The Fifth President of the United States of America
Series on Presidential Slavery
James Monroe was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia. His father Spence Monroe was a moderately prosperous planter who also practiced carpentry. His paternal great-great-grandfather Patrick Andrew Monroe immigrated to America from Scotland in the mid-17th century, and was part of an ancient Scottish clan known as Clan Munro. In 1650 he patented a large tract of land in Washington Parish, Westmoreland County, Virginia. Monroe’s mother was the daughter of James Jones, who emigrated from Wales and settled in nearby King George County, Virginia. Jones was a wealthy architect.
Monroe sold his small Virginia plantation in 1783 to enter law and politics. He later fulfilled his childhood dream of becoming the owner of a large plantation and wielding great political power, but his plantation was never profitable. Although he owned much more land and many more slaves, and speculated in property, he was rarely on site to oversee the operations. Overseers treated the slaves harshly to force production, but the plantations barely broke even. Monroe incurred debts by his lavish and expensive lifestyle and often sold slaves to pay them off.
Monroe took several slaves with him to Washington to serve at the White House from 1817 to 1825. This was typical of other slaveholders, as Congress did not provide for domestic staff of the presidents at that time.
As president of Virginia’s constitutional convention in the fall of 1829, Monroe reiterated his belief that slavery was a blight which, even as a British colony, Virginia had attempted to eradicate them. He was willing to accept the federal government’s financial assistance to emancipate and transport freed slaves to other countries. Monroe made his final public statement on slavery, proposing that Virginia emancipate and deport its bondsmen with “the aid of the Union.”
When Monroe was Governor of Virginia in 1800, hundreds of slaves from Virginia planned to kidnap him, take Richmond, and negotiate for their freedom. Slave codes prevented slaves from being treated like whites, and they were given quick trials without a jury. Monroe influenced the Executive Council to pardon and sell some slaves instead of hanging them.
Monroe was active in the American Colonization Society, which supported the establishment of colonies outside of the United States for free African-Americans. The society helped send several thousand freed slaves to the new colony of Liberia in Africa from 1820 to 1840, these were Americans. Slave owners like Monroe and Andrew Jackson wanted to prevent free blacks from encouraging slaves in the South to rebel. Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, was named after President Monroe.
James Monroe’s plantation Highland enslaved women and men living on the property for several generations, and they had deeper connections to this place than did Monroe, who was often away in public office. Like other plantation owners and members of the founding generation, Monroe enslaved as many as 250 persons in his lifetime. He freed only one: Peter Marks, who was freed in a request made by Monroe during the last days of his life.
The contradiction that Monroe enslaved dozens of individuals at a time, while also calling for the abolition of slavery, was of a hypocritical nature. In an 1829 letter, he described slavery as “one of the evils still remaining, incident to our Colonial system”. Abolition, he thought, should be gradual, to avoid disruption of the social order and economy. He advocated and actively worked for the colonization and resettlement of newly freed blacks in Africa and the Caribbean. The contradiction between Monroe’s personal practice on the one hand, and his personal beliefs and political action on the other, cannot be denied. History now showing him to be a man aspiring to virtue and justice is simply not true.
Monroe’s views on slavery went unchanged for the remainder of his political career. Like many other whites, he feared violence from other rebellions, yet could not imagine sharing American liberty with free Blacks.
At Highland in 1810, Monroe one of county’s largest slave owners. Highland’s enslaved population included field workers and skilled workers (blacksmiths, carpenters, masons and “house servants”—including valets and maids, and a cook and her assistants). While Monroe was often away pursuing law and politics, the enslaved workers maintained Highland’s day-to-day operations and became intimately familiar with the surrounding countryside.
Monroe supported colonization as a means of gradually reducing, and ultimately abolishing, slavery in the United States. In 1817, Monroe’s first year as president, the American Colonization Society (ACS) formed for the repatriation of freed slaves to be sent to Africa. Five years later, Liberia was established as a place where freed U.S. slaves, as well as Africans captured on foreign slave ships, could be resettled. The country named its capital, Monrovia, after Monroe because of his endorsement of the ACS. Monroe was for freeing slaves, but not for allowing them to live in America, his intent was to send them out of the country.
By the 1820s, Highland’s profitability—which came from grain—plummeted, with dire consequences for enslaved field hands. Since cotton does not grow in the Virginia Piedmont, Monroe and neighboring farmers were left behind. Facing potential financial ruin, he listed Highland and his Loudoun County property, Oak Hill, for sale in the Richmond Enquirer. He first sold the house at Highland, and later its farmland a later sale dispersed a number of enslaved African Americans.
Life wasn’t easy for Highland’s enslaved population, and Monroe did not want his slaves to run away. Two slaves named George and Phoebe were among those who risked their lives to escape their conditions. After the pair ran away from Highland in July 1826, Monroe placed an advertisement in the local newspaper. Among the difficulties Highland slaves endured was the instability caused by frequent transfers between Monroe’s two properties according to work needs.
Overseers moved or separated slave families from different Monroe plantations in accordance with production and maintenance needs of each satellite plantation. One of Monroe’s slaves, Daniel, often ran away from his plantation in Albemarle County, to visit other slaves or separated family members. Monroe commonly called Daniel a “scoundrel” and described his “worthlessness” as a runaway slave. The practice of moving and separating slave families was common in the South and by orders from James Monroe.
When Monroe was selling the farmland at Highland in 1828, many of Monroe’s enslaved men, women, and children were enveloped in a larger movement of labor sold to the Deep South in the domestic slave trade. Those sold went to a cotton plantation called Casa Bianca in Jefferson County, Florida. Monroe did request that several of his slaves be sold together.
No matter what James Monroe accomplished during his lifetime, his record in my eyes and I hope the eyes of many will be tarnished forever. He spoke of kindness, yet, he still kept the African Americans on his plantation in bondage.
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