Artists Recognized James Monroe as a True American Hero

A charcoal sketch of George Washington aide Lt. Col. Robert Hanson Harrison that artist John Trumbull did for his epic painting The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton sold for $8,962 at a May 2009 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

John Trumbull (1756-1843) deservedly earned the sobriquet as the “Painter of the Revolution.” He actually started out as an aide to General George Washington, but ended up in London, where he developed into a highly respected artist. One of his paintings, which illustrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence, graces the $2 bill that features Thomas Jefferson. The bill was issued in 1976 to observe the bicentennial of that historic event.

Another of his numerous works is the The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton on Dec. 26, 1776. This one naturally features General Washington again, but there is also a depiction of future president, Lieutenant James Monroe, being treated for a near-fatal damaged artery.

An even more famous painting of the times is an 1851 oil on canvas that also features Washington – Washington Crossing the Delaware on Dec. 25-26, 1776. It was painted by Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868), a German-American immigrant. Once again, we find James Monroe holding the American flag – the Stars and Stripes – which critics are always quick to remind was a flag not adopted until the following year, 1777. Some nitpickers also harp that the time of day is wrong, the ship is incorrect, and (sigh) even the chunks of ice in the river aren’t right.

But the role of James Monroe as a true hero is beyond any doubt.

Often called the “Last of the Founding Fathers,” he was the fifth president of the United States and like Washington, Jefferson and Madison, the son of a Virginia planter. It is sometimes overlooked that in the first 36 years of the American presidency, the Oval Office was occupied almost exclusively by men from Virginia. Somehow, John Adams (Massachusetts) managed to squeeze in a quick four years as president (1797-1801) before sneaking out of Washington, D.C., when Thomas Jefferson ousted him.

James Monroe entered politics after his service in the Revolutionary War and systemically worked his way up after serving in the Virginia legislature. He was a U.S. senator, a minister to France, and then governor of Virginia. After helping negotiate the Louisiana Purchase, he served as minister to Britain, followed by another stint as Virginia’s governor. But after only four months, President Madison offered him an appointment as secretary of state to help draft the recommendation to Congress that led to the declaration of war against Great Britain in 1812.

When the war got off to a poor start, Madison wisely appointed him secretary of war and Monroe held both of these critical Cabinet positions until the war ended. After the war, the prosperity of the country improved dramatically and with Madison’s strong support, Monroe easily was elected president in 1816.

Taking office when the country finally had no unusual problems, the 58-year-old Monroe was bold enough to declare during his inaugural address: “Never did a government commence under auspices so favorable, nor ever was success so complete. If we look to the history of other nations, ancient or modern, we find no example of a growth so rapid, so gigantic, of a people so prosperous and happy … the heart of every citizen must expand with joy … how near our government has approached to perfection…”

It was truly the “Era of Good Feelings!”

Things change … and they will again.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Westward Migration Spurred by ‘Oregon Fever,’ California Gold

Dean Cornwell produced this preliminary illustration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition for New York Life Insurance Co., circa 1954.

By Jim O’Neal

In the 1700s, British fur traders in northern regions between the Pacific Ocean and the Rocky Mountains came into conflict with Russian traders arriving from the north and the Spanish from the south. Then, Americans began appearing in the early 1800s after the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-06).

By this time, England had negotiated a boundary agreement with Spain, but not with the Russians. The British and Americans collaborated to gain leverage over the Russians by agreeing to joint sovereignty over a large area called Oregon Country. The agreement encompassed what is today Oregon, Washington, Idaho, British Columbia and parts of Wyoming, Montana and Alberta that were west of the Continental Divide.

By the 1840s, England and the United States were ready to formally separate their joint interests in Oregon Country, but couldn’t agree on a dividing line. The U.S. demanded it should be 54 parallel-40 degrees, however, this would have deprived GB of Vancouver, their major Pacific port. The dispute escalated into “54-40 or fight” – which became a major theme during the 1844 U.S. presidential election.

After James Knox Polk became president, he rather wisely avoided a war with England by conceding to their demand of 49 degrees. He had his eye on Mexico and decided the United States could only engage in one major skirmish at a time. After the annexation of Texas, war with Mexico seemed inevitable and it arrived right on time, eventually delivering the highly coveted areas of California, New Mexico and Arizona. The concession to England seemed prudent since westward migration had started earlier in 1836. The first migrant wagon train left Independence, Mo., along the Oregon Trail, a 2,170-mile east-west trip that connected the Missouri River to the lush valleys in Oregon.

