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Saturday's Child

A Very Presidential Visit

By Mary Quattlebaum
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 22, 2005; Page WE33

QUICK! WHO WAS the fifth president of the United States?

Hint: He was also a Revolutionary War officer (at age 18); minister to France, England and Spain; U.S. senator; and four-time governor of Virginia.


Karen Duewer of Dale City sees how she measures up to Monroe and his wife, Elizabeth. He was 6 feet 2 inches tall, while Elizabeth was 4 feet 11 inches. (Photos Len Spoden For The Washington Post)

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If you drew a blank, you're like most American kids and adults, according to Meghan Budinger, assistant director and curator of the James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library, named for the fifth president. "James Monroe's presidency, called 'The Era of Good Feelings,' wasn't marked by any major catastrophe, and so the history books tend to gloss over him," Budinger says. In actuality, maintaining stability and harmony in the fledgling nation must have been very difficult. "Monroe was so respected," she says, "that he ran unopposed for a second term and received only one dissenting electoral vote."

Budinger and other staff members at the small Fredericksburg museum aim to change the public's ho-hum perception of him. At the entrance, youngsters are given a "scavenger hunt" guide and in searching for the correct answers, become better acquainted with the president of whom Thomas Jefferson wrote, "A better man cannot be." The museum also bookends the summer with Colonial festivals on April 30 and Sept. 17 that celebrate Monroe's Scottish and Welsh heritage with music, dancing, storytelling, period food, and children's crafts and games.

Its five galleries are well designed to appeal to all ages, as my extended family (two grandparents, one parent and one child) discovered on a recent visit. Guide John Wasson, a retired history professor, began our 30-minute tour in the library by introducing us to Rembrandt Peale's portrait of Monroe (circa 1824). With his direct gaze and good-humored expression, Monroe looks the image of a skilled diplomat, ably representing the new nation to European superpowers England, France and Spain. Displays in the library focus on his public life and accomplishments, including negotiating the 1803 Louisiana Purchase during Jefferson's presidency and writing the Monroe Doctrine, the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, during his own (1817 to 1825). A Virginian born (in 1758 in Westmoreland County) and buried (Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond), Monroe died in 1831. Appropriately, he breathed his last on July 4, as did fellow founding fathers and presidents Jefferson and John Adams (both in 1826).

The exhibits give equal time, though, to the farmer and family man behind the politician. My 6 1/2-year-old daughter, Christy, had a great time playing with wooden toys -- Jacob's ladder and ball-and-cup game -- popular during Monroe's childhood and that of his two daughters, Eliza and Maria. Christy also enjoyed measuring herself against the 4-foot-11 figure of Monroe's wife, Elizabeth, while her grandfather squared up to the president's 6-foot-2 silhouette.

Hardworking and resourceful, Monroe as a teenager is said to have assembled random parts into the functioning gun on display. But he also knew how to have a good time. Opening in mid-May, the exhibit "Amusements and Diversions: The Monroe Family Games" will showcase the chess sets, checkers, dominoes, playing cards and gaming table so key to Colonial home entertainment.

Monroe valued education for his daughters at a time when most girls learned only how to run a household. He placed his oldest, Eliza, at a fine French girls' school (there were no comparable schools in America) while he fulfilled diplomatic duties overseas, tutored her in history and geography, and bought her the lovely child's harp on view in the museum's Elliptical Salon.

The museum resides on the site of a wooden building where Monroe practiced law from 1786 to 1790. Though the law office itself is long gone, the museum's three 19th-century brick buildings are furnished largely with authentic pieces, thanks to careful stewardship by the president's great-granddaughter, Rose Gouverneur Hoes, and her two sons. They purchased and opened the site for public view in 1927. Today, young visitors can see the elegant French desk where Monroe penned important documents, marvel at walls painted bright green and red (popular colors at the time) and imagine the rich scent of hot chocolate wafting from the double boilers now stored in a corner cupboard.

Especially this time of year, the museum's small, tidy garden begs for a stroll. English boxwood spices the air, and the climbing roses, Elizabeth's favorite flower, are beginning to bud. Over all, a bronze bust of Monroe serenely presides.

JAMES MONROE MUSEUM AND MEMORIAL LIBRARY -- 908 Charles St., Fredericksburg. Located in the historic section of Fredericksburg, about 50 miles from Washington. From Interstate 95, take Exit 130A to Route 3 east, follow Business Route 3 past the University of Mary Washington and continue on Route 3 (William Street), taking a right onto Charles Street. Street parking available. 540-654-1043. www.umw.edu/jamesmonroemuseum. Open Monday through Saturday 10 to 5 and Sundays 1 to 5 (March 1 through Nov. 30). Open Monday through Saturday 10 to 4 and Sundays 1 to 4 (Dec. 1 through Feb. 28). Adults $5, children $1. The museum is owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia and administered by the University of Mary Washington. Portions of the museum can be seen only by taking a 30-minute tour, available throughout the day, though visitors can linger over self-guided galleries. The museum shop carries an assortment of books, toys, mugs, fans and other objects reflective of the Monroe family and Colonial and New Republic eras. The exhibit "Amusements and Diversions: The Monroe Family Games" opens in mid-May and will run through September.

FAMILY DAYS

April 30 from 11 to 4 -- Scottish block party and Colonial children's festival celebrates the 247th anniversary of President James Monroe's birth (April 28). In the block outside the museum, Scottish music and dancing pay tribute to Monroe's Scottish heritage on his father's side. Colonial children's games, a museum open house, a storyteller dressed as Mother Goose, birthday cake and scavenger hunt. Colonial fare such as pumpkin soup, ham biscuits, and fish and chips available for purchase. Suggested donation: $2 adults, $1 children.

Sept. 17 from noon to 5 -- Fredericksburg Welsh festival celebrates Monroe's Welsh heritage on his mother's side with Welsh and Celtic music, crafts, Colonial food vendors, children's games and museum open house. Suggested donation: $2 adults, $1 children.


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