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James Monroe and Ash Lawn-Highland

By John T. Marck


                James Monroe was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, in April 1758 to Spence, a farmer and joiner, and Elizabeth Jones Monroe. In 1774, at the age of 16, Monroe traveled to Williamsburg, Virginia, to study at the College of William and Mary. In1776, his studies were cut short as he left college to join General Washington's army to fight in the Revolutionary War.  

Monroe served well and was a courageous officer and was severely wounded at the Battle of Trenton, just before Washington's famous crossing of the Delaware, as well as spent the winter with him at Valley Forge. Following six years of fighting, the war ended and America won its freedom from England and a new nation was formed, the United States of America. 

To help build this new nation, James would spend much of his life serving his country.  In 1803 to 1807 he was a U.S. Minister in France, England and Spain. While in France, it was Monroe that assisted in an agreement that would permit the United States to buy all the land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, known as the Louisiana Purchase, which by doing so, the United States more than doubled in size. In later years, Monroe also would serve as James Madison's Secretary of State and War during the War of 1812. 

It was Monroe's vision that caused him to look at the United States as a total nation, rather than a group of different geographical areas. Besides the Louisiana Purchase, one of his most famous actions was his Monroe Doctrine.  In this, Monroe said that all countries in North and South America should be free from European control and dominance. This came as a result because during his presidency, many of his cabinet members and advisors came from different countries. 

 Although tirelessly dedicated to serving the United States, his first love was that of his native Virginia. As a young man he served in Richmond as a member of the Virginia General Assembly where he helped make new laws for the state. In later years he would go on to serve of its governor four times, as well as he represented Virginia in the United States Senate. When his good friend Thomas Jefferson had founded the University of Virginia, Monroe helped govern the new institution, and once owned the land, which is the main ground of the university today. Upon retiring from the presidency, James also helped write Virginia's new constitution. 

James Monroe and his wife Elizabeth and their daughters, Eliza and Maria Hester, lived next to Jefferson's Monticello in Charlottesville, in a plantation house known as Highland in 1799, which is Ash Lawn-Highland today, at 1000 James Monroe Parkway. Besides being good friends with Jefferson, they also were close to James and Dolley Madison, and is it said that they were the Monroe's first guests they entertained upon moving there. It is said that Monroe's friend Thomas Jefferson, who lived only two and a half miles away at Monticello, selected the house's location and helped design it. In fact, an early letter written by Jefferson while in Europe to Monroe exists, in which Jefferson asks Monroe, "What measures have you taken for establishing yourself near Monticello?"  Monroe's "cabin castle" as he called it, was once part of a 1,000-acre plantation.  

When the Monroe's lived at Highland, 30 to 40 slaves and freed servants worked to serve the Monroe family and their guests. The field slaves had quarters at some distance from the main house, but the house servants lived close to the big house in a three-bay / three-family slave quarter. The slave dwellings had fireplaces for cooking and warmth. The present slave quarter building has been reconstructed. 

Ash Lawn-Highland is an historic house museum, a 535-acre working farm, and performing arts site. It was here that the Monroe family lived until their house at Oak Hill was built. Monroe and his wife, Elizabeth Kortright Monroe of New York, owned the property from 1793 to 1826 and made it their official residence from 1799 to 1823. After the Monroe's' death, the name of their farm was changed from "Highland" to "Ash Lawn, and today both names are used. 

Philanthropists Jay Winston and Helen Lambert Johns opened ash Lawn-Highland to the public in 1931. Upon Mr. John's death in late 1974, Mr. Johns bequeathed Ash Lawn-Highland to the College of William and Mary, both his and James Monroe's alma mater. Accepting the Johns bequest "to operate this property as a historic shrine for the education of the general public," the College initiated new programs in restoration and interpretation at Ash Lawn-Highland. 

Ash Lawn-Highland continues the tradition begun by the Monroe=s of welcoming friends, neighbors, dignitaries, and visitors. James Monroe's "place of comfort and hospitality" is the scene of meetings, parties, picnics, a summer music festival, and a variety of educational and special events. It continues to provide an authentic view of nineteenth-century life for our many other visitors through examples of early American and Victorian architecture, decorative arts from those periods, and craft demonstrations on the grounds. 

