Virginia Road Trip Round Up

Manassas Battlefield

I think the best way to wrap up my recent road trip through Virginia would be to say we were already planning a return trip before we’d even arrived home. Ten days of scenic byways and an immersion in American history. Comfortable accommodations, tasty local cuisine and friendly people with the slowed down pace of Southern hospitality.

New River Gorge Bridge
New River Gorge Bridge

After an over-night in Georgetown Kentucky (where we picked up our third traveler) and Charleston, West Virginia (making a point to stop at the New River Gorge) we spent a week in Virginia. Quite by chance, the trip was divided nicely, the first half with visits to the Founding Fathers’ homes and the second with tours of Civil War battlefields.

Say hello to James Monroe.
James Monroe, the forefather minus his forefinger.

The main goal of the trip was to see Monticello, which we did in spades, spending nearly the entire day on the mountain touring inside and outside Jefferson’s home. We also visited Ash Lawn-Highland, James Monroe’s home and the gorgeously restored Montpelier, home of James and Dolly Madison.

McLean House
The McLean House at Appomattox Courthouse.

The second half of the week was spent visiting Civil War battlefields: Manassas, Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania Courthouse, Chancellorsville and ending, appropriately, at Appomattox Courthouse.

Last stop on the Virginia trail. Well worth the delay in getting on the road.
Jefferson’s octagonal masterpiece, Poplar Forest.

Our final stop in Virginia was Thomas Jefferson’s retreat, Poplar Forest, which was fantastic and doubly interesting because they’re in the middle of a complete down-to-the-bare-bones restoration. Spent a day in the Lexington area visiting friends and sampling local craft beer before making the final leg home through Indiana.

All-in-all, it was a fantastic trip. I’m finally getting around to processing photos and will post more detailed entries in the weeks to come.

Review: American Sphinx

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas JeffersonAmerican Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In just a few days, I’ll be hitting the road, bound for Virginia. The ultimate destination is Monticello and this book is very much the reason.

After reading a lackluster biography of Thomas Jefferson (by R. B. Bernstein), I decided to tackle American Sphinx in hopes of gaining more insight into the enigma that is Jefferson, third President of the United States, author of the Declaration of Independence, creator of the University of Virginia, and all-around Founding Father Supreme.

I found Joseph Ellis’ meditation on “the character of Thomas Jefferson” endlessly fascinating, full of interesting information, and a pleasure to read. Rather than worshipping at the shrine of Virginia’s favorite son, Ellis brings Jefferson (and his legacy) down to earth, revealing the man, flaws and all, behind the myth.

Rather than working as a straight biography, Ellis examines major periods in Jefferson’s life, beginning with the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and concluding with his retirement to Monticello after a second term as President. Ellis goes beyond the hero-worship and the recitation of historical facts to get inside Jefferson’s head, as much as any historian can.

I came away from this book with a greater appreciation of Jefferson and a better understanding of how his ideals and mythology have been adopted (and twisted) by politicians over time. I was intrigued to learn about the utopian ideals that were central to Jefferson’s beliefs, and how this dream of an ideal society informed among other things, his composition of the most famous work of American prose, The Declaration of Independence.

It was the vision of a young man projecting his personal cravings for a world in which all behavior was voluntary and therefore all coercion unnecessary, where independence and equality never collided, where the sources of all authority were invisible because they had already been internalized. Efforts on the part of scholars to determine whether Jefferson’s prescriptive society was fundamentally individualistic or communal can never reach closure, because within the Jeffersonian utopia such choices do not need to be made. They reconcile themselves naturally.

Wishful thinking. As Ellis points out, the Declaration of Independence, a reflection of Jefferson’s philosophy, is at once a source of inspiration and an unattainable dream. From the very beginning, we’ve been set up to fail. In addition, his world view allowed him to avoid conflict and maintain that the natural order would make it right. He didn’t account for human nature getting in the way and mucking things up.

Time and again, Jefferson aspired to an idealistic world, while ignoring the reality around him. While serving as a diplomat in Paris from 1784-89, he romanticized the French Revolution, which was ascending to its bloody peak during his stay. Most troubling, President Jefferson’s way of selectively looking at the world enabled him to avoid the issue of slavery, kicking the thorny issue down the road for future generations to wrestle with.

