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James Monroe’s House Was Way Bigger Than Historians Thought

It turns out that Highland was more “castle” than “cabin”

This building at Highlands was just the guest house. (R. Stillings/The College of William and Mary)
smithsonian.com

James Monroe, the fifth President, wasn’t one for grandeur—after all, his plantation, Highland, featured a decidedly modest residence. Or did it? As T. Rees Shapiro writes for The Washington Post, it turns out that historians were wrong about the size and location of Monroe’s house…and that Monroe lived in much higher style than anyone previously thought.

Rees writes that a recent archaeological discovery is turning much of what historians think they know about Monroe on its head. The house once touted as Highland, Monroe's estate near Charlottesville, Virginia, now seems to be a mere guest residence on a plantation that was once marked by a much more imposing structure.

In a blog post about the discovery, Highland staff write that they recently made a “stunning discovery”—the well-preserved foundation of what they call a “free standing and sizeable house” in the front yard of what they used to think was Highland. A chimney, stone foundations and charred planks seem to indicate that the larger structure was destroyed by fire in the mid-19th century, and large numbers of artifacts indicate that the home was a substantial one. Tree rings on the wood in the house that still stands indicates that it was cut down around 1815—16 years after Monroe and his family moved to Highland.

So how did historians miss such a significant structure? The apparent destruction of the larger plantation home at some point during the 19th century is only the beginning. Monroe himself referred to his home as a modest one; in a 1797 letter to Thomas Jefferson, the future president wrote that “If I can place funds I shall begin soon to trouble you abt. windows, &c. as my cabin castle goes on,” referring to what appeared to be a low-key residence he was building. But given that Monroe’s plantation apparently once contained over 3,500 acres, it makes sense that the “cabin castle” was more than a mere cabin.

Monroe’s days at Highland were numbered. As early as 1814, he told Thomas Jefferson that he was considering selling some of his property to pay off his personal debts. He wanted to avoid selling Highland, though, he wrote, “unless the price shall be such, as to indemnify me for the sacrifice I shall make in relinquishing a residence of 26 years standing, as mine in Albemarle has been, and near old friends to whom I am greatly attached.”

By the end of his presidency in 1825, however, he owed the U.S. Treasury tens of thousands of dollars. He demanded that the federal government repay him for his expenditures to furnish the White House in a memoir. “I was willing to bear the losses to which my zeal, in the service of my country, had exposed me,” he wrote, “while I believed that my resources…would enable me to filfil my engagements, and retain a very limited support for my family. But under existing circumstances, I have no hesitation to declare, that I think that some such indemnity ought to be made to me.”

Monroe eventually sold Highland for $20 per acre—an estate that was apparently much less modest than anyone in the 21st century could have imagined.

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