Then on May 22, 1843, a massive wagon train with 1,000 settlers and more than 1,000 head of cattle set out for Oregon. They followed the Santa Fe Trail for 40 miles and then turned west to the Platte River to Fort Laramie, Wyo., and eventually over the Blue Mountains into Oregon territory. The Great Migration arrived in October, covering 2,000 miles in five months. The next year, four more wagon trains made the journey and in 1845, the number of emigrants exceeded 3,000. “Oregon Fever” seemed to have gripped the nation.

Then in 1848, gold was discovered in California and the flow of people headed there instead of Oregon. The population of California zoomed from 20,000 to 225,000 in four short years. The phrase that summed up America’s assertive development was coined by columnist and editor John O’Sullivan when he wrote, it was “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”

Thomas Jefferson thought it would take 1,000 years to fill up the vast emptiness of the west, but of course, he didn’t know about the California gold, the Oregon Trail, and the basic restlessness of future emigrants and the transcontinental railroad. The $15 million he spent on doubling the size of the United States turned out to be one of best real estate deals in history.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

St. Louis World’s Fair Striking in its Arrogance of America’s Place in Humanity

This 1904 St. Louis Summer Olympics gold medal, awarded to four-mile men’s relay winner George B. Underwood, sold for $38,837.50 at a May 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

America in 1900 was a provincial society of 76 million citizens. It is hard to contemplate a place of such innocence … a nation of dirt roads and horse-drawn carriages, of tight corsets and Victorian pretensions, of kerosene lamps and outhouses, of top hats and bowlers, McGuffey Readers and The Ladies’ Home Journal.

Cities were crowded with smoke-filled men’s clubs and ornate-paneled bars, while country towns were still home to 60 percent of the population, villages of stark simplicity and virtue. The average American had but five years of schooling and the nation only recently had made dramatic strides in improving literacy. Yet even in the absence of sophistication, most people were convinced America and its people were God’s chosen few.

The St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904 (the Louisiana Purchase Exposition), commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase (a year late), was striking in its arrogance of America’s place in humanity. In addition to the ice cream cone, hamburger/hot dog, and iced tea – all introduced here – the fair featured an anthropology exhibition to explain human progress via the general increase in the size of the human cranium, the principle of “cephalization.”

Anthropologist W.J. McGee designed a display of pygmies from Africa, Patagonian giants from Argentina, and Native Americans in ethnological settings – purportedly to demonstrate the peak of upward human development from savagery to barbarism to civilization. The implicit message was the distinctive American alchemy that had transformed people to a higher state of being.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a furious competition between scientists and pseudoscientists around the world to discover evolution’s “missing link.” All of them turned out to be bogus. The 1868 discovery in Albany, N.Y., of the Cardiff Giant turned out to be a gypsum statue aged with an acid bath. Then P.T. Barnum constructed his own Cardiff Giant, which he exhibited at his circus (a hoax of a hoax).

In perhaps the most celebrated of discoveries, Britain’s Piltdown Man, “unearthed in 1912,” established England as the cradle of civilization for 40 years. Then it was declared a phony, a mixture of orangutan bones assembled by an amateur paleontologist eager for fame.

Today, we still don’t know exactly how life began, but we do know, finally, how we got from there to here. One thing is certain: The path went through that 1904 fair in St. Louis – and I wish I had been there to attend the first Olympic Games held in the United States, eat a hot dog and end up in one of those bars with a mug of cold beer.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

After Disaster of 1812, President Madison and First Lady Recovered Their Legacies

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This James Madison Meissen saucer, circa 1812, sold for $13,145 at a November 2011 Heritage auction. Little material culture was produced during Madison’s presidency.

By Jim O’Neal

Three days after the fall of Washington in the War of 1812, James and Dolley Madison returned in the wake of the British departure. They visited the ruins of the capital and White House, which sunk them into melancholy.

