THE HOME OF JAMES MONROE’S OLD AGE
James Monroe, at twenty-eight, wrote from New York to Thomas Jefferson, with whom he had studied law :
“I shall leave this about the 1st of October for VirginiaFredericksburg. Believe me, I have not relinquished the prospect of being your neighbor. The house for which I have requested a plan may possibly be erected near Monticello; to fix there, and to have yourself in particular, with what friends we may collect around, for society is my chief object; or rather, the only one which promises to me, with the connection I have formed, real and substantial pleasure; if, indeed, by the name of pleasure it may be called.”
The ” connection ” of which the future President wrote was his marriage to Miss Eliza Kortwright of New York. Of this he had spoken in an earlier letter to Jefferson :
” You will be surprised to hear that I have formed the most interesting connection in human life with a young lady in this town, as you know my plan was to visit you before I settled myself, but having formed an attachment to this young lady . I have found that I must relinquish all other objects not connected with her.”
Monroe was not permitted to practice law long. As United States Senator, diplomat, Governor, Cabinet officer, and President, his time was so fully occupied that no one but a man of his fine physique and endurance could have stood the strain. Once, during the War of 1812, according to his friend, Judge E. R. Watson, when the burden of three of the departments of the government rested on himState, Treasury, and Warhe did not undress himself for ten days and nights, and was in the saddle the greater part of the time.
After some years he bought an estate in Loudoun County, Virginia, to which he retired for a brief rest whenever this was possible. For a time the old dormer-windowed house on the property satisfied him, but during his presidential term he built Oak Hill, the house for which Jefferson had prepared the plans. It is said that the nails used in its construction were manufactured on the Jefferson estate.
The housewhich was named Oak Hill because of the oaks on the lawn, planted by the owner himself, one for each State of the Unionhas been described by Major R. W. N. Noland as follows :
” The building was superintended by Mr. William Benton, an Englishman, who occupied the mixed relation to Mr. Monroe of steward, counsellor and friend. The house is built of brick in a most substantial manner, and handsomely finished; it is, perhaps, about 90 x 50 feet, three stories (including basement), and has a wide portico, fronting south, with massive Doric columns thirty feet high, and is surrounded by a grove of magnificent oaks covering several acres. While the location is not as commanding as many others in that section, being in lower Loudoun where the rolling character of the Piedmont region begins to lose itself in the fiat lands of tide water, the house in two directions commands an attractive and somewhat extensive view, but on the other side it is hemmed in by mountains, for the local names of which, ` Bull Run’ and ` Nigger Mountain,’ it is to be hoped the late President is in no wise responsible. . . . The little stream that washes the confines of the Oak Hill estate once bore the Indian name Gohongarestaw (the River of Swans), and is now called Goose Creek.”
After the expiration of his second term as President Monroe made Oak Hill his permanent home, though sometimes he was with his daughter, Mrs. Gouverneur, in New York.
One who was a member of the household during a part of the six years of the life in Virginia said that he ” looked perhaps older than he was, his face being strongly marked with the lines of anxiety and care.”
There were many guests at Oak Hill, among these being Madison and Jefferson. Monroe, in turn, was frequently at Monticello and Montpelier. His office as Regent of the University of Virginia also brought him into frequent touch with his two predecessors in the presidency, for they were fellow-members on the Board.
Whenever weather and guests permitted he was accustomed to ride about the estate and through the countryside both morning and evening. One day, when he was seventy-two, his horse fell on him, and his right wrist was sprained so badly that for a time he could not write to his friends, as he had delighted to do. Thus he was able to sympathize with Madison when a letter came from Montpelier a few months later :
” In explanation of my microscopic writing, I must remark that the older I grow the more my stiffening fingers make smaller letters, as my feet take shorter steps, the progress in both cases being, at the same time, more fatiguing as well as more slow.”
Monroe’s last years of life were saddened by financial difficulties, though even these brought gleams of joy, because of the fidelity of his friends. Lafayette, who visited Oak Hill in 1825, wrote later to his friend a most delicately worded offer of assistance, indicating that he felt it was his right to offer this, since Monroe, when minister to France, had exerted himself to bring about the release of Lafayette, then a prisoner at Olmutz, and had ministered to the wants of Madame Lafayette.
A measure of relief came when Congress voted to repay, in part, the extraordinary expense incurred by the statesman during his diplomatic career, but not before he had advertised Oak Hill for sale and had planned to go to New York to live near his daughter. The estate was later withdrawn from the market, but the plan to go to New York was carried out : he did not see how he could remain after the death of Mrs. Monroe, which took place in 1830.
He did not stay long in New York. On July 4, 1831, he died. Twenty-seven years later, on the one hundredth anniversary of his birth, his body was taken to Richmond for burial. There, in his native State, rest the remains of him of whom Thomas Jefferson said, “He is a man whose soul might be turned inside out without discovering a blemish to the world.”