Highland, Albemarle County, VA
We know very little about what enslaved persons looked like — but runaway ads can provide some physical details. In midsummer 1826, “Col. James Monroe” placed a ten-dollar reward for the return of a married couple named Phebe and George. Their provided ages were approximate: Phebe “about 28 years of age” and George “about 30.” Some of the description is vague and nonspecific: Phebe is “common size” while George is “straight made.” However, other details are more particular. Complexion, height, and clothing are noted for both individuals, as well ideas on their final destination, “the county of Loudon” where Monroe had another property. Phebe and George may have gone there before “endeavoring to a free state.” Interestingly, the ad suggests the two may have “obtained free papers” to ensure easier travel. This line begs the question: who could have supplied them with such documents?
In the 1820s freedom seekers like Phebe and George were most likely heading north. However, it is noteworthy that they ran away together. It was often easier to evade capture alone; the fact that they chose to self-emancipate as a couple provides insight into their relationship and suggests a desire to stay together. We do not know if they were ever apprehended.
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Enslaved persons rebelled in covert and overt ways. While Governor of Virginia, James Monroe learned about “the project of an insurrection among the negroes.” The thwarted plan involved kidnapping Monroe to negotiate safe passage out of state for the insurrection leaders. In late 1800, Monroe met with the enslaved and imprisoned rebellion leader, Gabriel Prosser. In later correspondence, Monroe noted how Prosser had “made up his mind to die, and to have resolved to say but little on the subject of the conspiracy.” However, Monroe knew that the desire for rebellion would not end with Prosser’s execution; he was worried the “fever” had spread. Gabriel’s Rebellion, as the failed uprising would be known, brought about stricter regulation of free and enslaved Black travel and increased limitation on enslaved literacy. It also fomented discussion between Monroe and his friend Thomas Jefferson about removing Black persons to the “West Indies, Africa & to some position west or north of the Mississippi.”
Gabriel Prosser was more than a brief mention in Monroe’s correspondence. Through historical research, we know he was a blacksmith born in Henrico County and enslaved by the Prosser family. At some point, he learned to read and write. His smithing skills allowed him to travel throughout Virginia as an enslaved hire, and this practice allowed Prosser to earn money, visit other plantations, and encounter people interested in rising up against enslavers. This possibility was made more real after news arrived of enslaved successes during the long Haitian Revolution. Though Gabriel’s Rebellion failed, its prosecution did not quell enslaved uprising. In 1822, Denmark Vesey planned an enslaved revolt in Charleston, South Carolina, and in 1832 Nat Turner’s Rebellion occurred in Southampton County, Virginia.
James Monroe to Colonel Thomas Newton, October 5, 1800, The Writings of James Monroe: Vol 3
James Monroe to Thomas Jefferson, May 17, 1802,The Writings of James Monroe: Vol 3, pg. 348
Douglas Egerton, Gabriel’s Rebellion: the Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802, 1993
In his first term as president, Monroe resided at Caldwell House, about a ten minute walk from the White House, which was being rebuilt following its destruction during the War of 1812. Here, Monroe and his family relied on free Black and enslaved domestic labor to set up house and ensure their daily maintenance. We know some of the names of these individuals: Sukey, Daniel, Eve, Tom, Betsey, Peter, and Hartford. Monroe also employed three “foreigners not naturalized” — possibly the gardener, Charles Bizet, and a steward, Joseph Jeater. These details, gleaned from census records and household accounts, allow us to imagine life for free and enslaved servants while in the nation’s capital.
For more sources, visit: https://www.whitehousehistory.org/the-enslaved-households-of-president-james-monroe
Presidential pardons are not a new phenomenon. During his second term in office, Monroe pardoned Nancy Swann, “a colored woman … [convicted] of petty larceny.” In the pardon, handwritten by secretary of state John Quincy Adams, Monroe notes that Swann has been imprisoned for over “twelve months” because she cannot pay her “fine and the cost of prosecution.” Monroe thus absolves all “pains and penalties” for which Swann may be “liable.” Though several Nancy Swanns are found in later U.S. censuses, we do not know exactly what happened to this Nancy Swann after her encounter with Monroe’s presidential pardon power.
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Oak Hill, Loudoun County, VA
Monroe also owned land in Loudoun County, Virginia, about thirty miles from Washington, DC, and he tried to sell it in December 1809. Monroe placed newspaper ads highlighting that the 2000 acres were accessible to “mills” and “the new Turnpike from Alexandria,” “well watered” and included “Horses, Cattle, and Hogs.” Within these ads, Monroe mentioned the “25 slaves …. very valuable…some of them being good house servants, and the others principally young men and women.” Land sale meant possible parceling, and this division into smaller pieces meant enslaved persons could be separated from their familiar communities.
