Archive for the ‘Founding fathers’ Category

Location: Charlottesville, Virginia, about two miles from Monticello 

View of Ashlawn Highland, home of James Monroe

James Monroe’s Ashlawn-Highland is a stark contrast to Mr. Jefferson’s intellectual pleasure palace just two miles down the road. The home is beautiful, but quite small, and reflective of the gifts of its owner. As a president and a man, Monroe strikes me very much in the mold of Harry Truman or Gerald Ford. To his detractors, he was a partisan hack who put political loyalties first. To his admirers, he was a good and decent man on whom his country leaned in times of crisis without ever fully appreciating him.

James Monroe

James Monroe: No pushover, he

Monroe’s connections with Thomas Jefferson ran deep. When the Revolution broke out, Monroe was one of the young students at the College of William and Mary who raided the Governor’s Palace and liberated the swords and muskets that were stored there. He enlisted in the Continental Army and was badly wounded in the shoulder at the Battle of Trenton, an incident recounted in fascinating detail in David Hackett Fischer’s book Washington’s Crossing. Back home in Virginia, he studied the law with none other than former governor Jefferson (himself a brilliant attorney). As a Jefferson ally, he was soon elected to the Virgina House of Delegates, the Continental Congress, and at age 32, to the United States Senate.

In 1794, Monroe was appointed U.S. minister to France at the height of the French Revolution. Like Jefferson, Monroe strongly favored the revolution but not the extreme bloody turn that it took. He acted quickly to rescue all the Americans who fell from favor and faced a potential turn at the guillotine, including Thomas Paine and Madame Lafayette. But his bent for the radical faction also earned him the ire of President Washington back home, who fired Monroe and ordered him to return home.

Ashlawn Highland's incredible white oak was planted in Monroe's day

Politics had taken an ugly, paranoid turn as the political class, once united as the “Founding Fathers,” split apart into Hamiltonian (Federalist) and Jeffersonian (Republican) parties. As a leading Jeffersonian, Monroe was elected governor of Virginia; outside the state he was criticized by Hamiltonians as a French dupe, a Jacobin, and occasionally, a traitor. The election of 1800 was disputed between Jefferson and Aaron Burr and came down to a narrow vote in the House of Representatives. Many believed that Monroe and other middle state governors were prepared to arm their state militias and attempt to overthrow the government if Burr somehow won the election.

What makes Ashlawn-Highland a “Lewis & Clark” stop is, of course, Monroe’s next act, a critical role in the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France. As detailed in our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe (on sale now, click “Buy Now,” folks), Louisiana had been the pawn of France and Spain for decades, and a major impediment to the dreams of Americans like Jefferson who dreamed of westward expansion.

Around 1800, the master French diplomat Talleyrand became concerned about Spain’s weakness in North America. It was easy to see that the Americans were a rising people and would eventually overrun the Spanish territory, with or without their government’s consent. Talleyrand negotiated the cession of Louisiana back to France, though for the most part it continued to be administered by Spanish officials.

Liz touring the outbuildings of James Monroe's Ashlawn Highland

As president, Jefferson was trying to maintain cordial relations with both European powers, but the French takeover of Louisiana was a setback to say the least. It seems that Talleyrand and his boss, Napoleon, had big dreams for reestablishing a true French colonial presence in Louisiana. As Jefferson wrote to his minister to France, Robert Livingston, “There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our habitual and natural enemy. It is New Orleans, through which the produce of three-eighths of our territory must pass to market … France, placing herself in that door, assumes to us the attitude of defiance…” A inveterate hater of all things British, Jefferson began to reluctantly eye an alliance with Britain as the only way to ensure that U.S. commerce could travel freely on the seas … unless …

In 1802, Jefferson sent his old friend James Monroe to France with $2 million and an order to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans and “West Florida” (the present-day Gulf Coast of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and the Florida Panhandle) from the French. Even as Monroe was crossing the Atlantic, things were happening fast. The plans of Napoleon and Talleyrand had collapsed in the face of an unexpectedly bloody and costly uprising in Santo Domingo (Haiti). When Monroe arrived on the scene, he found the French leaders ready to smash it all for cash — not just New Orleans, but the entire Louisiana Territory, almost one million square miles of land.

