what I can glean from the shop’s current offerings online, they have not repeated the gesture.