Introduction to Every Leader
Being There: Encountering America's Presidents
JAMES MONROE
5th President of the United States, 1817-1825
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AMERICAN PRESIDENTS

Oak Hill
Virginia
 

Oak Hill c. 1969
Oak Hill c. 1969
National Register of Historic Places file

James Monroe, fifth president of the United States, began building the imposing house at Oak Hill during his first term as president.  It was here that he worked on the Monroe Doctrine and here he retired in 1825.  Monroe was the last in the Virginia Dynasty of presidents from 1801 to 1825.  Monroe became president at a time when Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party dominated the political scene, but the Panic of 1819 and the first emergence of the sectional rivalries that would eventually culminate in the Civil War dashed hopes for an “Era of Good Feelings.”  He is most famous for the Monroe Doctrine, which he promulgated in 1823 and which became and continues to be a cornerstone of American foreign policy.

Monroe was born in 1758 and served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution.  In 1780, he began to study law under Thomas Jefferson, then governor of Virginia. Their friendship was a great aid to Monroe throughout his long political career.  Monroe became a member of the Virginia House of Delegates two years later, at age 24, and served in Congress for three years under the Articles of Confederation.  He also served as governor of Virginia from 1799 until 1802 and again in 1811.  In 1790, he was appointed to the United States Senate, where he supported Jeffersonian policies.  He helped negotiate the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and served as both secretary of state and secretary of war during the War of 1812.

James Monroe inherited Oak Hill from his uncle in 1808, which was also the year in which he made his first, unsuccessful bid for the presidency. Construction of the mansion probably did not begin until 1820, due to financial difficulties.  During that time, Monroe lived on the property in a wood frame clapboard building, known today as the “Monroe Cottage.”  Completed in 1823, the main house stands at the head of a long avenue of trees.  A huge Roman Doric portico on a high foundation dominates the front elevation of the house, which overlooks the garden and rolling country southward to the Bull Run Mountains.  The house originally consisted of a red brick, two-story main block with small flanking one-story wings.  There is a persistent tradition that Thomas Jefferson and James Hoban were involved in its design.  The wings were enlarged and raised to two stories in the 1920s, and small porticoes were added to their end elevations.  Two handsome marble mantels that the Marquis de Lafayette sent from Europe ornament the simple interior.  A complex of outbuildings surrounds the house, many of which date back to Monroe's occupancy.

Oak Hill in 1930
Oak Hill in 1930
Photograph courtesy of Virginia Department of Historic Resources Archives

In 1816, Monroe launched his second, successful presidential campaign with the support of the Madison administration.  He defeated the candidate of the moribund Federalist Party in the Electoral College 183 to 34. The “Era of Good Feelings” that this end of party rivalries was supposed to usher in soon evaporated.  A depression struck the country in 1819, and sectional conflict over the expansion of slavery erupted for the first time when Missouri sought admission to the Union as a slave state in 1819.  The fierce debates threatened to split the country. The adoption of the Missouri Compromise in 1820 temporarily averted disaster by setting rules for the expansion of slavery in the western territories, while admitting Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state.

Perhaps Monroe’s most significant contribution to history was the Monroe Doctrine announced during his State of the Union Address on December 3, 1823, in response to the revolutions that were bringing independence to Latin America.  The principles of this message were threefold: no further colonization by Europe in the new world, abstention of the United States from the political affairs of Europe, and noninterference of European nations in the governmental affairs of the western hemisphere.  Although forgotten for many years, this doctrine has come to represent a central principle in American foreign policy.

Monroe retired to an active life at Oak Hill at the end of his second term in 1825.  Financial difficulties forced him to sell all his properties by 1830, when he moved to New York to live with his daughter.  He died there on the 4th of July in 1831. 

Plan your visit

Oak Hill, a private residence not open to the public, is located south of Leesburg in Loudon County, VA.  Oak Hill has been designated a National Historic Landmark.  Click here for the National Historic Landmark registration file: text and photos. Oak Hill is also featured in the National Park Service Journey Through Hallowed Ground: Route 15 through Virginia's Piedmont Travel Itinerary.

James Monroe also lived at Ash Lawn-Highland, which is open to the public and is featured in the National Park Service Journey Through Hallowed Ground Travel Itinerary.

 
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