Many historians believe that Napoleon and Talleyrand believed they could simply lift the Americans’ wallets, then take the territory away again by force when they got back on their feet. In any case, in a whirlwind succession of secret meetings, and without any authority whatsoever except their faith that Thomas Jefferson had their backs, Monroe and Livingston concluded the deal, purchasing Louisiana for a cool $15 million — surely one of the greatest real estate bargains in world history.

Statue of James Monroe at Ashlawn Highland

Historian John W. Foster wrote of the significance of the Louisiana Purchase this way: “It made the acquisition of Florida a necessity. It brought about the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, the thirst for more slave territory to preserve the balance of power, the Civil War, and the abolition of slavery. It led to our Pacific Coast possessions, the construction of the transcontinental lines of railway and our marvelous Rocky Mountain development, the demand for the Isthmus Canal, the purchase of Alaska, the annexation of Hawaii … it fixed our destiny for world power.”

 Not bad for two weeks’ work in a long and storied political career. Thanks, James Monroe.

Read Full Post »

Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, keeper of the French botanical gardens, was known for his theory of degeneracy. He also thought that the Earth was formed by the collision of a large body with the Sun and that it might be up to 75000 years old, rather than the 6000 year limit set by the Bible.

It is difficult to imagine now the depth of ignorance that European scientists possessed about the Americas back in Lewis & Clark’s day. The greatest and most influential naturalist of the 18th century, French scientist Georges Louis LeClerc, the comte of Buffon, published extensively on the New World and essentially trashed it. Buffon wrote that the New World had emerged much later from the biblical flood and was thus still in the process of drying out. It was possessed of an unhealthy climate and rife with underdeveloped animals that couldn’t hold a candle to the lions and elephants in the Old World. Worse still were the people, Buffon wrote. The Indians were hairless and cold-blooded, like reptiles, and possessed of tiny and weak genitals. And black people were becoming lighter, their African glory fading away from some mysterious environmental cause. (As Dave Barry used to say, I am not making this up.)

Considering that Buffon in his day had a reputation akin to that of Charles Darwin in a later era, these were devastating charges. Among educated Europeans, America essentially had a reputation as a degenerated land full of barbarous and debased people and animals. These notions filtered down to the man on the street as well: Hessian mercenaries who fought with the British in the American Revolution wrote home of their surprise to find their opponents to be white men not so different from themselves. Literary critics even blamed America’s climate for the continent’s alleged failure to produce a decent artist or writer.

In what has been called the most important American book written before 1800, America’s leading intellectual — Thomas Jefferson — took on Buffon and the European scientific establishment. First published in France in 1785, Notes on the State of Virginia would be the only book Jefferson ever wrote. He requested that one of the first copies off the press be delivered personally to Buffon.

Jefferson the surveyor overlooks the north grounds of the University of Virginia campus.

The first section of Notes is usually omitted from modern reprints, but Jefferson considered it to be the heart of his argument. Side by side in table after table, Jefferson compared the animals of the Old World and the New World by weight. In almost every instance the American animal was larger, in many cases astoundingly so. The American cow weighed in at 2500 pounds vs. 763 for a European heifer. The bear tipped the scales at 410 pounds vs. 153 for a European bear. And so on. Jefferson even estimated the weight of the extinct prehistoric mammoths being uncovered in the United States to counter Buffon’s jibe about the New World’s lack of elephants. Among those who helped Jefferson gather this data on American animals were Doctor Thomas Walker, explorer of the Cumberland Gap and relative of Meriwether Lewis, and George Rogers Clark, conqueror of the Old Northwest and brother of William Clark.

Jefferson also refuted Buffon’s statements about the Indians who were, he wrote, “neither more defective in ardor nor more impotent with his female than the white.” Indians were “in body and mind the equal of the white man.” Indians were at an earlier stage of the civilization process, it was true, but that was not due to a lack of native genius; in fact, Jefferson could cite numerous instances in which Indians had assimilated, a process which was bound to continue as they became more familiar with “husbandry and the household arts.”

This folk art piece was created between 1790 and 1800 and is known as "The Old Plantation." Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg, Virginia.

