– The Central Gazette, July 15, 1826, University of Virginia Special Collections
“The god who made us, made the black people, & they ought not to be treated with barbarity.”
– James Monroe to Charles Everett, April 25, 1812.
“The difficulty attending it, is, the danger, in case, of not supporting the authority of the overseer, that the negroes will be encouraged in their disobedience & he rendered useless.”
-James Monroe to William Noland, February 26, 1817.
It is impossible to separate James Monroe’s enslavement of others from his status as a founder. Likewise, the inhumane nature of slavery cannot be divorced from Monroe’s opposition to the institution, representing a contradiction evident in many of his actions and writings. In a letter to William Benton from 1822, for example, Monroe expressed concern for George, an enslaved worker with an injured leg, “on the account of humanity” as well as “the values of the servant.” Monroe’s writings indicate that he morally opposed slavery, though for financial and political reasons never abandoned the practice. Monroe belonged to the Virginia planter class, an aristocracy built upon property ownership, referring to both land and enslaved persons, which afforded him many opportunities throughout his life. Monroe was also an absentee landowner, meaning the day to day responsibilities of owning a plantation were left to overseers while he worked elsewhere. The financial success of Highland depended on this authority. Further impacting Highland’s finances was the growth of cotton plantations in the Deep South, which caused an economic shift Virginia eventually could no longer compete with.
The forced labor done by enslaved men and women at Highland can be divided into three categories: domestic work, field work, and work in crafts such as carpentry, blacksmithing, and weaving. For more information about the individual experiences of enslaved workers at Highland, visit: https://highland.org/enslaved-biographies/.
The selected primary sources present Monroe’s contradictions pertaining to slavery, while also giving voice to enslaved workers and demonstrating agency against their enslavement. The letters to William Noland and Fulwar Skipwith reveal sspecific dilemmas Monroe faced regarding Roger, Ralph, and Ralph’s wife. The advertisement for George and Phebe, as well as the recollections of Garland Monroe, offer examples of resistance. The manumission papers of Peter Marks provide valuable insight into the only instance when Monroe freed one of his enslaved workers.
Document Based Questions
- What is ironic about James Monroe’s assertion that his enslaved workers should not be “cruelly treated?”
- Why did James Monroe consider the incident between Mr. Jennings and Ralph to be an “unfavorable circumstance?”
- How does this letter shed light on James Monroe’s difficulties in being an absentee landowner?
Manumission Papers of Peter Marks (Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania)
- What qualities was Peter Marks commended for by Tench Ringgold?
- What would the certification of Peter Marks’ status mean to him?
- Why might James Monroe have freed Peter Marks?
- Why did James Monroe write this letter to Fulwar Skipwith?
- In what way did James Monroe accommodate Roger?
- How did James Monroe describe the effect of his absence on Highland?
- What does this letter disclose about James Monroe’s ownership of enslaved individuals?
- Why did Garland Monroe’s family meet the “stump preacher” in the woods near Monticello?
- How did Garland Monroe’s brother Henry escape from the patrollers?
- How could the passage of time influence Garland Monroe’s recollections?
- How does the bias of the writer and era in which it was recorded support stereotypes about African-Americans?
- What elements of agency and resistance are evident in this advertisement?
- What can be learned about George and Phebe from this advertisement?
- Can you tell what date George and Phebe ran away? Is there a significance to that date?
- What do these sources reveal about the institution of slavery?
- How do primary source documents give voice to the enslaved and highlight their resistance to slavery?
- How should society today remember James Monroe in light of his accomplishments and enslavement of people?
- Why would James Monroe continue to enslave people despite expressing opposition to the institution?
Virginia Standards of Learning
CE.1 The student will demonstrate skills for historical thinking, geographical analysis, economic decision making, and responsible citizenship by
d) determining the accuracy and validity of information by separating fact and opinion and recognizing bias.
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;
VUS.6 The student will apply social science skills to understand major events in Virginia and United States history during the first half of the nineteenth century by
g) evaluating and explaining the multiple causes and compromises leading to the Civil War, including the role of the institution of slavery
Grades 9-12 Analyze the argument that the institution of slavery retarded the emergence of capitalist institutions and values in the South. [Evaluate major debates among historians]
Grades 5-12 Describe the plantation system and the roles of their owners, their families, hired white workers, and enslaved African Americans. [Consider multiple perspectives]
Grades 5-12 Identify the various ways in which African Americans resisted the conditions of their enslavement and analyze the consequences of violent uprisings. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]
Grades 7-12 Evaluate how enslaved African Americans used religion and family to create a viable culture and ameliorate the effects of slavery. [Obtain historical data]
Bibliography & Suggested Readings
Fleming, Kevin. “Highland: Research on Monroe, his properties, and his slaves.” (2013).
Gawalt, Gerard W. “James Monroe, Presidential Planter.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 101, No. 2 (April 1993): pp. 251-272.
Hammond, John C. “President, Planter, Politician: James Monroe, the Missouri Crisis, and the Politics of Slavery.” The Journal of American History (March 2019): pp. 843-867.
Leshan, Bruce. “President James Monroe enslaved hundreds of people. Now, their descendants are helping re-write his story.” WUSA9. January 27, 2020. https://www.wusa9.com/article/news/local/president-monroe-descendants-rewriting-history-virginia/65-754500bd-bdfd-4b10-8f3d-755f9cfa5316.
Preston, Daniel. “James Monroe and the Practicalities of Emancipation and Colonization.” in New Directions in the Study of African Recolonization, Eds. Beverly C. Tomek et al. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2017. pp. 1-14.
Scherr, Arthur. “Governor James Monroe and the Southhampton Slave Resistance of 1799.” The Historian 61, No. 3 (Spring 1999): pp. 557-578.
Svrluga, Susan. “Descendants of Enslaved Blacks Explore Virginia History.” The Washington Post. December 13, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/12/13/william-and-mary-slavery-oral-history/.