No one purchased Monroe’s acreage, and he made plans to retire to the Loudoun County property after his second presidential term. Using the design of White House architect Joseph Hoban, Monroe built a larger, more ornate home at Oak Hill in 1823. While in residence, he entertained the Marquis de Lafayette and then-President John Quincy Adams. Following the 1830 death of his wife, Elizabeth, Monroe moved to New York City to live with his younger daughter, Maria Hester Monroe Gouverneur. He intended to return to Oak Hill, but his failing health prevented such travel.
“Loudoun Land for Sale,” Richmond Enquirer, November 17, 1809
James Monroe to James Madison, April 11, 1831, National Archives
New York City
New York City was an important place in both James Monroe’s life and the history of the United States. Monroe moved around the city during the Revolutionary War, and it was where he met and married Elizabeth Kortright, who was “from an ancient and respectable family of that state.” Elizabeth and her sisters were well-educated and sociable; they “made brilliant & lovely an appearance” when Monroe encountered them at a New York City theater in 1785. Their marriage was happy and lasted over forty years.
After Elizabeth’s death, Monroe moved back to New York City. There, he lived with his daughter Maria and her husband, Samuel Gouverneur. Gouverneur, also a native of New York City, was Monroe’s private secretary, estate executor, and nephew by marriage. When Monroe died on July 4, 1831, his son-in-law/nephew sold most of Monroe’s properties and buried Monroe in New York with “one of the most imposing [funerals] ever witnessed” in the city.
In 1858, the Virginia Legislature appropriated $2000 to move Monroe’s remains back to his “native State” from “an almost unknown spot” in New York City to be reinterred “in Hollywood Cemetery, in the capital of his native State, never again, let us hope, to be disturbed.” [from New York Herald, May 2, 1858]
Autobiography of James Monroe pg. 49
William Grayson to James Monroe, November 28, 1785, Papers of James Monroe
”The Tomb of Monroe,” Frank Leslie’s Weekly, May 22, 1858
Monroe began his unfinished autobiography with mention of an ancestor, Andrew Monroe, who migrated to the United States from Fowlis, Scotland in 1650: “He belonged to an ancient highland clan, was a captain in the service of Charles the First, and came over immediately after [Charles] was beheaded.” After obtaining land in Virginia, Andrew Monroe returned to Scotland after the “restoration of Charles the Second” only to voyage back to Virginia with more family members.
In his personal correspondence, Monroe expressed his connection to his ancestral home: “I have … always looked to Scotland, and to those of the same origin there, with peculiar interest.” While in Europe, Monroe was invited to visit Scotland by a distant relative. In preparation for this visit, Monroe wrote to his uncle Joseph Jones and requested information about his ancestor’s immigration and name spelling — all questions we ask to this day when researching our ancestry.
Autobiography of James Monroe
James Monroe to Joseph Jones, from Madrid, January 28, 1805, Papers of James Monroe
After several rebellions among enslaved persons — some successful — white Americans sought other geographic regions to send free Black people. Integration with white society was not an option. However, there was precedent to colonize the western coast of Africa through two strains of proposed colonization. White Americans, alarmed by growing free Black populations, instigated one. Free Black community members, emboldened by the promise of self-governance and sovereignty, led the other.
Paul Cuffee, the mixed race son of a Wampanoag mother and an Ashanti father, created the Friendly Society of Sierra Leone to ensure better trade options for the free Black merchants. Cuffee was a successful mariner who met with President James Madison at the White House at the start of the War of 1812. Cuffee had watched the events of the Haitian Revolution unfold and considered the possibility of Black self-governance. In 1816, he brought Black colonists to the British colony of Sierra Leone in the hopes of establishing a trading post. Cuffee’s death in 1817 did not end this colonization efforts, and the American Colonization Society formed in Washington, D.C. that same year.
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New Orleans and the Mississippi River
As a major international port, New Orleans was an important site in United States’ history and Monroe’s own diplomatic biography. Scholars have long noted the importance of New Orleans as a nucleus of international economic commerce. New Orleans’ economic strength depended on human beings — enslaved and free — subject to diplomatic, political and social whims. As the nineteenth century progressed, the city increasingly centered in the tobacco, hemp, sugar, and cotton trade. The latter material transformed not only agricultural trends but also the lives of millions of enslaved people, Native American communities, and Upper South farmers.