Unfortunately, Jefferson decided to weigh in on the merits or lack thereof of the African-American race, and these statements hang over Notes of the State of Virginia today. His statements on the character and appearance of slaves are all the more tragic because of what we know to be his hypocrisy on the puzzlement as to just why those Africans were lightening up in the New World. In the interest of not letting Jefferson off the hook, a brief excerpt of his views on skin color:

And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?

The underlying tone of the narrative section of Jefferson’s Notes is confrontational. In it, Jefferson submitted questions designed to embarrass and expose the great Buffon for his pseudo-science. Who, Jefferson wanted to know, were the European travelers who had supplied the naturalist with his information? Where was the data about the animals they encountered? Could it be examined?

A primo New Hampshire moose

Shortly after the publication of Notes, Jefferson was named United States minister to France. Though Jefferson generally avoided personal confrontations, he courted one with Buffon, calling upon him to present him with the hide of an exceptionally large American panther. Jefferson repeated many of his questions to Buffon in person, finally telling him that the American moose was so large that a European reindeer could walk under its belly. Buffon called Jefferson’s challenge, telling the upstart Virginian that if he could produce moose antlers that corroborated his story, he would retract his statements about the degeneracy of New World animals.

Jefferson swung into action, bombarding his contacts back in the States with requests for moose and other American animals that would essentially bludgeon the smirk off Buffon’s face for good. Governor John Sullivan of New Hampshire was deputized to get the moose, but unfortunately bungled the job and ended up sending Jefferson a hodgepodge of several animals. However, Jefferson apparently wore Buffon down with his dogged pursuit of the truth. Reportedly, Buffon promised Jefferson to set the record straight on New World animals, but he died in 1788 before he had the chance to write further on the subject.

Jefferson and his proteges continued lifelong work on examining the creatures, geology, and native peoples of America. Some twenty-five years later, the naturalist Alexander Wilson, a close friend of Meriwether Lewis’s, was still excoriating Buffon. In his landmark nine-volume American Ornithology, Wilson calls special attention to Buffon as a man who committed countless errors “with equal eloquence and absurdity.”

More great reading: Notes on the State of Virginia (full text)
Thomas Jefferson’s Archaeological Dig

Read Full Post »

We’ve been ragging on Thomas Jefferson a lot in this blog lately. In the interest of fairness, we feel compelled to give TJ a bit of positive face time. For your entertainment, here is a fantastic satirical video by Soomo Publishing, which uses the song “Apologize” by  One Republic, featuring Timbaland, to illustrate the momentous events leading up to the Declaration of Independence. You will see Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and cohorts in a whole new rockin’ way. I wish this had been around when I was studying high school history. I bet teachers and students alike love it. Enjoy!

Read Full Post »

Location: Ten miles south of Lynchburg, Virginia

Poplar Forest -- Thomas Jefferson's "other" home

Speak the name “Thomas Jefferson,” and it won’t be a minute before the subject of Monticello comes up. Jefferson’s magnificent mountaintop home in Charlottesville is an indelible reflection of the personality, character, and even the quirks of the third president of the United States. But what I didn’t know until recently is that Jefferson had a second home about sixty miles west of Monticello (about a three-day carriage trip in those days). Nestled along a winding mountain road south of present-day Lynchburg, Poplar Forest is where Jefferson spent the bulk of his retirement years, trying to evade his own celebrity and find time for peace, writing, and reflection.

Not surprisingly, Poplar Forest somewhat resembles a miniature version of Monticello, but the first insight into Jefferson can be found before you even catch a glimpse of the house: Jefferson really, REALLY didn’t want to be bothered out here. Even today, nestled in a quiet and semi-rural suburb, Poplar Forest can be reached only after trekking over a gravel road through a densely wooded area.

Campeachy chair at Poplar Forest. This back-saving style was Jefferson's favorite in old age; he bought several and had several others made by carpenter John Hemings (Sally Hemings' brother).

The history of the mansion is very interesting. Jefferson inherited the property on which Poplar Forest stands from his wife. As he aged, he found the siege of visitors at Monticello unbearable, and built the house here as a retirement home and retreat. From the time he left the White House in 1809 until he was about 80 and became too old to make the trip, Jefferson spent much of the year at Poplar Forest, accompanied by his books and his brainy granddaughters.