That the president of the United States had been burned out of his house mortified America, and the symbolic impact transcended the sad reality. Madison was accused of cowardice because he had fled, and the press claimed Dolley could have saved more than she did … a lot more. A Washington newspaper even stated angrily that a positive result of burning the White House was that it ended her queenly entertaining.

These difficult times came to a sudden, happy ending with the news of the Battle of New Orleans and the return of the American delegation from Ghent with a peace treaty. The president jubilantly proclaimed the war was at an end. While the glory of the hour went to General Andrew Jackson, both the president and first lady recovered their legacies and good names.

The White House had been burned to a shell, but it was the neatest of fires as the refuse had fallen precisely within the stone walls and no debris was scattered on the grounds. Crews dug for salvage in the deep bed of ashes and rubble that filled the basement, however not much was worth saving. The refuse was simply thrown into a nearby gully and attention turned to rebuilding (an important distinction).

A bill for rebuilding was rammed through Congress in two days to make sure Washington, D.C., remained the capital – and not some more-centralized area beyond the mountains, like Cincinnati, as some had proposed. Any “Phoenix” would rise from these ashes. As President Madison carefully pointed out, “the bill specifically stated ‘rebuilding’ not relocation.”

Considering that it took nearly 10 years to build the first WH, reconstruction moved along quickly, but not fast enough for the man who occupied the unfinished White House in October 1817.

A tall, blush-faced Virginian who looked all of his 58 years, James Monroe was the last luminary of the Revolutionary generation to occupy the presidency. Like George Washington, he had fought in the War of Independence and had been wounded at Trenton. Years later, he served as a delegate in negotiations with France for the Louisiana Purchase. During the Madison administration, he had been Secretary of State and Secretary of War, always with an eye on the presidency.

When he finally reached his goal, he knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish. Refusing to act as head of his party, he instead insisted that the war had united all Americans into one and that political parties were no longer needed! He proceeded to usher in “The Era of Good Feelings.”

We miss him.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Jefferson Stretched Constitution to its Limit

thomas-jefferson
Thomas Jefferson proved to the world the strength of the American republic and its democratic system.

By Jim O’Neal

Thomas Jefferson was 57 years old when he was sworn in as president on March 4, 1801, in a simple ceremony in Washington, D.C. He was the first president to take office in the new capital, then a city of 6,000, but without representation in Congress. In 1961, the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution granted the district one non-voting, at-large delegate to the House of Representatives and three electoral votes in presidential elections, but no representation in the U.S. Senate. In 1973, they were granted limited self-government, which includes a mayor and a city council with 13 elected members.

Since the passage of the amendment, the district’s three electoral votes have been cast for the Democratic Party’s presidential and vice presidential candidates in every election. They are bound by law to never have more electoral votes than a state (in this case Wyoming, which has three).

Denounced as a radical and atheist by his political opponents, Jefferson became the first leader of an opposition political party to wrest control of the national government from the party in power. Despite grim prophecies by the outgoing Federalists that the Constitution would be overthrown, he proved to the world the strength of the American republic and its democratic system. Jefferson believed the United States should remain an agrarian country of small farms and a national government that offered little interference in the lives of its citizens. He warned of the evils of large cities – with disease, poverty and centralized power that fostered corruption.

However, as president, in his own words, he “stretched the Constitution till it cracked” by using presidential powers to double the size of the country, presumably to give people room to spread out and avoid dense urbanization (the Louisiana Purchase), and discharge major political appointees of his predecessor. Chief Justice John Marshall restrained him from applying the same principle to federal judges.

After suffering through the embarrassment of the Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton affair, he chose the elderly George Clinton for vice president in his second term, with the obvious intent to ensure a VP that was too old to succeed him. He then orchestrated the election of his old Virginia friend and Secretary of State James Madison to become the fourth president.

Refusing all pleas for a third term, he more than welcomed his pending retirement, writing “Never did a prisoner released from his chains feel such relief I shall in shaking off the shackles of power … I thank God for the opportunity of retiring from them without censure and carrying with me the most consoling proofs of public approbation.”

For his epitaph, he asked for “not a word more” about his time as vice president or president. After 17 years in retirement, his wish was granted and his cherished University of Virginia (which he founded) and the Declaration of Independence seem fitting memorials for this remarkably versatile man to which we all owe an eternal debt of gratitude.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].