Science Is Rewriting the History of President James Monroe

James Monroe portrait by William James Hubbard, ca. 1832.

James Monroe portrait by William James Hubbard, ca. 1832.

Recent excavations at Highland — the historic, Charlottesville, VA, home of our nation’s fifth president — are rewriting history. According to my old alma mater, The College of William and Mary, “The archaeology, combined with tree-ring dating, shows that the newly discovered foundation, not the modest home still standing on the property, was the Monroe (1799) house. The property is part of William & Mary and is the only U.S. president’s home currently owned by a university.”

Photograph of Ash Lawn - Highland, home of President James Monroe, in Albemarle County, Virginia. Taken on August 29th, 2006, by RebelAt.

Photograph of Ash Lawn – Highland, home of President James Monroe, in Albemarle County, Virginia. Taken on August 29th, 2006, by RebelAt.

As a historian, if not by trade, then by dabbling (and with my handy-dandy history degree from W&M), I find this interesting because of the longevity of our certainty of knowing Monroe and his home. Yet still, there is new information to be learned. And it was quite literally under our noses.

“We have made a stunning discovery. These exceptionally well-preserved remains are just beneath the ground surface in the front yard of the 1870s wing attached to the standing Monroe-era house,” said Sara Bon-Harper, executive director of James Monroe’s Highland. “This finding represents a breakthrough in how the nation understands Monroe and how he lived.”

Sometimes when researching historical facts for a novel (currently I’m doing so for a 12th-century medieval), one can come to think that all of history is already set in stone. As a researcher and writer, I usually assume I have to go along with the stated “facts” of how people lived. This recent change in how we view President Monroe has lifted the mantle of the sometimes strangling burden of historical accuracy just a little. If my 11th-century characters get married inside the chapel instead of on the steps as was custom, or if I allow my characters to drink water instead of ale and mead, it isn’t the end of verisimilitude as we know it.

Read more about how science is rewriting the past by clicking here.

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