President James Monroe was no stranger to the institution of slavery. Born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, in 1758, Monroe grew up on his family’s 600-acre tobacco farm. When his father, Spence Monroe, died in 1774, Monroe inherited the land and personal property, as well as—according to his father’s will—“a Negro boy Ralph.” Throughout his life, Monroe’s relationships with slaves revealed a pattern of paternalistic racism. While he never advocated for equal rights for the enslaved population, Monroe sought a gradual end to slavery and promoted the re-settling of freed slaves either in the Caribbean or in Africa. Nonetheless, Monroe continued to hold slaves throughout his lifetime. He did allow certain slaves a degree of self-determination in work assignments, sought medical treatment for slaves who were ill, and demanded that his slaves have access to the basics of food, clothing, and shelter.
During his governorship of Virginia, Monroe in 1800 confronted the state’s most alarming slave uprising—“Gabriel’s Rebellion,” named for slave leader Gabriel, a man enslaved on the Thomas Prosser plantation west of Richmond. Gabriel had incited slaves on plantations around Richmond to rise up, raid the state capital, seize the state arsenal, and kill the white population. Monroe acted quickly, mobilizing the militia. With the help of a severe thunderstorm that flooded the roads leading into Richmond, the militia soon thwarted the insurrection. At the resulting trial, Monroe realized that many of the accused slaves had been intimidated into giving dubious testimony. Monroe argued that it was “difficult to say whether mercy or severity was the better policy in this case, tho’ when there is cause for doubt, it is best to incline to the former policy.”
Torn between his belief in the evils of slavery and his fear that immediate abolition would result in mob violence and race wars, Monroe came to believe that colonization was an effective means of reducing, and ultimately eliminating, slavery in the United States. Monroe and Thomas Jefferson exchanged a variety of ideas on colonization from the early 1800s through Monroe’s election as President in 1816. In 1817 the American Colonization Society was formed to seek an end to the “peculiar institution” through the repatriation of freed slaves to Africa. The Society established Liberia on Africa’s west coast in 1822 as a place where freed slaves from the United States, and Africans captured on foreign slave ships, could be resettled. Because Monroe endorsed the Society during his presidency, the new nation’s capital was named Monrovia.
For twenty-four years James Monroe operated a thriving plantation at Highland in Albemarle County, Virginia (an estate that was eventually enlarged to 3,500 acres). His activities as a Virginia planter were his primary source of income, and during the early nineteenth century Highland had all the trappings of a working and productive plantation. Highland’s assets included the plantation house, barns, grist and saw mills, a smokehouse, stables, an icehouse, as well as quarters for 30 to 40 slaves.
Highland’s layout clearly reveals the hierarchy of slave life on a nineteenth-century Virginia plantation. A visitor to Highland would pass through several fields on his way to the main house. On either side of the road one would recognize the staple crops of tobacco and wheat, or even glimpse Monroe’s vineyard, where grapes were grown for his early attempts at wine production. Distant from the main house stood small quarters for the field slaves, the men and women who spent their days working the land and tending livestock. At the lowest end of the plantation hierarchy, these slaves had limited contact with the Monroes. Monroe also trained a small handful of slaves as blacksmiths, carpenters, and masons; because of their training, these skilled laborers possessed skills that were considered superior to those of field workers.
As one moved closer to the main house, more outbuildings would become visible. In the service yard, the Monroes had a well, an icehouse, a smokehouse, an overseer’s house, and domestic slave quarters. These quarters were situated “below the well,” down hill from the main house. Across the region, slave families lived in single rooms—used for cooking as well as sleeping. Although some quarters may have had additional sleeping space in an upstairs loft, living space was undoubtedly cramped. This was certainly also the case at Highland, where domestic slaves or “house servants” included President Monroe’s valet, Mrs. Monroe’s maid, and the cook and her assistants. These slaves were responsible for maintaining the plantation house, preparing meals, and taking care of the family; they also engaged in such ancillary chores as spinning and sewing.
Domestic slaves had the closest contact with the Monroe family, who relied on their constant presence on the plantation. Once, while serving in France, Monroe learned that one of his slaves had taken ill. He wrote the following on 9 June 1796 to his uncle, Joseph Jones, who was overseeing his affairs in the United States: “We lament much the ill health of Tinah & anticipate the worst, but hope for her recovery. Her loss will be severely felt by Mrs. M[onroe], who wo[ul]d not admit that it were possible to replace her. . . . Indeed she is valuable as a sensible & honest servant, as well as most capable, and whose loss co[ul]d never be replaced. We are particularly gratified that she is well taken care of & wants for nothing. Peter we hope is well, who, and those under [the overseer] Hogg we wish to be humanely treated, well clothed, &c.”
The somewhat better housing and clothing afforded the enslaved domestic servants, compared to the field hands’ living conditions, was tempered by the white family’s demand for constant availability.
Today the landscape at Highland recalls the plantation of Monroe’s time. Visitors still view, upon their approach, the large fields surrounding the house. Cattle still graze in these pastures, but the quarters for the field slaves have long since disappeared. Immediately adjoining the plantation house, the service yard once again bustles with activity. The original smokehouse and overseer’s house still stand, along with a reconstructed well and icehouse, and reconstructed quarters standing in place of the original houses for the enslaved domestic servants. Today these quarters are used for demonstrations of spinning, sewing, weaving, open-hearth cooking, and other household crafts—important chores that were once a part of daily life for the slaves at Highland.
In the main house, the formal rooms on the main floor remind visitors of how dependent the household was on its enslaved workers. The polished furniture, banquet of food in the dining room, the pressed linens in the chamber, and the well-swept floors all bear witness to an enslaved community that is today all but invisible. The challenge for Ash Lawn-Highland is to remind the modern visitor of the profound influence of this invisible work force, a community whose coerced labor enabled the plantation system to function and thrive.