When visiting Ash Lawn-Highland, upon entering the mansion house, you find yourself in the entrance hall. Exhibits here and in the adjoining exhibit room, are both part of the wing that was added in the 1880s, which introduce James Monroe, his family, and his political career. The drop-leaf table, circa 1825, is made from Honduras mahogany. It was sent to Monroe on behalf of the people of Santo Domingo, now the Dominican Republic, in gratitude for Monroe's statement of foreign policy, known as the Monroe Doctrine. A framed copy of quotations from the Monroe Doctrine hangs in this room. In addition to a bust of Monroe, sculpted by Attilio Piccirilli in 1931, the room features a selection of china used by the Monroe's in the White House and their residences. 

Although Monroe's "cabin-castle" is typical of farmhouses in the 1800s, the furnishings are distinctive and elegant. It provides visitors with the opportunity to see a variety of furnishings and decorative items from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

The Monroe=s imported many items from Napoleon's France. For example, the chairs in the drawing room are fine examples of the Neoclassical influence during the French Empire that were crafted in Paris about 1800. The Chaudet bust of Napoleon is something that he himself gave to Monroe. The antique nineteenth-century wallpaper, Paysage a Chasse by Jean Zuber, re-creates the feeling of tapestries owned by the Monroe=s, and the carpet features French Empire decorative details. Queen Hortense of Holland gave the three portraits (of herself, her brother Eugene, and Madame Campan, headmistress of the school attended by Hortense and Eliza Monroe) to the Monroe=s upon the christening of Hortensia Monroe Hay, Eliza's daughter and the first Monroe grandchild. In addition to the classically inspired French furnishings imported from Europe at the time of Napoleon, visitors find American craftsmanship in Monroe's mahogany bed and other furniture following the designs of Duncan Phyfe. Earlier American designs such as a mid-eighteenth-century table and a Windsor rocker are also present. Imported English styles include the bow front china cabinet and a set of eagle-back chairs dating to the time of George III (1738-1820) and George IV (1762-1830), who served as Prince Regent from 1810 to 1820.  

The dining room features a Hepplewhite dining table purchased shortly after the Monroe's marriage in 1786, and the addition of semicircular banquet ends allows it to be expanded for guests. The table setting showcases a circa-1815 epergne and a gleaming English plateau. The Monroe's used the imported French mirror, or pier glass, to enhance the sense of space in a room and to reflect light from candles, still an important source of illumination in the 1800s. Part of a two-dozen set, the hand-carved chairs are an American Federal interpretation of the French Empire style. The hand-painted floor cloth is reminiscent of floor coverings of the period.  

In the Monroe’s' bedroom, you will find a high-post bed, distinguished by its hand-carved feather-and-palm motifs, conceals a trundle, which provided additional sleeping space. Eli Terry of Connecticut, the clockmaker who taught Seth Thomas, is believed to have made the pillar-and-scroll clock on the mantel. The American marble-topped chest of drawers was made for Monroe and was used in the White House. The shaving mirror found here was crafted from salvage after the British burned the White House during the War of 1812.  

James Monroe's study, which he added in 1816, offers reminders of the fifth president's political career. The Louis XVI desk is almost identical to the desk upon which Monroe wrote his 1823 address to Congress, which is known as "Monroe Doctrine." Newspapers seen on the desk report on President Monroe's official tours. Monroe used the early 19th-century French clock on the mantle during his presidency while in the White House. The bow front cabinet is adorned with a miniature portrait of an unknown British gentleman. The original desk on which Monroe wrote his "Doctrine" is today in the James Monroe Museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia.   

During the time of Monroe, continuous activity occurred in the kitchen and the service yard to the south of the main house. Servants would prepare meals in the basement or "the stone kitchen cellar," described as such by Monroe in his 1809 insurance policy. Nearby stairs offer an easy access to the upper gallery porch from the kitchen and adjoining wine cellar. Within a few steps away, water could be drawn from Monroe’s well. The neatly organized kitchen yard still contains the original Smokehouse for curing meats and fish and the Overseer's Cottage, possibly the oldest building still standing on the farm. Between those two buildings stands a reconstruction of the original three-room Slave Quarters, as it was customary at the time for the house servants to live near the main house. When the Monroe's lived at Highland, 30 to 40 slaves and freed servants worked to serve the Monroe family and their guests. The field slaves had quarters at some distance from the main house, but the house servants lived close to the big house in a three-bay-three-family slave quarter. The slave dwellings had fireplaces for cooking and warmth. 

On the far side of the kitchen yard, an icehouse preserved ice, which was cut from a shallow pond and stored between layers of straw or sawdust from Monroe's sawmill.  