I really enjoyed learning about Jefferson’s granddaughters Ellen and Cornelia Randolph. Ellen was 17 and Cornelia 20 when Jefferson first began living at Poplar Forest in 1816. Jefferson was proud of their studious ways, calling them “the severest readers I have ever met with,” quite a compliment from one of the great minds of any age. The girls were well-versed in history, philosophy, literature, and the classics, but they were also witty and fun-loving, as their letters reveal. And they brought out the doting side of Jefferson as no one else ever did. I laughed out loud in recognition of my own father at the story that Jefferson loaded up the carriage with a variety of sweaters and cloaks for the girls, in case they encountered any bad weather.

Bust of Cornelia Randolph, by William Coffee (1819)

As with Monticello, the house at Poplar Forest was quirky and sui generis — which created a problem after Jefferson passed away. Jefferson’s grandson Francis Eppes considered the estate a white elephant and sold it just two years after Jefferson’s death. For the families that came after, it was a completely impractical residence, and attempts to remodel and convert the large rooms to a more conventional lifestyle only damaged the historic character of the home without really making it more livable. In 1984, the house was purchased by a non-profit. A complete and amazingly detailed exterior renovation was completed in 2009, and an interior restoration is currently underway.

As with Monticello, Jefferson monkeyed constantly with the house and the surrounding landscape, trying to apply various innovations and principles of design. For example, in one project, Jefferson had his slaves dig up the entire lawn to create a sloping effect. In a related project, they used the dirt to create an artificial hillside to “balance” an additional wing Jefferson had constructed on the other side of the house. The effort is lovely, I suppose, but for me it was difficult not to feel disgusted and aggravated with Jefferson’s self-indulgence and overspending, which left his family destitute after his death.

We were fortunate to visit Poplar Forest on the greatest of all Jeffersonian holidays: July Fourth. The expansive lawn was buzzing with musicians in period costumes, historical demonstrations, and booths peddling fun old-fashioned crafts. We cooled off with a great snow cone while listening to the ceremonial reading of the Declaration of Independence.

Poplar Forest is a fascinating Jefferson site, one that gives a fuller, more three-dimensional picture of the architect of westward expansion in his older years. It’s an architectural and cultural treasure, and I can’t wait to visit again in a few years to see the secrets of the interior restoration begin to reveal themselves.

For more reading: Great article on the restoration of Poplar Forest

Read Full Post »

James Monroe

James Monroe: No pushover, he

Early America wasn’t for sissies. In the 18th century, even the most distinguished gentlemen who moved in the highest of circles had to be ready to rumble. I recently read that President James Monroe, who carried a bullet in his shoulder throughout his life from the Battle of Trenton, once got into a heated argument with his Secretary of the Treasury, William Crawford, over the issue of government patronage. Crawford—who had once killed a man in a duel—called Monroe “a damned infernal old scoundrel.” Monroe responded by grabbing up a pair of fireplace tongs and brandishing them at Crawford’s head. Fortunately tempers cooled before actual blood was shed.

President's House, Philadelphia

President's House, Philadelphia

One of my favorite anecdotes about George Washington comes from the book Historic Philadelphia, published by the American Philosophical Society. George Washington was at home in the President’s House on Market Street one morning when he heard a scream from downstairs. Charging down half-dressed and half-shaved, he found a tradesman molesting one of his maids. Washington promptly grabbed the man, spun him around, and booted him out the door. With a big, bare, presidential foot.

General George Rogers Clark is a major character in our book The Fairest Portion of the Globe, and his military exploits during the American Revolution are the stuff of legend. Clark was also about as close as a real person can be to a character in a romantic novel. In descriptions of Clark written by his contemporaries, I am always struck by two things. The writer never fails to mention Clark’s intelligence. And, he was evidently an attractive “hunk” of a man.