Additional interesting items gleaned from this book:

  • Much of the language of Declaration of Independence was borrowed from other sources, including Jefferson’s own writing of Virginia state constitution. I’d naively thought it was 100% original material drafted especially for the occasion.
  • Jefferson was a lousy farmer, Monticello was a terrible site for a farm, and for all his talk, he didn’t get his hands in the dirt much. His dream of retiring to an agrarian life at Monticello was always just that, a dream.
  • Jefferson’s first inauguration as President was a truly momentous occasion, as he was inheriting a fledgling nation at a precarious time, previously run by Federalists and now led by the Republican party.
  • His term came with built-in opposition and simmering distrust that would foment into hatred between Jefferson and his Vice President Aaron Burr and Chief Justice John Marshall.
  • Aaron Burr plotted to secede a portion of the United States as an independent nation, with himself as leader! (I definitely need to read more about this guy.)
  • According to Ellis, Jefferson’s first inaugural address was “one of the two or three most significant inaugural addresses in American history and, apart from the hallowed Declaration, the most artful and eloquent public document that Jefferson ever crafted.”
  • Jefferson was one of “the most secluded and publicly invisible presidents in American history.” All that alone time spent writing left us with an invaluable paper trail and insight into his presidential decision-making process.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in a well-rounded portrait of one of the most important figures in U.S. history, whose genius and idealism served the country so well at a most critical juncture.

Charlotte Temple | America’s First Bestseller

Charlotte TempleCharlotte Temple (1791) by Susanna Rowson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In my self-created Presidential Reading Project, I’ve decided to expand the reading of presidential biographies (in chronological order) to include reading a work of popular fiction from each time period of said president’s term in in office. Hence, I recently found myself reading this long-forgotten, once-upon-a-time best-seller.

Charlotte Temple was published when George Washington was leader of the brand new United States, and the book would hold the record as the best-selling American novel until a little old book called Uncle Tom’s Cabin came around in 1852. It’s amazing to think that the most popular novel in America for nearly half a century (there were over 200 editions) is now nearly forgotten. Until, that is, you read it.

Charlotte Temple is a cautionary tale of the highest order; the tragic story of a young English girl seduced by a British lieutenant named Montraville who whisks her from the shelter of boarding school to a ship bound for the American colonies on the eve of revolution. Once there, Montraville abandons Charlotte and marries another. Poor Charlotte is left alone, friendless and (gasp) pregnant, far from home, family and friends. Her plight is not a happy one.

Nor is her story a very complex one, absent a raft of colorful characters, subplots, or rich description of setting that typify classic 19-century literature. It’s simple and effective but hardly memorable, and surprisingly, though set against the exciting backdrop of the American Revolution, the conflict is never once mentioned.

Charlotte Temple was written for an audience of young women and at various points in Charlotte’s unhappy story, author Susanna Rowson speaks directly to the reader with words of warning and lessons in morality.

Then once more read over the sorrows of poor Mrs. Temple, and remember, the mother whom you so dearly love and venerate will feel the same, when you, forgetful of the respect due to your maker and yourself, forsake the paths of virtue for those of vice and folly.


This excerpt demonstrates that, though written in the formal parlance of the day, Charlotte Temple is surprisingly readable and briskly moves along. (The book is slim, just over 100 pages.) And while it doesn’t contain the most cleverly plotted story, you feel for Charlotte and her child and want the best for them in the end. There’s also an evil French teacher who figures prominently in Charlotte’s downfall, which adds a bit of juicy melodrama. As a glimpse into this period of history through literature, Charlotte Temple makes for an enjoyable and interesting afternoon read.

Review: James Monroe

Gary Hart (2005)

Finding a biography of the fifth U.S. President was no easy task. James Monroe (he of the famous Doctrine) hasn’t been a popular topic for biographers. My choices came down to a 700-page tome, a bunch of books geared toward grade-schoolers, or this installment in “The American Presidents” series.

This slim biography has all the finesse of an eighth-grade history report. Poorly written and repetitive, the author (yes, he’s that Gary Hart) manages to make 150 pages of information feel padded. His tendency to jump back and forth in time is sloppy and confusing. And did I mention it’s repetitive? If you’re interested in a summary of Monroe’s life and achievements, simply read the conclusion of this book. It tells you everything you need to know—just once.

Review: James Madison

Garry Wills (2002)

It’s almost unfair to call this brief book a biography, since it spends little time on either the personal details of James Madison’s life or the historical background leading up to his presidency. Wills’ book focuses on the politics; specifically on the dichotomy of Madison as great legislator and ineffective president.

To be fair, I knew this when I chose to read this installment of The American Presidents series as the next book in my personal Presidential Biography reading project. (It was slim pickings at my library. I wasn’t about to read an 800-page academic tome and besides, I’d wanted to read something by Garry Wills.)