When Monroe added his study in 1816, he also added the children's room. This room contains a king's crown canopy bed like that in which Maria Hester slept, the Monroe’s' younger daughter. At age 11, Maria Hester Monroe stitched the sampler that sits beside the bed.  

Admission to Ash Lawn-Highland is Adults: $9.00; Seniors (60 and older): $8.00; AAA-Members (with ID): $8.00; Children (6-11): $5.00; and Local Residents from the counties of Albemarle, Augusta, Buckingham, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa, Nelson, Orange and Rockingham, $5.00. Local residents admission is free when bringing a full-paying out-of-town guest. Ash Lawn - Highland is now famous for the magnificent boxwood and the peacocks that reside there.   

Following the death of his beloved wife, Elizabeth, who died 1830, James Monroe left Virginia for the last time to live with his younger daughter in New York City. It would be here that he died at the age of 73 on July 4, 1831, five years to the day after John Adams and, his old friend Thomas Jefferson, had died. In the last months of his life, Monroe would think often of his beloved Virginia and his friends there. Upon his death, Monroe was first buried in New York, but in 1858, was returned home to Virginia, and now rests in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.  

On the grounds of Ash Lawn-Highland is a Historic Marker that reads: This estate was the home of James Monroe, fifth President of the United States. In 1793, James and Elizabeth Kortright Monroe purchased 1,000 acres adjoining Jefferson's Monticello. Called Highland, the plantation, eventually totaling 3,500 acres, was their principal residence from 1799 to 1823. Known in foreign affairs for the Monroe Doctrine, James Monroe also served as governor of Virginia for four one-year terms, U. S. Minister to England, France, and Spain, U. S. senator, and secretary of state and war. Enlarged and renamed by subsequent owners, Ash Lawn - Highland is now owned by Monroe's alma mater, the College of William and Mary.  

When you plan your next visit to Monticello, be sure to stop and visit Ash Lawn-Highland!

 Quick Biographical Facts:


5th President

Term- March 4, 1817 to March 4, 1825

Democratic-Republican Party


Birth: Westmoreland County, Virginia, April 28, 1758.

Ancestry: Scotch


New York, New York, February 15, 1786 to Elizabeth Kortright who was born in New York City, June 30, 1768. Elizabeth died in Oak Hill, Virginia, September 23, 1830 and is buried in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia.

Children: Eliza (1787- ?); Maria Hester (1804-1850).

Homes: Ash Lawn-Highland, Charlottesville, Virginia; Oak Hill, Loudown County, Virginia.

Education: Parson Campbell's School; College of William and Mary.

Religion: Episcopalian

Occupation before Presidency: Lawyer

Military Service: Officer in Third Virginia Regiment and Continental Army (1776-1779).

Pre-Presidential Offices: Military Commissioner for Southern Army; Representative to Virginia Legislature; Member of Governor Jefferson's Council; Representative to Continental Congress, Virginia House of Delegates, Virginia Assembly, U.S. Senate; Minister to England; Governor of Virginia; Secretary of State and of War.

Age at Inauguration: 58

First Administration: Vice-President: Daniel D. Tompkins of New York, Inauguration March 4, 1817, The Capital, Washington D.C.

Second Administration: Vice-President: Daniel D. Tompkins of New York, Inauguration March 5, 1821, House of Representatives, Washington D.C.

Occupation after Presidency: Writer

Death: New York, New York, July 4, 1831

Cause of Death: Debility at age 73.

Place of Burial: Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia.

Interesting Facts:

His greatest legacy as President was the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, encouraging European nations to keep their hands off the American continent and promising that the United States would stay out of European quarrels. Monroe was the first President to use a globe to explain the Monroe Doctrine to his cabinet.

The Marine Band made its first public appearance at the second inaugural of James Monroe.

Monroe carried a dismal reminder of the Revolutionary War. It was a bullet, lodged in his left shoulder, received at the Battle of Trenton. It remained there throughout his life.

Maria Hester Monroe, the daughter of James Monroe, was the first daughter of a President to be married in the White House in 1820.


I would like to thank the personnel at Ash Lawn Highland for their informational assistance with this article. Sections in part are from descriptions supplied directly by Ash Lawn Highland. Copyright © 1992-2022 by John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.  Information also from The Presidents of the United States, by John T. Marck, and The First ladies of the United States, By John T. Marck.


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