James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library
The James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library in Fredericksburg, VA, open since 1927, is located on the plot of land that held James Monroe's law office. It is open year-round with permanent, as well as traveling exhibits on President Monroe from his early colonial days as a Revolutionary soldier to his time as President and beyond. James Monroe served as our fifth President from 1817-1825 and is best remembered for his contributions to US foreign policy in the Monroe Doctrine and his help in facilitating, on President Jefferson’s orders, the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon and the French. Throughout his life Monroe was ubiquitous in the major events of the young country: he served several terms as Governor of Virginia, Ambassador and Minister to France, and was one of the Virginia delegates sent to ratify the US Constitution (though he did not support the document) in addition to serving two terms as US President.
Backstory and Context
James Monroe was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia in 1758. He briefly attended college at William & Mary before leaving to join the Revolutionary War effort. He served at the Battle of Trenton, where he was injured in 1776 and was present as a Lieutenant Colonel with George Washington at Valley Forge in 1779. It was in 1786, after his marriage to Elizabeth that he and his family moved to Fredericksburg where he served in the Virginia Legislature before accepting a position as Minister to France at President Jefferson’s request.
Later, as President, Monroe signed the Missouri Compromise, a bill that attempted to settle the dispute on the numbers of free and slave states in the county. It allowed Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state and Maine as a free one. This balancing act was characteristic of Monroe’s Presidency; he did not admit that Africans were equal to whites (much like Jefferson), but neither did he agree with the institution of chattel slavery. He believed that any attempt to end slavery would tear apart the country. Consequently, Monroe’s Presidency attempted to quell fears of a civil war and peacefully deal with the rift over the legitimacy of the practice of slavery.
Though Monroe presided over the “Era of Good Feelings”, he was not without controversy. He was a member, along with Andrew Jackson and other wealthy whites, in the American Colonization Society (ACS), a group that raised money to ship free African-Americans back to Africa because they believed African Americans could never truly assimilate into American culture. The organization existed to relieve tensions from clergy and other abolitionists about the safety and place of freed slaves in society and the fear of southern slave owners that free African-Americans were essentially a threat. The ACS’s first attempt sent three white ACS members and 88 emigrants aboard the Elizabeth to West Africa in 1819 to establish a colony around Liberia. The mission was a complete failure, three ACS members and 22 other emigrants died of yellow fever and the remaining crew scrambled for Sierra Leone for help. Later vessels had more success in delivering the free African-Americans, but were met with hostility by African natives.
James Monroe’s life was one of the most fascinating of any US President. He left an indelible mark on the formation of the country and the role of the Presidency. The Monroe’s family collection of heirloom furniture, James Monroe’s papers and effects, and other important historical artifacts are held and entrusted to the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg at the James Monroe Library.