Reading this week:
- The Green House by Mario Vargas Llosa
Second on our tour of presidential sites in the greater Charlottesville area was Highland, the home of James Monroe!
I arrived at Highland in a terrible mood because the DeLorean betrayed me and wouldn’t start, so we had to take an Uber there. But we had the place almost entirely to ourselves and the staff was all extremely friendly (the kind of friendly you get when you are there to talk to tourists and there are nearly no tourists to talk to) and although it was cloudy it was fairly warm and it is a gorgeous area nestled there in the uh highlands of the Virginia piedmont.
Although we were at Highland for James Monroe there is not really a whole lot of James Monroe there. Our most famous presidential doctrinaire bought the place I think because owning a plantation was the hip thing to do if you are an up and coming 18th century Virginian, and he bought this particular plot because his bff Jefferson was next door. There are three buildings at the site that are contemporary to James Monroe, and that does not include his house. The contemporary buildings are two rooms of a guest house he had built (the backside of the white building in the photo at the top) along with an overseer’s house and a smokehouse which I was disappointed to find had its door closed and locked so I couldn’t see if they had fake hams hanging up.
Once you poke around the grounds you can go into the guest house, which is connected to a larger yellow house and contains (I guess I should say houses) a museum to the plantation and James Monroe. It is quaint and I feel like they must feel like they’re in competition with the James Monroe Museum for James Monroe primacy. Nonetheless I learned a few things, like the fact that Monroe is the dude behind Washington in “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” They focus a lot on his foreign policy work and credentials, which is close to both my heart and my super amazing girlfriend’s, so that was interesting to read about. They have a number of James Monroe artifacts and I am certain that for all James Monroeifiles it is a must-visit.
Probably the most interesting thing about the site was sort of the history of the museum. Apparently for a long time they thought that the yellow house in the photo above was Monroe’s. It was only recently they figured out it wasn’t and that the original house had burned down shortly after Monroe died and his heirs had to sell the place to pay off Monroe’s debts. And then it was only about five years ago that they did some archeology and found the foundations of Monroe’s actual house, which are now outlined in the stones in the above photo. Pretty stunning that they’re still only just figuring out what his house actually looked like.
Overall the place had kind of a weird vibe, as in when you go to Washington’s place they’re like “a Great Man lived here” but Monroe’s place feels like the house of someone I could know. That’s not crazy, because most of the buildings on the site were built in the late 1800s, and even in New Haven there were plenty of antebellum buildings in the neighborhood I lived in, and those were occupied by grad students. If Highland has a major advantage over the other two presidential sites we went to, it was probably the sheep, which were very cute.
I praised Monticello for how they addressed slavery, and although Highland didn’t do a bad job it felt a little tacked on. I suspect it is because the place isn’t running on a massive budget and not only lacks the detailed records that Jefferson left behind but even if they had those they probably lack the resources to put up interactive displays or the like. Still, they name names where they can and make sure to not try to excuse or sweep under the rug Monroe’s status as an enslaver.
Overall I think we spent about an hour at Highland. If we had known and prepared better we probably could have taken advantage of the trails on the property, which extend into the woods and I am sure would have been quite beautiful. As it was we spent some time wandering around outside and pondering the balance between expansive foreign policy and being nestled into rolling foothills. Then we called an Uber (talk about labor relationships) and hit up a yarn store.