The fifth president of the United States owned an apron, kept two dueling pistols and wrote thousands of letters during his life. University of Mary Washington students are experiencing a rare in-depth look at James Monroe’s life firsthand through the objects that were most important to him.
“The World of James Monroe” history course, offered for the first time this semester, provides insight into the late 1700s and early 1800s in an innovative way.
“I am endlessly fascinated by historical artifacts, and this course has shown me how much we can learn from them and what kind of new questions they can raise for historians,” said senior Leah Tams, one of 22 students in the class.
The course contextualizes objects and documents owned and written by James Monroe and examines the social norms of the early Republic through polite culture, daily life, and expansion.
Jarod Kearney, the curator for the James Monroe Museum, regularly brings artifacts from the museum to the class and Cassandra Good, assistant editor of the Papers of James Monroe, explains their significance.
Over the semester students in Good’s class are required to research one artifact in-depth. Senior Carrie Schlupp chose Monroe’s Masonic apron, given to Monroe in 1786.
“I’m focusing my research more on the importance of Monroe’s membership in the Freemasons and using the apron to explain why having a Mason’s values was politically astute in the Early Republic period,” said Schlupp.
Monroe’s apron, made of white leather with a red silk trim is about a foot square, and has intricate hand painted symbols in yellow, brown, and black.
The symbols, including the famous “G” surrounded by the compass and square, in addition to the rough and flawless ashlars, were reminders for Monroe to live every day to his highest potential, to remind him of his Supreme Being.
Last spring, Schlupp redesigned the “George Washington and Masonic Tradition” exhibit for the Fredericksburg Area Museum and became an expert on Freemasonry.
“We did a lot of research into the 18th century Freemasonry, so I figured that it made sense for me to work on Monroe’s apron,” she said.
Tams selected Monroe’s dueling pistols for her assignment.
“I chose the dueling pistols because they are beautifully crafted, and they would give me a chance to learn more about the dueling culture in Early Republic America and also more about gift giving,” said Tams.
The pistols were originally given to President Madison as a gift from Argentina in 1816. At 11.5 inches long and 2 inches wide, the silver pistols are inlaid with elaborate scrolling designs on their silver capped handles.
For Good, the class brings an important historical figure out of the textbooks and into the hands of students.
“Historians are really interested in getting students to understand what it would have felt like, what it would have smelled like, what it would have sounded like to live in the past,” said Good. “I want, through using images, objects, and documents, to make students excited about the past.”