Now I have and it felt a little like reading dry supplemental material for a college history course. Keep that Wikipedia website handy; if you’re not up on your American foreign policy and treaties of the turn-of-the-19th-century, you’ll need it. A simple one or two sentence synopsis for important references (say, the Jay Treaty for instance) would have gone a long way to enhancing the lay-reader’s understanding and enjoyment.

So, while I’d recommend James Madison strictly to those with a serious interest in Madison and this period in U.S. politics, it did provide interesting information, especially as jumping-off points for further reading.

  • Madison was one of four early U.S. Secretaries of State who unbelievably had never been outside the country.
  • Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasure and a political nemesis of Jefferson and Madison, is a figure worth learning more about. (Note to self: Find a good book about Hamilton.)
  • I’m continually amazed at how early politicians, including Jefferson, wrote anonymous essays printed in rival newspapers to attack political foes and advance their positions.
  • Jefferson/Madison vs. Washington/Hamilton: the beginning of partisan politics.
  • Whatever I learned about the War of 1812 in high school has completely leaked out of my brain. The U.S. intent was to invade and conquer Canada while England was distracted by Napoleon. The summer and fall of 1812 saw a completely inept invasion that actually lost the U.S. the Michigan territory. (Note to self: Find a good book on the War of 1812.)
  • I realize I don’t know very much about Napoleon. (Note to self: Find a good book on Napoleon. See why I’m having so much fun with this little self-perpetuating history project?)
  • During the War of 1812, northern states continually threatened to secede from the union.
  • Andrew Jackson’s hero-making victory at the Battle of New Orleans–I’ve been there!
  • Five presidents were veterans of the War of 1812: James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, and Zachary Taylor.

Review: Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West

Stephen Ambrose (1996)

In 1804, Captain Meriwether Lewis and his good friend Lt. William Clark lead an Army corps of 33 men into the largely uncharted wilderness of the American West. Their expedition was the 19th-century equivalent of the first trip to the moon—a journey into the great unknown that is almost impossible to fathom now. In his wonderfully written labor of love, historian Stephen Ambrose expertly conveys the awe and wonder of what Lewis and his team experienced and accomplished during their two-year, 7,000-mile trek.

As I continue my biographical tour through the American presidency (I’m up to Madison,) I thought this was the perfect time to read about the journey of the Corps of Discovery, the brainchild of then President Thomas Jefferson. Sold by Jefferson to the U.S. government as a mission to discover an all-important water route linking the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, the expedition was conceived for scientific gain as well. Jefferson mandated that Lewis and company gather specimens and take detailed notes on the plants and animals, geography and Native Americans they encountered along the way—much of which had never before been seen by “civilized” man. 122 species of animals and 178 plants were scientifically recorded for the first time, including the Grizzly Bear and the prairie dog, one of which Lewis sent back live to the White House.

Some of the best drama from the Lewis and Clark expedition comes from their encounters with Native American tribes–hostile, welcoming and, in some cases, life-saving, providing the Corps with food and horses at crucial times when the mission otherwise would have failed. Delivering a message from Jefferson, the new “Great White Father,” Lewis and Clark were charged with spreading a message of peace between tribes, laying the foundation for what promised to be a booming fur trade. Their observations of these native peoples are in some cases the first recorded encounters between white men and the natives.

Undaunted Courage is an incredible true story of adventure, bravery, teamwork, friendship, luck, and uncommon leadership. Ambrose brings these historical players to life, weaving their story into an immensely entertaining page-turner. At its conclusion, I wondered why the achievements of Lewis and Clark aren’t more celebrated.

Review: His Excellency: George Washington

Joseph J. Ellis (2004)
352 pages

An extremely readable life story of the Revolutionary War hero who reluctantly went on to become the first U.S. President. While I wasn’t surprised by how little I knew about Washington (wooden teeth and an apocryphal cherry tree story), I was surprised by how much I learned about the man and the birth of our nation in this relatively brief book. Fortunately for historians, Washington was fixated on documenting his own life and he spent years updating and revising his own story, with a very conscious nod to posterity.

As the leader of the Continental Army, Washington’s triumph in the Revolutionary War made him a legend in his own time. When he retired from the military, Washington believed his days of serving his country were behind him and he settled down at Mount Vernon to dictate his memoirs. The second half of Ellis’ book relates the formative years of a fledgling democracy and the crucial role Washington played in maintaining the delicate balance between those forceful personalities (Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison) who shaped our country. [**** out of 5]