George Rogers Clark Defending the Stockade, by F.C. Yohn

George Rogers Clark Defending the Stockade, by F.C. Yohn

One of the earliest contemporaneous descriptions of George Rogers Clark comes from the journal of Englishman Nicholas Creswell, who encountered the 22-year old Clark on a journey down the Ohio River in 1775. “We took into our company Captain George Clark,” Creswell wrote. “This morning Captn Clark (who I find is an intelligent man) showed me a root that the Indians call pocoon, good for the bite of a rattle snake.” Creswell didn’t get along with some of the Americans, whom he called “red-hot liberty men,” but he noted, “Clark always behaved well while he stayed with us.”

Clark’s dignified, self-controlled conduct seemed to be a striking feature of his personality. Governor John Reynolds of Illinois in particular seems to have had a man-crush on Clark.

Col. Clark himself was nature’s favorite, in his person as well as his mind. He was large and athletic, capable of enduring much—yet formed with such noble symmetry and manly beauty, that he combined much grace and elegance together with great firmness of character. He was grave and dignified in deportment, agreeable and affable with his soldiers when relaxed from duty, but in a crisis, when the fate of a campaign was at stake or the lives of his brave warriors were in danger he became stern and severe. His appearance in these perils indicated without language to his men that every soldier must do his duty.

Father Pierre Gibault

Father Pierre Gibault of Kaskaskia

A six-foot redhead with rugged good looks, Clark personified an early American type made famous by Natty Bumppo in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales: the tough, resourceful frontier gentleman. That sometimes meant a little bit of backwoods flash. A Kentucky contemporary said of Clark, “His appearance, well calculated to attract attention, was rendered particularly agreeable by the manliness of his deportment and the intelligence of his conversation.” Clark’s own accounts of his Illinois campaign reveal a frank, dignified, unpretentious character. However, he also knew how to use shock and awe. When Clark and his men captured Kaskaskia in June of 1778, a delegation of terrified townspeople, led by the village priest Father Pierre Gibault, came to learn how Clark intended to deal with them. Clark left this account in his memoir:

After some time the priest got permission to wait on me. He came, with five or six elderly gentlemen with him. However shocked they already were from their situation, the addition was obvious and great when they entered the room where I was sitting with other officers [all making] a dirty, savage appearance. As we had left our clothes at the river, we were almost naked, and torn by the bushes and briars. They were shocked, and it was some time before they could venture to take seats, and longer before they would speak.

The townspeople begged for permission to gather at the church, which Clark permitted. The next day, with everyone still terrified and expecting to be imprisoned or executed at any moment, a cleaned-up Clark was at pains to assure them that no one was going to be hurt and that the Virginians were “not savages and plunderers as they conceived.” Henry Hamilton disagreed, calling Clark and his men “unprincipled motley Banditti” after Clark forced him to surrender Fort Sackville.

Hamilton surrenders Fort Sackville, 1779

Clark and his "unprincipled motley Banditti" take Ft. Sackville, 1779

My all-time favorite description of George Rogers Clark comes from a brief but incredibly descriptive memoir on a fascinating genealogical site, written by a woman named Lucy Clark Moorman. What a writer she was! In a 1786 letter to Thomas Moorman of Albemarle County, Virginia, she gives us this indelible picture of the immortal “Hannibal of the West.”

We have seen Rogers Clark but once in 10 years, he migrated from about Lynch’s Crossing, I think about 1775 to Fincastle on the Ohio River, but he was back to see us a year afterwards when he came to see the Governor of Virginia about defense of that part of the state. Rogers made several trips back into the state since then and it is not always to see how the Indians were doing.

He always came unexpectedly and since he needed no daylight to see where he was going, he always moved at night. Sister Mary says George often visits them, but since he is an owl and disdains even moonlight, he travels on dark nights. When he comes home he stretches his long legs on the settee and entertains the boys with his histories of savagery in the country.

Rogers has sifted the ways and doings of most folk in this part of the dominion and knows every oaf who favors the King’s party. We were always afraid that no good would come of his talking before the boys. Zachariah and Bolling always had a spell of tinkering with old saw blades to make a cutlass after he was gone.

We often kept a dip burning in the window and some soup on the stove to cheer the poor fellows that were prowling about at night. I am glad to help them but when our boys go with them on some desperate foray, I am always afraid of trouble. …

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts