Furnishings at Highland

– Bust of Napoleon, Antoine Denis Chaudet, 1806

“…there will be a considerable deficiency, in the sum appropriated for furniture for the President’s house, and there being little if any on hand fit for immediate use; it may be advisable to retain from my furniture, such articles as may be found proper and indispensible.”

– James Monroe to Samuel Lane, April 28, 1817.

One of James Monroe’s first tasks as the nation’s new president was to rebuild the capital city after British forces set fire to it during their Chesapeake campaign in 1814. Monroe supported James Hoban, the White House’s original architect, in reconstructing the executive mansion, though Monroe’s personal work centered around replacing destroyed furniture. While Congress agreed to a budget for new furnishings, Monroe brought his personal belongings to the White House, including many of his belongings from the Folie de Bouëxiére, where he resided during his diplomatic assignment under President Washington. It was Monroe’s ambition to create a presidential home that embodied a powerful American executive, which he believed an elegant White House, furnished with the best European and American goods, would achieve.

Like the updated White House furnishings, Monroe’s belongings at Highland and Oak Hill reflected his francophile taste. French furnishings not only represented Monroe’s political beliefs, but also reflected his family’s wealth. Many of the pieces currently at Highland can be traced back to Monroe through family tradition, while other period pieces complement these family heirlooms. Personal acquisitions, gifts from private donors, and articles generously loaned to Highland by the James Monroe Museum comprise much of the collection currently on display. These articles help interpret rooms as they might have looked in Monroe’s era, while others help tell his, and America’s, story through thematic exhibitions. For more on the property, its furnishings, and its layout, visit: https://highland.org/explore-james-monroes-highland/.

These selected items, which are all displayed at Highland, portray varying aspects of life in the late 18th and early 19th century. Monroe’s presidential china and dinner service were part of the first order of fine china specifically decorated for an American president. The .75 caliber flintlock pistols are attributed to Monroe, and such pistols served both practical and aesthetic purposes in the early republic. Finally, Monroe ordered the secretary shortly after his marriage to Elizabeth Kortright in 1786. This desk was an essential component to Monroe’s daily life and correspondence, and countless letters of personal, local, and national importance undoubtedly passed over its walnut top.

Object Based Questions

Presidential Dinner Service and Dessert China (Highland) View

  1. What imagery and motifs are displayed on the presidential dinner service and dessert china?
  2. How did the presidential dinner service and dessert china illustrate Monroe’s desire for a powerful and respected Untied States?
  3. What do the presidential dinner service and dessert china contribute to your understanding of James Monroe’s White House?

Flintlock Pistols (Highland) View

  1. What would a set of flintlock pistols be used for in the 19th century?
  2. Why did James Monroe own a set of flintlock pistols?
  3. What do the composition and aesthetics of the flintlock pistols reveal about the owner’s status in society?

Secretary (Highland) View

  1. What did James Monroe use this secretary for?
  2. What types of items would James Monroe have kept in this secretary?
  3. How important was this secretary to James Monroe’s daily life?
  4. What types of documents could James Monroe have written on this secretary (Purchased in New York, 1786) at Highland?

Essential Questions

  1. How do objects and artifacts complement written sources?
  2. What limitations do objects and artifacts present to the historical record?
  3. How do objects and artifacts help us visualize 18th-19th century society?
  4. What can the objects owned by James Monroe tell us about him and Highland?

Virginia Standards of Learning

Era 4: Expansion and Reform

Standard 2A

Grades 9-12     Compare how patterns of economic growth and recession affected territorial expansion and community life in the North, South, and West. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]

National Standards for Social Studies

USI.5  The student will apply social science skills to understand the factors that shaped colonial America by

d) describing colonial life in America from the perspectives of large landowners, farmers, artisans, merchants, women, free African Americans, indentured servants, and enslaved African Americans;

Bibliography & Suggested Readings

Harris, Scott H. and Jarod Kearney. “‘Articles of the Best Kind’: James Monroe Furnishes the Rebuilt White House.” White House History, no. 35 (Summer 2014): pp. 28-45.