New Orleans was also an active depot for the sale of enslaved people. According to Edward Baptist’s research, between 1815-1820 the majority of enslaved sale occurred among individuals between 14 and 25 years old; however, more than a quarter of enslaved sale involved children between the ages of 0 and 13.
As a site of enslavement, commerce, and transport, the Mississippi River is also an part of American memory. Mark Twain, Jesamyn Ward, Langston Hughes, Natasha Trethewey, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty — they have all relied on the river as a geographic setting and cultural metaphor.
Florida was long on Monroe’s mind — and so were the Spanish and Seminole peoples. Though he failed to acquire the land during the Louisiana Purchase negotiations, it was a source of concern during his presidency over a decade later. In 1810, Monroe wrote “the whole cause of the Seminole War [was due] to the interference and exitment [sic] by the Spanish authorities in the Floridas.” This was according to General Andrew Jackson whose later military attacks provoked the First Seminole War. Seminole comes from the indigenous word yat’ siminole, meaning “free people.” They had fled southward into then-Spanish Florida in the late eighteenth century, joined by free and self-emancipated Blacks known as Black Seminoles, but Jackson disregarded both their sovereignty and international borders in his extermination campaigns. Crops were burnt, self-emancipated persons were re-enslaved, and alleged inciters were executed. Among those executed was Hillis Hadjo, or Francis the Prophet, a Maskóki (Red Creek Indian) who was hanged in 1818 after refusing to acquiesce to white encroachment. According to 1823’s Treaty of Moultrie Creek, the Seminole peoples were removed from north Florida onto reservation lands in the state’s center. As treaties were “made and violated” throughout the nineteenth century, the Florida Indian populations were driven to Indian Territory located west of the Mississippi River.
Haiti (St. Domingue)
For almost thirteen years, the Haitian Revolution raged across the small island. It was inspired by the French Revolution and ended with the first sovereign state run by free people of color. The revolt involved enslaved and free persons speaking French and English and led by formerly enslaved general, Toussaint L’Ouverture. It affected nations around the world and threatened the institution of slavery as well as challenged notions of white supremacy and Black inferiority. In the early days of the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Monroe to discuss how “The situation of the St Domingo fugitives (aristocrats as they are) calls aloud for pity & charity.” Jefferson and others were “daily more & more convinced that all the West India islands will remain in the hands of the people of colour, & a total expulsion of the whites sooner or later take place.” This furthered conversations in the United States about removing free black persons to colonies in Africa or west of the Mississippi River. Assimilation was impossible to imagine. Though Haiti was established in 1803, the United States did not recognize it as a country until 1862.
Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, July 14, 1793, Papers of James Monroe
Paris/Louisiana Purchase Treaty
While in Paris, James Monroe brokered the Louisiana Purchase, a $15 million dollar land deal that changed the geographic and political landscape of the United States. The acquisition occurred in 1803 but its impact had a chaotic and long reach. However, the 1903 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, commemorated the Purchase as uncomplicated evidence of Manifest Destiny and westward expansion. Louis Dodge’s poem, “A Deed of the Pen (The Transfer of the Louisiana Territory)” celebrated the bloodless expansion of the U.S.: “Sing of liberty’s region where the gates are ever wide / Loved Louisiana Territory, where plenty and peace abide / Our land of the smiling harvests, for which no man has died.” However, many men and women died of violent and nonviolent means in the post-Purchase push westward: white settlers, native peoples, enslaved individuals. Dodge’s poem reflects how many felt about the expansion in 1903 and reveals a collective creation of a mythic American history.
London: Minister to Great Britain, 1803-1807
While in London, James Monroe met with King George III. In his unfinished autobiography, Monroe mentioned feeling “sensations of a peculiar character” before his audiences with the monarch. As a veteran of the Revolutionary War, Monroe felt that King George III had been “unfriendly to liberty.” While time had tempered Monroe’s dislike of the British crown, “it had not completely removed them.” However, Monroe reports that he “left the King with impressions much more favorable than [Monroe] had ever entertained before.” George III asked Monroe about his education and background before pointedly mentioning Monroe’s first minister appointment in France. The king also asked Monroe about his opinion of the French people’s religion. Monroe, ever the diplomat, demurred to make any qualification about the French, instead stating “with a smile, that there were many people [in France] who, he believed, had none.”
The Autobiography of James Monroe, pg. 184-185 https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015027042053&view=1up&seq=219&skin=2021&q1=london.