Surprising Facts about U.S. President James Monroe

James Monroe was the son of a Virginia plantation owner. He became an orphan in his mid-teens. Fortunately, he stayed with his uncle who liked James and his siblings. In 1774 Monroe attended William and Mary College in Williamsburg. Monroe and his friends found plenty to do outside the classroom. The Royal Governor had already left town due to the spirit of rebellion among some Virginians in the colony’s capital. Along with a few classmates, Monroe helped to raid the absent governor’s palace. The young men took 200 muskets and 300 swords which they gave to the Virginia militia. In the winter of 1776, Monroe joined the Virginia infantry.

By the time he became president, Monroe’s resume included service as a soldier in the Revolutionary War, U.S. senator, minister to France and England under President Washington, governor of Virginia, and positions as secretary of state and secretary of war under President Madison. He became friends with James Madison and Thomas Jefferson while the U.S. government was being formed. Together, the three of them opposed the policies of John Adams and other Federalists.

Portrait of James Monroe

Portrait of James Monroe

Though he often receives less attention from scholars than other presidents who came from Virginia, Monroe’s elections and administration were notable for several reasons. In the 1820 election Monroe got all the electoral votes except one. When elected, Monroe was the first president to hold his inauguration outdoors. He was also the first chief executive since Washington to take a national tour of the country. Unlike his friends Jefferson and Madison, Monroe had an outgoing personality that endeared him to the other Americans he met. His cross-country tour was such a success that he travelled several times while in office.

As president, Monroe utilized his agreeable personality to great effect. He had a talent for picking men with great minds to serve in his administration and maintained good relationships with his cabinet members. Despite his opposition to John Adams’ political views, Monroe chose Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams as secretary of state. Monroe’s easy going personality allowed him to get along with almost anyone, so the two men established a good working relationship. Adams encouraged Monroe to make a statement about European influence in the Western Hemisphere.

In his annual message to Congress, Monroe stated “the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” This part of Monroe’s message came to be known as the Monroe Doctrine. The doctrine made it clear that America had a right to protect any nation in the Western Hemisphere against European aggression. As a product of both John Quincy Adams and Monroe’s ideals, the doctrine aptly demonstrated the president’s ability to partner with unlikely people for the good of the country.

The Childhood of Civil War General Robert E. Lee

Most history books show pictures of Robert E. Lee as an aging man with white hair and a beard. It’s almost impossible to imagine that this man was once a child. Like everyone else, the famous American Civil War general did have a boyhood, though it was not always happy.

The Lee Family Heritage

The potential for Robert E. Lee to be a great man started before his birth. Robert’s father, Henry Lee, served in the cavalry during the American Revolution. Henry impressed his general so much that he said Henry had “come out of his mother’s womb a soldier.” After the war, Henry served in the Continental Congress and encouraged his home state of Virginia to ratify the Constitution. By the nineteenth century, however, things started to go wrong for Henry Lee. He made bad investments and ended up in a debtor’s prison for a year.

His wife Ann Carter Lee gave birth to her son Robert in 1807, shortly before her husband’s imprisonment. She already had several children, and admitted to a friend that she did not want another child. Later on, however, when her husband left the family for the West Indies and never returned, Robert became her favorite.

Robert E. Lee Grows Up

Robert comforted his mother in her husband’s absence. He did household chores and served as a nurse to his ill sister and his mother. Though obedient to his mother, like most boys his age Robert enjoyed swimming and playing sports with his cousins. He especially loved tricking foxhunters by following hounds on foot. He became so good at taking shortcuts to find the foxes that when the adults arrived, Robert was already there. Even at a young age, Robert understood how to use geography and the element of surprise to his advantage—skills that would one day make him a great general.

Though Robert didn’t have a father, he did create a father image for himself. When the family moved to Alexandria, Virginia, Robert and his siblings often visited President George Washington’s adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis. Custis told the children stories about Washington and showed them Washington’s pistols and uniforms. Though Washington had died many years earlier, the people of Alexandria cherished their connection to the former hero. Washington’s career may have partly inspired Robert to pursue a military career, but in reality there was little money available for him to go to college. Luckily, he had family connections that helped him get one of the 250 spots available for the West Point cadets.

Robert At West Point

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point had many rules, and Robert was one of the few cadets who followed them. Others, like Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy, partied and drank on a regular basis. Robert was a serious student who graduated second in his class. He was not a snob, however, and made close friends at West Point. His friend Joseph E. Johnson remembered that Robert “was the only one of all the men I have known that could laugh at the faults and follies of his friends in such a manner as to make them ashamed without touching their affection for him, and to confirm their respect.” His military training and the ability to positively influence others would come in handy when the U.S. Civil War broke out.

Future First Lady: Martha Washington’s Childhood

Like most kids, I learned a lot about George Washington in school. He was celebrated as an American hero and someone whose childhood we should all admire. I knew almost nothing about Martha Washington, except that she was a supportive wife to America’s first president.

Of course, when she was born, Martha had a different last name. The first born of nine children, she was named Martha Dandridge, but her family nicknamed her Patsy. She grew up on a plantation near Williamsburg, Virginia. In the 1700s, the word plantation meant property that was devoted to a single crop, not necessarily thousands of acres of land with a mansion. In Virginia, plantation owners like Martha’s father grew tobacco. Martha did not grow up in a fancy home, but it had two stories, two chimneys, and comfortably housed all the Dandridge children.

With a total of eight siblings, Martha learned to care for children at an early age. Her father John Dandridge had slaves who worked in the fields, but could not afford household slaves. As a result, Martha’s mother taught her how to do every necessary chore. With her mother Frances by her side, Martha learned to kill and cook chickens and other fowl, make clothes and bed linens, wash clothes in a big boiling kettle without burning them, and how to preserve food and make home remedies for illnesses. Based on later accounts of her work stitching clothes for U.S. army soldiers, she learned her lessons well.

In addition to chores, Martha learned the skills she needed to be a success in Virginia society. Dancing was an especially important social skill. Dancing masters traveled to various towns to teach young people, boys and girls, to dance. Learning to dance was a break from chores, but some of the dances had such complex steps that practicing them seemed like a chore. Conversation was also considered an art, and Martha took to it easily. She genuinely enjoyed other people and cared about them—an asset that served her well as First Lady.

Although Martha did not have the same academic education as some young women from New England, she learned to read and enjoyed books all her life. Her grammar and spelling were inconsistent, but she got her point across in letters. She did better in math, which came in handy when she had to manage the business accounts of her first husband, Daniel Custis.

At seventeen, Martha was considered an adult, and she became secretly engaged to Daniel Custis, a wealthy man twenty years older than Martha.  Though it seems strange to us that a young girl would marry someone so much older, young girls often got engaged to older men in the 1700s. Martha and Daniel also genuinely liked each other, which was probably less common.

According to a family account, even as a teenager Martha “excelled in personal charms, which with pleasing manners, and a general amiability of demeanor, caused her to be distinguished amid the fair ones who usually assembled at the court of Williamsburg.” She was not beautiful, but she was pretty and good-natured and conversed easily with everyone. Her charm also won over her future father-in-law John Custis, who originally objected to the match.

After she became a wife, mother, and then a widow, she was courted by George Washington.